The Italian government is renovating a disused 18th-century prison on the remote island of Santo Stefano as part of a large-scale initiative that will include the making of a new museum. The initiative is being named for David Sassoli, the Italian Democrat who formerly served as president of the European Parliament. Sassoli died earlier this month at the age of 65 due to complications from pneumonia.
The Italian state is spending €70 million ($86 million) to rehabilitate structural remains at Santo Stefano and neighboring coastal sites. At the former, the government is building an open-air museum that will illustrate the site’s dark past, along with gardens and conference rooms that will used for seminars and events focused on cultural and political themes.
Silvia Costa and Dario Franceschini, Italy’s commissioner and cultural minister, respectively, are overseeing the project. In a statement, Costa said that as part of the Ventotene-Santo Stefano Project, a “‘School of High Thoughts, that welcomes all the best training experiences on human rights, the dignity of the person, [and] justice” would be established. Additionally, the remote site will offer a small number of artist residencies, where creatives could draw “a source of inspiration,” Costa said in a statement to the Art Newspaper.
Built by Naples’s King Ferdinand IV and erected in 1789, the prison is a panopticon, with a Colosseum-like structure that allows for constant surveillance of prisoners held in cells lining the building’s interior walls. During World War II, the Italian government exiled anti-fascist dissidents to Santo Stefano and its neighboring island of Ventotene, where Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi wrote a manifesto calling for a socialist federation of Europe that became the founding literature of the European Union. The Santo Stefano prison remained open until 1965.
Franceschini said the rehabilitation project is urgent as the country and its European neighbors emerge from the pandemic crisis. “There the new Europe was conceived and here the Europe of the future,” the culture minister said in a statement in December 2020, adding that the government aims for the new site to become “a hotbed of thoughts and cultural attraction.”
In keeping with moves to mine the site for its historical capital, the ministry announced plans in May to rehabilitate the Santo Stefano archive, a collection of documents made up of correspondence and administrative files between prisoners dating from 1860 to 1965. The materials will be digitized and eventually made publicly accessible. “These are documents of great importance, whose protection and future use by scholars and the public are fundamental objectives for the study and memory of the struggles for freedom of the last century,” said Anna Maria Buzzi, Italy’s director general of archives, in a statement.