Sometimes you think you know a place well, and then a story pops out that leaves you open mouthed. Like this one, a curious tale that played out over several weeks in the sea off the coast of Rimini yet is still unfamiliar to many (unless you’ve seen the recent Netflix movie): Rose Island or the Isola delle Rose.
It was 1968, a year that sparked political protest movements in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. To be precise, it was 1 May 1968 when Rose Island – a 400-sqm stilt house built over the waves on a skeleton of steel tubes 6.27 nautical miles off the coast and thus 500 metres outside Italian territorial waters – was inaugurated with a grand official banquet to proclaim itself an independent republic.
This manmade platform was intended as a kind of utopia after Thomas More, a model, free micro-nation detached from the Italian state. It had its own flag, its own currency (the Mill), its own postage stamps and even its own official auxiliary language, Esperanto. (The island’s original name wasn’t Isola delle Rose but Insulo de la Rozoj.)
It was all the brainchild of Giorgio Rosa, an engineer from Bologna with links to the former “Republic of Salò” during World War II. His aim was to create a state that was completely independent from Italy. It had its own system of taxation (like San Marino) and would finance itself through the restaurants and souvenir shops that were to open for tourists and curious visitors arriving via Rimini.
The papers soon picked up on the story, which was on everybody’s lips not least because of the myths that were swirling around it. Word had it that the island was a haven for casinos, bordellos and a pirate radio station. That it was the hub of an international spy ring. That it was even a Soviet submarine base.
Although no evidence of any of this was ever found, of course, Rosa’s dream was dead in the water. Not even two months after the official opening, the harbourmaster and the finance police surrounded the island on 25 June 1968, blockading it so that not even the builders could draw up and moor.
In February 1969, Italian navy divers began work to demolish it, deploying kilos of explosives. But Rosa had built the island so well that not even a second blast was enough to send it to the bottom, and it was left to a storm on 26 February 1969 to finish the job.
And that’s how this “experiment in freedom” ended. It is a story that few people knew of until recently, when the recent, worldwide hit Netflix movie, brought it to popular attention:
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