Rossella Biscotti

Solo exhibition

25 May – 8 July 2012
Vleeshal (Map)

Curator: Lorenzo Benedetti

Rossella Biscotti’s project is informed by research into the state of detention. Focusing on a prisoner’s general conditions she analyzes the psychological effects caused by isolation, the aim of which is to destroy physical and intellectual abilities. The project is developed inside the first prison built for life imprisonment, which opened its doors in 1793 on the island of Santo Stefano, 50 km from the Italian coastline. The prison is a Panopticon resembling the San Carlo Opera Theatre in Naples. The panoptic structure, developed by Jeremy Bentham, expresses the desire of institutional powers to punish the prisoner and annul his identity, through the constant sensation of being controlled. The Santo Stefano structure was in function until 1965. It had also been used for political captivity. The sculptures presented in Vleeshal Markt are the imprint of some of the cells and other spaces of the panopticon.

The sculptures are made of lead sheets, which have been transported and hand-carried to and from the island. The process of the work is shown in the video which is composed by notes filmed in 8mm. It brings together footage taken during various visits to the location as well a political action “Bringing flowers to the cemetery of the detainees that died in life imprisonment”. This action was initiated by the artist together with a group of activists, and was supported by various detainees that were in hunger strike in those days. “Santo Stefano is a volcanic rock island in the Archipelago Pontino, measuring 700 × 500 meters. Difficult accessibility to the island, and its topography, provided the 'occasion' during the centuries, to try and solve the problem of imprisonment through isolation on the island for condemned people, and more in general for all those who were considered 'unwelcome', the ones considered dangerous for the stability of the established power.

The decision to construct the life imprisonment structure on Santo Stefano took place at the end of the 17th century by the Borboni family who approached the engineer Francesco Carpi, a collaborator of Antonio Winspeare, to design and construct the prison. It was then between 1792/3 and 1797 that construction work took place.

The structure is an architectural jewel: it’s shaped as a horseshoe and composed of three floors, each of which contains 33 cells for a total of 99 cells. Each cell measures 4.5 × 4.2 meters and was intended for three to four people. Located on the ground floor are two more prison cells, without any windows, intended for punishment and isolation for the most dangerous of prisoners.

In its totality the building is reminiscent of the San Carlo theatre, in Naples, with an inverted relation between the elements. This was probably the first structure realized based on the model of the Panopticon, which was originally formulated by the Bentham brothers – even if there is no information indicating any link between the English brothers and the engineer working for the Borboni family.

Throughout the years, the prison was modified in its structure, resulting in even worse conditions for the prisoners. The prison cells were each further divided in two, for a total of almost 200 prisoners – the number in some periods was even of 600 prisoners. In Santo Stefano there were also secluded those who were condannati ai ferri, who were forced to work for the prison and punished by wearing a chain around their waist and connected to the ankles.

Almost a century later, in 1880-85, a new section was built around the external perimeter to host anarchists and prisoners with extremely bad behavior. Besides those serving a life sentence, the structure also hosted political prisoners up until and through the twenty-year Fascist regime. However, the only interventions, which actually improved living conditions for the prisoners, were introduced around 1950, under the management of the director Eugenio Perucatti, and during the last years of the building’s use. It wasn’t until 1965 that the prison was definitively closed and completely abandoned.

Santo Stefano includes a history full of imprisoned personalities important to Italy’s political history; even immediately from the beginning when the Borboni family opened their doors to Giuseppe Poerio, to Luigi Settembrini and Silvio Spaventa. Under the reigning Savoia family some bandits were imprisoned as well, including Carmine Crocco, who was supposed to have had an active revolutionary role. The Savoia opened the prison doors to many anarchists including Pietro Umberto Acciarito, who tried to kill Umberto I°, and Gaetano Bresci, who managed to kill Umberto I° in Monza, and Giuseppe Mariani . And then to Antonio D’Alba, who attempted to kill the king Vittorio Emanuele III. Rocco Pugliese, a communist from the Calabria region, ended up just like Gaetano Bresci, both of whom died in prison, suicide being the likely cause of their death. Other prison deaths include the brother of Ignazio Silone and Romolo Tranquilli, where suspicion for the cause of death, murder or suicide, is also evoked.

During the twenty years of Fascist rule, the regime imprisoned the socialist Sandro Pertini who later became President of the Italian Republic, and a good amount of other individuals espousing communist ideals: Pietro Secchia, Gerolamo Li Causi, Luigi Longo, Mario Scoccimarro, Giuseppe Di Vittorio (an important trade-union leader from Cerignola) and the indomitable Umberto Terracini, who was twice expelled from the Italian communist party but became president of the constituent assembly. Additionally, Altirero Spinelli, who wrote on the neighboring island of Ventotene, the Ventotene Manifesto, which promoted the idea of a unified Europe.

Naming these important personalities allows us to keep in mind two aspects: Firstly, the huge amount of prisoners who served their prison sentence in cruel and inhuman conditions, and secondly, the ruling governments and their regimes, which unfortunately never applied the basic principles of respect and humanity to the prisoners, not even when the constitutional rules intended imprisonment as a possibility for re-education and redemption. 

Text by Francesco Perretta


Vleeshal is a unique center for contemporary art, not only because of its atypical exhibition space and exciting programming, but also because it has a collection. In the 1990s, under the impetus of then director Lex ter Braak, an ambitious collection of contemporary visual art was begun. This collection was intended for a newly envisioned museum in Middelburg, with the working title Museum IX/13.

The collection concerns two blocks, on the one hand national and local art from the BKR scheme (the abbreviation BKR refers to the Dutch Artist Subsidy Scheme, unique in the world, which from 1949 until 1987 provided artists with a (temporary) income in exchange for artworks or other artistic compensations). On the other hand a start to a radically international collection of contemporary art, with a few large ensembles by a limited number of artists (including Jimmie Durham, Nedko Solakov, Suchan Kinoshita, Cameron Jamie, Pippilotti Rist and Job Koelewijn), but too few to be able to have a real impact without further collection development. The city of Middelburg decided not to build this museum and not to continue the collection. The impetus of developing a collection had thus lost its possible context and visibility and encumbered Vleeshal, for whom the collection had become a storage cost and management issue.

Given the close historical ties between Middelburg and Antwerp, M HKA's collection profile and the fact that Bart De Baere was a member of the advisory committee in the composition of the Vleeshal collection, it was given to M HKA on long-term loan. M HKA gave this collection a public existence by valorizing the artworks in its collection exhibition policy.

There has been no active acquisition policy for years. The collection is expanded here and there with sporadic purchases and donations from artists who are part of the Vleeshal program.