#80 - A theatre in reverse

#80 - A theatre in reverse

On an uninhabited islet in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea, stands a solitary, circular building. It looks like a ready-made film set. But in reality, it is a prison. Abandoned for countless years, it serves as a (somewhat crumbling) warning about freedom and human rights...

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On our wanderings among the islands of my holidays, today we are stopping by the Pontine archipelago.

We disembark at Santo Stefano. There are no ports or ferries in sight, no hotels or restaurants, no villages or beaches. Santo Stefano is an island ruled by the wilderness, and you can only get there by private boat. 

So, what are we doing here? – you must be thinking. With splendid views of wild – uncivilised, even – nature, Santo Stefano is a towering rock on which Ferdinand of House Bourbon (first king of the Two Sicilies) wanted to imprison criminals of the worst kind in the late 18th century. Help! That Bourbon prison still stands there today, albeit in a rather sorry state.

WOW, a prison?! Are you seriously telling me that in a blog about shoes, we’re going to talk about jail, about criminals? Yes, it’s worth it, honest! 

When it was first designed, that prison was revolutionary. The architectural structure, in fact, is inspired by the San Carlo Theatre in Naples, also built under Bourbon rule.

Around a central courtyard designed like a stage (though with prison guards instead of actors!) runs a horseshoe-shaped building (with cells instead of stalls) with small doors that suck in the life around them like black holes. 

That’s right: the roles are very much reversed here when compared to the theatre. It is not the stalls that observe the stage, but rather the stage that observes the cells.

And that was precisely the purpose of such a stunning set design: to allow one person – one guard – to keep an eye on all the cells at once, simply from that “stage”. At the same time, prisoners were denied any view except of the courtyard and their prison officers... 

This Bourbon Prison is currently undergoing restoration to turn it into a museum complex focusing on the environment, human rights and the evolution of the prison system. The former management offices will become a guesthouse with 24 beds while the laundry rooms will house a hostel. It is scheduled to open in 2026.

So, let’s say we have a good four years to organise a visit. As for me, I would definitely go back.

When I discovered Santo Stefano during a boating holiday, I was struck by the contrast between nature and construction, between boundless freedom and denied freedom. I found it to be as beautiful a place as it was shocking.

Hugs – and here’s to freedom! ❤️
Marco 


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