History of Pianosa

After Elba, Pianosa is the island in the archipelago preserving the most important archaeological and historical traces.

About 15,000 years ago Pianosa was attached to Elba and the mainland, probably around the same time man first landed on it. Many are the numerous traces of settlements and burials from Paleolithic and Neolithic Ages.

Etruscans have left no real trails behind, as they were interested in metals and Pianosa had none; Roman traces instead, are of a significant amount, important and still very easily legible: that was in fact a period of top historical magnificence for the island.

The most important evidences of such period are:

  • remains of Villa di Agrippa Postumo, with its well-preserved thermal area;
  • numerous fish farming ponds, especially in the port waterfront and Cala Giovanna;
  • saltworks;
  • the aqueduct of Botte spring;
  • numerous wells;
  • the Roman harbour together with many remains of shipwrecks and cargoes below sea level.

Of a great historical importance are also Pianosa catacombs located underneath the village, just behind the marina.

As often happens, we have no evidence of the medieval era: between 1000 and 1300 A.D Pianosa was constantly disputed between the Maritime Republics of Pisa and Genoa, over time the Tuscans ruled for longer, and even built a fortified citadel as well as different defensive structures .

It is however clear that the island’s morphological build has influenced its history a lot, as such a flat territory was practically indefensible in case of attack: this has caused, especially during the period of Saracen raids, an adverse condition for any community to actually settle on Pianosa.

In 1814 Pianosa was annexed by Napoleon to his Principality of Elba, while in 1858 it went under the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, which set up a small prison there.

In 1861,  after the annexation to the Italian Kingdom, an agricultural penal colony, bound to be part of the following 150 years of the local history, was established,

Pianosa has been uninhabited since its jail was shut down in 1998:  then, along the detainees, all guards and their families left the island together with the few civilians who lived there.

Today the island is under the protection of the Tuscan Archipelago National Park and only guided tours with a limited number of attendees are allowed.

Pianosa’s prison

1871 was a very important year for Pianosa as Cavaliere Leopoldo Ponticelli became the second warden of the penal agricultural colony.

Ponticelli remained in charge for more than twenty years, he is behind the elegant architectural structure of Pianosa, inspired by an “eclectic” style that still fascinates visitors.

The island became an exemplary agricultural penal colony, where inmates were re-educated through labour on fields, and taught to reclaim fertile plains as well as to produce agricultural products of an excellent quality.

Ponticelli divided the prison system into various farms (branches) and allocated them on the territory of Pianosa, in these, prisoners had an excellent quality of life, especially compared to other prison facilities of the time.

In the early 19th century,  events related to the last war conflict were actually marginal, the only real scourge was tuberculosis: in the past in fact, it was wrongly believed that sea had beneficial effects on the disease, due to this reason, many prisoners suffering from tuberculosis were moved to Pianosa.

Pianosa found itself at the centre of attention again in the ’70s when, at the behest of General Dalla Chiesa, a top detention centre was established, by converting the Agrippa branch into a maximum security prison, where in 1977 some of the most famous Brigades members were imprisoned including Curcio, Moretti and Senzani.

The establishment of the top prison meant the “beginning of the end” for Pianosa’s agricultural penal colony. Towards the end of the ’80s rumors about a possible closure of the centre started doing the rounds, the terrorists were moved from the island and only a hundred inmates stayed on a semi-liberty scheme, but then when a final shut-down seemed imminent, in 1992  following the mafia attacks on magistrates Falcone and Borsellino, the government quickly reopened the high security prison and, in July, some of the main “Bosses” were lead to Pianosa, including Greco , Calò, Santapaola, Madonna and Vernengo.

The island, as never before,  was turned into an inaccessible fortress, with rigid constraints and controls until 1997, when the last of the mobster was transferred.

In August 1998 Pianosa prison closed definitively, becoming only a district for Porto Azzurro’ s prison house.