Simanaitis Says

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RESEARCHING ONE OF our flock of miniature sheep, I came upon Marco Cavallo, a blue horse that played an important role in Italian mental health care. Then, independently of this, I read a book review of The Man Who Closed the Asylums: Franco Basaglia and the Revolution in Mental Health Care, by John Foot. The review, titled “I’m Not Signing,” by Mike Jay is in the London Review of Books, September 8, 2016.

Separated at birth?


Above, Spotty Blue, one of our sheep. Below, Marco Cavallo. The latter image from La terra è blu.


As noted when describing our sheep flock, Spotty Blue’s origin is lost to memory. On the other hand, Marco Cavallo’s tale is clear, and an uplifting one at that. Marco Cavallo is a wooden and papier mâché sculpture, a machine teatrale, built by patients and staff of the Manicomio di Trieste in 1973.

Manicomio is Italian, literally madhouse, more politely, mental asylum. And Marco Cavallo’s construction as an art installation, a theatrical machine, became part of a movement that reformed mental health care throughout Italy. According to London Review of Books author Mike Jay, “Manicomio = Lager, Asylum = Concentration Camp,” was one of its slogans conceived in 1969 by Arte Povera artist Piero Gilardi.

Traditional treatment consisted of isolating the mentally ill from society at large. Even within the institutions, a dichotomy of us versus them prevailed: doctors and staff in white, inmates otherwise attired and separated from each other regardless of their condition.


Franco Basaglia, 1924–1980, Italian psychiatrist, known for initiating psychiatric reform leading to Italy’s Law 180, the Basaglia Law. Image by Harald Bischoff (

Italian psychiatrist Franco Basaglia believed that understanding mental illnesses required both staff and patients being freed from the asylum culture. For example, he fostered doing away with patient isolation and, whenever possible, bringing them into mutually beneficial interactions.

In 1971, Basaglia became director of the San Giovanni Asylum in Trieste, which he had political support for eventually closing. As Mike Jay notes, “The asylum was opened up and its grounds became a forum for public artworks and street theater, open-air debates and performances by the likes of [American jazz saxophonist] Ornette Coleman and [Italian playwright/comedian] Dario Fo.”

In June 1972, patients petitioned the Province of Trieste to spare the life of Marco, a real horse that had performed hauling duties around the asylum since 1959. The government responded favorably, giving Marco a life’s retirement rather than a trip to the glue factory.

Following this, artist Vittorio Basaglia, cousin of Franco Basaglia, conceived of Marco Cavallo as something of a Trojan Horse, only one containing “freedom and humanity of the mentally ill.”


A sketch of Marco Cavallo.

Patients and staff took part in the design and construction of Marco Cavallo. Its sky blue hue, for instance, was a patients’ choice representing the joy of life. The horse has become a symbol of the 1978 Italian Law 180, also known as the Basaglia Law, one feature of which was abolishing asylums in favor of hospital care for those with mental illness.

The public debut of Marco Cavallo back in March 1973 was not without drama. The horse had been constructed within an asylum building converted into an art laboratory. However, Marco Cavallo stands 13 feet tall and wouldn’t fit through the doorway.


Marco Cavallo, at the Expo Milano 2015. Image from Italia Expo Milano 2015.

Fortunately, Marco Cavallo rides on wheels. It was rolled with force through the opening, breaking a door lintel and some glass in the process, but also, in a sense, breaking the asylum’s real and symbolic wall.

A relative of Marco Cavallo or not, our Spotty Blue would certainly understand the metaphor. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2016


  1. Michael Rubin
    September 26, 2016

    Fascinating, Dennis, and another example of how widespread your interests are — as well as your research skills. Nicely done. This is one more thing I can’t imagine reading anywhere else.

    • simanaitissays
      September 26, 2016

      Many thanks, Michael. Fact is, these things have a way of jumping out at me.

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