Santo Stefano penitentiary

The island of Santo Stefano, in Italy, belonging to the Pontine Islands archipelago, has been for 170 years the seat of a penal colony, which lodged many prisoners, both illustrious and humble, but all victim of hardest conditions of detainment and often of violence, which brought some of them to the death.
The Pontine Islands have a volcanic origin, they belong to the province of Latina and are divided into two communes, the biggest is Ponza, including the island bearing the same name with 3,107 inhabitants on a surface of 7.5 km² (2.9 sq mi) and the uninhabited islands of Palmarola (1 km²= 0.39 sq mi), Zannone (0.9 km²= 0.35 sq mi) and Gavi (0.24 km²= 0.09 sq mi). The other commune in the archipelago is Ventotene, including the island bearing the same name (website) with 708 inhabitants in 1.25 km² (0.48 sq mi), and the uninhabited island of Santo Stefano (0.29 km²= 0.11 sq mi).
Santo Stefano is the more eastern island of the archipelago, and has a 2 km (1.24 mi) circumference, with east-west diameter of 750 m (0.43 mi), north-south diameter of 500 m (0.31 mi) and maximum height of 68 m (223 ft). The coastline is steep, except for the north-west side, and on it three promontories can be found: cape Falcone to the north, cape Romanella to the north-west and cape Spassaro to the south-west. The vegetation is composed only by fig trees, agaves and Indian figs.
According to Ptolemy the island was named Parténope, while other names of the Roman age were Palmosa, Dommo Stephane and Borca, and the current name could be due to a monastery dedicated to Saint Stephen. The island was colonized many times, but at last it remained deserted for the raids of the Saracen pirates, which used it as a starting point for their incursions. In 18
th century Ferdinand IV of Bourbon, the king of Naples, decided to repopulate the Pontines, including Santo Stefano, in the beginning, in 1768, with two hundred convicts who had the task to build the houses, and some prisoner women, with which they had to form families; later on the island some Torre del Greco families and Ischia fishermen were settled.
The Pontine Islands were used as a place of confinement already in the Roman age, and in particular Ventotene (then named Pandataria) hosted for five years Julia the Elder, the daughter of the emperor Augustus, sent in exile by her father in 2 BCE, while her mother Scribonia, although having asked to follow her daughter, wasn't satisfied. Later Julia's daughter, Agrippina the Elder, mother of the emperor-to-be Caligula, was sent by Tiberius on the island, where she starved herself to death. Years after Octavia, Nero's wife, was sent into exile in 62 CE, and shortly after, when she was twenty, her husband himself ordered to kill her. Finally Pandataria was the compelled dwelling of Flavia Domitilla, niece of the emperors Titus and Domitian and grand-daughter of Vespasian, interned since being suspected to be Christian and later proclaimed saint.

The Panopticon
On the contrary the use of Santo Stefano as a jail dates back to the Bourbon age: the king of Naples Ferdinand IV ordered a penitentiary to be built there, designed between 1792 and 1793 by the architect Francesco Carpi, a pupil of Vanvitelli, who also planned public buildings not having prison purpose on Ventotene island.
According to a 1855 text, by Giuseppe Tricoli, the same Carpi later on would have been secluded there "by a political crime", or even would have died there, but in the comprehensive study by Amelia Pugliese (see) is highlighted how in reality in the period of his presumed detainment Carpi was free and carried out his charge of civil employee. The troops quartered in Ponza, leaded by Luigi Verneau and by the same Francesco Carpi, joined the Republican Government of Naples. Vernau, after the failed libertarian revolution against the Bourbons in Naples, was hanged on the gallows in Ponza.

The penitentiary (see the Marcello Botarelli's photo gallery) had been designed according to a panoptical model, which considered a total and continuous visual control of the prisoners, to reach the "domination of the mind upon another mind", theorized in the treatise "Panopticon" (1787), by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832).
The circular structure developped itself around a courtyard, which had to recall the circles of Dante's Inferno. In the courtyard the corporal punishment took place, being proper tortures which, for admonishment, occurred under everybody's eyes, just for its circular shape.
The penitentiary was opened on September 26
th 1795 with the first 200 prisoners, which soon became 600, the number estimated at full capacity, and then 900, arranged in 99 cells, all identical, each one with a size of 4.50 x 2.20 m (14.24 x 6.96 ft).
At the entrance of the penitentiary Carpi got a Latin sentence written as a warning: "Donec sancta Themis scelerum tot monstra catenis victa tenet, stat res, stat tibi tuta domus" meaning: as long as the blessed Themis (a personification of justice for the ancient Greeks) will keep so many monsters shackled, the State and your house will be in safety.
Besides the many political and common prisoners, in Santo Stefano also Luigi Settembrini was secluded: the patriot and man of letters was imprisoned there in 1851, to serve a life imprisonment sentence, converted into exile in 1859, at the ewe of the downfall of Bourbons' rule. Settembrini in his work "Ricordanze della mia vita" (Remembrances of My Life) so describes the penitentiary: "Imagine to see a very wide open theatre, painted in yellow, with three tiers of boxes made by arches, which are the three floors of the prisoners' cells: imagine in that place on the stage there's a big wall, like a boundless curtain, in front of which stands a little open space enclosed by a fence and a ditch; imagine in the middle of the wall there's a covered balcony, which communicates with the outward building, on which always stands a sentry, watching and dominating all around this theater; and higher up in the big curtain of this wall there are many loopholes in every place. So you'll have an idea of this wide building, whose shape is wider than half-circle, with a vast courtyard in its middle, and in the middle of the courtyard a small church lies having an hexagonal shape, enclosed all around by glass panes. The courtyard is paved with cobblestones, two mouths of reservoir and three stone bases, with iron bars supporting lamps lie there. The paving and the reservoirs have been made since few years: before in the courtyard there were nettles and ditches, where the prisoners went to drink, and often competed with their knives to quench their thirst in those fetid puddles."
The communist leader Athos Lisa, imprisoned in Santo Stefano, so described the penitentiary: "The inside of the penitentiary looked to me as cold, severe as a tombstone ... My mind ran to the Roman amphitheaters and their history, because the hell, in a penitentiary, has the shape of an amphitheater. The cells were built along a circumference of which I couldn't estimate the dimension. Some of the cells were on the ground floor, others on the first floor. A completely uncovered balcony ranged on all the circumference made both day and night surveillance easier ... In the center of the courtyard, risen above the ground, the church overlooked, surrounded by a terrace from which the prisoners could be watched during their exercise hour. Below the church, the small yards for the so-named walk rose. All this formed a kind of monumental unit: at the top the church stood, built with glass walls to allow the prisoners to "attend" the mass not going out the cells; around the church there was a gallery for the surveillance, and below it the small yards forming a circular halo."

Illustrious prisoners
The anarchist Gaetano Bresci from Prato, near Florence, (see my webpage on him), was secluded and then killed in Santo Stefano, sentenced to life imprisonment for the assassination of the king of Italy Umberto I. Bresci was murdered on May 22nd 1901, few months after his transfer in the penitentiary of the island.
Another victim of Santo Stefano was the young Communist militant Rocco Pugliese (see my webpage on him), who died on October 17
th 1930, murdered by the jailers, even if, according to the official version, he was suffocated by the food or, according to an other version, even less credible, suicided.
Another illustrious prisoner was Silvio Spaventa and also two notorious highwaymen, Giuseppe Musolino from Calabria and Carmine Crocco from Basilicata were secluded in Santo Stefano.
The fascist regime used Santo Stefano as a place of detention for the political opponents: between them, in addition to the above mentioned Rocco Pugliese, there was Sandro Pertini, who was President of the Italian Republic from 1978 to 1985. Moreover in Santo Stefano were imprisoned the Communist leaders Umberto Terracini, Mauro Scoccimarro, Athos Lisa, and the Socialist Giuseppe Romita (who later was Minister of the Republic), the Anarchist bandit Sante Pollastri and Guido Sola, a young Communist from Biella, later sent to die in the sanatorium of Pianosa island.
Even Ponza and Ventotene were places of detention and internment for the anti-fascists, and the name of the latter is still renowned for the Ventotene Manifesto, written in 1941 by Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi, interned on the island, which is considered a founding document of the European Union to come.
Other antifascists secluded in the Pontines were the Communists Giorgio Amendola, Luigi Longo, Walter Audisio, Pietro Secchia, Camilla Ravera, Giuseppe Di Vittorio, Giovanni Roveda and Eugenio Curiel, the Action Party leader Riccardo Bauer and the Socialist Lelio Basso.

The tortures
The penitentiaries of the fascist age were the scene of tortures and oppression inflicted to the prisoners, which often ended with the death of the victims, entirely at the mercy of the brutality of their jailers, sure of their absolute impunity. Often their bodies were made disappear or were buried in an anonymous way and usually their families weren't even informed.
One of the most common tortures imposed in case of protests or insubordination was the so-called "Sant'Antonio", a word derived from the Naples mafia slang, that consisted in bursting unexpected into the cell, wrapping the victim up with a blanket, and then beating him hard with kicks, punches, or with the heavy keys of the cells. The blanket was used in order to allow the aggressors not to be recognized, to suffocate the screams of the victims and impeach them to react, and also for not leaving traces on the body of the target of the beating, that could testify about the aggression. According to the Ligurian anarchist Giuseppe Mariani, once imprisoned in Santo Stefano, in the penitentiary during the beatings the blanket was not used, since the guards, being certain of their impunity, didn't think they need any precaution.
Rocco Pugliese died in Santo Stefano, strangled or beaten to death by the jailers; the beating up that caused his death is so described by Francesco Spezzano "after having thrown a blanket on his head (...) they beated him to death" and moreover "his desperate screams were heard for long by his companions of imprisonment (...) that, locked in the other cells, couldn't do anything to help him" and then "the emotion for the barbarous murder was enormous between the prisoners who made a collection to send a wreath to his funeral".
The death of the prisoners during the beating ups is so described by Sandro Pertini, secluded in Santo Stefano from 1929 to 1930, who in a speech of November 19
th 1947 to the Constituent Assembly reminded: "... I speak for personal experience (...). In jail, Honourable Minister, it happens this: a prisoner is struck; in consequence of the blows the prisoner dies, and then everybody worries, and not only the jailers who stroke the prisoner worry, but also the director, the doctor, the chaplain and all the prison crew do it. And then they make this: they lay the prisoner bare, they hang him to the window's grating and they let him be found hanging this way. The doctor comes and he draws up a medical report of suicide. This was the end of Bresci. Bresci has been struck to death, then they hung the corpse to the window's grating of his cell at Santo Stefano, where I have been a year and half".
Ugoberto Alfassio Grimaldi, quoting testimonies of political prisoners, writes of Bresci: "That May 22
nd three guards made him the "Santantonio": that is covering somebody with blankets and sheets and then beating him until his death; his corpse had been buried, in a place of which remained no trace in Santo Stefano archives, by two lifers sent purposely there from an other jail, and then sent immediately away; the penitentiary's commander had been promoted and the three jailers had been rewarded".
In the same work he remembers that the murders of political prisoners in the fascist jails were not isolated examples, as testified by the cases of Gastone Sozzi in Perugia jail and of Romolo Tranquilli, brother of the writer Ignazio Silone, in Procida jail. The underground edition of the Communist organ l'Unità dated January 1
st 1929 reports the names of the communist prisoners died or anyway suffering in the fascist jails. Also Adriano Ossicini described the application of the Santantonio in Regina Coeli jail n Rome, during the fascist dictature.

Between October 1860 and January 1861 Santo Stefano was the seat of the so-called Republic of Santo Stefano, a kind of self-managed state started up as a result of a riot by a group of some hundreds of imprisoned Naples mafiosos, members of the clan Bella Società Riformata (Fine Reformed Society). The rebellion had been made easier by the leaving of the Bourbon garrison stationed in the jail, which had to rush to the defence of the town of Capua, put under siege by the troups of Garibaldi.
The mafiosos gave themselves very strict rules, providing for death penalty not just for murder, but also for theft or assault to the prison guards. The republic came to an end after three months from its birth for the landing of the seamen of the kingdom of Italy and the consequent surrender, whitout shedding of blood, of the mutineers. The subsequent trial, in 1866, imposed just light sentences and many acquittals for the rioters.
The penitentiary was definitely abandoned on February 2
nd 1965, and in 1981 on its front gate a plaque was placed to commemorate the imprisonment of Sandro Pertini and of the political prisoners secluded in Santo Stefano in its 170 years of "active service".

I apologize for any error in English translation:
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Marcello Botarelli, photographer;
Ministry of Justice, Italy, Criminal Museum in Rome;
Terre Protette travel agency and tour operator, Rome, Italy;
Le due città (The Two Cities), journal of the Jail Department, no. 5 year VIII May 2007;
An article by Giuseppe De Filippis,;
The Ventotene Manifesto,;
The article of Amelia Pugliese
Text of "Ricordanze della mia vita" by L. Settembrini: (non più raggiungibile) (non più attivo)

page created: February 20th 2011 and last updated: October 30th 2017