The island that wasn’t there

island utopia

Umberto Eco writes in his Book of Legendary Lands (2013):

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.

153656152-da5429fb-15b5-44f0-8cfc-143331d27318

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.

Scansione0023

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”).

Foto_dell'--Isola_delle_Rose--_tratta_da_un_quotidiano_del_--1968--._--PD-Italia--

RoseIslandPanorama11071968

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.

153654210-bb6f7c5c-e64d-47e9-a695-81c71bf606d4

Scansione0019

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.

Foglietto_di_francobolli_dell'Isola_delle_Rose

messaggero-26-6-1968x300SMALL

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.

articolo-isolarose

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.

153654209-eb7b60f5-d39b-46f2-b358-738ecbfcb076

153658370-49b5c893-a551-4b6e-ba86-455099d8d866

153654459-2c6a7bac-3510-41d6-aa68-f1c732838001

153658370-49b5c893-a551-4b6e-ba86-455099d8d866

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.

collage_3

FOTO-1-LIsola-delle-Rose-fu-fatta-esplodere-il-13-febbraio-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!

giorgio-rosa

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.

Scansione0013

Giorgio Rosa’s quotes are taken from here and here. (Thanks Daniele!)

7 comments to The island that wasn’t there

  1. Daniele says:

    Non so se “tutte” le persone abbiano in testa l’idea di crearsi una terra tutta loro: l’idea mi solletica parecchio, ma forse è solo perché adoro il mito di Atlantide sin da bambino e mi piaceva l’idea di esserne re 😛
    Di sicuro, è una strada in salita, quella che aspetta chiunque voglia farsi uno stato proprio – basti pensare al principato di Sealand o all’Isola delle rose (che devo ammettere, non conoscevo affatto. Un altro punto per Bizzarro Bazar 😉 ).
    Considerando poi il giro di avvoltoi attorno alla cosiddetta isola Ferdinandea (per cui si sono scannate nazioni nel 1800 fino a quando l’isola, schifata, è tornata sott’acqua XD ) temo che qualsiasi lembo di terra o cemento (o zattera…) abbia il vago potenziale per diventare nazione, attirerà sempre l’attenzione di qualche stato “golosone” che non voglia nuove variabili da considerare.

  2. Emilio Torreggiani says:

    ti segnalo un refuso.
    Quarto paragrafo, ultima riga c’è scritto “all’erta” dove dovrebbe essere “allerta”.

  3. Daniele says:

    Bellissimo articolo, come sempre! 😉

  4. Zero says:

    Figo! Mi ricorda la storia del Principato di Sealand, una piattaforma petrolifera vicino al Regno Unito che si è autoeletta stato indipendente. Mi pare che quella sia ancora in piedi, però…

  5. GIULIETTA says:

    Come si procacciavano il cibo senza contatti con l’esterno?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.