Jesuit priests built a fine monastery and had use of two qanats, underground water supplies built in the persian style, to water their fields and grapevines, and they made fine wine. With the unifiction of italy, in 1861, all religious property became state property, and the state decided to use this convent and surrounding grounds as a groundbreaking mental asylum, the first in Sicily, and maybe in Italy where the patients were treated with respect and dignity instead of as inmates or prisoners to be derided. It was called Le Vignicelle for the grapevines that the Jesuits tended. The white columns in the garden upheld their trellises. (Vigne means grapevines in Italian.)
In the 1960s Italy passed a law that closed all mental asylums and attempted to integrate mentally ill people into society via halfway houses. But they still needed treatment. The state bought up surrounding fields and build a huge treatment facility, pone side for me, one side for women, with connecting tunnels and hallways with train tracks to transport food and supplies between the two segregated sides. They were fed three wholesome hot meals a day. In times of famine, people feigned mental illness to get into this asylum where they would be treated with respect and care.
It was all plants and flowers. The patients tended greenhouses full of succulent plants and cacti, and some still do. They are in contact with nature, and take care of something, nurture something,the growing plants, and sell them. They sell tiny cacti in tiny pots to people having weddings or baptism parties as party favors for guests. Now the convent where the priests lived, and later the first mental patients, looks like a ghost castle. The long connecting hallways make you dizzy.
Students adopted this asylum too and acted as guides. Patrizia Argento, an acquaintance from twenty years ago in Favignana, was my introduction to Le Vignicelle. She is a writer who researched the asylum as a setting for one of her novels.