If you had an inconsolable child, because his/her toy was broken accidentally- torn up in a fight with a sibling or chomped off by a hyperactive pet, now missing a limb or an eye, what would you do? Most times children are so attached to one particular favourite toy- their best friend, confidante, protector from the dark, that they insist on having it at their bedside at all times. You go shopping and the toy/ doll goes along in the car/ pram. You travel, the toy goes too. But should something happen to this irreplaceable ‘friend’, what if you could dial-in emergency care and drive down to get specialised ‘medical’ attention? Well, that’s exactly what the Ospedale delle Bambole or Doll Hospital in Napoli, Italy does. A unique place tucked into one of the characteristic narrow streets of the Spaccanapoli area, this ‘Hospital’ is in the heart of the old city, not far from the San Gregorio Armeno street known for its Nativity scene figurines. The doll ‘doctors’ at the Ospedale delle Bambole have been repairing toys since it was set up by Luigi Grassi, a set designer from the San Carlo opera house, around 1895. The legacy was carried forward by his son, Michael, who added his own special touch. He started to dress like a ‘real’ medical doctor in white lab coats, to treat the dolls, as if they were real people too. More than a century later, the ancient tradition of ‘restoring’ broken toys thrives under the guidance of his descendent Tiziana Grassi, who with great passion and dedication still heals the “patients” from around the world.
The story goes that once upon a time, a desperate mother walked-in with her daughter’s broken doll and requested Luigi Grassi to fix it. When he actually ‘healed’ the doll within a few days, the relieved mother pronounced Mr Grassi a ‘doctor’ and a ‘magician’. The story understandably spread like wild-fire and many more mothers were soon bringing in toys and dolls to be ‘treated’. A passer-by supposedly said, “I think this is the hospital of dolls”, and the name stuck. Luigi Grassi hung a board outside his workshop, that read ‘Ospedale delle Bambole’ in red letters. He added the symbol of a cross, just like that of real hospitals, and there it was- the one and only Doll Hospital of Napoli.
The street the Ospedale is on, is quaintly named after bookmakers (‘Librai’) who worked their trade here centuries ago. I remember being quite struck by what I saw there- shelves cluttered with broken dolls. Some missing a limb or an eye. Masses of little bodies and body parts collected in a corner, a whole lot of eyes staring blankly, yet others still able to wink and manage a smile. They all needed some TLC. Not just denting and painting, but some specialised personal attention to restore them to their former selves- the inseparable companion of a child somewhere. That’s when I learnt that this is where people from around Italy and beyond send in their broken dolls and random doll parts. The Doll Hospital apparently has a resident doll ‘surgeon’ who tries to nurse most toys to health. But often they also create new and unusual ‘bambole’.
Back in 2006, I didn’t know anything about the Doll Hospital even though I was on the street where it was located. It was my second visit to the coastal city in Southern Italy. It was December and very cold. But what kept me from feeling the weather outside was the warmth of the large-hearted Neapolitan family I had almost become a part of. I had fallen quite hopelessly in love and the man in question had taken me home to meet his folks- a seriously large extended family- complete with at least three generations, all of whom I got acquainted with over several very large meals, spread luxuriously over several decadent hours, and many days- before, during and after Christmas. When we were not eating or talking about eating, we hit the streets. The city was alive and buzzing at all times during the festive season. There was always so much to see, and in my case, so much to live and take in! Of course, there’s nothing like being taken on a guided tour of a city on an unfamiliar continent by a local. Alfredo, whom I married five months later was the quintessential local. Born and brought up in Napoli. He loved his city dearly and lamented the fact that despite its unique history, gastronomical tradition, topography and scenic panorama, located as it was by the sea, Napoli wasn’t the tourist hot-spot it should have been, like so many other Italian cities. Tourists almost always used Napoli as a transit point to move on to other more ‘touristy’ locations like Capri. But I had stopped by and fortunately didn’t miss out on the many gifts Napoli had to offer. Of all the amazing places I visited, things I saw and experienced, the quaint Ospedale delle Bambole has somehow stuck in my head.
I quite like the motto of the Doll Hospital. In our consumerist age, the philosophy of the institution is to “use less toys to safeguard our planet”. Most children, especially in the developed world have so much of everything that the ‘use and throw’ culture applies to toys too. By providing an outlet to restore what we already possess, it encourages the culture of holding on to things, to cherish them for longer. The Hospital also actively encourages the idea of recycling and reusing by creating new toys out of broken ones.
Over the years, Napoli’s unique Doll Hospital has come to be promoted as a tourist attraction. Visitors accompanied by little children can book a tour of the ‘clinic’, equipped with a real hospital ward, with lots of sun beds, gowns and cookbooks. Small groups of upto 5 children can actually walk-in with their own toys if they wish, don a white lab coat and stethoscope and play doctor. The Ospedale delle Bambole even treats visiting children to a “doll pizza”!
Even though I visited the Ospedale delle Bambole some nine years ago and only incidentally, this is one place I’d like to revisit with my son. Even though children these days graduate quickly to the virtual world to ‘play’, the charm of real toys is not really lost on them. My big boy, is still small enough at six-and-a-half to sleep with a set of his favourite soft toys. In fact, these toys really come handy when I have to wake him up in time for school everyday. Any imaginary story or made-up song involving them is guaranteed to get him out of bed, smiling.
It’s odd, he doesn’t remember his obsession with a stuffed Winnie-the-pooh soft toy. For almost three years, between the ages of 1 to 3, ‘Winnie’ had to go everywhere he did. The affinity probably began when while transitioning from crawling to taking his first steps, I would place Winnie at a distance as his target to reach. He would happily grab his destination with his plump sausage-like fingers and send Winnie’s nose straight into his mouth to ease his teething-problems as his own reward. From there on, he and Winnie were inseparable. He would often wake up thirsty at night, but then start searching for Winnie to go back to sleep. Winnie was his shield against a stranger, his go-to in any new and awkward situation like the hair salon, and his comfort-zone whenever I was upset with him. Terrified of the prospect that I might lose the toy by accident, I tried to replace his Winnie with at least two other identical Winnie dolls. Both were promptly rejected. It had to always be the same old Winnie for him- frayed, faded, nibbled.
In my son’s case, I doubt the Doll Hospital might have been of any help. He didn’t want a repaired Winnie, much less a replacement. His Winnie was just as he wanted it to be. And after all those years of deep attachment, its hard to believe that he now laughs when I try to remind him about his Winnie-days! The missing Winnie memories go alongside his inability to recall anything about his early days from birth onwards in Italy. I’m his surviving link to his place of birth- Napoli, his Neapolitan origins, the sun, sea, sand, the Vesuvius, and his father, in heaven. Hopefully, one day I’ll be able to take him to the Ospedale delle Bambole, as his ‘local’ travel guide to a forgotten land, and perhaps he will enjoy, even remember it as fondly as I do.