Ventotene makes Ponza feel like a bustling metropolis. This is the island where nothing changes. Well, not very much, anyway. It has the distinct feeing of Italy of 40 0r 50 years ago, the Italy of Cinema Paradiso or Il Postino. The town square is full of children in the evening, playing with one another, not an electronic game in sight. Fathers play table football with all the competitive vigour of the real thing, if rather more humour. Mothers keep a watchful eye on both. Astrid Gilberto’s dreamy voice drifts on the evening air – ‘There’s no use to pretend/When you’ve come to the end/All that’s left is to say goodbye ‘. In the thickening dusk, even the colours of the two story buildings evoke the sweetness of the past, faded gold, crinkled cream, dusty pink, except for the big, raw yellow town hall with flags fluttering in front of it.
Ventotene is tiny, a speck, a dot in the ocean. It’s almost a surprise that almost 1000 people live here all the year round. You can walk from one end to the other in forty minutes, looking out at the patches where lentils, an island speciality, and other vegetables, are grown, the odd block of vines, a fruit tree or two, and scrub. Once the island had two usable beaches, but one has been closed after a rock fall killed two sunbathers. So there is just one, directly below the town. Bodies line the black, volcanic sand for the full sweep of the small bay, with further bodies draped over the tongues of volcanic rock away to the left. The same families have been coming here for generations. Is there a more convivial, social, sociable, communicative nation than the Italians? When two or three are gathered together, their conversation and laughter flutters like the fringes on their umbrellas under which they sit, lie or stand. It’s less vocal music, more like the rush and bubble of waves on the beach. They greet each other noisily. Children renew acquaintances, rebuild groups, re-engage ancient games. Teenagers compare cell phones, fashions, romances. You lie in the sun. You swim. You eat. You chat. You sleep. Life is reduced to innocent simplicity. The adventurous will go diving.
Contemporary tranquillity is misleading. Needless to say Roman emperors used Ventotene as a dumping ground for unwanted relatives. In 2 BC Augustus banished his daughter, Julia the Elder, to Ventotene for ‘excessive adultery’ as Wikipedia rather sniffily puts it. Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius all made use of Ventotene’s inaccessibility to deposit various other family members, almost invariably women, daughters, wives of political rivals suspected of plotting their overthrow, occasionally starving them to death as a more permanent form of elimination. Personally, I find telling the difference between Agrippina the Elder and Agrippina the Younger and Julia from Julia Livilla all rather confusing. The life of Roman emperors seems to have been ruled by fear of assassination, and the lives of their wives and daughters ruled by the suspicion that they were in on whatever plot was being fostered at any given moment. What a ghastly lot they were.
Rather more interesting was Flavia Domitilla, who managed to become both Christian saint and Jewish heroine. Not many people have done that.
Just over the water from Ventotene is an even smaller island, Santo Stefano, on which you can see the remains of a gigantic prison. This was built by the Bourbons, and was last put to effective use by Mussolino. He sent 700 political undesirables there, including several hundred Communists, one of whom, Altieri Spinelli, drafted what became known as the Ventotene Manifesto, in which he laid out the principles of a federal Europe as a means of protecting Europe from a Third World War. Manifesto was written on cigarette papers and smuggled out of the prison in the false bottom of a tin. Spinelli, who broke with the Communist when the extent of the Stalinist purges became known, became a vigorous and influential proponent of a federal Europe, seeing nationalism as being a potential threat to peace and stability. I wonder what he would have made of the current brouhah over Greece and the British Referendum to come.