The island of Ischia, pearl of the Neapolitan Gulf, holds a secret.
It’s a sort of exaltation, a deviant behavior caused by the very limited living space or maybe by an instinctive desire of marking the territory: it’s the plague of frauca — the unauthorized construction, in infringement of all local building regulations.
The Ischian resident, in order to be (or to think of himself as) respected, has to build, construct, erect.
It might be just a screed, a dry stone wall, a second floor or a small living quarter for his son who’s about to get married. All rigorously unauthorized, these supplements to the house are built in disregard of those strict and suffocating rules he feels are killing his creativity; and which often force him to demolish what he so patiently constructed.
No family is without an expert in this field, and often more than one member is mastro fraucatore or mezza cucchiara (nicknames for a master builder).
But the free zone, the real no man’s land where all the islanders’ construction dreams come true is the graveyard.
To walk through the avenues of the Ischia Municipal Cemetery means to discover surprising tombs the relatives of the deceased decorated with materials found around the island: lava stones from the volcanic Mount Epomeo, polished rocks from the many beaches, sea shells and scallops; stones from the Olmitello creek or pizzi bianchi of carsic origin.
Other tombs incorporate remainings and leftovers from unauthorized constructions, such as unused bricks or decorated floor tiles.
No grave is similar to another, in this array of different materials and colors. But there is a specific niche of funeral art, reserved to those who worked as fishermen.
To honor the deceased who, during their lifetime, bravely defied the sea for the catch of the day, granting the survival and well-being of their family, a peculiar grave is built in the shape of a gozzo, the typical Ischian fishing boat.
This is a touching way of saying a last goodbye, and looking at these hand-crafted graves one cannot help but appreciate the genuine creativity of these artisans. But the tombs seem to be the ultimate, ironic redemption of the heirs of Typhon: a payback for that building urge, that longing for cement and concrete which was constantly repressed during their lifetime.
There have been lands that were dreamed, described, searched for, registered on maps, and which then disappeared from maps and now everybody knows they never existed. And yet these lands had for the development of civilization the same utopic function of the reign of Prester John, to find which Europeans explored both Asia and Africa, of course finding other things.
And then there are imaginary lands which crossed the threshold of fantasy and stepped right into our world, as improbable as it seems, bursting into shared reality – even if for a brief time.
In 1968, Rose Island stood some 7 miles from the coast of Rimini, bordering international waters.
It wasn’t a proper island, but rather a man-made platform, which had taken ten years of work and sacrifices to build. Why did it took so long to erect it? Because Rose Island had something different from other marine platforms: it was constructed bypassing or ignoring laws and permits, in a constant fight against bureaucracy. It wasn’t just an extreme case of unauthorized development, it was a true libertarian project. Rose Island declared itself to be an independent Republic.
This micronation‘s President was Giorgio Rosa, born in 1925, who had been an engineer since 1950. In 1958 he began to shape his dream, his life’s accomplishment. Among economic and technical difficulties, in the following ten years he succeded to plant nine pylons out in the sea, on which he then had the platform’s structure built: 4,300 squared feet of reinforced concrete, suspended at 26 feet above the water level. Rosa and his accomplices even found a freshwater aquifer under the sea bed, which proved useful for the island’s supplies and to create a protected space for docking (which they called “Green Harbor”).
The idea Giorgio Rosa had was somewhat anarchic and pacific at the same time: “my initial project was to build something that could be free from any constraint, and wouldn’t require a lot of money. On dry land, bureaucracy had become suffocating. […] We wanted to open a bar and a restaurant. Just eat, drink and watch the ships from Trieste passing close by, sometimes even too close. My fondest memory is that of the first night, on the island under construction. Along came a storm, and it looked like it would tear everything apart. But in the morning the sun was shining, everything seemed beautiful and possible. Then trouble began“, he recalls.
Yes, because bureaucracy started fighting back, in a war to chase the rebels who attempted to live over the waves, without paying the government its due.
As the second floor of the platform was finished, Rose Island gained notoriey, while ships and motorboats called there, driven by curiosity. Worried by the growing traffic, port authorities, Italian finance police and government were already on guard.
That’s how, in the (desperate) attempt to free himself from Italy and its prohibitions once and for all, Rosa unilaterally declared his Island independent on May 1, 1968. Even if he was quite distant from hippies and countercultures, his move was in tune with the fighting spirit of the times: a couple of days later, to the cries of “Banning is banned“, the rebellious civil unrest of May 1968 would begin to take place in Paris.
The newly-born “nation” adopted esperanto as the official language. It began printing its own stamps, and was about to coin its own currency.
But suddenly things took a bad turn. Points of order were put forward in Parliament both by right and left wing, for once united against the transgressors; Secret Services were sure that the platform actually concealed a base for soviet submarines; others thought the whole thing was an obscure Albanian maneuver.
Once the media event broke out, authorities responded ruthlessly.
On February 11, 1969, all the concrete parts were demolished, the steel poles and joints were cut, and 165 lb of explosive were detonated on each pylon. On the impact, Rose Island tilted, bended over… but refused to collapse.
Then, two days later, artificers applied 264 lb of charge to each pillar – a total of more than a ton of explosive. Yet once again, the Island resisted, tilting forward a bit more. Like a dream stubbornly refusing to surrender to the blows of a tangible reality.
It was not to the military that Rose Island eventually decided to give up, but to a violent storm, sinking into the Adriatic Sea on February 26, 1969.
Today, after 40 years of oblivion, the Insulo de la Rozoj – the esperanto name of this micronation – is the object of renewed attention, through documentaries, novels, theatre plays, shows and museum exhibits, Facebook pages and blogs devoted to it. There are those who doubt the idealistic nature of the project, suspecting that the entire operation was nothing more than an attempt to build a tax haven (Rosa never denied the commercial and turistic purpose of the Island); those who, like the curators of the Museum of Vancouver, find connections with Thomas More‘s writings; and even those who think that Rosa’s feat prefigured the collapse of faith in representative democracy through a mix of political activism, architecture and technology.
Giorgio Rosa is now 90-years-old, and seems amused by his adventure’s revival. After losing his war (“the only one Italy was ever able to win“, he sarcastically stresses out) and having paid for the cost of demolition, he went on with his engineering career. “Don’t even bother to ask me, I’ll tell you: no more islands!“
But if the interest for his experiment is well alive and kicking, it means that we still find that dream of freedom, escape and independence seducing. We could ascribe its modern appeal to our impatience towards the ever more suffocating bureaucracy, to the alluring idea of escaping the economic crisis, to our disillusionment towards institutions, to fear of authorities interfering with our privacy; but maybe the truth is that Rose Island was the realization of one of humanity’s most ancient dreams, Utopia. Which is both a “perfect place” (eu-topia), away from the misery and malfunctions of society, and “non-place” (ou-topia), unreal.
And it’s always pleasant to cherish an impossible, unattainable idea – even though, or provided that, it remains a fantasy.
Giorgio Rosa’s quotes are taken from here and here. (Thanks Daniele!)
Of all the freakshow performers, few were as beloved as Schlitzie. Those who knew him describe him as a ray of sunshine, a sprite of good cheer, a wonderful individual capable of softening even the most granite heart, and one who was impossible not to become attached to.
His origins are still cloaked in mystery today. Some say his real name was Simon Metz, but it is not known exactly when he was born (the most likely date is September 10, 1901), nor who his parents were; most likely they sold him to some sideshow at an early age. Schlitzie-that is his stage name-was suffering from microcephaly, a genetic alteration that results in a head circumference much smaller than normal. The brain, thus constricted, cannot fully develop and various cognitive and psychomotor impediments can arise, depending on the severity. In the circus show business, where they had been performed since the nineteenth century, microcephalic individuals were usually called pinheads (“pinheads”). In sideshows, pinheads were presented as “missing evolutionary links” (between ape and man), “Aztec wonders,” “beings from another planet,” or even in shows called more simply “What is it?”
All of these fanciful appellations were used for Schlitzie during his blazing career with the world’s greatest circuses. Often presented as a woman by virtue of the ample robes they made him wear (actually to mask his incontinence), when the curtain opened he left everyone speechless at his appearance; yet it only took a few minutes for the audience to put aside all fear and melt into thunderous applause.
The crowds adored him, but never as much as his colleagues. Schlitzie had, they said, the brain of a three- or four-year-old child: he spoke in monosyllables, could not take care of himself, and yet he was perhaps smarter than people thought, given his ability to imitate people and his incredible speed of reaction. As he wandered among the carriages and circus tents, he looked like an always cheerful, joyful little spirit who couldn’t wait to dance in front of someone just to draw attention to himself.
In the 1930s the major circuses vied for him: Schlitzie performed for the famous Ringling Bros. as well as the Barnum & Bailey Circus, then came the Clyde Beatty Circus, the Tom Mix Circus, the West Coast Shows… and the list would still be very long. The movies also courted him: he appeared in Tod Browning’s classic Freaks (1932), and in E.C. Kenton’s Island Of Lost Souls (1933) with Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi.
From 1936 Schlitzie was legally placed in the care of George Surtees, a chimpanzee breeder for the Tom Mix Circus; Surtees became the loving and caring father Schlitzie never had, caring for him until his death. And it was with the departure of this “guardian angel” in the 1960s that the real problems began for Schlitzie: Surtees’ daughter, in fact, did not feel up to keeping him at home and decided to place him in a clinic.
Thus Schlitzie disappeared.
For a long time nothing more was heard of the world’s most famous pinhead, until one day the sword-swallower Bill Unks, who was working as a nurse at the end of the theater season, recognized him in a ward of the clinic where he was serving. Schlitzie was miserable, depressed, and most of all sick with loneliness. He missed his friends, he missed the shows, he missed the applause, he missed the sideshow.
Bill Unks managed to convince the authorities that getting him back to performing would be essential to his health.
Schlitzie returned to the sideshow with great enthusiasm, and practically stayed there for the rest of his life.
The large family of carnies showered him with attention and affection and eventually bought an apartment for him in Los Angeles where he lived out his last years: many remember him feeding pigeons, marveling at any small aspect of life, from a flower to a tiny insect, or dancing for anyone who stopped to talk to him.
He died in 1971 at the age of 71, but still an eternal child; today his figure, among the most recognizable icons in circus history, continues to inspire artists around the world.