Former Panopticon prison on Italian island set to be converted into an ‘academy’ for Europe’s future leaders – and artist residency


Italy is launching an ‘academy’ to train the next generation of European leaders, built out of the ruins of an 18th-century prison on the tiny island of Santo Stefano. The state-funded project is named after David Sassoli, the former President of the European Parliament who died on January 11th.

Silvia Costa, the government commissioner in charge of the building’s renovation, and Italy’s culture minister, Dario Franceschini, proposed on January 17 to take the name of Sassoli for the project. Prime Minister Mario Draghi immediately approved the proposal, according to a statement.

The former prison is located on the island of Santo Stefano off the coast of Neopolitan Commissario straordinario del Governo per il recupero e la valorizzazione dell’ex Carcere borbonico dell’isola di S.Stefano-Ventotene

The prison was commissioned by the Bourbon King Ferdinand IV of Naples and completed in 1797. Its horseshoe shape was based on an unrealized design by social theorist Jeremy Bentham for a ‘panopticon’ where prisoners in cells arranged in a circle could be monitored from a central lookout tower. (A kind of panopticon can also be found in Batman movies).

Italian governments used the prison for many years while exiling some opponents to Ventotene, a slightly larger island 2km away. In 1941, Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi, anti-fascist exiles, wrote the Manifesto of Ventotene, which called for a socialist federation of Europe and became a founding text of the European community. The prison closed in 1965.

Today, Ventotene hosts political summits and EU-related youth initiatives like Italy’s School of Europe, and pro-European pilgrims flock to Santo Stefano. The renovated prison – with an open-air museum telling the history of the site, a lush garden, conference rooms and accommodation for 25 people – will integrate into Ventotene’s offer by hosting guided tours, events and seminars on political and environmental issues. In addition, the prison will offer a small number of artist residencies. “We felt that the stillness and solitude of this place would be a source of inspiration for artists, as well as for its political prisoners,” says Costa The art newspaper.

Announced in 2016, the project began in earnest following the appointment of Costa, formerly Member of the European Parliament and President of the Committee on Culture and Education, in January 2020. Emergency work to secure the buildings began in November 2020 and the winner of a tender for the architect of the Renovation will be announced in the coming weeks, Costa said. Meanwhile, the Costa team has established a network of research partnerships, including with the Sapienza and Roma Tre Universities of Rome, the European University Institute in Florence, the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development, and the Italian National Institute for Environmental Protection and Research.

Once operational, the prison and its program of events will be managed by a foundation that can draw on both public and private funds. A majority of the site’s revenue is expected to be self-generated. It is expected to attract 36,000 visitors each year, as well as 500 students and 5,400 spectators for events, concerts and conferences.


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