Spooky season is upon us, so we thought it was the perfect time to share the legend of Isola Gaiola, an ill-fated island off the coast of Naples, with you.
Locals won’t go anywhere near Isola Gaiola. It’s cursed, they say. With a history of disappearances, drownings, murder, and suicide for those who have lived there, you can probably understand why the locals believe the legend.
Abandoned with only a crumbling villa and occasional silent narrow streets, this eerie place strangely draws you in.
Perhaps it’s the emerald waters that lap its rocky shores, or the opportunity to glimpse submerged ancient ruins that attracts brave visitors.
Isola Gaiola sits in the Tyrrhenian Sea and makes up part of the volcanic Campanian Archipelago. The island is two small rocky islets that have been connected by a short and narrow arch-shaped stone bridge.
The name Gaiola, originates from Latin for caveola or ‘little cave’, which accurately describes the cavernous coastline of Posillipo, an affluent residential area of Naples.
It’s so close to the coast that you can reach it by swimming in just a few strokes, or you can take a boat out.
The panoramic views from Gaiola are spectacular, which is perhaps why the island piqued the interest from such prominent figures who suffered what the locals call the Gaiola Malediction.
The history of the island and its surrounding coastline dates back to the 17th century when noble Romans built their factories and scenic holiday homes here.
Legend has it that the esteemed Roman poet Virgil taught his students here, and perhaps even got his divine inspiration from wandering the island.
In the 19th century, Gaiola was inhabited by a hermit, who went by the name of Il Mago (The Wizard). Living a solitary existence, relying only on the almsgiving of local fisherman, one day he vanished without a trace or explanation.
Not long after this mysterious disappearance, the island was purchased by a wealthy businessman called Luigi de Negri who owned a large fishery. He constructed the solitary private villa that still stands today and then promptly suffered financial ruin.
The island then passed into the hands of the maritime engineer Nelson Foley, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law, who sold it onto Norman Douglas, author of Siren Land, who sold it back to Foley just seven years later in 1903.
In 1911, a ship skipper, Captain Gaspare Albenga, showed interest in acquiring the island. As he was navigating around it, he crashed his ship into the rocks and subsequently drowned, although locals say neither body nor ship were ever found.
There’s some irony in this part of the legend as Gaiola was once called Euplea and considered the protector of safe navigation. In fact, it even had a small temple for those who sailed by.
In the 1920s, a Swiss businessman took possession of the island, and was subsequently found murdered and wrapped in a rug. Not long after, his wife drowned in the sea.
The island was then purchased by Otto Grunback, a German perfume dealer. While spending time at his newly acquired villa, he suffered a heart attack and instantly died.
The legend of the curse continued to swell, and yet interest never dwindled from wealthy Europeans looking for a peaceful place to spend their retirement.
Just after buying Gaiola, Maurice Yves Sanzoz, a Swiss pharmaceutical industrialist, went mad. Ending up in an asylum in Switzerland, he eventually committed suicide.
A steel industrialist from Germany, Baron Karl Paul Langheim, was next to take on Gaiola, but much like de Negri before him, was dragged into financial ruin, apparently caused by ‘wild living’.
Gianni Agnelli, the Torinese owner of automobile company Fiat, acquired the island and was probably its most notable owner. Yet even Italy’s richest man suffered its alleged curse. First, his son’s body was found under the island’s bridge in an apparent suicide, then his young nephew, Umberto, who Agnelli had begun teaching to take over the business, died of a rare cancer.
Not deterred by its history, Jean Paul Getty, an American billionaire tycoon, purchased Gaiola. He lost his oldest son to suicide and his youngest son died under suspicious circumstances.
Then, in 1973, his grandson was involved in a high-profile kidnapping by the Calabrian mafia. They sent the boy’s severed ear to Getty in the post, which forced the industrialist to pay US$3 million ransom for his safe return.
Gianpasquale Grappone, the owner of a successful insurance company, became the final private holder of Isola Gaiola. He ended up imprisoned due to unpaid debts, while his wife perished in a car accident.
In 1978, the island became the property of the government of the Campania region, who declared the island part of the Parco Sommerso di Gaiola (Gaiola Underwater Park), a protected marine area.
As the villa deteriorates and slowly approaches the fate of the island’s ancient structures, no one’s entirely sure that the curse has been lifted.
In 2009, a couple were murdered in the villa that sits across from the island, which brought the Gaiola Malediction back into the local news.
So, what do you think? Is Isola Gaiola cursed? Will you be brave enough to visit it on your next holiday to Naples?
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