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Water management on Ventotene and Santo Stefano islands

Villa di Punta Eolo of Ventotene

Known as “Julia” after the name of its first exile, this Villa is dominated by a network of brick structures, clearly indicating that the original plan dates from the Augustus’ era. There is no doubt that this villa, due to its size and the quality of the building material, must have played a significant, if not key role in the history of the island for the entire 1st century of the empire.

The northern promontory, nowadays called Punta Eolo was then entirely covered by the large imperial villa, measuring ~350 m x 100 m. It is striking how hard the architects tried to adapt/fit their construction to the irregular shape of the ground. The villa’s imposing remains are still visible. It is composed of three parts: The southern part, between the cemetery and Cala Rossano, where the sea is not as deep today, was the  landing place for ships. This area had sectors strictly connected with the services/commodities of the villa, such as kitchens, cisterns, etc. At the starting point of the road that follows the shoreline there are caves connected to the ancient cistern of the Roman aqueduct  departing from the great cisterns of Carcerati.

The entire area is generally identified by the term domus. The second part of the villa (xystus) consists of two open areas, side by side, devoted to walking and horse riding, and the terraced steps. The third part, towards Punta Eolo, is identified by the imperial residence itself overlooking the sea. The existing remains allow us to imagine a succession of nymphaeums, pools and small rooms interconnected by steps and terraces. All rooms are enclaved between two spectacular descents to the sea. It is also the spot where the baths were located. Traces remain of a semicircular space, which is identified as a bathing pavilion, located, as directed by Vitruvius, on the western side of the villa.

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The Roman Cisterns of Ventotene

The greatest cisterns of Ventotene are those of Villa Stefania (or Grotta Iacono) found at the highest point of the island, and the Cistern of the convicts that is greater in size and closer to the massiveImperial Villa Julia on the Aeolus promontory. Both of these are visible today and under the supervision of archaeological institutions. Other smaller decantation & drainage cisterns are also found in Ventotene, two of which are situated towards the Aeolus Promontory and Villa Julia, and another one above the port, recently discovered under the Saint Candida churchyard.

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The Roman Harbour of Ventotene

In order to grant easy access to the emperor’s villa, Roman engineers had to address an unparalleled technical challenge. Ventotene indeed originally had only two natural landing places (Cala Nave and Cala Rossano), totally exposed to eastern and southern winds, while the rest of the island has high cliffs falling vertically to the sea that do not offer any shelter to ships. At the single place where the rocky coastline yields to a flat bank of compact tuff rocks, an ingenuous master–builder came up with the idea to create an artificial basin of 7,000 m2, 3m deep, completely cut into the rock. It has been calculated that 60,000 m3 of stone were removed, and a new harbor that could host small and medium–sized ancient merchantmen was created inside the ancient coastline. The external ring of rocks was preserved to provide a natural breakwater against the destructive force of the sea. This complex system of breakwaters, docks, warehouses, bollards, and underwater canals was so well designed in antiquity, that it survives almost intact to this day, and it is still used by modern sailors and fishermen. A marble head of a young emperor Tiberius, currently on exhibition at the local museum, represents a remarkable find from the harbor’s basin.

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The Roman Fishpond of Ventotene

Close to the entrance of the harbour, in front of the modern lighthouse, the remains of the Roman fishpond are carved into the rock. Built contemporaneously to the other maritime infrastructures on the island, the fishery is divided into three main pools. Two of them were covered with vaulted ceilings, now partially collapsed, and the third one lies in the open. The water level, in the 1st century AD, was ~1m lower than at present. The wharf used for walking around the pool was then above water and the tunnels were dry. To the right, the two rooms with partially collapsed ceilings are visible, to the centre is the main, open pool. The circular holes carved into the rock were used to sun-dry sea water in order to produce salt. The yellow floating balloons mark the spot where a Roman statue stood on the surface. A series of underwater canals, grids, and lock systems allowed for regular exchange of water with the sea, however preventing the fish from swimming back to the open sea. An aedicule is cut into the rock in the larger room, and it probably hosted a statue, maybe of Isis. It is inside one of these two rooms that the statue of the Roman magistrate was found in the spring of the year 2000.

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The Panopticon Style Jail of Santo Stefano

Since the shutdown of the prison in 1965 the island has remained uninhabited. However, it receives tourist boat cruises daily. Today, the crumbling remains of the prison remind us of the circles of Dante's Inferno. Although the prison was a place of grief and sorrow as described by many political detainees, for more than two and a half centuries of tits existence, there had been periods when hundreds of people, reaching over a thousand, lived and worked there (guards, prisoners).

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