When people think of romantic places to get away from it all, the rustic and cozy coast of southern Italy, with its gorgeous oceanside villas and stunning scenery, would perhaps fit the bill for many. Here along the craggy coastline there are numerous charming, secluded islands full of wonders both natural and historical, where one could easily imagine oneself enjoying a peaceful vacation in paradise. Yet looks can sometimes be deceiving, and there are places in the world possessed of a natural beauty that seems to be merely a thin veneer between what we see and dark forces lying just beyond the surface. For one picturesque island off the Italian coast right off of Naples, the stunning solitude seems to be simply a curtain behind which some sinister power may be at work. It is an island with a mysterious history of murder, ruin, and misery, which the locals avoid and which has become one of the stranger tales of cursed island getaways.
Gaiola Island, or Isola La Gaiola in Italian, is one of the many small, scenic islands to be found along the southern Italian coast of the Campania region near Naples, and gets its name from the numerous small caves and cavities that dot coastline here, with the word caviola being the local dialect for the Latine word cavae, meaning “little cave.” Within swimming distance from shore, only around 30 meters from the stunning coastline of Posillipo, the island is part of the Gaiola Underwater park, a 42 hectare preserve meant to protect the diverse marine ecosystem here as well as the many ancient Roman ruins that litter the area, including now submerged ruins scattered around the island’s crystal clear waters which have become the home of various marine creatures, some of which are found nowhere else. Gaoila Island itself has a definite air of romance and beauty. It is comprised of two small, serene islets which are joined by a narrow stone bridge which gives the impression of a quaint archway spanning the several meters that separate them.
Gaiola Island is steeped in history from since the Roman era, which can be seen in the numerous ancient ruins to be found here. The island was originally known to the Romans as Euplea, which was the protector of safe navigation, and was home to a temple erected in honor of the goddess Venus. Other ruins can be found here from the time of the Romans as well, and one can even peer down into the clear, azure waters to see ruins lost to the sea underwater in the ancient Roman harbor, now patrolled by various colorful fish. It is said that the legendary poet, and some say magician, Virgil, once taught his students here on the island among the area’s majestic scenery. The island would go on to be the location of factories in the 17th century and then eventually as a defense battery for the Gulf of Naples.
For all appearances, Isola La Gaiola seems to be a quaint, romantic getaway, but the history would take a turn for the bizarre and ominous, ultimately leading to its reputation among locals as a forsaken, cursed place which residents of the area claim hides a “restless fate.” Things would start to become odd starting in the early 19th century, when a reclusive hermit known only as “The Wizard” took up residence on the island, wandering about and surviving on a meager diet of fish given to him by altruistic local fishermen until he just suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. Not long after this, a rustic villa, as well as a cable car connected to the mainland, was built on one of the islets by the wealthy author, Norman Douglas, and it is from this point that the island would truly begin to turn from secluded beauty to menace, as a series of wealthy owners would go on to be plagued by misfortune and premature, mysterious death.
The curse of Gaiola Island can probably be said to have begun with one owner named Luigi de Negri, whose fish packing business went belly up and drove him into bankruptcy shortly after moving to the island. In the 1920s, a wealthy Swiss man by the name of Hans Braun acquired ownership of the island. Soon after moving into the villa, Braun would be found mysteriously murdered at the villa, with his body rolled up and hidden within a carpet. Shortly after this gruesome discovery, Braun’s wife would tragically drown in the calm, clear waters of the gulf, even though she was a strong swimmer and conditions had been placid. Ownership of the island passed on to the wealthy German Otto Grunback, who then promptly suffered a fatal heart attack. These unfortunate incidents did not deter other rich Europeans from vying for ownership of Gaiola Island. Pharmaceutical industrialist Maurice-Yves Sandoz was the next to purchase the island and its villa, yet soon after is said to have gone stark, raving insane, and would later commit suicide at a mental hospital in Switzerland. A German steel industrialist, Baron Karl Paul Langheim, bought the island next, only to end up in catastrophic economic ruin not long after, losing his entire vast fortune.
The island was not finished with its wickedness just yet. Next to acquire Giaola Island was Gianni Agnelli, the head of the legendary automotive company Fiat, whose only son committed suicide shortly after. Agnelli would lose more relatives to the curse, when his nephew Umberto Agnelli, whom he had been grooming to take over the company after the untimely death of his son, suddenly died of an extremely rare form of cancer at the young age of only 33. The multi-billionaire oil tycoon Paul Getty then purchased the island and subsequently his grandson was kidnapped. The last private owner of the island was Gianpasquale Grappone, whose prosperous insurance company soon crumbled, and who would subsequently be jailed for debt and fraud. Gaiola Island did not even seem to be content with sowing misery on its own turf, as Franco Ambrosio and his wife Giovanna Sacco were found mysteriously and brutally murdered in their villa directly opposite the island in 2009.
After the arrest and incarceration of Grappone, the island fell under the ownership of the Campania region and has remained, perhaps understandably, uninhabited. If one did not know of Gaiola Island’s dark and sinister history, one may be inclined to wonder why such a remarkably splendid little island surrounded by clear blue waters has been left abandoned and left to the elements. The sweeping, breathtaking ocean vistas remain, as does its inviting azure waters, quaint, meandering cobblestone streets, and its sprawling villa, now left a derelict slowly decaying into shambles. Directly adjacent to the island is the pristine and beautiful coastline, still left relatively untouched by the droves of flocking tourists common to many other parts of Italy. Yet for all of this natural beauty, Isola La Gaiola remains desolate and forgotten, with no new people lining up to buy it; a place surrounded with whispers of curses and which locals avoid despite its easy accessibility by boat or even swimming.
Is the seemingly peaceful, postcard perfect island of Giaola cursed, its magnificence a mere pleasing mask behind which some primeval evil lurks? Can the string of misfortune attributed to the island be blamed on dark forces which somehow twist and warp the fates of those who come here, or is this simply a series of unfortunate coincidences? Whatever the answer to these questions may be, it seems clear that what the eye beholds is not always the full picture, and there are places with ominous secrets lodged down in the blackened, ugly underbelly concealed by a facade of elegant splendor and beauty. One wonders who will be next to be drawn to the allure of Gaiola Island, perhaps to purchase it and just maybe experience the island’s secrets for themselves. For now it sits out in its calm, clear waters, with its enticing appearance, surrounded by the ruins of lost civilizations as well as of those who would have called it home, perhaps waiting for its next victim.