PEOPLE / CULTURE
As its small size and proximity to Rome and Naples made the island easy to control, Ventotene became from the time of Augustus an exclusive place of exile for some of the most prominent members of the Roman aristocracy. According to the Latin writers Svetlonio and Tacito, Augustus’ daughter Julia was the first member of the Imperial family confined to Ventotene in year 2 BC, because she had broken the moral rules of Lex Iulia. She spent several years there with her mother, Scribonia.
In 29AD Agrippina Maior, daughter of Julia and Agrippa, was also banished to Ventotene, followed a few years later by one of Caligula’s sisters, Livilla, by Ottavia, Nero’s former wife (62AD), and eventually by Flavia Domitilla (95AD), the last recorded member of the Roman élite to be secluded in Ventotene.
The Julian marriage laws
In 18 BC, Emperor Augustus attended to the crucial social problems of Rome where extravagance and adultery were widespread. Among the upper class, marriage was becoming less and less frequent and, many couples who did marry failed to produce offspring. Augustus, who hoped thereby to elevate both the morals and the numbers of the upper class, and also to increase the population of native Italians in Italy, enacted laws to encourage marriage and having children (lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus), including provisions establishing adultery as a crime. Offence against this law was punished with exile and confiscation of property. Fathers were permitted to kill daughters and their partners in adultery. Husbands could kill their wives under certain circumstances and were required to divorce them upon adultery. Augustus himself was obliged to invoke the law against his own daughter, Julia, and relegated her to Ventotene (at that time named Pandateria).
The Augustan social laws were badly received and were modified in 9 AD by the lex Papia Poppaea, named for the two bachelor consuls of that year. The earlier and later laws are often referred to in juristic sources as the lex Julia et Papia. In part as a result of Christian opposition to such policies, these laws were eventually repealed or fell into disuse under Constantine and later emperors, including Justinian. Only the prohibitions against intermarriage, as that between senators and actresses, remained. The juristic sources are today a good source for the actual provisions of the laws.
The jail is of a horseshoe shape without any windows facing the sea; from each cell nothing else is visible except for the jail itself. The prisoners, in fact, were always conscious of the constant control of the jailers.
Following the construction of the prison on the island in 1795 by the Bourbon King Ferdinand IV, the first man to be imprisoned was the architect who had designed it, Francesco Carpi, as a result of political deviation. When King Francis II recalled all the soldiers stationed on the island back to the mainland during the political upheavals of 1860, the 800 life prisoners that were abandoned on the island established a temporary system of government by electing a committee to rule the island community. On the return of the Italian troops, all prisoners returned docilely to their cells.
The prison had been built for life convicts but has always also been used for political prisoners especially after social uprisings and during the dictatorship. People imprisoned here include one of the fathers of the European Union Altiero Spinelli, the anarchist Gaetano Bresci, during the Fascist regime, the future President of Italy Sandro Pertini, Umberto Terracini, Giorgio Amendola, Lelio Basso, Mauro Scoccimarro, Giuseppe Romita, and Ernesto Rossi.
After the Second World War, thanks to an open minded warden, the jail became a centre of agricultural production and small-scale manufacturing that made the Santo Stefano imprisoned community more important than Ventotene itself. The story of the last years of the jail’s operation (shut down in 1965) was the subject of a film “Santo Stefano” presented in 1997 at the Venice Film Festival.
“Santo Stefano”, summary of the film: Much like Alcatraz, Santo Stefano is a fortress-like Mediterranean penitentiary, which was shut down by the Italian government in the mid ’60s. The prison provided the setting for the directorial debut of screenwriter Angelo Pasquini. Antonio (Andrea De Rosa), the pre-teen son of prison director Bruno D’Assisi (Claudio Bigagli), attends the prison school although his mother (Laura Morante) stays on the mainland. Antonio becomes friends with Nicola (Claudio Amendola), an inmate who has the trust of prison director D’Assisi.
Campaigning in the Church and the press for prison reform, D’Assisi attempts to upgrade the atmosphere in the prison by creating a sense of community and trust. However, escalating right-wing reactions build into a backlash against his methods. After a mainland visit, D’Assisi finds out that the evil Ardito (Antonio Petrocelli) and a brutal bunch of guards have replaced his more trusted guards. The character of D’Assisi is loosely based on the humane activities of the director who headed the prison between 1952 and 1960.