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Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Behind the Wall - the Prisons of San Michele a Ripa

San Michele a Ripa from the side away from the Tevere - a feel for its
length and barrier to whatever is inside.
The long building - perhaps the longest in Rome at a third of a mile (500 meters) - faces the Tevere with no openings, looking like an impenetrable mass that holds nothing of interest.  In fact, the complex of buildings, San Michele a Ripa ("St Michael at the river bank" if you want a tortured English translation) has been used since the 17th century for a variety of purposes, from Catholic medical facilities to prisons to military barracks to arts institutions.  On a recent tour we took of part of this Trastevere block, the focus was on the 18th-19th century use of a substantial part of the complex as a prison/reformatory for women and children.

Carlo Fontana's boys' prison.

The women and girls' prison.
The original prisons - one designated for boys and one for girls - were designed by Papal architects of some fame. Carlo Fontana, a favorite of several Popes and designer of many fountains and chapels in Rome, started the boys' facility in 1701.  He was a rather ordinary practitioner of Baroque architecture and used these techniques, admittedly with severity because of the purpose, in the prison.

Ferdinando Fuga, who designed facades for notable Rome churches such as Santa Maria in Trastevere and Santa Maria Maggiore, added the female prison later in the same century.

The prisons have recently been restored and are open to tours.  At the same time that the prisons were considered modern approaches to incarceration (3 guards could monitor all the cells - not quite a panopticon, but similar), the treatment was harsh.  Boys considered "wayward and disobedient" to their parents ended up there with punishment and moral strictures that included rations akin to starvation.  An attorney who prepared a case for the state's Appellate Court stated in 1851 that the boys who emerged after 2 years were skin and bones, full of diseases and would rather be dead.
From the outside (interior courtyard) one can
see how small and high the windows are; no
one was going to get out of here.

Women in the female section often were those in the sex trade, whom the Church wanted to reform, or perhaps just punish.

The city took over this Papal facility in 1871.  With some interruptions (use as a prison for political prisoners from 1827-1870, for example), the complex's use as a reform prison lasted until the end of the 1960s.  In her biography of the great 20th century Italian writer, Elsa Morante, Lily Tuck mentions that Elsa's legal (though not biological) father "worked as a probation officer...at a boys' reform school located at Porta Portese."  This would've been in the second and third decades of the 20th century, and clearly this was the place.

One can admire the architecture and at the same time be horrified by what transpired within these walls.

Art work being restored in the prison hall.
The large halls of the prison now are being used for restoration work on paintings.  There are some tours of these facilities to admire that work, and part of the space now can be rented for business meetings!

An excellent pamphlet on life in the prisons and on the architecture is available in Italian.

Our tour was part of the extensive Ville di Roma a Porte Aperte series sponsored by turismo culturale italiano.  April's focus was on Trastevere.
This plaque, from 1704 states that Clement IX is responsible
for this institution for lost and incorrigible adolescents,
who here are instructed in becoming more subservient (my
loose Latin translation- anyone is welcome to elaborate on it).

Dianne

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