Narrenturm: Vienna’s “Fool’s Tower” was Europe’s First Home for Mentally Ill

Narrenturm: Vienna's grim Fool's Tower was the first purpose-built accommodation for the mentally ill in Continental Europe. It now houses the Federal Pathologic-Anatomical Museum. (Image: Gryffindor. The Narrenturm in Vienna, Austria)

We’ve delved into the history of various so-called insane asylums before, not to mention the eerie suitcases left behind by patients at the Willard Asylum for the Insane in New York, and the elegant but creepy architecture of Gartloch Hospital in Glasgow. Let’s go back in time even further, to the place where it all began.

(Image: Guenter09)

Vienna’s Narrenturm, or ‘Fool’s Tower’ was Continental Europe’s first dedicated structure built to house mentally ill patients, an oppressive-looking, squat round tower of a building that opened in 1784. It is located adjacent to the old Vienna General Hospital, which is now a university campus and had originally served as a military hospital and poorhouse.

(Image: JOADL)

More like a fortress or barracks than a hospital, the Narrenturm had been built on relatively enlightened ideals – to protection those who might face ridicule and harm on the streets or in Vienna’s prisons – but the conditions in which they lived were bleak. According to Dark Tourism, ‘patients’ were confined (two to a room) in cramped and austere cell-like spaces.

The Federal Pathologic-Anatomical Museum in Vienna. (Image: Lydia Platzer. The Federal Pathologic-Anatomical Museum in the original Narrenturm)

Vienna Direct writes that the old General Hospital – of which the tragically-named Fool’s Tower was part – was a then state-of-the-art facility that attracted medical professionals from across Europe. But the conditions in which the mentally ill were confined could hardly be described as cutting edge.

(Image: JOADL)

Designed by court architect, Isidor Canevale, the idea was the brainchild of Emperor Josef II. The circular tower had five floors, 28 cells, and a central courtyard. Cells were outfitted with heavy doors and chains, and mounted on the roof ridge was a lightning rod (above). It’s uncertain whether the rod was designed to conduct lightning for the treatment of patients (a sort of early electro-shock therapy) but its surviving remnants make for an ominous sight.

(Image: Lydia Platzer)

In 1796, Emperor Francis II founded the Federal Pathologic-Anatomical Museum, and the collection relocated to the Narrenturm in the 1970s. The Fool’s Tower had ceased to operate as a psychiatric facility in 1866, and was for a time used as nurses accommodation.

(Image: Lydia Platzer)

According to Dark Tourism, the items now on public display are but a relatively small part of the museum’s extensive collection. Yet they form a disturbing glimpse back into our medical past. We’ve come a long way in a relatively short time, and Vienna’s unsettling Federal Pathologic-Anatomical Museum, and the Narrenturm that houses it, is a stark reminder.

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About the author: Debra Kelly



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