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, since December 18th, 1934 they belong to the province of Latina (previously they made part of Naples province) 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 mainly composed 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, in the Middle Ages Maldiventre (belly ache), Bentilem and Betente, 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. The Neapolitan seventeenth-century chronicler Innocenzo Fuidoro (Vincenzo D'Onofrio) writes of two expeditions to Ventotene, ended with the capture of pirate boats, the seizure of Saracen as slaves, and the liberation of Christian slaves by the Neapolitans (1660) and by the Florentines (1664).
In 18th 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.
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 on the model of US penitentiaries 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 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 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.
In correspondence with the entrance the circular structure was interrupted by a rectangular building, with two towers facing outside and a terrace with two sentry-boxes inwards. On the upper floors of this building the surgeon, two doctors, the pharmacist, the nurses and the watchmen were hosted. On the ground floor the management, administration and matriculation offices, warehouses for clothing and food, and a tavern, run by a private citizen and also open to the inhabitants of Ventotene were placed.
The penitentiary was opened on September 26th 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.
by Luigi Settembrini
Besides the many political and common prisoners, in Santo Stefano also Luigi Settembrini (1813-1876) 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 island: "With difficulty you can make landfall there, and only on small boats, because it is full of rocks around it, and the narrow strait that separates it from Ventotene is always rough and loud. Its beaten by all the winds, which bring there on the same day the harshness, the cosiness and the heat of all seasons". Settembrini then describes the penitentiary: "Let us go inside this tomb where about eight hundred living men are buried: we will see pains that the world does not know and can never imagine: we will see men turned into beasts, who have fallen to the bottom of human abjection: and from this abyss of pain and crimes we will raise our eyes and our voice to God to console those who suffer, and advise those who make them suffer".
Settembrini continues: "Anyone approaching Santo Stefano from the sea sees the penitentiary towering on the top of the hill, which for its almost circular shape seems a gigantic wheel of cheese placed on the grass. The great outer wall, painted white and without windows, is evenly scattered with black specks, which are holes in the form of very narrow embrasures, allowing only the air to pass. To land on the island you have to jump down a slippery rock covered with seaweed. Beginning to ascend a steep and coarse lane, first of all you find a broad cave, in which the penitentiarys superintendent uses to store the supplies; then coming up you can see the hillside industriously cultivated."
And again: "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."
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 17th 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 Pollastro 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 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 19th 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 22nd 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 1st 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
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 2nd 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".
From 14th to 18th November, 1943 Santo Stefano was the scene of another uprising, caused above all by the fear of death by hunger and thirst, due to the situation of abandonment of the island after the armistice of 8th September.
Starting from July 1943 Santo Stefano and its guests found themselves in an even more precarious situation than usual, due to the interruption, at first partial, and then total, of the supplies, shared with Ventotene and its inhabitants and confined.
On July 23rd, 1943, an allied air squadron, made perhaps of four four-engined US planes, jettisoned medium-sized bombs into the sea, perhaps to get rid of the load left before landing after a mission, and one of the bombs fell on the prison, leaving one person injured.
On July 24th, 1943, a British twin-engine Beaufighter aircraft torpedoed and sank the steamship Santa Lucia, which connected Naples to the Pontine islands, including Santo Stefano, which was the only source of supply for the penitentiary, causing 65 casualties.
After September 8th armistice, the Allies freed the 49 political prisoners, but the 248 ordinary prisoners were left in the penitentiary, finding themselves abandoned by the rest of the world and lacking resources, guarded by only 39 jailers.
The food supplies had run out and for the water they could only rely on rain water, lacking any spring on the island. All the remaining farm animals were slaughtered, and the food rations were reduced, integrating them with weeds picked on the island, but even so the guests of Santo Stefano were on the brink of starvation.
The only escape route that was shown to the inmates was breaking out of penitentiary. Therefore the riot was not the result of a long preparation, but a desperate act not to die of hunger and thirst.
So on November 14th the riot broke out, triggered by six inmates, including Sante Pollastro and Giuseppe Mariani, who had not been freed by the allies because he was condemned for a common crime, the 1921 bombing of the Diana theater in Milan that caused the massacre of 21 people.
The rioters took the guards hostage, who were taken by surprise, and anyway reacted by killing one of the inmates, Giuseppe Ligregni. Later they took hostage also the jail director De Paolis and the civilians, among which the staffers' families. During the riot the administrative archive and the prison records were burned.
Not having boats to get massively away, a group of rioters reached Ventotene with some hostages, with the boat of a supplier, who had landed on Santo Stefano and was also took hostage. The intention was to negotiate the supply of a boat to sail to Santo Stefano and embark the rebels and take them elsewhere. Actually the island of Procida is clearly visible from Santo Stefano, and the Tyrrhenian coast of the peninsula is not far away.
In fact, in Ventotene the Carabinieri and then the British soldiers took control of the situation, arrested Mariani and sent him to Santo Stefano to communicate to the rebels the intimation of surrender, under penalty of the bombardment of the island. Despite strong resistance from Pollastro, in the end the prisoners surrendered, thanks also to the persuasion of Mariani.
Santo Stefano is abandoned since the closure of the prison in 1965. This led to a progressive degradation of buildings, due to the action of atmospheric agents and to acts of vandalism and pillaging of over fifty years, often caused by fools searching for souvenirs.
Given the enormous historical and architectural importance of the site, over the years several proposals for redevelopment and reuse have been promoted, as well as projects for tourist and hotel reconversion.
Luckily, these latter are currently unfeasible, because the island, including the prison, are restricted as a heritage and cultural asset and are part of a State Nature Reserve, and even mooring is forbidden on more than half of the coast line.
With the Decree of the Minister for Cultural and Environmental Heritage of May 14th, 1987, the complex of Ergastolo di Santo Stefano has been declared a particularly important asset, in accordance with the law of June 1st, 1939, no 1089 on the protection of artifacts of artistic and historical interest. With the Decree of the Ministry of the Environment May 11th, 1999 the nature reserve Ventotene and Santo Stefano Islands was established.
The complex of prison buildings is owned by the State, while the rest of the island is owned by a private citizen. A hurdle common to all types of projects is the lack of landing places, which makes it difficult for people to disembark, and the unloading of goods is almost impossible.
In September 2018, 70 million are frozen, allocated in 2016 by the government of the time, including European funds, for the transformation of the prison into a center for high-politics studies.
In September 2018 the island was opened to guided tours, conducted by Salvatore Schiano di Colella, a deep and passionate connoisseur of the site, but the visits ended on September 30th, and there is no indication that they could be resumed.
For any information on the possible reopening of the site, you can try to contact:
- the Museo Storico Archeologico di Ventotene (Ventotene Historical Archaeological Museum) phone: +39.0771.85345 (during opening hours, variable, to be verified).
- Ventotene municipality, at the following addresses:
Ordinary mail: Comune di Ventotene Piazza Castello, 1 - 04020 Ventotene (LT) - Italy
PEC (certified e-mail, only from Italy)::firstname.lastname@example.org
of Santo Stefano (September 28th, 2018)
You can use these photos, provided that you quote the source
- ALFASSIO GRIMALDI Ugoberto (1970) Il re "buono". Feltrinelli, Milano. Pag. 468-470.
- AMENDOLA Eva Paola (2006) Storia fotografica del Partito Comunista Italiano. Editori Riuniti, Roma.
- AJELLO Nello (2003) Il confino. Ecco le vacanze che offriva il duce. La Repubblica, 13 settembre 2003, pag. 39.
- BENTHAM Jeremy (1787) Panopticon, or the Inspection-house. http://cartome.org/panopticon2.htm
- DA PASSANO Mario - Il «delitto di Regina Cli» (http://www.dirittoestoria.it/4/in-Memoriam/Mario-Da-Passano-e-la-storia-del-diritto-moderno/Da-Passano-Delitto-Regina-Coeli.htm
- DAL PONT Adriano (1975) I lager di Mussolini. La Pietra, Milano.
- DAL PONT Adriano, LEONETTI Alfonso, MAIELLO Pasquale, ZOCCHI Lino (1962) Aula 4: tutti i processi del Tribunale speciale fascista. ANPPIA, Roma.
- FAGGI Vico (a cura di) (1970) Sandro Pertini: sei condanne due evasioni. Mondadori, Milano.
- FORBICINI Giovanni (1921) Abolite le carceri. E. Negri e C., Roma.
- FUIDORO Innocenzo (1934) Giornali di Napoli dal MDCLX al MDCLXV, vol I. A cura di Franco Schlitzer. Società Napoleana di Storia Patria, Napoli.
- GALZERANO Giuseppe (1988) Gaetano Bresci : la vita, l'attentato, il processo e la morte del regicida anarchico. Galzerano editore -Atti e memorie del popolo - Casalvelino Scalo (Salerno). Tel/fax: 0974.62028 web: http://galzeranoeditore.blogspot.it e-mail: email@example.com
- GHINI Celso, DAL PONT Adriano (1971) Antifascisti al confino 1926-1943. Editori Riuniti, Roma.
- GRAGLIA Piero S. () Il penitenziario di Santo Stefano e la rivolta del novembre 1943. Riflessioni e nuove acquisizioni. 75-86.
- LISA Athos (1973) Memorie. In carcere con Gramsci. Feltrinelli, Milano.
- LOMBARDO Mario (1974) in "Colloqui coi lettori" - Storia Illustrata n. 194 - January 1974, pag. 6.
- MARANGON Michele (2017) Ex carcere di Santo Stefano, Boschi e Franceschini inaugurano elisuperficie. Corriere della Sera, August 2nd, 2017. link
- MARIANI Giuseppe (1954) Nel mondo degli ergastoli, S.n., Torino.
- OSSICINI Adriano (1999) Un'isola sul Tevere. Editori Riuniti, Roma.
- PARENTE Antonio (1998) Architettura ed archeologia carceraria: Santo Stefano di Ventotene ed il "Panopticon" .Rassegna penitenziaria e criminologica, Roma., Numero 1, 3 : 43-137- link
- PARENTE Antonio (2008) Lergastolo in Santo Stefano di Ventotene. Architettura e pena. Ufficio Studi Dipartimento Amministrazione Penitenziaria Ministero della Giustizia, Roma. link
- PERTINI Sandro (1947) in "Atti dellAssemblea Costituente. Discussioni", IX, 19 novembre 1947, 2179-2180.
- PUGLIESE Amelia (s.a.) Viaggio nella casa di correzione penale di Santo Stefano. http://www.ventotenet.org/tourinfo/santostefano.htm e http://www.ecn.org/filiarmonici/santostefano.html.
- ROSSI, Ernesto (1981) Miserie e splendori del confino di polizia. Lettere da Ventotene 1939-1943, a cura di Manlio Magini e con introduzione di Riccardo Bauer, Feltrinelli, Milano.
- SETTEMBRINI Luigi (1964) Ricordanze della mia vita. Rizzoli editore; Milano. Liber Liber - Progetto Manuzio link
- SPEZZANO Francesco (1984) Voce "Pugliese, Rocco" in "Enciclopedia dellantifascismo e della Resistenza". La Pietra-Walk Over, Milano. IV: 813-814.
- SPRIANO Paolo (1969) Storia del Partito Comunista Italiano. Einaudi, Torino.
- TOURING CLUB ITALIANO (1964) Guida d'Italia - Lazio. Industrie Grafiche Italiane Stucchi, Milano.
- TRICOLI Giuseppe (1855) Monografia per le isole del gruppo ponziano. Stamperia vico S. Marcellino 4, Napoli.
Ministry of Justice, Italy, Criminal Museum in Rome http://www.museocriminologico.it/index.php/documenti2/2-non-categorizzato/76-gaetano-bresci ;
Terre Protette travel agency and tour operator, Rome, Italy http://www.terreprotette.it/tp2/106;
Sito www.ventotene.it http://www.ventotene.it/escursioni.aspx
The Ventotene Manifesto, http://www.altierospinelli.org/manifesto/it/manifestoit_it.html;
The article of Amelia Pugliese http://www.ecn.org/filiarmonici/santostefano.html
Text of "Ricordanze della mia vita" by L. Settembrini: http://www.intratext.com/IXT/ITA2618/_PU.HTM
Isola di Santo Stefano - I. Pontine (LT) - Ex carcere di "Stato" https://www.nauticareport.it/dettnews.php?idx=18&pg=4344
no more active or no more reachable (on November 21st, 2018):
Marcello Botarelli, photographer http://www.marcellobotarelli.it/santostefano/index.html
Le due città (The Two Cities), journal of the Jail Department, no. 5 year VIII May 2007 http://www.leduecitta.com/articolo.asp?idart=1971;
An article by Giuseppe De Filippis http://www.edificiabbandonati.com/Fotografie/Cartelle/C09-IsolaSSTefano/testo.htm;