Gorgona, Italy

Native name: Isola di Gorgona

View to Gorgona from Livorno
Tuscan archipelago.png
Location Ligurian Sea
Archipelago Tuscan Archipelago
Area 2.23 km2 (0.861 sq mi)
Length 2.150 km (1.3359 mi)
Width 1.650 km (1.0253 mi)
Coastline 8 km (5 mi)
Highest elevation 254 m (833 ft)[1]
Highest point Punta Gorgona
Region Tuscany
Province Livorno
Comune Livorno
Population 220 prisoners and police, 300 in all[2] (as of 2008)
Density 135 /km2 (350 /sq mi)

Gorgona (Italian pronunciation: [gorˈgoːna]) is the northernmost island in the Tuscan Archipelago, a group of islands off the west coast of Italy. Between Corsica and Livorno, this diminutive island has been valued most for its wildlife, especially marine birds, and its isolation. The latter quality resulted in the foundation of Gorgona Abbey in the Middle Ages. After its closure the monastery grounds and buildings were appropriated in later times as part of an agricultural penal colony, which is currently in use.



The village seen from the port.

Gorgona is located about 37 km (23 mi) straight out from Livorno. It is a ferry ride of about 1.5 hours; however, access to the island is forbidden without permission from the Italian Ministry of Justice. It grants a standing concession exclusively to one group for supervised tours.[3] Photographic equipment is not allowed. Private boats may approach the island no closer than 500 m (1,600 ft) except in emergencies. Capraia is 35 km (22 mi) away; Corsica, 60 km (37 mi).

The only landing place is Cala dello Scalo, an inlet on the northeast side surrounded by cliffs, the site of the only beach. A fishing village over the beach, which flourished before the penal colony, is now all but abandoned. The government has encouraged families who formerly owned land there to sell and move away. A few remain. On the cliff overlooking the bay is a historic site, the Torre Nuova, "new tower", built as a watchtower by the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in the 17th century.

From the beach an unpaved road leads up to the settlement at the head of a pass between the two prominent heights: Punta Gorgona at 254 metres (833 ft) to the south and Punta Zirri at 213 m (699 ft) to the north. On the cliffs at the west side of the island on the other side of the pass is the Torre Vecchia, "old tower", built as a watchtower by the Republic of Pisa in the 12th century.

Occupation of the island has been primarily on the steep slopes and terraces of the east coast. A number of monastery and other buildings were constructed there. The prison, which has been structured as a working farm, has taken over or takes responsibility for maintaining this entire region. Prisoners work in agriculture or raise animals or learn whatever building trades are useful to the enterprise. They live in residences rather than in cells. They must be in their homes by nightfall. Interaction with outsiders is controlled or forbidden.


The ecology of Gorgona is under the protection of the Tuscan Archipelago National Park, dating from 1996, with headquarters at Portoferraio, Elba. Most of the island is in its native state, 90% of it being forested with maquis, 2 m (6.6 ft) to 5 m (16 ft) high.

Among its plant species are Arbutus unedo, Rhamnus (Buckthorn), Pistacia lentiscus, Juniperus phoenicea, Myrtus communis, Erica arborea, Erica scoparia, Rosmarinus officinalis, Phillyrea angustifolia, and Phillyrea latifolia. The flowers in more open country include Lavandula stoechas, Helichrysum italicum, Cistus incanus, Cistus salvifolius, and Cistus monspeliensis. Calycotome spinosa and Spartium junceum appear on the slopes. Linaria capraria is endemic to the archipelago. Evergreens predominate. There are groves of holm-oak, the remnant of a prehistoric forest, and pine woods of Pinus halepensis, Pinus pinea, and Pinus pinaster.[4]

Gorgona is one of only five islands in the world on which the Corsican Finch is found.


Pagan history

Urgo, believed to be Gorgona, receives brief mention in Pliny, who only states that it is near Pianosa and Capraia.[5] Pomponius Mela had mentioned the name earlier (43 BC) but only as an item in a list of the islands in the vicinity.[6]

Monastic history

Rutilius Claudius Namatianus in describing his voyage of 416 AD in the region says that "Gorgon" rises up in the middle of the sea between the Pisan and Cyrniacan (Corsican) shores.[7] He had already stated that there were monachoi, "monks", on Capraia and now relates the story of an aristocratic youth who had given up wealth, status and the opportunity for marriage to retire to Gorgon in "superstitious exile", implying that monasteries of sorts were already on the two islands.

Tradition holds that monks from Gorgona rescued the relics of Saint Julia of Corsica before they were carried to the mainland in the 8th century.

The monastery was abandoned after its destruction by the Saracens. In the 11th century the Republic of Pisa cleared the Tyrrhenian Sea of Muslims and proceeded against their strongholds in Africa. In 1051, just prior to the Pisan occupation of Corsica, the monastery was reconstituted, still Benedictine, and was declared under papal protection.[8] Subsequently gifts of land were made by aristocrats in Tuscany (where Pisa is located) and northern Corsica. The monastery began to keep land records from Corsica, the first known from there.

Letter 130 of Catherine of Siena, a Dominican nun, to Ippolito degli Ubaldini of Florence encourages him to enter and contribute to the monastery of Gorgona. The letter in stating that the monastery needed to be refurbished to conform to the "rule of the Carthusian Order" implies that it was recently converted to that order. It must have been written after her vision of 1375 and visit to the island then.[9]

Two inscriptions at Pisa Charterhouse at Calci attribute the change of order to the influence of Catherine on Pope Gregory XI in trying to obtain economic assistance for the Carthusians. The pope made a grant of money and gave the Carthusians Gorgona. The change cast reproach on the Benedictines for their alleged non-monastic way of life. They were asked to leave the island and were banned from it.[10]

Carthusians from Pisa Charterhouse retenanted the monastery under Don Bartholomew Serafini. He promptly invited Catherine to visit. She lodged outside the monastery but was invited to address the monks. She spoke on resisting the temptations of Satan. The mantle she was asked to leave as a token of the visit placed later in the hands of a young monk tempted to suicide by the death or illness of his mother is said to have removed all temptation, a token, in the church, of her sainthood.[11]

Subsequently the Mediterranean became politically unstable. Fearing an attack by Saracen corsairs the monks left the island for the charterhouse at Calci in 1425, taking all the records and works of art with them, and never returned. The records were duly published at Pisa. The island however remained in the ownership of Pisa Charterhouse until the 18th century.

Modern history

Early in 1771 Peter Leopold I, Grand Duke of Tuscany, purchased Gorgona from the Carthusians of Pisa with the intent of making it part of a plan for economic revival. In March of that year he passed a law opening the island to settlement by fishermen with the proviso that they would catch and cure anchovies and sell them in Livorno. The fishing village dates to this time.[12]

With the unification of Italy in 1861, including the former Grand Duchy of Tuscany, ownership of Gorgona passed to the new Kingdom of Italy. Gorgona became a new and experimental agricultural penal colony in 1869.


In the nineteenth century the island was famous for its anchovies. Reservation by the Italian government has reduced all economy to that of the prison.

Notes and references

  1. ^ "Isola Gorgona". EuroWEATHER. http://www.eurometeo.com/english/forecast/city_LIQG. Retrieved 2008-07-21. 
  2. ^ sito ufficiale, Parco Nazionale Arcipelago Toscano.
  3. ^ "Island of Gorgona". WelcomeToItaly.com. http://www.emmeti.it/Welcome/Toscana/Isole/Gorgona/gorgona2.uk.html. Retrieved 2008-07-22. 
  4. ^ Tonelli, Massimo. "National Park Arcipelago Toscano". WelcomeToItaly.com. http://www.emmeti.it/Welcome/Toscana/Isole/Elba/ParcoNazionale/parco3.uk.html. Retrieved 2008-08-02. 
  5. ^ Natural History, Book III, Section 81.
  6. ^ Book II section 7.
  7. ^ Murray, John (1864). A Handbook for Travellers in Central Italy: Including Lucca, Tuscany, Florence, The Marches, Umbria, Part of the Patrimony of St. Peter, and the Island of Sardinia: Sixth Edition Carefully Revised. London: John Murray. p. 238.  Downloadable Google Books.
  8. ^ Daileader, Philip. True Citizens: Violence, Memory, and Identity in the Medieval Community of Perpignan, 1162-1397. Brill. p. 197. ISBN 9004115714, 9789004115712. 
  9. ^ Gardner, Edmund Garratt (1907). Saint Catherine of Siena, a study in the religion, literature and history of the fourteenth century in Italy. J.M. Dent & Co.. p. 136. 
  10. ^ Drane, Augusta Theodosia (1899). The History of St. Catherine of Siena and Her Companions: With a Translation of Her Treatise on Consummate Perfection. London, New York: Longmans, Green, and co.. pp. 316–317. 
  11. ^ Drane, pages 318-319.
  12. ^ Napier, Henry Edward (1847). Florentine History: From the Earliest Authentic Records to the Accession of Ferdinand the Third, Grand Duke of Tuscany. E. Moxon. pp. 205–206. 

External links

Coordinates: 43°26′N 9°54′E / 43.433°N 9.9°E / 43.433; 9.9

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