The Sirens of Ventotene

by | 14 Jul 2022

Once a site of internal exile, the island of Ventotene on Italy’s West coast now hosts the Festival Gita Al Faro. Authors invited are asked to produce a short text for the festival. This essay was first presented by the author Chiara Tagliaferri as part of the 2022 festival. It has been translated by William Wall.

Imagining a prison is easy, we all have in mind what a cell looks like: bars on the window, a couple of cots (usually bunk beds), a small desk, a sink, a few posters hanging on the walls (in films, at least, that’s what it looks like!). It is more difficult to imagine how an entire island could be turned into a prison, yet Ventotene was born, precisely, to be a luxury prison for women, daughters or wives of emperors, who simply had to be made to disappear. For millennia women have been invisible, and when they tried to take space – if not power – by attempting to reshape a destiny written by men, it happened that those same men got rid of them.

The first guest on the island began her sentence in 2 BC. when Ventotene was still called Pandataria and was made of wind, salt and sea. There was nothing else. Giulia was born on the same day that her father, Emperor Augustus, divorced his second wife Scribonia – the child’s mother – to remarry. According to Roman law, Augustus had full power over his daughter, and exercised it to transform this beautiful and cultured creature into his most precious weapon: the spoils of war with which to seal alliances. Over the years, the political accords of Augustus were cemented thanks to the three marriages of his daughter with half-brothers, generals and friends. Throughout her life Giulia was forced to be with those she did not love, secretly loving what she was not allowed to desire.

When, eventually, she was arrested for adultery and treason, Augustus dumped this daughter, by now no more than rotten flesh to him and unsaleable, setting her up in exile on Ventotene, in a large villa he was planning as a temple of leisure and recreation. While he was about it, he sentenced her mother Scribonia to the same fate, solving two problems in one fell swoop: for the next five years no visits (especially men), not a drop of wine, ‘every delicacy of life’ banned for the gilded prisoners of the villa of Punta Eolo.

While the island was populated with peasants, servants and soldiers and cisterns were built for the collection of rainwater and fish ponds cut into the tuffa rocks, the two women –  with their eyes full of all that space of irrepressible light –  ate birds of prey. Their loneliness, hating that wind that dried the veins and never carried anyone to them. On balance, Giulia was the one that fared better: at least she would not die there; she would die, instead, on the mainland, and permission to return there would be granted only to end badly, while a decidedly more unfortunate fate would befall one of her daughters, Agrippina Major, also a guest of this open-air prison. The year of her death was 29 AD, and she died at the behest of the emperor Tiberius. Wife of the general Germanicus –  at that moment on a mission for Tiberius – Agrippina was guilty of only one fault: having saved the Roman army from a sensational defeat. When she saw that things were going badly, Agrippina decided to give up the hearth to go into battle in the place of her husband and, as commander of the legions, she won an epic victory.

This was not taken very well by Tiberius, because if a woman behaved as a man would do, then there could no longer be any authority left to the commanders, so for Agrippina hell opened up: her husband was poisoned, she herself was accused of ‘arrogance’ and one of her children was accused of ‘homosexuality’. The punishment for both: exile in Ventotene, in that villa overlooking the sea where you are sent to rot in mind and body and where the present became eternal. It meant that she was dead. But Agrippina did not want to stay in the stillness of days staring at the thistle-flowers –  the only thing that bloomed around her –  and their seeds crushed in the mortar were not useful for healing the wounds that Tiberius had destined for her, so she fired off letters to the emperor that spit gall, receiving, by way of response, a whipping from a centurion and the loss of an eye. Often, when we don’t find a way out, we think that our only chance is to hasten the end, so Agrippina and her son, after four years, let their legs and arms become wicker sticks, starving themselves to death.

But the laurel for atrocity must go without any doubt to Nero, who first confined his ex-wife Octavia in the usual villa with its narcotic heat, inventing betrayals that she, moreover, had not even contemplated, just to be able to marry Poppea without too many complications. Then, since the latter was not sufficiently satisfied with this exile, he ordered that Octavia’s veins be opened and her head sent to Rome as a wedding gift for Poppea. 

I could go on intertwining the names and misfortunes of other mothers, daughters or wives swept away by deliberate cruelty, therefore unforgivable, but the gist remains the same: Ventotene was not a good place for women in Roman times. Yet, this island born to make us invisible, became famous thanks to a woman with dark eyes. We have to quickly traverse almost two millennia of history to get to the years of fascism, when Ventotene returns to being a prison, becoming an island of ‘confinati’ – people confined in internal exile.

Many people who objected to the fascist regime, people like Sandro Pertini, Eugenio Colorni, Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi were sent into internal exile here. And it was Spinelli and Rossi who wrote, on the island, one of the founding texts of the European Union the historic ‘Ventotene Manifesto’.* But the person to bring that Manifesto first to Italy, and then to Europe, would be the dark-eyed woman married to Colorni: Ursula Hirschmann.** When Colorni was sent to Ventotene in 1939, Ursula followed him and not being subject to restrictive measures like her husband, she could come and go often to the mainland.

For two years, on each of her journeys – sewn into her clothes and hidden under the false bottom of her suitcase – Ursula carried with her cigarette papers where, in tiny handwriting, the text of the Manifesto was written in pencil. Together with Gigliola and Fiorella – Altiero Spinelli’s sisters – and with Ada, wife of Ernesto Rossi, she had it printed it and distributed. Love for Colorni would be transformed, but not the desire to fight fascism and change Europe, which she and her companions would do very well.

Legend has it that Ventotene is the island of the sirens. It is here that Ulysses gritted his teeth and ignored their song to continue his journey, remembering that it was to Penelope that he wanted to return. The mermaids enchant and capture, their destiny is to imprison men, to lure them where they themselves are imprisoned.

Ursula, Gigliola, Fiorella and Ada with their voice and their courage redeemed those distant headless sisters, forgotten among the thistle flowers, then they freed the men they loved and finally all of Europe as well. We have need of such sirens.

* The text of the ‘Ventotene Manifesto’ may be read here. (PDF document)

** Ursula Hirschmann came from a remarkable family of Jewish origin. She herself was an active anti-fascist within Germany, eventually fleeing to Paris where she met another clandestine anti-fascist, Eugenio Colorni whom she would eventually marry. As recounted here she followed him to Ventotene where she became the courier of writings and news from the ‘confinati’. When Colorni was murdered by fascists she married the communist Altiero Spinelli, regarded as one of the founding fathers of the EU. Her brother Alberto, who fought against Franco in Spain and assisted refugees to escape France, would later win the Nobel Prize for Economics.

3 Comments

  1. Albert O. Hirschman actually never won the Nobel Prize for Economics. Maybe the text should rather say: He should have…

    Reply
    • Thanks for letting me know Julia. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say ‘he should have won it’, given that I know absolutely nothing about economics. I can’t now remember where I got the information. I think I’ll let your comment stand as a correction.

      Reply
    • Thanks for letting me know Julia. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say ‘he should have won it’, given that I know absolutely nothing about economics. I think I’ll let your comment stand as a correction.

      Reply

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