Van Gogh: Touched by Fire and Pain

Van Gogh: Touched by Fire and Pain

When people think of Vincent Van Gogh’s visionary art, the first painting that comes to mind is A Starry Night, 1889, the painting memorialized by Don McLean’s song. Everyone knows he lived a tortured life, ending it by suicide at age 37.

My two great passions, art and mental health, come together in Van Gogh. I recently finished reading The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence, by British art historian Martin Gayford. The book chronicles Van Gogh’s life in the Fall of 1888, letters to his brother and others, his relationship with Paul Gauguin and Gauguin’s letters (This period was also the subject of an excellent, ground-breaking exhibition organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, about 20 years ago.)

Questions linger:

The Bedroom at Arles, 1888, The Art Institute of Chicago

Did his art arise because of his illness or in spite of his illness?

Were his most productive works done during periods of intense mania?

Did his unique vision come from certain hallucinations?

Or was it produced in the depths of despair?

Although van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime, other artists like Gauguin and Émile Bernard easily recognized his genius. His brother, Theo, also his art dealer, displayed kindness towards him, always supporting him financially. When Van Gogh began as a painter, about 10 years before his death, he had already failed in other professions. By the time he shared the “Yellow House” with Gauguin in Arles, some of Gauguin’s paintings had already been sold. Van Gogh was more prolific than Gauguin, but he hadn’t sold a thing. It is not unusual for an artist to face rejection and still persevere, so we can’t pin his mental state on the problem of rejection. Fortunately, he described his works in detail in letters to his brother.

Gayford checks out the evidence in his paintings against the evidence in letters, his life events, Gauguin’s letters and historical records. To my surprise, the book describes Gauguin as particularly patient with his housemate, despite the weird behaviors.

What happened between Van Gogh and Gauguin?

Van Gogh moved to Arles early in the year of 1888, but Gauguin didn’t arrive until October. Van Gogh had a head start, and he already knew the neighbors, people like the Ginouxs, innkeepers; the Roulins, the postmaster, his wife and children, and the grocer next door. Both men frequented bars and prostitutes, but Gauguin didn’t drink much. Vincent had the dream of starting an art colony there.

A Starry Night, on the Rhone, 1888, Musée d’Orsay

To see what may have led to the final incident, one should look at the painting Van Gogh was working on at the time of the falling out. “La Berceuse,” meaning the woman who rocks the cradle” is a portrait of Madame Roulin, whom he painted at least five times. According to Gayford, Pierre Loti’s book about Icelandic fishermen inspired this painting.

Van Gogh imagines the lady as a Madonna-like figure, rocking the cradle which is held by a string and stands outside of the painting. How very strange, but both Van Gogh and Gauguin were inspired by Symbolist poetry, and symbolism is definitely the intent here. Colors need not reflect visual reality, but can express feeling. Here, complementary colors of red and green, which appear opposite each other on the color wheel, set the tone. Except for the lady’s enormous bosom, the painting appears flat, The hands are jagged and crooked. Madame Roulin gave birth to her third son a few months earlier. The string of the cradle may allude to this fact, but she looks detached from it. Van Gogh was a very literary man, but what was he thinking?

La Berceuse, 1888-1889, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

La Berceuse is not a good bedtime story, but it had a great deal of influence on later art such as that of Matisse. It is one of five versions he made in December 1888 and finished in January 1889.

On December 22, Gauguin wrote a long letter describing to a friend his challenges with Van Gogh, but claimed that he would stay. After supper on December 23, Gauguin left the yellow house and Van Gogh followed after him, blade in hand. Although Gauguin’s own accounts vary, he would never return. In response, Vincent cut off the lower part of his ear that night and bled profusely. He enclosed the ear, delivered it to a brothel, and marked it for a woman named Rachel, saying “Guard this object carefully.” He returned home and went to sleep. (Kirk Douglas plays Van Gogh in A Lust for Life, acting out these events.)

Postmaster Roulin nursed him back to health and his family was informed. At this time, according to Gayford, p. 228, his mother wrote to Theo, “I believe he was always ill and his suffering and ours was a result of it.”

What do we know of his mental illness in light of today’s knowledge?

Van Gogh was known to have a form of epilepsy, but it wasn’t his primary problem. He drank heavily and people found him especially strange and scary when he was drunk.

Because Van Gogh cut off his ear, some people believe he had auditory hallucinations. Most often hallucinations are associated with psychosis. Psychosis that is permanent generally refers to schizophrenia. It can take the form of visual or auditory hallucinations. Those who support the schizophrenia diagnosis believe he was trying to stop auditory hallucinations. However, that hypothesis doesn’t explain why he cut off only part of his ear and why he delivered it to Rachel. The message intended for Rachel, as well as the meaning of La Berceuse, would make sense to him, but not the outside world.

In the 1800s mental illnesses were not classified as they are today, but we would see his highs and lows as most characteristic of Bipolar I. Gayford firmly argues this position, saying that Van Gogh had hallucinations and made associations that didn’t fit with reality. Vincent identified emotionally with Hugo van der Goes, a gifted 15th-century Netherlandish painter who also had a fit of madness and attempted to kill himself.

The Red Vineyard, 1888, The Pushkin Museum, Moscow, the only painting sold during Van Gogh’s lifetime

It’s true that many creative people who touch us deeply are also touched by a fire within. Writers Edgar Alan Poe and Ernest Hemingway are often named as other great geniuses who suffered from Bipolar Disorder. They also drank heavily and ended their lives tragically. The “unruly genius,” Caravaggio, certainly belongs in this category, too. The Romantic tradition of the early 1800s celebrated an affinity between madness and creativity, as with Goya and Beethoven, both of whom became deaf and deeply depressed as they aged. (I have not read Kay Redfield Jamison’s book about this, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. My sources at the end of this article.)

Contrary to popular belief, those who suffered from mental illnesses in the 1880s — at least where Van Gogh lived — were not treated poorly. Cold bath therapy rather than heavy pharmaceuticals, were the treatments of his day. And Van Gogh’s doctors respected him; they wanted him to paint.

Timeline and Treatment, 1889

Van Gogh recovered quickly and he completed La Berceuse in January.

January 5 – Dr. Félix Rey came to see him. According to the doctor, Vincent spent much time explaining his paintings to the doctor. He continued La Berceuse around this time.

On February 3, he wrote to his brother Theo: “I have moments when I am twisted with enthusiasm or madness or prophesy…”

February 7 – He was back in the hospital in Arles with a new doctor. Dr. Deloy wrote that Van Gogh was in a state of overexcitement and spoke in incoherent words. He thought people were trying to poison him.

February 17 – He had recovered. But in the meantime, the inhabitants of Arles petitioned the mayor to have him sent away, either to his family or to an asylum. Thirty residents signed the petition, naming him a public nuisance. Women and children were scared of him, and one dressmaker claimed he grabbed her. They complained of his excessive drinking.

March 23 – Painter Paul Signac came to visit him and suggested he move to Cassis, a port on the Mediterranean

Irises, 1889, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, painted while at the asylum in Saint-Rémy

May 3 – He voluntarily entered the Saint-Paul de Mausole Asylum in Saint-Rémy, thirteen miles from Arles. The building, a monastery from the 11th century, is open to the public today. He was treated well here under the care of Dr. Peyron. He was encouraged to paint and produced some of his best-known works here, including A Starry Night, Irises and many views of fields and cypress trees.

June – Van Gogh wrote to his brother: “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star which looked very big.” He painted A Starry Night during this period but regretted it: “once again I allowed myself to be led astray into reaching or stars that are too big — another failure — and have had my fill of that.”

He continued working at the asylum for the rest of the year. While not allowed to drink at all, he was very productive.

Timeline and Treatment, 1890

January 16 – He was in an important exhibition in Brussels and received a good review

In the first four months of the year, he had several attacks and spent most of the time in a state of withdrawal.

May 16 – He left Saint-Rémy, and was taken under the care of a homeopathic doctor, Dr. Paul Gachet and went to see his brother in Paris.

May 19 – He moved to a small village outside of Paris, Auvers-sur-Oise, under the care of Dr. Gachet.

June 8 – He had a reunion with his brother, Theo. Dr. Gachet pronounced him cured.

Early July — The darkness returns again.

July 27 – He shot himself in the chest but survived. (Recent accounts suggest that he was killed by others, a view suggested in the movie, At Eternity’s Gate, 2019.)

July 29 – He died at 1:30 a.m.

Vincent’s Artistic Output Seen Against His Illness

Many artists take time to reach greatness, to find their inner self or their best artistic expression. That was the case with Vincent. The paintings we most admire today were done in 1888, 1889, and 1890, while he was in Arles and Saint-Rémy. Works for this period are more unified, more visionary and hold together well. It is easy to see that he finally found his style in the South of France, even if it was where his madness emerged most profoundly.

As for producing art during periods of mania, we must look into his years of output. In his short lifetime, he wrote, 2,140 letters and created more than 3,000 works of art, 860 of them oil paintings. He averaged 96 paintings per year, compared with Monet who averaged 42, Cézanne who averaged 23, and Rembrandt who averaged 15. Each of the other artists was fanatical, as intense and driven as Van Gogh. Artists of their caliber, like Van Gogh, responded to a deep inner necessity, a “calling,” which could not be ignored.

(I thank Russ Ramsey, for the following information, the source listed on bottom, pp 138-141):

Van Gogh: Number of paintings per year:

1881- 2, 1882 – 14, 1883 – 18, 1884 – 52

1885 – 143, 1886 – 93, 1887 – 118

1888 – 169, 1889 – 134, 1890 – 108

Self-Portrait, 1887, The Art Institute of Chicago

How did he keep up this frenetic pace? Was he in manic phases when he did the most work? I believe so. He did 42 paintings in June 1990, the month before he died. During the first four months of 1890, he painted only 18 canvasses. Remember he had several episodes during this time, and I would assume they were deep, crippling depressions. Bipolar I is known for periods of intense highs and lows. When he was high, he could channel the energy into painting. When he was very, very low he couldn’t work at all.

Another sign of mania is in the brushstrokes, In his time, only Vincent Van Gogh used single strokes loaded heavily with paint, never mixing or blending. His paint was extraordinarily thick and heavy. There’s no room for error with this method, or the errors are part of the painting. No wonder he worked so quickly. When his genius was at its height, the texture of his paint mimicked the actual texture of the subject, as in his beard from the Self-Portrait, above, or in his Sunflowers, below. 

Two Cut Sunflowers, 1887, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Judging Him by the Standards of Today

I had wondered if drinking absinthe, legal at that time, had something to do with Vincent’s hallucinations and mood swings. Gayford refutes this notion. Today much mental illness is brought out by substance abuse, a problem that can be prevented. That probably not the case of Van Gogh, whose sister Jo was diagnosed with schizophrenia. In fact four of six children in the Van Gogh family appear to have suffered from mental illnesses of varying degrees. He may have used alcohol and absinthe to self-medicate. There exists a notion that drug use can enhance creativity, which may or may not be true. Even Baudelaire, who experimented with hashish in the 19th century, denied the idea that it was helpful for anything.

Would Van Gogh have done such incredible work if he had been medicated, as would be suggested today? Some people with Bipolar I refuse to take medications because they like the manias and don’t appreciate the flattening of moods. I think that in Van Gogh’s case, he could have lived longer with today’s medications, but he would not have lived as long in the hearts of future generations.


Martin Gayford, The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence

Russ Ramsey, Rembrandt is in the Wind: Learning to Love Art Through the Eyes of Faith

Ingo F Walther and Rainer Metzger, Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings

Martin Bailey, The Sunflowers are Mine

I don’t pretend to have expertise on Bipolar I Disorder, but I’ve read Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind, and Terry Cheney ‘s Mania. Robert Whitaker’s Mad in America confirms the belief that treatments of the mentally ill in 19th century France were not lacking compassion and were often better than the treatments of today.

We must thank Van Gogh for all his letters, for the artists and the sister-in-law, Jo, who saved his work. His letters are widely translated; and’ a new volume was published this year, The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. Martin Bailey wrote a book explaining about Van Gogh at Saint-Rémy, Starry Night: Van Gogh at the Asylum.

My other blogs about Van Gogh:

This one includes a photo from his asylum window and works he did in Auvers:

Torrents of Rain and Gusts of Wind

Looking for Peace?  Go to the Noguchi Museum

Looking for Peace? Go to the Noguchi Museum

In 1985, sculptor and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi opened a museum of his work in an industrial building in Long Island City, New York.   It’s a place to go for a zen experience, especially after all the stressors that continue to rip our world apart. Reservations are limited, but if you can buy the $10 ticket ahead of time, it’s only a short trip from Manhattan, close to LaGuardia Airport.

In art, I look for a way to make sense out of life, to find beauty or joy, and hopefully find a place of rest. Noguchi does the latter for me, which is especially needed during difficult times.  Though Noguchi used art to protest nuclear war and destruction, his work brings us to a place where we put rhetoric to rest, unlike activist artists of today who scream with anger and miss the mark of meaningful communication. 

Useless Architecture, on exhibit until May, 2022. On the right is Roof Frame, 1974-1975, made of steel for an exhibition at Pace Gallery

Noguchi is first and foremost a landscape architect, but also a furniture designer and sculptor. It’s not surprising that he studied with Brancusi.  They were similar souls. A current exhibition at the museum is called Useless Architecture. But what is “useless architecture” is “useful sculpture.”

Many of his sculptures are upright, rough and irregular. They remind me of the monumental stones of ancient Britain and Europe, called menhirs. Like the menhirs, they’re raw assertions of strength with the overlay of a human imprint.

To Bring to Life, 1979, basalt

But other sculptures are like the dolmens, formed when the upright stones hold horizontal stones. According to Britannica, “Dolmens represented the first real attempt by the settlers to organize and shape the landscape around them“ End Piece resembles a dolmen. It also combines many oppositions: wood and stone, rough and/or polished, linear or curved, straight or angled, vertical and horizontal. When you ponder it, these contrasts reflect the oppositions that make up life, oppositions that need to be brought into harmony.

End Piece, 1974, steel and granite

We absorb Noguchi and the meanings of his works through silence. They’re imperfect, but feel “right.” Though Noguchi’s sculpture is architectural, it is not architecture.

Noguchi’s body of work replicates how mankind fits into nature — but readjusts it for a comfortable fit. The best of artists are able to teach us how to see, both the inner and outer worlds, and to bridge our gaps of understanding. One sculpture of a steel-cut trapezoid with a suspended rock in the center says it all. The museum sent me the name of the piece, Costume for a Stone. The combination of natural and manmade materials, common to so much of Noguchi’s work, works beautifully here.

Costume for a Stone, 1982. Granite and hot-dipped galvanized steel. The combination of natural and manmade materials is common in Noguchi’s work.

Circles repeats a theme Noguchi sculpted over and over again.  An upright pink granite circle is called Sun at Noon; nearby is a black circle called Midnight.  Circles have no beginning or end; they’re the Alpha and the Omega, the symbol of God, a representation of perfection.

Sun at Noon, 1969, French red marble and Spanish travertine

There’s another pink sculpture nearby that resembles a snake. Noguchi called it Magic Ring, I’m reminded that life is a journey, The journey is not predictable, but it can take you to places of magic.

Magic Ring, 1970, Persian travertine

Noguchi said, “If sculpture is the rock, it is also the space between the rocks, and between the rock and a man.”  

I was curious about a piece called Sentinel.  Noguchi made the stainless steel sculpture specifically for an exhibition at the Pace Gallery in 1975. The name suggests that it is standing guard somewhere.  All parts of it to fit into the proper place: the horizontals, the verticals and two circles.  

Sentinel, 1973, stainless steel, made for an exhibition at Pace Gallery, 1975

Noguchi know humanity’s place in the natural order of the things, which is one reason why he was so horrified with the prospect of atomic destruction, a subject that is on exhibition on the 2nd floor of the museum now. There’s a model for a monument to the victims of Hiroshima, a project that was never built. It would have been a magnificent arch set off in a symmetric line, with the victims’ names underground. Most of Noguchi’s own life was split between the US and Japan,

His father was Japanese poet, his mother an American writer. He was born in Los Angeles, in 1904, but raised primarily in Japan. His spent his life between the two countries. Then when the US was at war with Japan, he voluntarily interred himself in Arizona. I have written previously of his sculpture in Smithsonian Collections.

Why should we go to this museum? — to make peace with the most impossible of situations. “Due to war, Noguchi also knew the pain of belonging to nations that were bitter enemies, and he produced artworks imbued with an earnest desire for peace,” according to the Noguchi Museum website.  He is an artist who moves me to another frame of mind.

Noguchi bought an old photogravure studio and designed the building to accommodate his museum. It was across the street from his studio.

The beauty of Amanda Gorman’s poetry and inspirational reading match her unique beauty. The slant of her eyes, the angle of her chin complement her strong character. They’re reminiscent of a beautiful Egyptian queen, Queen Tiye, the grandmother of King Tut. Queen Tiye may have been Nubian (corresponding to modern Sudan).

The comparison is daunting. However, the downturned lips of Queen Tiye reflect the fact that she was older when most images of her were made. She was middle-aged at the height of her power and probably died in her 50s. Queen Tiye was also the mother of the iconoclastic pharoah, Akhenaten, who changed the capital of Egypt, the style of art and the religion during his reign. Egypt was conservative, and so course, changing the country’s art and religion wouldn’t last.

As for running for president in 2036, Amanda Gorman should realize that poets are infinitely more inspiring than politicians. Stick to poetry and that is where you’ll have the most influence. Artists are more valuable to the world than politicians. They bring people together while politicians divide. Read a good blog about Queen Tiye (source of the picture) She lived from about 1398 – 1338 BCE. The words to Amanda Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb” are in The Hill.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
Drawings by Bosch:  Realism and Fantasy

Drawings by Bosch: Realism and Fantasy
Heironymous Bosch, The Tree Man, pen and ink, The Albertina, Vienna

My last post of 2017 shows why ART is a better form of escapism than Star Wars.  Bosch’s Tree Man has body of a crab held up by tree trunk legs riding in boats.  The world is not as it expected.  The many who made this fantasy portrait more than 500 years ago still gets more viewers than nearly any other other artist of any time period. Why?  Because he is so much fun.

Two exhibitions last year celebrated the 500th anniversary of Heironymus Bosch’s death.  One million people were expected to visit two different exhibits, first in the Netherlands, then in Spain. The Prado exhibition was so popular that the museum extended it an extra two weeks and kept the doors open until 10 p.m. The other exhibition had been held earlier that year in Bosch’s birthplace, s-Hergotenbosch.

Currently, The National Gallery of Art in Washington has a show of “Dutch Drawings from Bosch to Bloemaert.”  They come from the Museum Boijmans Van Beunigen in Rotterdam.  There are superb drawings by Pieter Bruegel, followers of Jan Van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, Lucas van Leyden and lesser known artists such as Roelant Savery. An examination of the two drawings by Bosch shows how well he was attune to the realism in nature. The Owl’s Nest puts Bosch close to the same category as Leonardo and Albrecht Durer, when to his keen understanding and observation of nature.

The Owl’s Nest, pen and ink, 1500-1505, Museum Boijmans Van Beunigen, Rotterdam

Bosch repeated most of the Tree Man, top, in his most famous painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights. The metamorphosing figure is generally considered to be a self-portrait.  The Owl’s Nest is not an idea or a study for any of Bosch’s surviving paintings.  The faces, wings and nest are realistic. There’s a lightness and delicacy that goes with Bosch’s style, without falling into his usual diversion — fantasy.  Strokes are very precise of various sizes and lengths.

Fox and Rooster, pen and ink

The Owl’s Nest was probably always planned to be a finished drawing. Bosch painted owls in nearly all his paintings.  According to dailyartdaily, “There’s a lot of speculation about what his owls mean, and how they should be read.”  Multiple and contradictory meanings are associated with owls. Sometimes they might signify wisdom.  “But it seems around 1500, the owls were generally associated with menace and death and had an emblematic, moralistic significance.”

Two Women, pen and ink,

The other drawing by Bosch from the Boijmans Van Beuningen has two scenes.  The scene that is Fox and Rooster.   Presumably, the Fox is ready to pounce upon the rooster, but you really need a magnifying glass to see it.  Once again, it’s a dark side of nature, with something ominous as in The Owl’s Nest.  However, the Fox and Rooster have a rich folklore tradition, as part of Aesop’s Fables, and in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.   Of the two drawings on the same piece of paper, this one is considered to be of a later date.  It is tentative and sketchy compared to The Owl’s Nest and Tree Man, drawings meant to appear finished.

A picture on the drawing on the other side of the paper, also a pen and ink, is believed to be the very first drawing by Bosch.  Two Women, has an elderly woman on the right and a woman holding a spindle on the left.   These figures variously interpreted as old women, or witches.  They could relate to Netherlandish proverbs or folktales. Was there some significance attached to the spinning, as if spinning some devious fate?

Although one drawing is early from his career, and one from a later period, both have the type of reference to proverbs and/or folk life we come to expect with Bosch.  When I say Bosch’s figures are frail, I mean it in two ways. They convey human weakness (or foolishness), and they lack the monumentality and weight that contemporary Italian artists gave their figures.  One might argue that Italians were humanists, while the Dutch painters were still medieval in outlook.  Even the Italian that is superficially most like Bosch, Piero di Cosimo, portrays monsters who are satyrs who seem to be descended from antiquity.

Grotesque Walking head and small toad monster

Grotesque walking head and small toad monster, a drawing from the Prado exhibition that is permanently in Berlin, presents what we expect from Bosch and why he fascinates. As one website says, “He externalizes the ugliness within, so that his misshapen demons have an effect beyond curiosity.  We feel a kinship with them.”  This is the essence of the Bosch fascination.

Bosch’s dates (c.1450-1516) are roughly the same as Leonardo da Vinci’s, who was born in 1452 and died in 1519.  Da Vinci paintings have science, nature, perfection and a noble humanity while Bosch, painted a fantastical mixture of a frail humanity, along with demons and monsters.  However, closer examinations shows that Bosch an equally gifted draftsman and a keen observer of both the nature world and human nature.

The wood has ears, the field has eyes, pen and ink.

While Leonardo also saw the greatest meaning in the extremes of beauty and ugliness in humans, we always remember him by the portrayal of perfection.  He himself seems to gaze down on us humans as an all-knowing power.  But if we think about it, so did Hieronymus Bosch.  One of his drawings (not in the drawings exhibit) give us much insight into his way of thinking. It’s an ominous finished drawing called The wood has ears, the field eyes.  Many eyes lie in a field and two ears are listening by the trees.There’s the owl, again, right in the center.  It makes me wonder, is the world really as it always seems?  Or is he just reminding us that God is always watching?  We could imagine Salvador Dali or Rene Magritte interpreting a landscape this way, perhaps without the owl.

Bosch reveals hidden truths from a mind much deeper than our own. He’s just as wise as Leonardo, and he’s looking forward to the Surrealist artists of the 20th century.

The best artists of any time period speak to future generations nearly as well as they reflect the collective mindset of their time and place.  So Bosch continues to be so popular today.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
The Rehabilitation Community of San Patrignano

The Rehabilitation Community of San Patrignano

The vineyards surrounding San Patrignano, in the province of Rimini, Romagna

I recently had the pleasure of experiencing a drug rehabilitation community in Italy, a very special place called San Patrignano.  Founded in 1978, it’s a few miles off the eastern coast of Italy, near Rimini, in the Romagna region.  The tiny country of San Marino can be seen in the distance.  And while it may seem strange that I’d write about this on an art blog, there are reasons I feel drug prevention connects to the world of art.

Youth congregating for “WeFree” October 10-11

San Patrignano is also committed to drug prevention.  Specifically I was there to participate on a panel for parents, policymakers during the “WeFree” days, on “Educate by leaving a positive sign.” The program brought about 3,000 teens from Emilia-Romagna and throughout Italy on October 10-11. The teens had two days of activities which concentrated on teaching joyful experiences without the need for drugs.  There’s art, music and dance.

WeFree days events.  Theme color – orange – much like Halloween

Groups from other countries were invited to share their programs too.   Throughout the year approximately 50,000 students, roughly ages 13-18, will actually come visit the community and participate in programs.  San Patrignano is well-known throughout the world and has many foreign residents, including Americans.

Fun and games to celebrate freedom from substance use

There’s much we can learn about drug rehabilitation from San Patrignano.  Those who come here have lost a lot of hope, have been through other programs and failed.  A small percentage, perhaps 10%, is referred by the courts.  They commit to coming for at least three years, which sounds horrible to most people.  The residents’ recovery rate is around 72% which is very high for a rehab center and remarkable considering how large it is.

Making a mural on the the theme, “The world we want depends on us” 

Going to rehab at San Patrignano is not a life sentence, but, rather, a life-affirming experience.  There are 1300 people living in San Patrignano, at least 1000 of them men.  Cocaine is the most common drug of addiction amongst the residents. (I was told drug use was generally not so common among females in Italy, but that is changing.  Also, the average age used to be older, in the 30s, but now the average age for a resident is around 26.) At least 100 Americans have been through the program, and there are Americans and Canadians there now.  For Americans, however, it is not easy to get the Visa that allows them to get into the program.

Dorm housing for the residents of San Patrignano

Although I never saw small children, there is a pre-school.  I was told that mothers who are in drug treatment have their children living with them and the center provides them with a school.  Such a program is so much more enlightened than ones that separate small children from their moms, as American prisons do.  (They punish the children, as well as the mothers.) I asked if romance was possible in the community. It’s not so easy.  People come there to work on their own recovery, not by coupling. If there is a couple interested in romance, they will not be allowed to see each other for a waiting period.  After time passes and they still have the desire, they may develop a relationship.

The Pre-School

Amazingly, no one pays for their treatment and the Italian government does not contribute either.  Private donations provide about 50% of the cost, while the community raises the rest of the money to sustain itself.  Everyone who lives at San Patrignano has the opportunity to learn a trade, so that he or she may enter back into society in a positive way.  Some are involved in agriculture,  the grapes and the olive trees, of course.  There’s also a cheesemaking center, farm animals and a well-regarded bakery.

Designer wallpaper printed in the workshops

The chef’s school is a very popular training for future chefs of Italy.  Others learn woodworking, leather working, wallpaper design, printing. San Patrignano sells its baked goods and furniture, but it also fulfills contracts for name brand leather designers.  If you buy a beautiful, designer bag made it Italy, it’s possible that the craftspeople of San Patrignano made it.  The furniture makers showed me their catalogue.  They carve designs from old oak wine barrels no longer in use.   The results are very interesting and creative.

another handmade wallpaper

I spent a good deal of time with the medical director who was at one time a resident of San Patrignano, in his 20s.  A sensitive and intelligent man, I was surprised to find out he had been a

Fine purse in the leather making rooms

heroin addict in his 20s.  He went to medical school later, which speaks well for how San Patrignano inspires and prepares its residents.  In fact, many of the staff members were former rehab residents, and they believe very strongly in what the community does for people.

Antonio Boschini, the doctor, specialized in infectious diseases, because he got out of school at the time of the AIDs crisis.  A few residents with AIDs remain, but it is not a major need.  Medical emphasis is on therapy and counseling more than on giving drugs to get the patients off of drugs.

I learned about Vincenzo Muccioli, the infamous founder of the community.  A wealthy man who owned a hotel in Rimini, he was concerned about the large number of homeless people addicted to drugs in the late 1970s.  He had a second home in the mountains and invited these homeless to live there as long as they agreed to work. He was determined to help them and give their lives meaning.  Well that was the beginning of San Patrignano, and now it’s an exemplary model of the international community.

A mural at San Patrignano

The dining hall is huge and I can’t tell you how pleased that the day I ate lunch there they served my favorite Italian dish, Saltimbocca alla Romana, and some pasta of course.  There’s a real sense of family, community, peace.   The closest analogy I could think of was the monastic communities of the Middle Ages which the sense of fellowship.

The staff gave me some of their materials with the 3x the letter R, standing for Rehabilitation for Recovery and Reinsertion. The three booklets included are a handbook on justice interventions in place of incarceration, a manual on rehabilitation and recovery and a handbook on social integration of recovered drug users.    It is a program that should be imitated, but can anyone else do it so well?

An actress, Elisabetta, former resident, dramatizes her biographical story of how she became involved
in drugs, for the students.  It’s a story of innocence to despair.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016