“Le Carceri” MuseumAsiago
The abandonment of the custodial service took place in the first half of the 1970s. Those who have been able to read the prisoner registers, which have now disappeared, report that the last prisoner was a woman: the year 1969. But the history of prisons began much earlier.
Probably the decision to construct the building followed the start of the Magistrate’s Court, which took place around 1825. Recent research (arch. Massimo Muraro) has identified in the State Archives of Vicenza and Venice, under the heading ‘Carceri pretoriali. Asiago’, envelopes dated 1852, 1857 and 1862, but lacking consistent contents.
At that time, the prisons of the ‘District of the Seven Municipalities’ must have existed (although we are not certain in which part of Asiago they were located), because the historian Giuseppe Nalli (1830 – 1895) testifies that in 1868, following a police operation involving the army (for two years Veneto had been joined to the Kingdom of Savoy), 173 woodcutters were apprehended at the ‘scene of the crime’ (Galamarara woods, owned by the then Consortium of Seven Municipalities, which had inherited them from the glorious Regency) ‘who were closed in on all sides and declared under arrest and then escorted between two lines of soldiers to the District prisons’. The same author informs us that in 1890 the Mayor Dr. Domenico Colpi ‘obtained to have the new Mandamental Prisons built’. This, too, is a sign that the old ones were there somewhere. A 1910 publication (Asiago e l’Altopiano dei Sette Comuni. Guida illustrata) states instead that the new building was to be inaugurated in 1887. But this is certainly a misprint: the year should have been 1897, which is consistent with Colpi’s initiative, since he obtained the funds to build the new prisons in 1890. As counter-evidence, Engineer Francesco Rigoni’s degree thesis (A.A. 1987-88) indicates that in 1891 the cadastral parcel on which the building was constructed was fractioned, and it was in 1897 that the building was entered in the parcel book as state property.
The possible ruin that the building may have suffered during the Great War did not lead to a reconstruction of the structure: it remained as it was, a fact documented by photographs of the time. It was (and is) made up of two huddled volumes, forming a T-shaped plan, with a characteristic circular element – onion roof – tangent to the building on the south side and used as a toilet. The front, access area is approximately 70 square metres and was used as the caretaker’s dwelling (used approximately until 1973). The dwelling was separated from the prison proper by a single door, which was fitted with a large grating. The place of detention (without a heating system!), consisted approximately half of a vast hallway, two storeys high and paved with slabs of local stone. Those wishing to visit the complex will notice that the hallway was overlooked by the cells, four on the lower floor and as many on the upper floor, the latter connected by a staircase and a gallery, made of slabs similar to those on the floor and protected by a railing made of wrought iron, also very decorative at the time. The building was enclosed by a high wall. Architecturally relevant is the entrance: the outer wall had only one opening, a round stone arch (1.5 metre radius) in a vaguely neoclassical style, on whose supporting columns a mighty wrought-iron gate is grafted. It can still be seen today but not as it was. The 1978 earthquake rendered the wall, which was located close to the pavement, unsafe. Urgent action had to be taken. The municipality – at a time when the State was trying to reuse even small prison buildings in order to avoid the concentration of those considered particularly dangerous (terrorists) – decided to demolish the wall also to avoid the hypothesis of reusing the prison, keeping it partially at a very low level so that it would remain in memory, while the back side of the original layout was completely demolished. The Council was uncertain whether to use the space created here for a garden or a car park. It was decided for the latter (not without grumbling).
THE REUSE OF THE BUILDING
The prisons had ceased to function for some time. Mention was made of the abandonment of the custodial service in the first half of the 1970s. Those who were able to read the registers of prisoners, which have now disappeared, report that the last one was a woman: the year 1969, a gypsy.
In the early 1980s, there were plans to use the building complex as a municipal hospice. This would have resulted in the internal and external architectural upheaval of the building, which was inappropriate and impossible. Then, at the end of the 1980s, the idea of building a museum began to emerge. The intervention was not so simple. The ownership of the prison was in fact in the hands of the seven ‘old’ municipalities of the Plateau (excluding the eighth, Conco). Asiago was engaged in a complex negotiation because while the building was showing clear signs of collapse, none of the co-owners wanted to take on – pro rata – the significant costs of restoration or at least consolidation and rebuilding of the roof, which had already collapsed. The municipality itself wanted to buy the 6/7 property, but the price offered was not considered congruous by the other interested parties.
The agreement was made with the commitment of each (including Asiago) to allocate 1/7 of the price of the property (20 million lire) for social purposes and excluding speculative uses of the building, rather indicating the purpose of creating an ethnographic museum. This was resolved by the Council of Asiago on 25 November 1996, but the purchase was only possible in 1999.
THE RESTORATION WORK
The project was drawn up by arch. Muraro and the work was completed in 2001. Perhaps for budgetary reasons, the roof was built with Canadian tiles instead of the original red Marseille tiles. The restoration, however, respected the original conformation.
Details and structures have been preserved that leave no doubt as to the building’s original purpose: the hallway, the gallery, the cell entrance doors, the wolf’s mouth windows (1st floor) that allowed the prisoner to look at, at best, a bit of chequered sky…
Of the boundary wall, basically only the entrance remains intact, while porphyry slabs mark the pre-existing profile.
PRISON AND PRISONERS
Yes, the inmates! In the hope of finding the register, some small information comes from the photos taken by Lorenzo Cisola shortly before the restoration. In the meantime, it can be seen how in the 1920s and 1930s the prison day markings, the calendars, predominate. It is clear, even in later years, that the stay was not very long, but must have seemed endless to some: ‘today 4 November 1949 is already five days in the cell’. Drawings also appear of the silhouettes of vans (with dates inserted: they symbolise time passing ‘inside’), a hammer and sickle, the figure of a soldier, grids, an elegant monogram (SP). Then signatures, declarations: ‘I am innocent’ or ‘Cardillo Rosario is in this prison because of his stupid people who signed’ or, again, probable nods to a class party, perhaps too exuberant, which ended there: ‘W the 26th’ and thoughts to the beloved. Two dates and an invocation in particular give pause for thought. The first (20.1.36-20.2.36) reminds us of the cold weather suffered (the windows only had bars, not glass!). The second one makes one shudder: ‘O Mother how thy son suffers.
Who knows! It could also have belonged to someone who ended up in prison just for having procured that meat that poverty did not allow the butcher to buy and which was instead offered by the generosity of the woods and pastures, subject, however, to the hunting licence and the relative tax; but also to someone else who, in ’44-’45, a firing squad would have been waiting for him the next day.
(text by Giancarlo Bortoli, historian from Asiago).