The facility that once housed the Mombello asylum is now nothing more than a ruin, a tourist attraction that gathers large groups of photographers. Of all the buildings that compose the vast complex — so vast that in 1918 the number of patients reached the record of 3504 — only two are still in use. One of those buildings, Villa Pusterla Crivelli Arconati, is the majestic testimony of a patrician past. Previously known as Villa Napoleone, due to the fact that Bonaparte took up residence there during the Italian campaigns of the French Revolutionary Wars, the villa is now the seat of the State Agrarian Technical Institute.
During the course of 19th century the Villa was left in a state of neglect until the municipality of Milan purchased the building and turned it into a mental institution, not without causing numerous and impoverishing changes. It was 1863. In 20th century, after the “Basaglia Law” (the Italian Mental Health Act of 1978 which reformed the psychiatric system), the facility was progressively abandoned.
Many a personality passed through this place: Napoleon; Giovanni Gros; Giacomo Antonio Carcano, who upon his death left it to his Arconati grandchildren; Anna Visconti; Ugo Cerletti, who directed the asylum and became famous for inventing the electroshock machine. Worth mentioning is the story of Benito Albino Berardi, born 1915, the first, disowned child of Benito Mussolini, who died under mysterious circumstances in the Mombello asylum after a long period of duress and mistreatment. After an escape attempt in 1942, he was apprehended by the police during an extensive manhunt ordered by the prefect of Milan. His true identity as Mussolini’s son remained a secret for decades until recently, when his sad story became publicly known.
Another story long forgotten involves Dr. Giuseppe Antonini, director of the mental institution until 1931. Dr. Antonini spent all his years at Mombello trying to improve patients’ conditions, studying ways to expand the hospital structure by building new pavilions both architecturally beautiful and healthy, characterized by bright and ventilated rooms, and divided following rational criteria. He built an operating room, set up gynecological consultation, dental assistance, and tried to give patients an opportunity to cultivate their professions, allowing and stimulating them to pursue the activities they had before being institutionalized: Carpentry; weaving; masonry.
We don’t know why nobody ever mentions Dr. Giuseppe Antonini and what he did for Mombello, a facility so vast and so rich in history and stories. Maybe it’s because it’s easier to morbidly attract people’s attention with mystery, magic, death and suffering. Maybe it’s easier to spray ancient walls with fake blood and shoot a haunting picture.
Horror is in the eye of the beholder.