You ask these
questions about Ponza infrequently only because you don't
know what Ponza is. Or even worse, when you saw the word
'Ponza' maybe you thought of the character of that name in
Pirandello's play Così
è (se vi pare) [Right You Are if You Think You
Are]. If so, you are very well-educated and should
probably be reading something else.
#1. What in the world
am I talking about?
—An island near Naples, something like
Capri, but without the tourists. Ponza is 80 km/50 miles
NW of the island of Ischia and is the largest (10 sq. km)
of the Pontine islands. The others in that archipelago are
Palmarola, Zannone, Gavi, Ventotene
and Santo Stefano. The islands are in the Italian region
of Lazio, and Ponza is just over 20 miles/32 km from the
closest point on the mainland, Mount Circeo. The island
is, in fact, part of the Circeo National park.
Why is it called Ponza?
—They used to say that the name derived from
Pontius Pilate, whose family owned a grotto on the island.
That, clearly, is the best story. Kill-joy revisionist
etymologists point out, however, that Strabo's Geography (which
predates the birth of Pilate) mentions an island of
"Pontia", so it may be that if you're a big fan of the man
who judged Jesus, you will just have to grin and bear the
#3.What is one really cool
mythological thing about Ponza?
—The island is said to be the island of
Aeaea in Homer's Odyssey.
(This was so long ago that the Greeks had not yet invented
consonants.) Anyway, it was the island of Circe, the
sorceress who cast a spell on Odysseus (Ulysses) and
turned his men into swine.
The port of
#4.After Ulysses, who
has been the most famous prisoner held on Ponza? —Benito Mussolini. The Italian
dictator was overthrown in July of 1943. He was arrested
and shuffled from place to place in order to keep the
Germans from finding and rescuing him. He was eventually
moved to Campo Imperatore high in the Gran Sasso Massif
(Italy's "Little Tibet"), where the Germans found and
rescued him. (They did this in a bizarre and daring glider
raid. If the Allies had pulled that off, there would have
long since been a movie about it. Maybe John Wayne in Down for the Duce!)
Before Gran Sasso, however, Mussolini was held on Ponza.
The New York Times
from October 1, 1943, reports that il Duce was on the
island for 10 days until September 7, during which time "he
did everything he could to win the favor of the people.
He made little speeches to those who gathered around
[and] gave 1,000 lire to the parish church for masses to
be said for his son, Bruno, who was killed in an air
accident two years ago." American writer John
Steinbeck reported (NYT, Sept. 13, 1943) that "I
talked with a number of inhabitants of Ponza [and] they
said Mussolini assured them he would return to power in
Italy and reestablish the Fascist regime, comparing
himself with Napoleon—the parallel being to Napoleon's
100 days exile on Elba."
Is there anything particularly strange about that episode,
maybe even more unbelievable than Circe turning Ulysses'
crew into little piggies? —Indeed: It is the report that
Ponza was so isolated that when Mussolini showed up, many
of the islanders had no idea who he was! And WWII? They
thought there was something going on but they couldn't be
sure. An American officer said, "It was like stepping
into another world...They had never heard a bomb or
shell and as far as we could learn had never seen any
soldier of any country." (NYT, Jan 16, 1944)
#6.Is there any weird sociology? —Linguistically, perhaps. The same
issue of the NYT (above) reported that "Brooklynese,
not Italian, is the dominant tongue. Many of the 8,000
residents made moderate fortunes in the United States
and went back to Ponza to retire. Among themselves they
always spoke Brooklyn [sic], and now almost everybody on
the island speaks it, too."
#7. What is this stuff about the Big Top?
—In civilian life, Lt. Henry Ringling North,
USN, was the vice-president of the famous Ringling Bros.
and Barnum & Bailey Circus —the Big Top, the "Greatest
Show on Earth." In WWII he was the leader of the small
unit that landed and "took" Ponza on Sept. 13, 1943. It
didn't need much taking. The first person to greet North
was Frank Feola, who had worked in the United States for
the Baltimore and Ohio railway for 30 years. Frank may (or
may not) have been humming this
What minor historical event, known to all Italian
schoolchildren (but unknown abroad), is connected to
—In 1857, three years before Garibaldi's
invasion of the south, Carlo Pisacane led a similar
expedition to overthrow the Kingdom of Naples. The 300 men
in the army were detainees freed by Pisacane from the
Bourbon prison on Ponza. The invasion failed, but the
episode was immortalized in a poem called The Gleaner of Sapri,
which Italian children still learn in school. (The whole
story is at this entry.)
Is Ponza still a neat place?
—Yes. Tourists have discovered it,
obviously, but it's not that bad. There are now about a
dozen hotels on Ponza and I guess they wouldn't be there
if they didn't do good business at least during the summer
months. But a bit into the off-season, things tail off
quickly. It's not even that easy to get there from Naples;
you have to drive an hour up to Formia for a boat because
they stop running from Naples in mid-September. The
scenery is spectacular. There is a botanical garden and
you can always visit the Grotto of Circe and the Grotto of
Ulysses. (They now live in separate grottoes, but I don't
know whose idea that was. Circe has another place nearby
on the mainland in the national park named for her. See
question #1, above.) Hiking, swimming, scuba diving and
sailing are great.
The permanent population is around 3,300.
That is down considerably from the 8,000 cited (above)
from the 1940s. If the figures are even close to accurate,
the decline is due to emigration between 1950 and 1970
when many of those who lived from fishing (at the time,
the main livelihood on the island) left Ponza for other
waters in the Italian Mediterranean, such as Elba and
Do they still say of
a winter's night
when "the wind is a torrent of darkness among the gusty
trees, and the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon
cloudy seas" that you can catch Circe turning tourists
—No, but if you crack any puns about the
island being a "Ponza scheme," even I cannot protect you.