Custodia e Cura degli Alienati: The Italian Legislation on Lunacy (1904-1909)

Italy was one of the latest countries in the Western world to pass a national legislation on mental health. Most regions of the Mediterranean peninsula became a unified Kingdom in 1861 with the exception of the Vatican State which reluctantly ceded its territories a decade later. By that time, all major cities had erected public institutions for the reception of “alienati” and “maniaci“. While some asylums like Bonifazio in Florence had a longer history dating back to the previous century, others like the Manicomio of Nocera Inferiore followed the institutional credo embraced by France and England in the 1830s/1840s.

In the absence of a national framework, the regulation of Italian establishments depended on regional if not municipal provisions. In Tuscany, for example, Leopold II’s motu proprio of 2 August 1838 described the procedures for civil confinement valid for Florence and its nearby asylums (1). In Sicily, the Real casa dei matti in Palermo relied on the instructions compiled by Pietro Pisani (2). In Campania, the superintendent himself redacted a Regolamento for the public asylum located in Aversa (3). 

Such a variety created problems about legal jurisdiction, applicability, and interpretation. In their overseas explorations, foreign observers repeatedly denounced the “confusion and mystery” around the Italian lunacy laws (4). The Società Freniatrica Italiana (est. 1873) representing asylum superintendents of the country – including Carlo Livi, Enrico Morselli, Augusto Tamburini, and Cesare Lombroso – became a strong agent for legislative change (5). Their advocacy efforts, however, materialized only at the beginning of the twentieth century after long sessions of parliamentary debates.

The “Legge 14 Febbraio 1904, n. 36 sui Manicomi e gli Alienati” passed under the second government of Giovanni Giolitti. It was later amended by two regulations in 1905 and 1909. The law remained in place until 1978 when the introduction of the “Legge 13 Maggio 1978, no. 180”, the brainchild of the Veneto-born psychiatrist Franco Basaglia, set the conditions for abolishing public lunatic asylums (manicomi di stato) and for restricting involuntary confinement to cases of dangerousness and public safety.

Click on the following references for accessing the original documents.

Legge 14 Febbraio 1904, n. 36 sui Manicomi e gli Alienati

Regolamento del 5 Marzo 1905 sull’Esecuzione della Legge 14 Febbraio 1904 n. 36.

Nuovo Regolamento del 16 Agosto 1909 sull’Esecuzione della Legge 14 Febbraio 1904 n. 36.

Anfosso Luigi (1907) La Legislazione Italiana Sui Manicomi e Sugli Alienati. Torino: UTET. This book is particularly useful for contextualizing the 1904 Law. It was a practical guide for the administration of lunatic asylums throughout the country. This PDF version was made available thanks to the work of Dr. Riccardo Girolimetto.

Legge 13 Maggio 1978, n. 180. Accertamenti e trattamenti volontari e obbligatori.

Legge 23 Dicembre 1978, n. 833. Istituzione del servizio sanitario nazionale. 


(1) Giuseppe Pantozzi, Storia delle Idee e delle Leggi Psichiatriche: 1780-1980 (Trento: Centro Studi Erickson, 1994, 78).

(2) Pietro Pisani, Instruzioni per la Novella Real casa dei Matti in Palermo (Palermo: Della Società Tipografica, 1827, 36).

(3) Biagio G. Miraglia, Progetto del Regolamento Interno Medico e Disciplinare pel Manicomio di Aversa (Caserta: Stabilimento Tipografico del Comm. G. Nobile, 1866).

(4) John T. Arlidge, “The asylums of Italy, Germany, and France: Notes of a visit made in the year 1855,” Journal of Psychological Medicine and Mental Pathology (1857), 10: 8, 758–775.

(5) Augusto Tamburini, Sulla Legislazione per gli Alienati ed i Manicomj (Milano: Rechieidei, 1881).

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