At dawn I take a cup of coffee out to the terrace. On clear days I can see the mainland’s mountains off to my right, and then directly ahead on the west horizon is Ventotene, the “prison island.” This is where wanton and wicked Julia, daughter of Emperor Augustus, was exiled in the first century AD. Other equally wicked women followed. Vipsania Agrippina, Tiberius' step-daughter. Ottavia, Nero's sterile twenty-year-old wife.
In the 18th Century Ferdinand IV of Naples experimented with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s theory that if criminals are placed in unspoiled surroundings they will redeem themselves. Not too long after the criminals arrived, they set up a brothel. Noting the unchecked crime, riots and intrigues, the Bishop of Gaeta convinced Ferdinand to put an end to it.
Last week in one of our IM exchanges, I told Vittoria that I have become very attached to this place and its rich history. Ventotene is just one of many examples. And it’s right here in my front yard, so to speak.
“I know the island very well,” she said.
“You’ve never mentioned it before,” I said. “How come?”
“Because it’s a family secret.”
I laughed. “Oh, so some of your ancestors were exiled there for bad behavior? I don’t doubt it.”
“No, nothing like that.”
“Well, then, what’s the secret?”
“You think this is a joke, don’t you?”
I paused. The sudden chill in the air was unmistakable.
“No, I’m just curious. But if you don’t want to talk about it, that’s all right.”
“You think you understand everything,” she said, “But you don’t.”
“Listen, sweetpea. I’m sorry if I’ve offended you.”
“I’ve got to go now.”
Before I could say OK, she logged off.