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main index   © Jeff Matthews    entry May 2014

Ventotene

Ventotene is a small island in the Pontine group off the western coast of Italy. It and its satellite island of Santo Stefano are
the closest of the group to the mainland, only 25 nautical miles (46 km) from the town of Gaeta on the mainland north of Naples and even closer to the island of Ischia off the bay of Naples. Administratively, all of the Pontine islands are part of the Lazio region of Italy. They are all visible from the island of Ischia, even Ponza, the largest one, another 40 km to the west. All of the islands are the result of powerful volcanic eruptions starting around 1,700,000 years ago in the Pleistocene geologic era. These little islands are what  is left of the rims of ancient undersea volcanoes.

Only Ponza and Ventotene have stable populations, 3300 and 745 inhabitants, respectively. They both now cater to a fair tourist industry in the summer months, but even then they are not crowded. In fact, for most of the year they are not even accessible from Naples. You have to go all the way to Formia, near Gaeta, to get a hydrofoil.

The most interesting thing to happen recently at Ventotene was the discovery in 2009 of a "sunken museum," a small fleet of Roman ships found at a depth of 150 meters (c. 500 feet). They had gone down without capsizing and have remained relatively well preserved; even much of the cargo was intact. Deep sea divers and archaeologists went to work and some of the results were put on display on Ventotene. Other than that, things are pretty calm on the little island
two miles long and not even a mile wide. There is one town at the port. So, even in the summer you can find that small Mediterranean island you've been looking for—the one with not much happening. They even closed the prison! Actually, the prison was on Santo Stefano, the satellite island one mile away. The prison was built in 1795 by the Bourbons. It was closed in 1964.

The lighthouse at Porto romano                            
A lot of history of Ventotene has to do with the quaint Italian custom, going way back to the Romans, of using small islands as prisons. In Roman times, the island was known as Pandateria (also Pandataria). Here is where emperor Augustus sent his daughter Julia the Elder in 2 BC to punish her for her wicked ways. Then, Tiberius carried on the tradition by banishing Augustus' granddaughter Agrippina to the island. Octavia, Nero's wife, also died in Pandateria, sent there in 62 AD so he could marry Poppaea.There were a great many others. More recently, as noted, there was a Bourbon prison on Santo Stefano that then saw much more recent use an an internment camp for enemies of the Fascist regime in the 1930s and '40s (photo below). Some of Italy's most prominent criminals were held in this "Italian Alcatraz": Gaetano Bresci, who assassinated king Umberto in 1901, as well as post-war political figures including future president of Italy, Sandro Pertini and Altiero Spinello, who wrote what is now known as the "Ventotene Manifesto," promoting the idea of a federal Europe after the war.

During the days of Saracen and then Ottoman incursions (roughly from the ninth century until the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, these islands were off-and-on-again strongholds of Muslim pirates inimical to Christian Europe, and the islands served as the sailing-off points for ferocious raids on the mainland. The population of Ventotene has varied over time and was at a high of 2,000 in the year 1881, twenty years after the unification of the modern nation state of Italy. The population plied the fishing trade, as did the inhabitants of all other islands in the area. The population decreased dramatically beginning in the 1890s, the beginning of the great waves of Italian emigration; it never fully recovered and is now at an almost historic low.

The Bourbon (then Fascist) prison on Santo Stefano
              
The single town at the NE tip of the island actually presides over two ports; the porto romano handles private vessels and fishing boats and, next to it,  the modern port facility can take cruise ships. The port has kept some remains of ancient Roman structures, villas and the rainwater catchment system of channels and cisterns cut in the bedrock. Today fresh water is shipped in by tanker. The patron saint of the island is Santa Candida and the feast day is celebrated on September 20 with a fireworks display at seaside featuring candle-driven hot-air paper balloons. Oh, they have built a heliport, so if you are intent on that idyllic Mediterranean island far from the deafening roar of the crowds on Ponza, go soon, before they turn this building (photo, right) into a Holiday Inn.

Oh, p.s. Various sources now report that the small satellite island of Santo Stefano really is for sale, even though it forms part of the Ventotene-Santo Stefano nature preserve. So, you get the island (28 hectares/70 acres). You get the ex-prison, fully convertible (if you have solar panels, a water desalinization facility, and rain catchment basins!) to a private or commercial paradise. (Hint: fill the pool with sea water and look into urine purification!) You will then have a siren-ready rock from which to lure sailors on their way from Naples or Ischia to Ventotene or faraway Ponza. You think I'm kidding? Some newly-rich Russian godzillionaire will snap this up.

update: a few days later!

Alas, I was misinformed
. You can't buy the whole island. You can, however, buy about 62 acres (25 hectares) of the 70 acres. That's almost the whole island, BUT the ex-Big House (photo above) is on those other few acres that you don't get. At present, the rest of the island is owned by a Neapolitan notaio (kind of like a notary public in Anglo-Saxon common law jurisdictions plus the powers of Louis XIV back in the day). He is asking a mere 20 million euros for his part of the island (that's a mere 30 million US dollars.) Be patient. He might come down. I decided to find him and started knocking on the doors of Neapolitan notaries. I died of old age before I got out of my apartment complex.


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