Ventotene in Italy

Thursday, 28 July 2022 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: General, EU blog post series, European Union
Reading Time:  11 minutes

Town hall, called Il Castello (The Castle) at Piazza del Castello © IslandVita/cc-by-sa-4.0

Town hall, called Il Castello (The Castle) at Piazza del Castello © IslandVita/cc-by-sa-4.0

Ventotene is one of the Pontine Islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea, 46 kilometres (25 nautical miles) off the coast of Gaeta right at the border between Lazio and Campania, Italy. The municipality of Ventotene, of the province of Latina (Lazio) had 708 permanent residents as of 2008. The island, the remains of an ancient volcano, is elongated, with a length of 3 kilometres (2 miles) and a maximum width of about 800 metres (2,600 feet). The municipality includes the small ancillary island of Santo Stefano, located 2 km (1 1⁄4 mi) to the east, which was the site of a massive prison, now closed. Further islands are Ponza, Palmarola and Zannone, located 40 km (25 mi) to the west. The island is connected by a daily ferry and hydrofoil service to Formia provided by the ferry company Laziomar. This is supplemented by summer services to Anzio and Terracina on the mainland, and the nearby island Ponza. During the summer months, SNAV also operates routes between Ventotene and Naples, as well as the island of Ischia.

A prison camp was created under the Bourbons and restructured under Benito Mussolini on the nearby island of Santo Stefano. There, up to 700 opponents, including 400 communists, were incarcerated between 1939 and 1943. One of them was Altiero Spinelli who wrote there a text now known as the “Ventotene Manifesto“, promoting the idea of a federal Europe after the war.

Santa Candida Festival, the celebration of the island’s patron saint, Saint Candida, takes place on 20 September, but the festivities start ten days beforehand with the daily launch of a hot air balloon accompanied by a marching band. The decorated paper balloons, a type of giant sky lantern up to 10 m in height, are constructed by the island’s youth during the summer and on the 19th there is a balloon competition as part of “The Games” that take place in the Roman port all afternoon. The festival culminates in a day-long feast and religious procession on the 20th, when a statue of Saint Candida, placed on a flower adorned boat, exits the church, and is carried around the island’s narrow streets on the shoulders of eight men. As with all events during the festival, the band plays and firecrackers and fireworks are set off continuously. The celebrations end with two fireworks displays.

Ventotene and Santo Stefano are both part of a nature reserve created in 1999 in order to preserve the ecological, geomorphological and naturalistic-environmental characteristics and to promote activities compatible with the conservation of the reserve’s natural resources. This means that new buildings cannot be erected, and reconstruction is limited. The marine reserve, which covers a 10 km long coastal area, is divided into three zones with varying degrees of protection and permitted activities. Ventotene is a popular destination for scuba divers due to its clear, warm waters and variety of marine life. Several diving centres take divers of all levels of competency to nearby destinations to see caves filled with prawns, or swim among fish which have become rather unafraid of people since fishing was banned in 1997. There are also guided tours to see Roman amphorae from ships sunk 2000 years ago and the large steamer Santa Lucia, which was sunk during World War II, resulting in nearly 100 dead. It lies at a depth of about 40 m (130 ft). There is also a lot to be seen with the use of snorkeling gear at only a few meters depth around the island and its beaches. Ventotene is a well-known birdwatching location as the island serves as an essential stopover point for large numbers of migratory birds. The bird observatory, which was founded in 1988, rings approximately 20,000 birds a year. During the height of the spring migration in April and May, thousands of birds arrive daily from North Africa’s coasts after having flown 400 – 500 km non-stop. The Pontian Archipelago offers the first chance to stop after the prolonged flight and, due to the tiny size of Ventotene, the concentration of birds of numerous species is extremely high. The exhausted birds rest and feed frenetically quite indifferent to human presence, allowing birdwatchers to observe and photograph them as in few other places in Italy. The bird observatory is part of PPI (Progetto Piccole Isole), a project which has studied the bird migration across the Mediterranean since 1988 at 46 sites in seven countries. The results of these studies led to the creation of the Ventotene Bird Migration Museum in 2006.

© Sailko/cc-by-3.0 Hot air balloon at the Santa Candida festival © IslandVita/cc-by-sa-4.0 Launch of a hot air balloon at the Santa Candida festival © IslandVita/cc-by-sa-4.0 Porto Romano © IslandVita/cc-by-sa-4.0 Porto Romano © IslandVita/cc-by-sa-4.0 Porto Romano © IslandVita/cc-by-sa-4.0 Santa Candida © Sailko/cc-by-3.0 Town hall, called Il Castello (The Castle) at Piazza del Castello © IslandVita/cc-by-sa-4.0 Ventotene Lighthouse and Santo Stefano in the background © flickr.com - Luigi Versaggi/cc-by-sa-2.0 © Sailko/cc-by-3.0 © Sailko/cc-by-3.0
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Ventotene Lighthouse and Santo Stefano in the background © flickr.com - Luigi Versaggi/cc-by-sa-2.0
In the early part of his reign, emperor Augustus had a summer palace built on the island, which at the time was private property. The remnants of the huge complex of over 3,000 m² (32,000 ft²), which included thermae, terraces, gardens, an exedra and aqueducts, can be seen at Punto Eolo at the entrance to the modern port. Over the centuries, the villa has been subject to systematic plundering and senseless excavations. However, despite its current state of dilapidation, skeletal brickwork reveals thermal baths, servants’ quarters, courtyards, water reservoirs and passages to the sea. The imperial summer residence has become known as Villa Giulia as it became the place of exile of Augustus’s daughter Julia the Elder in 2 BC.

The Roman port, which is still in use, was built to support emperor Augustus’ summer residence, as there was no natural harbour on the island. It was entirely excavated in the rock banks and about 60,000 m³ (2.119,000 ft³) were removed to create a port with a narrow, protected inlet. It is approximately 180 m (600 ft) long by 85 m (280 ft) at its widest and 3 m (10 ft) deep. The quayside was lined by storerooms and depots hewn from the rock, nowadays converted to bars, restaurants, shops and diving centres.

At the foot of the lighthouse are the remnants of the Roman fishery excavated in the rock, consisting of three pools, one outside and two in rooms with arched roofs where fragments of decorated plaster and stuccoes remain. A sophisticated system of canals and shutters, devised for water exchange and the transfer of fish from one compartment to another, ensured a constant supply of many kinds of fresh fish to the imperial household, all year round and in all weather conditions. The fishery is best viewed from the water, swimming with snorkeling gear, as the sea level today is about a metre (1 yard) higher than when it was constructed.

As Ventotene has never had an adequate supply of fresh water, two enormous cisterns to collect rainwater were built in Roman times in the central parts of the island. They were excavated in the rock to a depth of approximately 10 m depth and consist of a system of vaulted roof tunnels, galleries, basins and corridors. One of these, known as the Carcerati (prisoners), can be visited on guided tours. The name derives from the convicts who were sent to the island in the late 1700s to build the present village and were housed in the by then empty reservoir. The walls of the galleries are covered with graffiti, inscriptions and drawings from various centuries, but particularly from the convicts who drew images of houses and nature to remember places they were never to see again.

The prison on the island of Santo Stefano was completed in 1797 with a design based on the theories of Jeremy Bentham, the English philosopher, jurist and social reformer, and his concept of the ideal prison he named Panopticon. This involved the architecture of institutional buildings to allow all prison cells to be observed by a single unseen security guard, who may or may not be present, giving them the sensation of being constantly watched. The prison is an attractive large three-story building with 99 cells in the shape of a horseshoe and a watchtower at the centre of the courtyard. Many famous political prisoners have spent time here, such as Carmine Crocco, the most important brigand during the Italian unification, and Gaetano Bresci, the anarchist who killed King Umberto I in 1900 and was imprisoned there for a year before being hanged in his cell by his jailers. During the Fascist regime, many antifascists were locked up at Santo Stefano, including the future President of Italy, Sandro Pertini. The prison was closed in 1965.

Italy’s only bird migration museum can be found at the high, southern end of the island in a building called Il Semaforo. The information at the museum is based on 20 years of the observatory’s research and monitoring, and explains how, where and why birds migrate as they do and the importance of bird ringing. There are real-sized models of many of the species which use Ventotene as a stopover. During the spring and autumn migration, visitors can go along and watch while birds are weighed, measured and ringed.

Read more on Ventotene, Wikivoyage Ventotene and Wikipedia Ventotene (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State - Weather report by weather.com - Global Passport Power Rank - Travel Risk Map - Democracy Index - GDP according to IMF, UN, and World Bank - Global Competitiveness Report - Corruption Perceptions Index - Press Freedom Index - World Justice Project - Rule of Law Index - UN Human Development Index - Global Peace Index - Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.




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