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VENTOTENE, "SLOW" ISLAND OF BLISSFUL EXILE
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Since Roman times, exiles have lived out their last days on the tiny Mediterranean island of Ventotene, a slice of paradiso south of Rome and north of Naples. When I am on Ventotene, I often wonder if those exiled to Ventotene over the centuries were somehow able to find comfort in the blissful peace and natural beauty of Ventotene? Today, the island receives another sort of "exile": anyone seeking detachment from today's pace, those wishing to move out of the fast lane into the "slow" lane, for Ventotene may be just a two-hour ferry ride from Formia, coastal town south of Rome, but the island seems worlds away. My Roman friend, Silvana, and I have willingly become Ventotene "exiles" for the last four years.
Augustus Caesar confined his libertine daughter Giulia on the island and the Roman emperor Tiberius later exiled Giulia's daughter, Agrippina, to the island for having instigated a revolt against him. The island (called by the Romans "Pandataria") soon became the coveted site for many an emperor's luxurious summer villa but vacationing Roman rulers must have relaxed in luxury near many a miserable exile, confined to one of the island's many grottoes carved into the volcanic rock. Nero exiled to the island his first wife Ottavia in order to marry Poppea and later Domitilla, grand-daughter of Vespasion, was confined here by the Emperor Domitian for refusing to renounce Christianity. In the following years, countless Christians "self-exiled" on the island, fleeing religious persecution (until Constantine's Edict of Milan in 313 AD finally conceded religious freedom to the Romans). Centuries later, the Bourbon French kings ruling Naples exiled criminals and prostitutes here, providing them with tools to work the land, convinced that contact with Nature would lead to "moral recuperation" (!). As lovely as the island is, the eighteenth century experiment failed. At the end of the 18th century, the Bourbon rulers also encouraged - with monetary assistance - many families from Naples, Ischia and the Amalfi coast to move to the island to colonize it after a violent Mount Vesuvius eruption left so many homeless. The pastel-colored one-level homes, side by side and lining the few island streets, reflect the 18th century Bourbon architecture. The twentieth century brought political exiles to Ventotene: the confinati or those exiled by the Fascists from the 1920's on for their oppoistion to the regime. Here on Ventotene, three confinati secretly wrote (1940 - 1941) Il Manifesto di Ventotene, the important document of social reform which first launched the idea of a united Europe and which would become reality some 70 years later.
and fishing nets
at the port
When the ferry from Formia slides into the Ventotene harbor, Porto Romano, I always feel a sense of total lassitude, anticipating the "exile" on the island. The Romans must have found this inlet a secure, protected place for the docking of their ships. Now sailboats rock gently at anchor and cafés, a pizzeria (selling the wonderful escarole focaccia typical of the area), a farm stand with fresh produce and the diving school meeting point line the harbor promenade. Vans from the few island hotels meet their guests arriving by ferry but most vacationers walk from the ferry up to the town - up the ramps constructed in a switchback grid, lined by the pastel houses typical of the Bourbon French architecture of the 18th century.
During past island sojourns, Silvana and I have stayed in small hotels or rented rooms in private homes. This year, we rented a small apartment not far from the town center, though to call the two inter-connecting village piazzas a "town center" is an exaggeration. Ventotene is only 2.8 kilometers long and 700 meters wide with a population of a few hundred people from fall-to-spring, though the summer population mushrooms to perhaps four thousand. Mostly Romans vacation on Ventotene, with some other Italians from various parts of the country. The rest of the world seems not yet to have discovered this small Mediterranean slice of "paradiso": during our week there this year, I did meet one British family, one Swedish family and a couple of New Yorkers, descendants of Ventotene emigrants, back for the summer months, and lucky owners of homes on the island.
Upon arrival with the afternoon ferry, we headed to our rented apartment just outside the villlage in the countryside - and right next door to owner Signora Antonietta's home. Our rental apartment was humble but clean and functional - and the price was right!- and just minutes' walk from the town center and the sea. Signora Antonietta welcomed us with her own creamy version of limoncello and we slowly sipped her lemon liquer while chatting with Signora Antonietta and her neighbor, Candida, who lives right above our apartment. Antonietta was born and raised in Formia but Candida was born on the island and so speaks the typical Ventotene dialect, reminiscent of napoletano: after all, most of the Ventotenesi descend from the Neapolitan criminals exiled to Ventotene by the reigning Bourbon kings or from those seeking a new life after the 18th-century Mount Vesuvius eruption. As the island has always offered very little - except fishing and agriculture on small plots of land - Candida's father had emigrated to America and all his daughters eventually followed. Only Candida remained behind: a local boy, Riccardo had won her heart and begged her not to leave the island.
from the garden
As Candida told us their story, Riccardo left his gardening to join us. He had worked on the US Naval base near Naples for some years and entertained us with American colloquial expressions until dinnertime. We walked into the village for dinner at the outdoor tables of Caf/Ristorante Verde on PIazza Castello, one of the two piazzas of the island.
Across the piazza from Ristorante Verde is the Castello itself, symbol of civic power and built in the mid-18th century by Bourbon ruler Ferdinand IV who made Ventotene a fortified outpost for control of the seas north of Naples, the capital of his Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The Castello now houses City Hall and a fascinating archaeological museum displaying the Roman and pre-Roman vestiges of the island's history. This summer, a headless Roman figure in toga (perhaps one of the island's vacationing emperors?) of probably the first century A. D. lies in a pool of fresh water just outside the museum. The water is recycled every 4 hours in the hopes that the encrustation coating the statue, immersed for centuries in the island harbor, will be loosened. The statue will be carefully restored by experts from Rome and the marble sculpture will eventually enter the Museum. Children kicked a soccer ball around the pool which holds the statue as I talked with the museum guard about the island's newest treasure. The children seemed non-plussed by the statue and their only concern was in avoiding the launch of a soccer ball into the pool and onto the statue!
Bishop and "angels"
greet the Madonna
The only other piazza on the island, Piazza della Chiesa, is dominated by the other important island building, the Church of Santa Candida, once seat of religious power and dedicated to the island's patron saint. A much-venerated statue of the Madonna of Fatima arrived on the island the day we arrived. That evening, the local populace, all dressed for "festa", carried the Madonna in solemn procession from the boat which had brought her to the island up to the Church of Santa Candida where the Bishop awaited her. Carabinieri in uniform flanked the waiting Bishop (no separation of Church and State in Italy!) who was assisted by two truly "angelic" young girls dressed as angels. The festivities concluded in jubilation as the crowd launched a hot air balloon and shot off fireworks in celebration. La Madonna di Fatima statue was to stay on the island for a week or two and whenever I dropped into the church during our week there, at least one person was in prayer in the church, keeping her company.
The Church, denoting religious power, thus dominates one of the island's piazzas and the Castello, evoking civic power, dominates the other piazza. Two power poles once in conflict, but no longer. The two piazzas now simply form the "living room" of the island, animated in the evening by conversations at the outdoor restaurant tables, the elderly discussing life on the island, past and present, as they sit on the benches under the palms, acacias and oleanders bordering the piazza and the chatter of the children, pedaling tricycles and bicycles and kicking soccer balls around the monument in the center dedicated to the islanders who died in World War I.
The lively evening life of Piazza Castello is one of the attractions of Ristorante Verde and we were glad to see the Verde family again and meet their new staff. During our past visits, three Verde brothers had worked in the restaurant, two waiting on tables or working the coffee bar and one, Silvestro, cooking in the back. Silvestro still cooks but the other brothers have retired. Verdes rule on Ventotene: Silvestro's son Giuseppe has started the only Internet caf on the island and he and his staff serve refreshing drinks and antipastos in the caf courtyard for those taking a break from computer tasks.
at the burners
As southern Italian tradition dictates, Giuseppe is named after his grandfather, Giuseppe Verde, who opened Ristorante Verde in 1978 with his wife Carmela - in what was a house sitting on Piazza Castello, facing the Castello. "Nonno" Giuseppe is still ever-present at the restaurant, helping out at the coffee bar, though his pace slows as the years pass. Our first dinner this visit was also a happy reminder that we don't eat regularly at Ristorante Verde just for the location: we started our meal with Silvestro's homemade ravioli stuffed with shrimp and topped with asparagus. Dinners and lunches at Ristorante Verde are long affairs. Deliberately. Island life rolls by in the piazza in front of us in the evenings. If we eat lunch, we'll linger over espresso at our outdoor table under the arbor while the hottest part of the day passes, chatting and reading our books or the newspaper (which arrives at the newsstand every morning at 10 a.m. when the ferry comes in).
In the late afternoon, we might browse in the bookstore next door and I like to drop in at the nearby forno (bakery) to buy the island's typical tarallo cookies. I suspect, though, that the tarallo purchase is just an excuse for a chat with the baker/owner Antonio Aiello whose father started baking bread for the islanders in 1953 and who happily shares his memories mixed with legends, anecdotes of the islanders and even stories of miracoli. But I haven't yet been able to coax from Signor Antonio the recipe for his Nonna Teresa's farmous almond cake.
Boats ready for
hire for outing to
Silvana and I head back to the sea as the afternoon cools down for long swims with masks and snorkels around the rocky outcrops, pushed up out of the sea during the volcanic eruptions which gave birth to the island ages ago. Our favorite spot is on the rocky promontory just beneath the lighthouse, not far from the ruins of the 1st century A.D pescheria (fish hatchery) a gem of Roman engineering carved into the volcanic tufo rock which guaranteed the Roman emperors fresh fish daily. From here, before diving into the limpid water, one can look across the sea at the island of Santo Stefano, where the 18th century Bourbon rulers built a "model" prison, based on justice and humane treatment of prisoners. Only recently has the last prison guard retired (the prison closed in ) and during a past visit, we had taken a boat over to the island for a fascinating tour of the structure with Gennaro, the last guard - and evidently proud of this "model" prison.
Augustus Caesar's fish
hatchery and view
of Santo Stefano Boat rides to Santo Stefano attract the visitors as do the boat rides around the island in small fishing boats for hire with stops to swim and snorkel in aquamarine water.The Museo Archaeologico organizes guided evening walks a few nights a week to the ruins of the 1st-century AD Villa Giulia, perched on the promontory of Punto Eolo reaching out over the sea. We've also taken the Museo's fascinating guided tour of the Roman acqueduct and cisterns, which have been used continuouly over the years: by monks in the sixth century (traces of their frescoes remain) and probably by the Bourbon prisoners in the eighteenth century. Some of the cistern frescoes remain a mystery and their significances have never been fully interpreted, "wrapped in a mysterious aura", our guide had said. The aura of Ventotene itself is in many ways not easy to put into words. One has to choose self-exile there to experience it.