The Limits of Confinement: working paper

The research project

The conference represents the concluding step of a research project supported by the University of Rome “Tor Vergata” entitled The international debate on the treatment of prisoners. The “roman model” in a historical perspective.

The project focused on the “roman/catholic model” in the context of theories and practices of the treatment of prisoners, with particular attention on 19th century reforms. During the 18th century, the Ancien Régime catholic forms of detention underwent a major innovation process that culminated in the establishment of cellular confinement for children and women in the ‘San Michele a Ripa’ prison in Rome. As a result of the discussion raised even in the ecclesiastical milieu by Cesare Beccaria’s work (censored in 1766), further models of imprisonment were tested during French presence in Rome (namely the 1798-99 Roman Republic and the annexation to the Napoleonic Empire in 1809-1814).

This complex legacy was at the core of the debate on prison reform in mid-19th century both in the Papal States and at the international level. The role played in this debate by the American models of prison (Philadelphia’s ‘solitary confinement’ and Auburn’s ‘silent system’) has been studied extensively. By contrast, the papal system of detention as a model – combining work and religious practice in the treatment and rehabilitation of prisoners (ora et labora) – has been poorly investigated by scholars, in spite of its relevance in the opinion of the observers of that time.

The features of the roman penitentiary system were noted by key figures of the reform movement in the Papal States (Morichini, 1835; Moroni, 1840-1873) and by foreign experts (Cerfbeer, 1839; Petitti di Roreto, 1837-1840-1843), either from similar or opposite perspectives.

The aspects related to the treatment of prisoners and the role of religion in rehabilitation were perceived as the most noteworthy features of the roman model. Those key aspects of rehabilitation were by contrast strongly criticised by an isolationist and anti-productivist view of punishment that was put forward by some liberal intellectuals (Tocqueville 1833; Cattaneo, 1840).


Aims of the Conference

In this interpretative framework, the conference aims to put forward the conceptual tool of ‘limit’ as useful notion in order to analyze urban spaces and forms of treatment in roman institutions of confinement, with regard to a more general comparative perspective of the ‘triumph’ of 19th-century prison.

The typical catholic combination between the hybridization of penal and non-penal confinement and the roman displacement of the prisons from the centre to the periphery can be considered a key aspect of the development of 19th century prison in Rome and abroad. Hence, the case-study of Papal States can significantly contribute to investigate the establishment of prison as the pivot of Western penal systems and its implications in the urban renewal of bourgeois cities by combining the field of studies on penal prison with an urban history approach. Even in a global historical perspective, the Christian vision of confinement and rehabilitation may provide suggestions for further research on the relationship between religions and non-Western origins of prison.

During the conference, selected professors, research groups and PhD students are asked to better conceptualize what the “catholic model” was and the role it played in the context of prison reforms that, starting with 19th century debates, represented one major challenge to modern societies. In particular, scholars are invited to discuss the key words of ‘limit’ and ‘border’ as a way to put in question too static paradigms of how total institutions work, in light of recent conceptual and historical debates.


Conference programme

An introducing session (held in Rebibbia prison and involving students detainees) will be devoted to cultural representations of roman prisons in a historical perspective, from the 19th century until recent attempts to represent life in prison (especially in Rebibbia prison) undertaken by literature, photography, music and fiction. By focusing on the characteristics of the storytelling about confinement as a literary genre, the aim is to evaluate the connections between these narratives and the public debate on prison reform in order to point out topics, clichés and rhetoric that had their origins in the 19th century.

A second session (held in the ancient prison of San Michele a Ripa), entitled New perspectives on the history of confinement, will provide an overview of recent approaches to the history of modern kinds of confinement, with regard to experiences that have some connection with catholic rehabilitation treatment based on work and religious practice (Enfermements project from France and Belgium, “Prisoners, Medical Care and Entitlement to Health” project in Ireland, “The Carceral Archipelago” project from England, are particularly interesting in a comparative perspective with roman-case).

In the third session, entitled The limits of punishment: theories and practices of confinement at the end of the Ancien Régime, the focus will be on the persistence of non-penal forms of confinement during the rise of penal prison as a privileged form of punishment. The cases of hybridization of the different treatments in the confinement institutions (judicial madhouses, depôt de mendicité, penal colonies) will be examined in this perspective by taking into account casestudies from Italian States, Switzerland, French Empire, British Empire.

The final session, entitled Rome as a urban-model and catholic-model of treatment ?, the case-study of 19th-century Rome will be analyzed from the point of view of urban renewal interconnected with the circulation of catholic models of detention. The management of Roman prisons (public or private actors, professional bodies, religious or lay staff, gender distinction) and the impact on living conditions will be taken into account in a comparative perspective with other catholic countries in European and non-European contexts in terms of circulations of models, ideas
and experts (special attention will be devoted to case-studies from Ireland, Spain, Latin America).


PI of the research project:

Chiara Lucrezio Monticelli (Università di Roma “Tor Vergata”)

Organizational committee:

Tommaso Caliò (Università di Roma “Tor Vergata”)

Marco Cicchini (Université de Genève)

Chiara Lucrezio Monticelli (Università di Roma “Tor Vergata”)

Alessandro Serra (Università di Perugia)

Organising Secretariat:

Alessio Collacchi (Università di Roma “Tor Vergata)

Francesco Saggiorato (Università di Roma “Tor Vergata”-Université Paris 1-IHMC


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