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Ventotene, a Sunny Island with a Dark Past

Updated: Jan 10, 2021

During Italy’s summer of Covid denial, I took a quick trip to the island of Ventotene as part of a wine-tasting weekend dedicated to the wines of the Pontine. Called “the Pearls of the Tyrrhenian Sea,” the Pontine are a chain of volcanic islands off the coast between Rome and Naples. Made up of Ponza, Ventotene, Santo Stefano, Palmarola, Zannone, and the tiny Gavi, these small islands boast Martian red and yellow cliffs, purple-blue grottos, Flintstone-like rock formations, and pellucid waters brimming with sea life.

Unlike fashionable Ischia and Capri, the minikin Pontine islands are low-key and frequented primarily by Italians. Five of the seven islands in this archipelago are uninhabited and are mainly nature reserves, with spectacular ragged coastlines and underwater landscapes that include not only marine life but seabeds with remnants of ancient Roman ships and sunken World War II steamships. Ponza and Ventotene have rich histories, and though Ponza is slightly more touristic and a haven for the sail boating classes, they both are informal and unaffected. On both islands you’ll find a charming port, bright pastel-colored buildings, tiny winding streets buzzing with cafes and restaurants, and spectacular views from the windswept bluffs.

This was my third time visiting Ventotene, but despite my isolmania and the island’s sunny warmth and blue-green seas, I have always felt inexplicably uncomfortable there. I chalked it up to the proximity of Santo Stefano, the nearby island that functioned as a prison for centuries. From the inhabited side of Ventotene, Santo Stefano looms ominously on the horizon with its huge panopticon prison always in sight like a gaping wound. The prison was built by the Bourbons in 1795 and was in use until 1965.

The View of Santo Stefano and its prison

Originally designed for 600 prisoners, in 1817 as many as 800 were immured in its 99 tiny cells, all facing a central watchtower. Over the years, it held criminals, assassins, political prisoners, and mafiosi. Mussolini made great use of Santo Stefano, imprisoning many of his political enemies, including the future President of Italy Sandro Pertini from 1935-1943. It is a grim place, somehow made more sinister by the island’s beauty.

Where the rocky shore meets the sea, Santo Stefano also has a Roman marvel--la vasca di Giulia--which is essentially an ancient Roman jacuzzi. Carved out of the dark volcanic rock, the circular pool has a bench all the way round so a visitor can sit and enjoy the waves rushing in and out in clockwise and then counterclockwise motion. Tourists can no longer sit in the vasca di Giulia (you can only see it by boat now), but during my first to Ventotene it was still possible, and it was a magical experience.

La Vasca di Giulia

However, Giulia leads me back to why I feel a haunting sense of dread on Ventotene, which was also a prison of sorts. The emperor Augustus exiled his only daughter, Giulia, there in 2BC, after using her as political pawn in several marriages meant to shore up his imperial dynasty. On Ventotene, the ruins of the vast Villa Giulia score the cliffs that face the Italian mainland, and though the palace was enormous and luxurious it was a prison nonetheless, one which would incarcerate several generations of clever, unruly Roman women.

Giulia the Elder, Augustus’s only biological child and born of his first marriage, was by all accounts clever and beautiful. Livia, Augustus’s second wife hated her. After two forced marriages, beginning at the age of 14 and including her cousin and then Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’s old friend, she was finally married off to Livia’s son from another marriage, Tiberius. It was not a happy marriage. He didn’t want to marry her, and she was lascivious and lively—and ultimately inconvenient for both father and husband—so she was arrested and exiled to Ventotene (then called Pandataria). There she was followed by guards wherever she went, was not allowed to wear silk or perfume, drink wine, or have visitors. When Tiberius became Emperor, he cut off her allowance, and she died of malnutrition on a different island in 14 AD.

Eventually, Giulia’s daughter arrived on the same shores for similar reasons. Agrippina Major was the daughter of Giulia and Marcus Agrippa. Her husband was probably poisoned on Tiberius’s orders, and she was not shy about blaming him and his mother, Livia. Faced with another unruly, inconvenient woman, Tiberius accused her of promiscuity, like her mother, and shipped her off to Ventotene, where the isolation drove her insane. After three years of exile, she died of starvation.

As if this weren’t enough, Agrippina’s son Nero sentenced his first wife Octavia to exile on Ventotene on charges of adultery. Bright and aristocratic, Octavia (named for her great-grandmother, Augustus’s sister) was the daughter of Emperor Claudius and never much loved by Nero. He wanted to marry Poppea, and when she became pregnant, Nero divorced Octavia and banished her to Ventotene. This proved wildly unpopular with the Roman people, and afraid of revolt, Nero ordered her death.

The caldarium where Octavia was murdered

Among the ruins of the Villa Giulia, you can still see the beautiful mosaic bath where Octavia (at the age of only 22) was killed, bound with her wrists slashed and suffocated in the caldarium, deliberately made too hot by the fires from below, stoked by slaves. Her head was cut off and sent back to Rome.

Poppea Brings the Head of Octavia to Nero by G.Muzzioli (1876)

From the gusty heights of the ruins of Villa Giulia, I watched the fiery sunset bleed out its colors into sea and sky, and I understood why I felt haunted and depressed. Throughout my life, I have often been called unruly, so the tragic stories of these women--and all the others down through history who proved inconvenient to men--resonate with me. I didn’t feel inspired by history on Ventotene but depressed by it.

Luckily, we had a wine tasting and dinner to distract my thoughts. But back at the hotel, the red, gold, and rosé colors of the wine brought back thoughts of Octavia, bleeding to death in that beautiful bath. Brutality and beauty are always linked. Pristine white marble and obscure ruins trick us into thinking otherwise, but history is always stained with blood. My dining companions reminded me that Homer wrote of the powerful women who also haunted these sacred islands. Legend has it that it was on Ponza that Circe lured Ulysses into captivity and that it was among these islands that the sirens enticed sailors to their death. I had always thought that Circe lived on Paxos, and the sirens of Scylla and Charybdis were in the straights of Messina. I have been to both places, and they felt light and warm, suffused with myth and less encumbered by history.

Nevertheless, the fishermen of Ventotene still claim to hear the sirens singing at night, affirming the power of myth to inspire. Beauty and brutality are the twin pillars of human endeavor. Myth, literature, and art can make beautiful order out of this chaotic dance, but they can’t fully explain it.

That’s why we have wine.


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