Evidence regarding human presence on the island dates back to Neolithic times and is represented by the hypogeic tombs, or domus de janas, located In the area of Campu Perdu. Some texts of Greco-Roman origin link it to the myth of Hercules, who in his travels allegedly reached Sardinia and Asinara itself, an anecdote that is the origin of one of its oldest names Herculis insula.
Its location in the center of the Mediterranean made it a commercial outpost and a place of defense for centuries. Frequented first by the Romans-who would also give it the name Sinuaria, because of its jagged, sinuous shape, landing place of the Byzantines and Arab populations, in the Middle Ages it became the scene of clashes between maritime republics for control of Sardinia.
From 1100 and for several decades it was inhabited by a group of Camaldolese monks, a Benedictine order that founded the monastery of St. Andrew. Not many tangible traces remain today of the ancient structure, named after the area in which it was originally located. After the dark decades brought about by the raids of privateers and pirates and marked by several attempts at colonization, the first stable community finally took shape on the island. These are shepherds of Sardinian origin and some fishing families from Liguria and various parts of Italy.
Despite difficulties, due to lack of resources and distance from Sardinia, the Asinare community experienced a phase of relative tranquility until the early modern age, when the Italian government made a drastic decision.
In 1885, after a long intellectual and political debate, a proposal for the installation of a lazaretto and an agricultural penal colony was approved in the House. To make way for the project, the population is forcibly displaced and forced to leave behind their homes and land. The families dispersed to various parts of northern Sardinia, and some of them settled in the Stintino area, where they founded the village of the same name.
As of this time, Asinara is administered entirely by the two principals. The penal colony bases its system and principles on the forced labor of inmates and is organized in a dozen branches built at different times and spread throughout the territory. In them, the prison population is divided according to the severity of crimes and skills: in fact, each facility is used for different productive activities that take advantage of the characteristics of the area, from theanimal husbandry, to the cultivation of grains and vines. Later, in the stabilization phase of the colony, inmates at the end of their sentences or convicted of misdemeanors are allowed to work in specialized occupations such as shoemaking, barbering and mechanics.
The Forty-year-old Maritime Health Station, on the other hand, takes in the crews of ships transiting the Mediterranean suspected of having contracted epidemics such as cholera and tuberculosis. It too is divided into a number of buildings called “Periods,” where patients spend the various stages of remission of the disease. It remained active until after World War II, when most epidemics were eradicated thanks to medical advances and improved general living conditions.
In the early twentieth century, Asinara also became a prison camp.
Starting in 1915, the Italian state had thousands of Austro-Hungarian prisoners transferred there to spend a period of confinement. Captured during the war and detained in Serbia, when it is invaded they are dragged into the long retreat of the Serbian people to the Italian ally, in a tortuous path that claims many lives and is handed down by historical accounts as “the death march.” When they finally, after many passages, arrive at the Asinara prison camp they are tried by disease and hardship and despite the efforts of medical personnel and the Italian army many of them die on the island-they are buried in the Campu Perdu Ossuary, built in 1936.
In the 1930s, during Mussolini’s colonial campaign in North Africa, the concentration camp housed a group of Ethiopian prisoners, some from the aristocratic ranks, including Princess Romanework Haile Selassie (1913 – Turin, Oct. 14, 1940), the eldest daughter of Emperor Haile Selassie. One of his sons becomes seriously ill with tuberculosis and dies on the island. The princess was transferred to Turin, Italy, to the convent of the Consolata missionaries where she remained until her death.
In 1943, north of Asinara, in the sea beyond Punta Scorno, another important event of international significance took place: the battleship Roma, the famous Italian warship, sank under the blows of some German bombers.
When the Sanitary Station closed its doors at the end of World War II, the penal colony had full control over the territory. In the 1970s, the prison institution underwent a transformation: security was upgraded and some branches were renovated, which soon became the home of the superprison. Despite the discontent of the residents of Porto Torres, who see the island as further distant and armored, over the course of several decades some of the most prominent figures of Cosa Nostra, the Camorra, organized terrorism including the Red Brigades, and Sardinian banditry are locked up there.
Extreme security measures make it suitable for housing, temporarily, Judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino during the preparation of some documents for the Mafia trials. In 1985, the two magistrates stayed with their families for about a month at the Ex Foresteria di Cala d’Oliva, now barracks of the Forestry Corps of the Region of Sardinia.
The closure of the Asinara prison comes gradually and after intense protests from the local community, which since the 1960s has glimpsed the potential of converting the territory into a protected area and has not forgotten the ancient expropriation. In 1997 the project finally saw the light of day: the Asinara National Park was born, which was followed a few years later by the founding of the Marine Protected Area, both of which pertain to a single body, the “Asinara Island” National Park and Marine Protected Area Authority.