Giorgio Rosa, the engineer who built his own island

Don't try this at home —unless you have permission from the local authorities.
Maia Mulko
Black and white image of Rose Island platform in the sea.
One man's boondoggle or a brave strike against the system?

Wikimedia Commons/Emilia Romagna Tourism  

  • Have you ever wanted to escape to your own, private island?
  • In the 1960s, an engineer took this one step further and built his own offshore platform.
  • And he did it on a tight budget and with the help of just a few friends.

In the 1960s, Italian engineer Giorgio Rosa gathered a few friends and mounted a 400-square-meter platform in the Adriatic Sea, about 7.2 miles (11.6 kilometers) off the coast of Rimini. 

Given that it was thought to be located outside Italian jurisdiction, Rosa felt free to give his “island” a name, declare it an independent state, and proclaim himself its president. 

The Republic of Rose Island (Isola Delle Rose, in Italian) also got an official language, Esperanto; an official currency, the “Mill”, which was linked to the Italian lira; its own postage stamps; and even an anthem and a flag. 

Soon, the island "nation," which was only a 20-minute boat ride away from the mainland, became a popular spot for tourists, and was rumored to be a party haven beyond the control of Italian authorities.

But how could Rosa —a civilian who wasn’t even that wealthy— build his own island? 

The origin of Rose Island

Giorgio Rosa was born on February 19, 1925, in Bologna, the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy. After graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1950, he started his own engineering firm. He worked as a consultant and a teacher but dreamed of having a state of his own, where he could be “free”.

Rosa originally designed his "island nation" as a 400-square-meter, five-storey platform that was strong enough to sustain the challenges of the Adriatic Sea.

This region is subject to strong, cold winds, including the "Bora”, which blows from the northeastern direction during the cooler months of the year. This wind often creates waves with a short wavelength and rapid changes in height over a short distance along its length, making the sea choppy and turbulent, with higher waves that often interfere with navigation and construction activities. 

On top of this, the salinity of the sea could be corrosive to metal structures or components making up the platform. In all, Rosa had a lot of problems to solve in order to make his little nation stable and safe for any residents. Moreover, once he decided on the right materials, he would have to figure out a way to transport them to the construction site with limited financial resources.

That is probably why the construction of Rose Island didn’t start until 1958. And even then, the weather and sea conditions often interrupted progress, allowing Rosa and his small team to work for an average of only about three days a week for most of the time.

The construction

Rosa selected the construction site, which was located about 0.31 miles (500 meters) outside Italian territorial waters. Operating from a hut on the Rimini pier, he spent the next two years carrying out inspections on the area.

At first, he planned to create an island by raising the seafloor with a system of sand dredging, held in place by algae. But he ended up creating —and patenting— his own telescopic pillar system, which included the use of nine pylons to raise the platform about 26 feet (8 meters) above the seabed. 

Due to their size and weight, ordinary pylons would have been expensive to transport. To avoid this cost, Rosa instead created hollow pylons which could be towed out to the construction site using a motorboat. 

Once there, he flooded one end of each pylon with water and sank them vertically into the seabed, helped by the pylons’ own weight. He then inserted steel tubes into the pylons. This allowed him to fix the pylons to the seafloor, creating stability and load-bearing capacity. To prevent corrosion of the steel tubes, Rosa filled them with cement, further improving stability at the same time.

These would be used to support a 400-square-meter platform constructed of reinforced concrete (which can weigh as much as 2,53 tonnes per cubic meter).

Giorgio Rosa, the engineer who built his own island
Rose Island under construction.

To provide access to the island, Rosa built a boat landing area using rubber tubes made buoyant by being filled with fresh water. These helped to calm the water surface for disembarkation. The boat landing area, dubbed Haveno Verda (“Green Port”), was also equipped with a dock and a ladder.

Remarkably, Rosa did all of this with limited funding and equipment, and not more than a dozen people as a workforce.

In 1962, the construction temporarily came to a halt due to technical and financial problems, but Rosa was able to open the island to the public in 1967, although he had only built one storey of the five he had originally planned. On this floor was a bar, restaurant, nightclub, post office, souvenir shop, and sleeping accommodations for visitors. 

The island also had toilets and access to fresh water from an aquifer that Rosa’s team had found by drilling 918 feet (280 meters) under the platform. 

A short-lived dream

Rosa originally planned to add one more storey to his island nation each construction season. However, the Italian authorities were not pleased with the unauthorized construction of Rose Island, especially after Rosa declared its independence on May 1st, 1968.

Newspapers picked up the story and myths began swirling around the island. Rumor had it that the island was a haven for casinos, bordellos and a pirate radio station; and that it was the center of an international spy ring or a Soviet submarine base. Although none of these were ever proven, and the bar and nightclub may not even have been operational, the stories continued.

The Italian authorities had already asked Rosa to stop the construction of his island in 1966, claiming it was located in an area under concession to the state-owned energy company Eni. 

The Italian authorities finally accused Rosa of the crime of benefitting financially from tourism while avoiding national taxation, and just 55 days after Rose Island’s declaration of independence the harbourmaster and Guardia di Finanza (essentially, the police agency responsible for financial crime) surrounded the island and blockaded it.

In February 1969, Italian navy divers began work to demolish the platform, deploying explosives. But the island had been built so well that not even explosives could sink it, and it was left to a storm on February 26, 1969 to finish the job.

Giorgio Rosa, the engineer who built his own island
Rose Island after the detonations

Lasting fame

The story of Rose Island faded and was soon remembered only by Rimini residents, until Italian director Sydney Sibilia decided to make a Netflix movie about it: The Incredible Story of Rose Island (2020).

According to producer Matteo Rovere, it took a lot of money and hundreds of people to recreate the island —even in an empty pool in Malta, which was then refilled with water for the film. 

Here you can see the details of the making of the film: 

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