L'isola. The first prison built for life imprisonment, in Santo Stefano (IT), is a Panopticon resembling the San Carlo Opera Theatre in Naples. Focusing on a prisoner's general conditions Biscotti analyzes the psychological effects caused by isolation, the aim of which is to destroy physical and intellectual abilities. The sculptures presented in De Vleeshal are the imprint of some of the cells and other spaces of the panopticon.
curated by Lorenzo Benedetti
Rossella Biscotti’s project is informed by research into the state of detention. Focusing on a prisoner’s general conditions she analyzes the psychological effects caused by isolation, the aim of which is to destroy physical and intellectual abilities. The project is developed inside the first prison built for life imprisonment, which opened its doors in 1793 on the island of Santo Stefano, 50 km from the Italian coastline. The prison is a Panopticon resembling the San Carlo Opera Theatre in Naples. The panoptic structure, developed by Jeremy Bentham, expresses the desire of institutional powers to punish the prisoner and annul his identity, through the constant sensation of being controlled. The Santo Stefano structure was in function until 1965. It had also been used for political captivity.
The sculptures presented in De Vleeshal are the imprint of some of the cells and other spaces of the panopticon.
The sculptures are made of lead sheets, which have been transported and hand-carried to and from the island. The process of the work is shown in the video which is composed by notes filmed in 8mm. It brings together footage taken during various visits to the location as well a political action “Bringing flowers to the cemetery of the detainees that died in life imprisonment”. This action was initiated by the artist together with a group of activists, and was supported by various detainees that were in hunger strike in those days.
“Santo Stefano is a volcanic rock island in the Archipelago Pontino, measuring 700 × 500 meters. Difficult accessibility to the island, and its topography, provided the “occasion” during the centuries, to try and solve the problem of imprisonment through isolation on the island for condemned people, and more in general for all those who were considered “ unwelcome “, the ones considered dangerous for the stability of the established power.
The decision to construct the life imprisonment structure on Santo Stefano took place at the end of the 17th century by the Borboni family who approached the engineer Francesco Carpi, a collaborator of Antonio Winspeare, to design and construct the prison. It was then between 1792/3 and 1797 that construction work took place.
The structure is an architectural jewel: it’s shaped as a horseshoe and composed of three floors, each of which contains 33 cells for a total of 99 cells. Each cell measures 4.5 × 4.2 meters and was intended for three to four people. Located on the ground floor are two more prison cells, without any windows, intended for punishment and isolation for the most dangerous of prisoners.
In its totality the building is reminiscent of the San Carlo theatre, in Naples, with an inverted relation between the elements. This was probably the first structure realised based on the model of the Panopticon, which was originally formulated by the Bentham brothers – even if there is no information indicating any link between the English brothers and the engineer working for the Borboni family.
Throughout the years, the prison was modified in its structure, resulting in even worse conditions for the prisoners. The prison cells were each further divided in two, for a total of almost 200 prisoners – the number in some periods was even of 600 prisoners. In Santo Stefano there were also secluded those who were condannati ai ferri, who were forced to work for the prison and punished by wearing a chain around their waist and connected to the ankles.
Almost a century later, in 1880-85, a new section was built around the external perimeter to host anarchists and prisoners with extremely bad behaviour. Besides those serving a life sentence, the structure also hosted political prisoners up until and through the twenty-year Fascist regime. However, the only interventions, which actually improved living conditions for the prisoners, were introduced around 1950, under the management of the director Eugenio Perucatti, and during the last years of the building’s use. It wasn’t until 1965 that the prison was definitively closed and completely abandoned.
Santo Stefano includes a history full of imprisoned personalities important to Italy’s political history; even immediately from the beginning when the Borboni family opened their doors to Giuseppe Poerio, to Luigi Settembrini and Silvio Spaventa. Under the reigning Savoia family some bandits were imprisoned as well, including Carmine Crocco, who was supposed to have had an active revolutionary role. The Savoia opened the prison doors to many anarchists including Pietro Umberto Acciarito, who tried to kill Umberto I°, and Gaetano Bresci, who managed to kill Umberto I° in Monza, and Giuseppe Mariani . And then to Antonio D’Alba, who attempted to kill the king Vittorio Emanuele III. Rocco Pugliese, a communist from the Calabria region, ended up just like Gaetano Bresci, both of whom died in prison, suicide being the likely cause of their death. Other prison deaths include the brother of Ignazio Silone and Romolo Tranquilli, where suspicion for the cause of death, murder or suicide, is also evoked.
During the twenty years of Fascist rule, the regime imprisoned the socialist Sandro Pertini who later became President of the Italian Republic, and a good amount of other individuals espousing communist ideals: Pietro Secchia, Gerolamo Li Causi, Luigi Longo, Mario Scoccimarro, Giuseppe Di Vittorio (an important trade-union leader from Cerignola) and the indomitable Umberto Terracini, who was twice expelled from the Italian communist party but became president of the constituent assembly. Additionally, Altirero Spinelli, who wrote on the neighboring island of Ventotene, the Ventotene Manifesto, which promoted the idea of a unified Europe.
Naming these important personalities allows us to keep in mind two aspects: Firstly, the huge amount of prisoners who served their prison sentence in cruel and inhuman conditions, and secondly, the ruling governments and their regimes, which unfortunately never applied the basic principles of respect and humanity to the prisoners, not even when the constitutional rules intended imprisonment as a possibility for re-education and redemption. “
Text by Francesco Perretta
Born in Molfetta, Italy (1978) and lives and works in Amsterdam.
She studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Napoli (1998-2002) and has had residencies at the Rijksakademie Amsterdam (NL), CAC Vilnius (LT), Kunstlerhaus Bethanien Berlin and in 2012 a residency at Kadist Paris (FR). Rossella Biscotti has shown her work in various exhibitions and venues including: CAC Vilnius (2012), Museu de Serralves, Porto; MaXXI Museum, Rome; Presentation House Gallery, Vancouver; Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Torino; Vleeshal, Middelburg (NL), GAM, Torino, Witte de With, Rotterdam. She won the ‘Premio Italia Arte Contemporanea’ (2010), the ‘Premio Michelangelo’ at the International Sculpture Biennale of Carrara (2010), the second prize of the ‘Prix de Rome’ in Amsterdam (2009), Gstaadfilm, the 1st Prize – Golden Cow, Gstaad (CH) in 2008, and at the 12th Biennal of Moving Images the 1st Prize, Centre pour l’image contemporaine, Geneva (CH) in 2007.
In 2012 Rossella Biscotti will participate at the Manifesta 9 in Genk (BE).
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