CHIAVARI, Italy - La Gaiola is a tiny island off the coast of Posilipo, Naples. It is a beautiful private island surrounded by sparkling clear water and spectacular views that would make anyone’s heart go pitter pat. For the reclusive millionaires who have owned it; it probably seemed like the perfect place to hide from prying eyes.
Perfect yes, yet this idyllic Mediterranean retreat remains abandoned. Its buildings are crumbling, and its sun kissed cobbled streets are in ruin. No one dares to live here anymore. The grim tales that have been told of suicide, murder, illness and financial ruin that have dogged previous owners prove that no one is safe here. Fear rules.
In the early 1800’s a hermit nicknamed “the Wizard” lived on the island. He kept to himself and survived thanks to the generosity of local fishermen. No one seems to know what happened to him, but after May 26, 1805, which is when Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France and King of Italy, the Wizard was gone and the Isola la Gaiola had become a defense stronghold to protect the city of Naples.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century the island was purchased by Luigi de Negri. It was De Negri who built the white villa that still stands on the island today. He owned a successful business, but not long after he built the villa his company went unexplainably bankrupt. Then, in 1911, sea Captain Gaspar Albenga was piloting his boat around la Gaiola and mysteriously disappeared. No trace of him, or his boat, was ever found.
People talked about the tragedies connected to the island but it wasn’t until the 1920’s that the roll-call of doom really began. It started when owner Hans Braun was murdered. It wasn’t long after that that his widow drowned in the sea near the island. The next owner, Otto Grunback, suffered a fatal heart-attack and the owner after Grunback committed suicide in a Swiss mental hospital.
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The next two island dwellers didn’t die but suffered other tragedies. The Baron Karl Paul Langheim ended in total financial ruin while Gianni Agnelli, the head of Fiat, lost his only son to suicide. Agnelli’s troubles continued when his nephew Umberto, whom he was grooming to take over Fiat, died from a rare form of cancer at the age of 33.
Next in line for a Gaiola misfortune was the eccentric tycoon, John Paul Getty. In 1973 his 16 year old grandson, John Paul Getty III, was kidnapped by the ‘Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia. Getty refused to pay the ransom because he suspected it was a hoax. The kidnappers then sent Getty a lock of the boy’s hair as proof … along with one of the boy’s ears and Getty paid up. A few years later, after struggling with drug addiction and depression, the boy, who was now a man, committed suicide. It was rumored that he had never really recovered from his frightening experience.
But there is also this: la Gaiola is full of ruins from the Roman era. Up until the nineteenth century a submerged Roman building called the School of Virgil was clearly visible in the waters near the island. In the interpretation of a medieval poet-magician, this was the place where Virgil taught the mystical arts. If it is true that this is where enchanted potions were concocted and magical rites were performed it's understandable why there has been esoteric interest in this part of the coast. One theory is that the water around the island has been permanently polluted by the potions created here centuries ago and that is the reason the curse is always directed towards those who linger here for too long. Or . . . . .
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Going back to a time before Luigi de Negri bought the island, an archaeologist William Bechi owned the property. The year was 1820. Bechi began several archaeological digs on the island and brought to light some Roman buildings that had been buried for centuries. At his death, his daughter sold the property to de Negri, who in 1874 built the now infamous white villa. However, when de Negri went bankrupt the entire property was put up for auction and purchased by the Marquis del Tufo.
As the years passed, there were two more owners after del Tufo, one being the British Admiral Nelson Foley, brother of Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and the second was the family of Italian Senator Guiseppe Paratore.
In the mid 1960’s the Senator’s nephew made a startling discovery. While organizing a bookcase in the living room of the island’s villa, he found a square of canvas attached to the wall. Behind the canvas he discovered a fresco depicting a frightening large female head with snakes for hair. A Gorgon. The Senator, who understood the evil implications of the Gorgon, was frightened by the prospect of bringing bad luck to his family and ordered his nephew to cover the face. His nephew did as he was asked but not before he had photographed it.
After seeing the photographs of the Gorgon mask, a member of the Institute of Restoration in Rome classified it as a type of fresco called impressionistic late Roman and dated it between the 2nd and 3rd century AD. The expert also confirmed that some of the frescoed walls in the original Roman villa found on the island had quadrilateral cuts in them, so it is likely that the mask had been removed from its place of origin and affixed to the wall in the villa.
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This was a significant revelation as Gorgons were popular in both Greek and Roman mythology as a protective deity. Gorgons are depicted as ugly women with snakes for hair and power so strong that anyone who looks at them is turned to stone. The best known Gorgon may be the decapitated Medusa, revered by both the Greeks and the Romans.
Gorgon representations were put on anything the Romans felt warranted protection against the evil eye, from the baths they built in England to shipments of wine to the breastplates of Roman soldiers. And perhaps it was the removal of that protective Gorgon symbol from the original Roman villa on la Gaiola by someone who didn’t understand its meaning or power that is the root of all the evil that has plagued this beautiful place for centuries.
Chances are we will never know the real reason why this island has such a dark past. If you are superstitious you may not want to contact the current owners, the Campania Region authorities, and make an offer on the property, but that doesn’t mean you can’t visit.
The island is easy to reach both by car (exit Fuorigrotta Naples ring road) or public transport. There are buses to la Gaiola from the Naples railroad station and the regional volcanic park of Campi Flegrei. There is also a walkway to the Underwater Park of Gaiola and the adjacent Visitor Reception Center.
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