Ventotene Islands, Italy Maritime History
Ventotene is a small island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, off the coast of Campania, Italy and which forms part of the Pontine Islands. The island is volcanic in origin and measures approximately 3 kilometers in length and under 1 kilometer wide. Santo Stefano, a small uninhabited island is just 1.5 kilometers off Ventotene and is best known for the large prison which dominates its landscape. Ventotene has under 500 permanent residents but numbers swell in the summer months.
In the Roman period, Ventotene was known as Pandataria (or Pandateria) as was best known as a place of exile for defiant Roman women from the noble classes. Emperor Augustus exiled his wayward daughter Julia the Elder in 2 BC. One may still observe the remains of Julia’s opulent villa on the island. Also of interest are the massive water galleries excavated so as to supply the villa with fresh water. The island also has a fine example of a Roman fish tank complex.
One of the most extraordinary structures on the island is the ancient Roman harbour. Over 60,000 cubic meters of Tufa were cut so as to create this artificial port complex. The main basin would have been just over 3 meters deep and would have offered shelter to small and medium sized vessels in all weather conditions. The main activities of this probably included the supply of the villas’ occupants as well as a safe haven for vessels which found themselves in distress whilst sailing in the area. A series of warehouses, moles and bollards can still be seen today.
During the Middle ages and Early Modern periods, the island was largely, except perhaps for some hermits, uninhabited and in a state of abandon. It was also used as a pirate’s den from which Barbary pirates could attack the coast of mainland Italy. It was only in the late 18th century that the Bourbon rulers of Campania embarked on a project to build a prison on Santo Stefano coupled with a settlement program for a new colony on Ventotene. The church, tower and other architectural features date to this period.
The prison became a notorious camp which held persons who stood up to the fascist regime of Mussolini. Amongst the famous personalities who were incarcerated on Santo Stefano are Altiero Spinelli. Whilst on the island he wrote a text now referred to as the "Ventotene Manifesto", which promoted the idea of a federal Europe.