The lunatic asylum at Aversa

May 6 2009

Chinese in Naples, September 19 1823

Fête sur l’eau



Théodore Géricault, L’aliéné or Le cleptomane, 1822, Ghent, Museum of Fine Art

I suppose this, from Lady Blessington’s Neapolitan journals, is a minor text in the cultural history of madness, but it is unconsciously, or perhaps consciously, also a text of a Romantic and revolutionary age. The contrast between the Olympian section of the asylum for the upper classes, from which any modern psychiatric hospital could learn, and the raucous rest, where the Church dwells, might have been drawn by Kleist.

May 1825. – Went yesterday to see the Lunatic Asylum at Aversa. This town, which is of considerable extent, owes its construction to the Normans, and occupies the site of the ancient Atella; so celebrated for those farces, which are said to have been the prototypes of that species of amusement in Italy, for which the people have not even yet lost the taste. Strange metamorphosis, from a theatre of unlicensed merriment, to a mad-house!“Aversa seems destined to be ever the scene where unbridled passions assert their wild empire. It was near to it, that the unfortunate Andrew, the husband of Queen Joan the first, [footnote (corrected): Born 1326, reigned 1341-81. m. Andrew, son of Charles of Hungary.] of Naples, lost his life, in a manner that furnished presumptive evidence that if not chargeable with, she was at least, implicated in the crime. When the reputation attached of old to this place is reflected on, it may be a question for casuists to decide, whether the Oscan [old Romance language] inhabitants of the ancient Atella, or the prisoners of the modern Aversa, were the more insane. One thing is certain, which is, that the present occupants of the place are under better government than the former, and that their folly can injure none: and this is something gained.

“The attention paid to the comfort of the insane in this establishment, extends not only to their persons, but to their minds; and many are the satisfactory results with which this rational and merciful treatment have been attended.

“The opulent, when afflicted with the dread malady of loss of reason, can here find the most skilful care and judicious attention to their wants, for which a moderate yearly sum is paid, while they continue in the asylum; and the poor are received gratis. The first named class occupy chambers, fitted up with the same attention to their comfort as if they were in their own homes. Hot and cold baths, an extensive library, a theatre, a concert room, an apartment appropriated to astronomical instruments, and another to experiments in electricity, galvanism, and chemistry, are comprised within the building. In short, the establishment resembles one of those arranged for the reception of inmates of cultivated minds, and refined habits; and such, many of the pensioners at Aversa have become, who entered it in a state of violent mental aberation, that gave little hope of their recovery.

“So anxious are the superintendents of the Maison de Santé to avoid wounding the feelings of their patients, that to banish even the semblance of confinement, the iron bars that secure the windows are constructed in the form of vases filled with flowers, painted on the interior and exterior, of the bright colours of the productions of which they are made in imitation. Those who are not violent, are permitted to take their repasts together; and a strict attention, not only to cleanliness, but even to elegance of the toilette, is enjoined. Comedies are performed twice a week, and of concerts an equal number. Balls are permitted whenever a desire for dancing is manifested; and the patients are allowed to devote their mornings to any occupations most congenial to their tastes, idleness being prohibited. Tragedies are considered too exciting; but comedies are supposed to have a salutary effect on the minds of the inmates. The performers are the patients, as are also the musicians of the concerts; and I have been told by those who have witnessed the performance, that it is so good as to defy the possibility of suspecting that the actors are deranged. Of the concerts, I can speak from my own knowledge, for we were permitted to be present at one, composed of various pieces, all of which were admirably played. Many of the individuals, who entered the establishment without any knowledge of music, have subsequently evinced such a predilection for it, that when facilities for acquiring it have been afforded them, they have seldom failed in becoming skilful performers. Of this fact, several examples were given to us. The soothing effect of music on the mind, has been found advantageous in the treatment of the patients; and a desire to acquire the accomplishment is considered a favourable symptom. In the library, we found several persons occupied in reading; and more than one employed in making notes. So grave, and collected, was the aspect of each, that no observer could have imagined that their intellectual faculties had ever been deranged; much less, that they were then under the influence of insanity. On passing near the reading-desk of one, my eye glanced over the work he was perusing, and I discovered it to be a folio volume of the works of Calvin. The reader was too engrossed by his study, that it was only when we approached close to him that he became conscious of our presence. He instantly rose, took off his velvet cap, bowed politely, and smiling, made a pleasant allusion to the work, he had been reading, by pointing to his head, which was very bald; thereby indicating a quibble on the word of Calvin … [Calvus being the Latin for bald.]

“Having examined the portion of the establishment assigned to the upper class, we were conducted to that appropriated to the lower; and here, a different scene awaited us. All was hilarity or grief, the indications of both sentiments being boisterously displayed. Many of the patients crowded round us, requesting snuff, or coffee. Not a few questioned us with an air of anxiety, that saddened one to observe, whether we brought them intelligence from home: while others entrusted us to take charge of letters to their friends to apprise them of the ill-usage to which they were subjected …

“I turned away saddened, from this too similar, but exaggerated representation of the vices of society, to pause at the open cell of a priest, who was prostrate before a wooden cross of his own manufacture. The crown of his head was shorn, but long locks of snowy hue fell from the sides of it, and mingled with his beard of the same venerable colour, which reached to the cord that confined his robe round the waist. His face was pale as death, and his eyes, which were raised to the cross, were filled with tears, which chased each other down his attenuated cheeks. He was not sensible that several persons were around him, and he prayed with a fervour truly edifying; the words of the prayer breathing the very soul of piety, Christian resignation, and adoration for the Deity …

“I left not this enthusiast unmoved. The earnestness of his prayers, and his total abstraction from all worldly concerns, made a deep impression on me. His life of sanctity, in the midst of the herd of maniacs with whom he was surrounded, with, but not of them, reminded me of some pure stream gliding through a turbulent river, without mingling its clear water with the turbid waves. He is pitied but beloved by the superintendent and assistants of the asylum, and derided and insulted by the patients; but he is insensible of the compassion of the first, or the contempt of the second.”

Edith Clay, editor; Sir Harold Acton, Introduction; Lady Blessington at Naples [her Neapolitan journals, 1823-26]; Hamish Hamilton, 1979.


Géricault, La monomane de l’envie, c 1822, Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts

2 Responses to “The lunatic asylum at Aversa”

  1. […] The lunatic asylum at Aversa […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s