Little Island In The Mediterreanean: Confining or Inspiring?

Villa Giulia, northern tip of Ventotene

It’s January 3nd, 2021 and Italy is red hot. No, it’s not the temperature, and the sun is barely lighting up the sky under those clouds that have been hovering over us for days up here in Veneto. It’s just Covid, the crimson monster, that’s leaked its color all over us. So we’re not supposed to wander around unless we desperately need food, exercise, drugs or a doctor. As far as the last two are concerned, I’m following all the rules and keeping my fingers crossed!

But it’s also why I spend most of my time inside, reading and doing a few jumping jacks when the urge comes over me. Then I try to remember a few of the good things that happened during that year of 2020 that turned everything upside down. Mannaggia 2020!   

For example, during those halcyon summer months which seemed deceptively virus-free, my husband and I and our Roman friends crept out of our respective nests to disembark on an island south of Rome. Yes, we traveled for hours by train and boat with our N95 masks, to find freedom on Ventotene’s rocky slabs of beaches!

Rock beach near the old Roman fish pools, with the island and prison of Santo Stefano

And it’s even more ironic considering that tiny little springless Pantadaria, as the ancient Romans called it, is most famous for being a place of confinement. Yes, people were sent into lonely exile there, to cut them off from all ties with society. Islands, of course, are by definition isolated. So a great place to keep enemies of the state, if that’s what you have in mind.

As we came into the port, we looked across a little bay to a miniscule islet with a yellowish 18th century building embedded with windows that look like gigantic unblinking eyes. Now abandoned, Santo Stefano’s high security prison is where Gaetano Bresci, the anarchist who made his way back to Italy from Paterson, New Jersey to assassinate King Umberto I of Italy, was given a life sentence. That life didn’t last long, as he was himself killed soon after by his jailers. I learned about Bresci from one of the most poetic and inspiring films I watched during last spring’s stringent lockdown – Paterson by Jim Jarmusch. Yes, I spend a lot of time catching up on movies as well. Movies talk to you and jostle your brain.

Villa Giulia

Anyway, to return to our destination island, diligent Augustus built a luxurious vacation home on Pandataria. But he then realized he was too busy consolidating his empire to waste time on frivolous pastimes and so he stuck his only child, Julia, there in 2 BCE, to wither away. She was leading a scandalous life in Rome. Was she also plotting against him with one of her lovers? Certainly, she would never have been censored for her flings or needed to conspire to get power had she been born a boy, his heir! But that’s how things worked and you can think about her as you stand on the ruins of what’s now called the Villa Giulia. It’s at the northern tip of the island, on a nicely windswept outcropping, surrounded by the blue blue sea. Julia, the first prisoner of Ventotene, could have looked landward to Circeo, the peninsula where the sorceress Circe hung out with her humanoid animals or to Vesuvius or north or south to other volcanic islands studding the waters. None of that would have helped her feel less lonely because she couldn’t have visitors or books. No human or intellectual comfort whatsoever while she ate her hard bread and gruel. At least she didn’t actually starve to death there.

To find out more about the unlucky Julia, you could go to a wonderful bookstore on the main square of the only town on Ventotene. At L’Ultima Spiaggia (literally, ‘the last beach’ which also means ‘the last resort’) I found John William’s great historical novel ‘Augustus’ (winner of the National Book Award).  I had already read it in English, so I purchased an Italian book, ‘La Macchina del Tempo (The Time Machine) by by Wu Ming 1 (one of the mysterious writers in the Wu Ming collective authors’ group). La Macchina del Tempo is about the dissidents confined to Ventotene during the Fascist era. What a group they were!

Main Square, with our favorite cafè and the ‘Last Resort’ bookstore (L’Ultima Spiaggia)

I dived into my new find in between walks on the few roads crisscrossing the island, visits to the hard rock slabs with my towel and new slimming swimming suit, and meals consumed on a regular basis with our friends. We ate fishy things such as octopus and mussels, and lentils too. All very tasty, as the people who live on Ventotene now descend from Neapolitans invited here in the 18th century. The Bourbon monarch of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies had decided to repopulate an abandoned archipelago. The pioneers cleared some of the indigenous maquis vegetation to create a patchwork of fields for lentils and grapevines in the moister hollows.

Flowering caper

So I found out, as I rested on my narrow bed in our little hotel room after a taxing day of sunbathing and feasting in company, so strange and wonderful!, that Mussolini followed in the Bourbons’ and Augustus’ footsteps by putting any perceived danger to his regime in outlandish places where they too would languish in silence.  

However, the modern-day dictator wasn’t as efficient, for example, as the Roman he venerated. The communists, socialists and rebellious people from subjugated lands such as Albania and Yugoslavia, had some things Julia didn’t. Books, and each other. There were so many of them, and the island so small, that despite the rules of confinement, they managed to get together surreptitiously, talk, and amke audacious plans for a better future. One of them, Altiero Spinelli, is considered a father of the European Union, as one of the authors of the Ventotene Manifesto. Another, Sandro Pertini, became a partisan and later politician and finally president of Italy in 1978.  

      Even though we weren’t sleeping in the same lodgings, gravity pulled us down to the main square every morning from the steep hillsides we were perched on. There we had coffee and pastries at the same cafè every morning and discussed the day’s plans. A little beach, a little history, a little exercise, before more fish down by the Roman port for our noonday and evening sustenance.  

Port and lighthouse

The Romans were builders. No doubt about the fact that the Romans were master builders. Having taken a tour of the intricate system of cisterns and conduits they slaved away at (no doubt with slave labor) to collect and distribute rainwater on Ventotene, we tried to get into the archeological museum as well.

Stairs into Roman cistern

But the museum was shut because of the virus, so we decided to rent a boat instead. A friend who felt pretty familiar with the sea was at the helm as we skirted the island. It didn’t take long, so we also threw ourselves into the clear, clear water from time to time, trying, but not always succeeding in avoiding the rare jellyfish lurking there. We joked about various things. We’ve almost all known each other for some 40 years, so no qualms about showing off our post-lockdown bodies.

Our friend Massimo (left) manning the ship

       I finished off my Italian book after our communal activites were over. So I learned that after Mussolini’s fall from power, in 1943, Italy was still under the grip of his nefarious allies, the Germans. The latter didn’t leave Ventotene until a small group of US soldiers, helped by one of the few remaining political exiles, freed it through guile and luck. The story is told by John Steinbeck, a war correspondent, in his collection of articles, Once There Was A War. Well, he was a skillful writer and it’s worth reading. You can find this volume at archive.org and borrow it for a few hours.

It was time to go back home. We felt both soothed and galvanized by our conversations with our interesting old friends. Close quarters can be a good thing if done with the right tools! As we pulled out of the harbor, masked up, we could see some seagulls flying overhead. Ventotene signifies freedom from want and a respite for migratory birds heading north on their learned paths from Africa in the spring. Crazy birdwatchers descend on Pandataria in April to bathe in the sight of thousands of winged creatures finding refuge on this dry, greenish crag in the Mediterranean. But that’s another story.

Southern tip of Ventotene, closest to Africa

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