Exile, Sweet Exile: Italy’s Stunning Prison Islands

You may say that it is a terrible misfortune to be banished, but I would argue that there are worse places where to be isolated.

A nice reward or a severe punishment? Ventotene

We’re roughly in 60 B.C. when Claudia Ottavia, stepsister and first wife of the cruel roman emperor Nero, is exiled to the island of Pandateria (modern Ventotene), on the false charge of adultery with Nero’s former tutor Anicetus. You may say that it is a terrible misfortune to be banished from Rome, but I would argue that there are worse places where to be isolated. This peaceful, little island off the Western coast of Italy, the tiniest of the Pontines, is indeed a black diamond in the sea. Black, because of its volcanic origins which explains its characteristic dark rocks and sand, diamond, we’ll see why.

It is difficult to describe the mystical atmosphere and the feeling of being in a place out of time that you can experience here, and it is hard to keep in mind that this island, which is now one of the most important scuba diving spot in Italy, in the past was a place of confinement. If you have a walk through its narrow alleys, you should know that near the lighthouse you can find the picturesque lounge café ‘Mascalzone village‘, where you can taste the irresistible fresh buffalo mozzarella or aubergine pies.

The village of Ventotene (Lazio)

A merciless locus amoenus: Ponza

Not far from Ventotene, another Pontine island is Ponza. Since the moment you approach the shore by ferry or hydrofoil, you can enjoy a wonderful sight of sheer tuff cliffs bleached by the light of the sun. When you arrive there, you will appreciate the unspoiled nature and the pristine blue water of the sea by that incredible spot. Unblemished by mass tourism and relatively off the beaten track, it preserves its aura of forgotten paradise and, maybe thanks to this fact, this island took a starring role in Wes Anderson’s movie ‘The life aquatic’.

Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that some political enemies of the past were jailed here, such as Mussolini, who stayed here for several weeks after he was arrested.

Island of Ponza (Lazio)

An unapproachable fortress: Montecristo

‘Mercedes, I must revenge myself, for I suffered fourteen years, fourteen years I wept, I cursed; now I tell you, Mercedes, I must revenge myself’ confessed Edmond Dantès to his beloved, showing all his hatred and desire for justice. The protagonist of the world-famous novel by Alexandre Dumas, ‘The Count of Montecristo’, was imprisoned in the Château d’If and, after he had managed to escape from prison, he discovered a pirate treasure on this island, bought himself the title of Count of Montecristo and began to take his vengeance. However, so many other legends surround this place and even today it is strictly off-limits to tourists: only a thousand visitors per year are allowed to go there and do some sightseeing.

It could be the perfect spot for anyone who wants to try a hermit’s life!

Jim Caviezel in a scene from the movie ‘Montecristo’, 2002

A virtuous example of social rehabilitation: Gorgona

Another instance of the curious paradox that forced isolation was often located in an unspoiled, beautiful place with lush landscapes and crystal-clear water all around is Gorgona. What distinguishes this island of the Tuscan Archipelago is that it is the only still active penal colony in Europe, where the inmates realize a small miracle while serving their sentences: they produce, with care and dedication, extra-virgin olive oil.

Prisoners are involved on a daily basis in agricultural activities and take care of farm animals, so that they will be prepared to community living and eventually to job search once they’ll be released. The refined wine produced here, from a vineyard of about 5 acres, is named ‘Gorgona‘ and it is a bland of Vermentino and Ansonica grapes, as well as the result of a social reintegration program that should inspire Europe as a whole.

Sunset on Gorgona Island (Tuscany)

A rich mosaic

Here, we made only few examples of the great variety of Italian islands which hosted prisons and ancient fortresses. Nonetheless, we could also mention other wild gems hidden in the Mediterranean, away from other overcrowded and showy islands. We’re talking about Favignana (Sicily), Pianosa (Tuscany) and Asinara (Sardinia). The undeniable allure of these spots is due to this wonderful contradiction: the more difficult they were to escape from in the past, the harder they are to reach now.