Ventotene: A prison that was a university

A free and united Europe is the necessary premise to the strengthening of modern civilisation… The Ventotene Manifesto (1941).

For centuries, Ventotene was a byword for confinement in Italy. The island lies two hours by ferry off of Lazio’s coast, a volcanic rock covering half a square mile. The emperor Augustus sent his wild, only daughter, Julia the Elder, into exile on the island in 2 BC. He is said to have remarked: ‘There are two wayward daughters that I have to put up with: the Roman commonwealth and Julia.’ Perceived by her peers to be a nymphomaniac, she spent five forlorn years on Punto Eolo, looking at the distant shadow of the mainland.

Many people have been confined on Ventotene and its surrounding islands over the millennia. In the foreground, we see the Roman harbour that was created on Ventotene, which once held the emperor Augustus’ daughter Julia. In the background lies the islet of Santo Stefano, which housed an 18th-century panopticon prison.   

Julia’s fate gave later governments ideas. The Bourbons built a panopticon prison on the adjacent islet of Santo Stefano in the late 18th century. Then came the heyday of Ventotene’s dark history: Mussolini dispatched his critics to this confinement from the later 1920s until 1943. The most famous of these was the socialist Sandro Pertini, who had spent gaol-time with Antonio Gramsci and was from 1978 to 1985 Italy’s most beloved president. When Pertini was sent to Ventotene, he joined a wretched community that grew to 800 others. These were to include Albanian Zogists and Communists after Italy conquered the country in 1939, and Ethiopian intellectuals. Pertini aside, the most celebrated of the confined were Eugenio Colorni, Ernesto Rossi, and Altiero Spinelli. The last two, Rossi and Spinelli, former socialists, gave Ventotene eternal fame. In this prison university, they conceived The Ventotene Manifesto in 1941, at the height of the Second World War, writing it on cigarette papers. Then, thanks to Colorni’s wife Ursula Hirschmann – a German Jew, no less – it was spirited to the mainland and then to Switzerland for publication. The Ventotene Manifesto set out the principles for a federal Europe to stop future wars between nations. This idealistic tract was to be a cornerstone of the EU. Confinement had bred a vision for a new Europe.

The Bourbon castle, beside the Ventotene village square, held the German garrison after they surrendered in 1943.

Ventotene’s remarkable story does not quite end there. The prisoners were exiled to mainland villages after Mussolini was deposed in July 1943. In their place, 300 carabinieri and 80 German troops manned a radar station on the island’s highest point. From here, the radar directed Axis aircraft towards Allied shipping concentrating on Sicily and then the eventual landings on Italy. The Salerno landings on 9 September 1943, to the distant south of Ventotene, needed to be safeguarded from these menacing aircraft. Ventotene’s radar had to be captured. To effect this deed, a fast boat was sent with 30 paratroopers. Commanding this operation was a celebrated Hollywood film star, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, son of the silent film star Douglas Fairbanks, formerly married to Joan Crawford, and now a naval ‘beach jumper’.

Roman fish tanks cut into the volcanic rock of Ventotene.

The beach jumpers had a reputation to uphold. They landed swiftly and essentially conned the enemy into thinking they were a larger force than they really were, eliciting their surrender. Acting came into this military exercise, and in this Fairbanks was indubitably royalty. He took four men in a whaler plus an eager journalist – none other than John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath. Twice the whaler poked into harbours, only to realise that their destination was a bigger harbour. On eventually landing, the carabinieri surrendered en masse, believing the whaler had landed troops around the island. The Germans withdrew to the radar station a mile away. Fairbanks, as if he was performing in The Mask of Zorro or Robin Hood, took a white towel and marched to meet the enemy. Six against 80 were the odds, but Fairbanks persuaded the Germans they were outnumbered and soon an Allied cruiser on his command would immolate them. They surrendered to be incarcerated in the Bourbon castle by the village square, and only slowly realised how they had been hoodwinked.

Few places can boast such stories: of the Roman princess Julia, of The Ventotene Manifesto, and of Fairbanks’ trickery as told by Steinbeck, but does Ventotene champion these today? That was why I took the hydrofoil from Formia to find out.

These anchors in the Museo Archeologico were once used by Roman ships.

To Ventotene

Like all Mediterranean ferries, finding a timetable online is an exercise in frustration. Timetables are intended to be stapled or taped to posts and windows by the boat. They are for those in the know. Going to Ventotene is no different. Along with a group of schoolchildren, I pinpoint the time, eat supremely well while killing time in the glorious restaurant on the dock, and then board Laziomar’s hydrofoil. I note I have paid €3.50 as a disembarkation fee. The sea is calm, an endless hammered pewter grey as far as the mountains towards Anzio. Curtains cover the windows and going outside is not permitted. We are not about to be confined, and certainly the children, each attentive to a phone and their Instagram accounts, are oblivious to the journey. Then, we land.

Ventotene is dark, even in the bright spring sunlight. No wonder Fairbanks found it hard to navigate its harbours in the pitch-black darkness of night. It is all that remains of a volcano. Its black-to-rusty rock has been carved into a sequence of small ports on its north-east side, the largest of which accommodates our hydrofoil. Next to it is the Roman Port where Ventotene’s fleet of fishing boats are berthed. This had been carved out to take Julia’s barges and subsequent Roman exiles. The rock face was sliced apart, and into it houses were burrowed; today many of these are shops and bars living in the shadow of antiquity. Between the Roman Port and the third harbour are the remains of a Roman-period fishery. A great pool has been excavated to hold the fish. Around it are traces of long-lost structures that once dealt with processing the opulent fruits of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

These fine furniture fittings are among the finds from the palatial villa prison that once held Julia. 

A narrow road leads up to the village square, dominated by the off-yellow stuccoed Bourbon castle, now the Municipio. The square is alive with children playing soccer. Two bars nestle in the far angles. Unsurprisingly, the sign to the Museo Archeologico draws my eye. It lies in the basement of the fort in which the hoodwinked Germans were incarcerated in 1943. In the dry moat in front of the door, Roman anchors are piled up beside a barnacled torso of a Roman grandee in a toga. These treasures have evidently been dredged from Ventotene’s waters. Inside, I am waved through the ticket office because it is late and schoolchildren are anticipated.

The sequence of basement rooms has strip-lighting illuminating the faded signs and cases stacked with riches, but opaque with age. Before a huge dolium sits a pile of stamped lead pigs. Stacks of amphorae are arranged ornamentally. The panels describe the making of Ventotene’s Roman harbour, as well as its treasures. Next come rooms devoted to the Villa Julia, plans, reconstructions, frescoes from a pre-Pompeian era, the exquisite ivory carvings from an imperial couch. All hint, if no more, at the supreme elegance that once adorned this island in its early imperial pomp. Julia may have been exiled for her waywardness, but she was treated as a princess.

Finally, a short exhibit describes the history of the panopticon prison on Santo Stefano.

The museum is time-warped until the schoolchildren file in. Their voices bring it to life, echoing through the cavernous, ill-lit rooms. I ask the kindly woman at the ticket office about visiting the Villa Julia. It is closed, she replies, with a dismayed look. There is no one to take care of it, she adds dolefully, but groups can apply to visit it. Rather like the museum lost to its worthy 1980s museology, I am getting a picture of a place whose history is hanging by a thin thread.

Punto Eolo

Nowhere is this picture clearer than on Punto Eolo. My mind is on the ivory carvings for a couch that once graced a great villa as I climb up to Ventotene’s northern promontory, a finger of land that points accusingly towards distant Rome. On the crest of the headland sits the village cemetery, around it, freshly tarmacked, is a road to a helicopter pad. But the Villa Julia, as the custodian of the museum explained, is closed and fenced. To be fair, it is easy to pick out the entrance atrium beside the helicopter pad, then the steep descent to the promontory on which the villa itself sat.

Here resided Julia, daughter of Augustus, mother of his two heirs, Lucius and Gaius, and by this time wife of another, Tiberius. She was exiled here for the high crimes of adultery and treason. With Tiberius living on the island of Rhodes, Augustus acted and declared Julia’s marriage to be null and void. More seriously, he accused her of plotting against him with other men. Sempronius Gracchus, one lover, was exiled, while Iullus Antonius, son of Augustus’ erstwhile nemesis Mark Antony, was compelled to commit suicide. Rumour had it that Julia was intending to replace Tiberius with Antonius as Augustus’ heir. The courtly intrigue condemned her to this island promontory. Reconstructions show that, in all but name, her prison was a palace.

Above and below: Augustus had his daughter Julia confined in a fine villa, elements of which are still visible (alongside the remains of much later 20th-century huts that housed the confinati). The villa lay on Punto Eolo, Ventotene’s northern promontory, which faces the distant Italian mainland. 

Rooms were arranged around a courtyard on the punctured cliff edge, and an arched staircase led down to a sheltered beach. Exile may have been bitter, but it is tempting to interpret this as a noble house that was repurposed once Augustus lost patience with his daughter. Gazing northwards across acres of gleaming sea to the distant lavender-grey coast, it is hard not to dwell on Julia’s biography and the ancient author Suetonius’ description of court life at the apogee of the Roman Age. Punto Eolo is quite magical, even in this sad state.

Stairway to captivity. These Roman steps led from the villa at Punto Eolo to a sheltered beach.

It is only afterwards, looking at fuzzy photographs, that a penny dropped. The villa or rather the peninsula was the site of a dozen or more stone-built huts that housed the anti-fascist confinati. These were only levelled in the 1970s, as the island attempted to lose its dark reputation. Footings of the prison houses are very evident, but I failed to put two and two together as I stared at Punto Eolo from behind an irritating fence. Not all is lost, however. The rescue of this great palace and its finds are now the subject of a book by Giovanni Maria Di Rossi and Salvatore Medaglia. They have made sense of the island story from Middle Bronze Age times, with its little-known obsidian industry, up until the confinati.

Not surprisingly, the two other archaeological sites on the islet, associated with creating and dispersing water to the great villa and the harbour community in Roman times, are also fenced off and closed. Being volcanic, Ventotene has no freshwater spring. To sustain the villa and its fishermen, an aqueduct and a latticed network of channels, inimitably Roman in ambition, were engineered, bringing water from huge rock-cut cisterns in the middle of the islet.

To the lighthouse

The highest point of Ventotene is occupied by a refurbished tower house and associated building that I discern to be the radar station that Fairbanks conquered. Back then, it stood in splendid isolation. Today, it is a museum dedicated to bird migration. From here, a great panoramic arc exists, taking in the swathe of sea in which the fleet approached the landings at Salerno in 1943. Somewhat diminutive below it, is the verdant prison island with the panopticon of Santo Stefano. Inside the museum, the curator is in full flow about ornithology with a school group ranged appreciatively around her. Later, she finds me, as I survey the building, and is genuinely surprised to learn about Douglas Fairbanks and John Steinbeck. She had believed the radar station to have been a lighthouse. Her bailiwick, she quickly adds with unalloyed pleasure, is the world of golden orioles and rare warblers, once shot but now prized.

During the Second World War, this radar station was captured by naval ‘beach jumpers’ under the command of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. It is now a museum dedicated to birds.

I return to the village to look for a boat to the Bourbon panopticon, but no one can help. Guided tours start in the summer months. I need to come back. From Ventotene, the panopticon on Santo Stefano stands high like an abandoned housing estate, surrounded by lush vegetation, radiant in the spring sunlight. What of the many prisoners, the confinati, two being authors of The Ventotene Manifesto? Signs are stationed throughout the village and plaques also bear witness to this history. Pertini’s house is noted. Rossi’s colourful painting of a ceramic platter, now in a Florentine museum, depicts in cartoon form the main characters confined here. Among them are two Albanians, Kosovans who went on to assist the British secret missions in the Balkans. A tall Ethiopian is depicted too. But my eyes seek out Altiero Spinelli, a large man with a dome head lacking much hair after years in a fascist prison, and beside him Colorni, short and professorial. Colorni was to die in a skirmish with the fascists in Rome in May 1944, shortly before the Allies arrived. His widow, Ursula Hirschmann, went on to marry Spinelli, and together they championed a federal Europe to end the continent’s wars. Spinelli himself became a European commissioner, although he and Ursula died shortly before the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992.

The author, on Ventotene, with Santo Stefano – home to the Bourbon panopticon – in the background, and Ischia beyond it.

Later, in my hotel overlooking the harbour, pounding music starts up below me in the empty, cavernous restaurant. A plangent tenor voice is belting out hits from the 1950s with a thumping backing band. Except there is no band. When I make my way down to dine, there in his solitude sits an old man, as thin as a picket, in a woollen hat, and singing for all he was worth into a microphone attached to a computer providing amplified musical accompaniment. He ceases abruptly, only his steel-coloured eyes show his disappointment. He is from Terracina, on the mainland, in which direction he nods. He makes no mention of his singing. Instead, without pausing, he breathlessly describes his travels beyond Ventotene, to St Petersburg, China, South Korea, Laos, Vietnam. Without saying it, I deduce him to be a long-lost Communist sympathiser, time-warped by the illusion of a militantly shaped future. Parting, he curses the European Union, as though it was a place he had not taken to. I want to respond by telling him how interested I am to visit the place where the spirit of a shared Europe started, but decide silence is prudent.

 The imposing ruins of the 18th-century panopticon built on Santo Stefano.

Final thoughts

The Bourbon prison is obviously Ventotene’s archaeological jewel. The Villa Julia is a mightily suggestive also-ran. Yet it is not the history of this place that has captured modern imagination, drawing school groups, but the geology and birdlife. Ventotene belongs to a larger natural park, embracing the Pontine archipelago. Exceptional though this is, the island story is an elemental chapter in the making of modern Europe.

For my disembarkation fee, I should love to see the archaeological museum upgraded to describe the exiles from Julia to Spinelli, and to visit the houses where they lived. I would have loved to see more of the faded photographs of the excavations on Punto Eolo, as well as the mugshots of legendary modern Italian visionaries. The few that survive emphasise formality of dress when the confinati are pictured together (often incongruously with their children tucked in among the ranks of men) and, then, strikingly informally dressed when pictured individually. There are obvious questions about life here. Where did Ursula and her three children live when she visited her incarcerated husband? How were these prisoners fed? They had a mensa where they ate at a long table, as shown on Rossi’s painted platter, but where was this? What did the prisoners do each day? Then, too, just a word or two to recall the beach jumpers and Steinbeck’s overnight stay in 1943 would have been in order.

This plaque commemorates the location of the future President Pertini’s accommodation while he was on Ventotene. 

No place in the Mediterranean boasts a more romantic history than Ventotene. It belongs to a canonical Italian story and more, making its single-most important contribution to the making of modern Europe. The Italian state television made a melodramatic film, Un nuovo mondo, about the prisoners who wrote the Manifesto. Somehow it misses the mark, not least because an island off Apulia rather than Ventotene was chosen as a location.

As I sit on the dock, I have a nagging feeling that we may have forgotten what the confinati suffered for. Scions of brave men and women, generations including post-war baby-boomers and their children and grandchildren have known a peace that was simply an ideal for the likes of Colorni, Pertini, Rossi, Spinelli, and the courageous Ursula Hirschmann. Setting sail to the mainland, I realise that this islet has been lost to yachtsmen, beach hedonists, and the birds.

The Roman harbour on Ventotene.

Further reading: Giovanni Maria Di Rossi and Salvatore Medaglia (2018) Introduzione alle antichità di Ventotene (Oxford: Archaeopress).

Richard Hodges is President Emeritus of the American University of Rome.
All images: courtesy of Richard Hodges