Parco di San Giovanni – EX-Opp

Ex-Opp  Ospedale Psichiatrico Provinciale

Every day I walk up through the “Parco di San Giovanni” to the bus stop. The silver barked plane trees form a green shady canopy over the sidewalk as I head up the hill towards a long staircase. On both sides of the road are bright yellow buildings trimmed with intricate floral patterns. When I reach the top of the staircase I am rewarded with a view of the shimmering blue-green waters of the Gulf of Trieste. As I wind my way further up the hill the sweet fragrance of roses wafts towards me.

Triestini still call this area the Ex-Opp – this is the site of the former Ospedale Psychiatric Provinciale.  It is hard to believe that these gardens and buildings were all once part of a psychiatric facility. In the late 1800’s Trieste experienced a large growth in its population and the existing medical facilities could not meet the needs of the growing population. A new facility was needed. In the 1890’s the city administration specified that the new facility had to adhere to an open door concept – porte aperte – a radical move away from the “prison” like conditions or “madhouses” that existed at the time. The new facility was to be like a small village, with many different structures each with its own function and every residence had to have its own garden. The buildings had to be functional but also had to be elegant and attractive. This would be a far more conducive setting to aid in the recovery of the patients than a large institutional building.

An international design contest was held and the challenge to build this “utopian” complex was awarded to the architect Ludovico Braidotti.

Construction started in 1902 and on November 4th 1908 the “magnifico frenocomio civico” was inaugurated. City politics forced the building of a wall encircling the complex which in fact closed it off from the city and away from the “porte aperte” originally intended.

The complex included more than thirty buildings on three different levels or terraces. The first level was the entrance on Via San Cecilio  with the administration buildings and the villas for “first class paying” patients.

The psychiatric buildings were distributed on two sides of a central axis on the second level – which is the tree-lined road that I walk up every day. On one side were the buildings for women and on the other side the same buildings but for men. Each building had a different level of care – one for patients there for observation, one for those that were “tranquili” , one for those that were “agitiati” and those that were “semi-agitati”, one for those that were suicidal.

The large staircase led to the third level where the support buildings were located – the kitchen, the heating plant, the laundry but also a church, “La Chiesa del Buon Pastore” and a theatre.

There were also buildings for care of patients that had tuberculosis and other infectious diseases.

It was an elegant and peaceful little village spread over 22 hectares. There were extensive wooded areas and vegetable plots and pathways to stroll through the elegant English gardens. Ludovico Braidotti selected the rose as the main ornamental plant for the gardens. The larger buildings had long wide balconies with wrought iron railings. The smaller buildings looked like alpine cottages with carved wooded balconies.

This was for its time indeed a leading edge psychiatric facility.   In the 1970’s the facility became a symbol of change. In 1971 Franco Basaglia considered to be the most influential Italian psychiatrist of the 20th century was named director of the facility. He was a pioneer of the modern concept of treatment for mental health and lead the drive to dismantle psychiatric hospitals.    In 1977 the facility was closed and literally fell into ruin.

In 1987 the University of Trieste began the process of restoring and reusing five of these buildings. There is a good flow of students up and down the pathways and of course with students also comes the need for caffe/bars! The local health authority has also restored and is using some of the buildings.

In 2005 a magnificent garden containing more than 5000 roses was planted as a symbol linking the past and the present.  Every April the area literally springs to life with the “HortisTergeste” garden show. Thousands of people come here to enjoy and buy plants for their own gardens.

There are still a number of abandoned buildings but I think it is almost fitting for them to stay abandoned – a haunting reminder of how we need to keep striving to better understand and treat mental illnesses.

I have also included some very evocative archival pictures.

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