There does not exist a single civilization in the Mediterranean that hasn’t left a mark of their time on Elba Island. Nature, art and a culture thousands of years old, enclosed in a microcosm of 224 square meters, create a truly unique atmosphere and evoke extraordinary scenery marked by the interactions of so many different peoples. According to mythology, Jason stopped at Porto Argon, today Capo Bianco, during his adventurous search for the Golden Fleece, and, as Virgil writes in Aeneid, it was from the same port that 300 young Elba Islanders set sail to help “Pious Aeneas” in the difficult fight against the Rutuli.
For the Etruscans, Elba was an inexhaustible source of riches: by the 8th century, the mines were already being exploited and iron was exported to the whole of the Mediterranean Basin, garnering immense wealth. There were furnaces that day and night melted the minerals in a tall blaze and which, as Aristotle claims, were the origin of the name Aethalia (flicker), attributed to Elba by Greek explorers. The five centuries of Etruscan rule left us with several necropolises, remains of some of the furnaces and numerous “hill villages,” nestled within a unique scenery.
With the decline of Etruscan power, the Romans inherited the iron and steel industry, but they also exploited the island’s granite deposits and discovered the curative muds at the Terme di San Giovanni, the splendours of the landscape and the high-quality wines. Pliny the Elder called Elba “the Island of good wine”. This production lead to immense traffic, with endless ships stopping on the island to collect amphoras: many of these are today conserved in the Archeological Museums in Portoferraio and Marciana, and, together with incredible artifacts coming from the sea, they narrate the history of exploration in the ancient era. In the most picturesque gulfs, visitors can find the grandiose patrician villas of Linguella, Grotte, and Capo Castello, joyful places today just as they were in the past.
In the Middle Ages, it was the Maritime Republic of Pisa that took the lead in exploiting the iron and granite mines on Elba: most of the columns embellishing Piazza dei Miracoli were cut by talented stonemasons from San Piero. Many traces remain from the era of Pisa’s rule, including the elegant Romanesque churches, the tower of San Giovanni in Campo, built on top of an enormous granite boulder, and most impressively, the Pisan Fortress of Marciana and the Volterraio Castle, a lookout over the mountains and sea.
By 1548, the Medici had their turn to rule the island: Cosimo I built the fortified city of Portoferraio, a true gem of military city planning. The harmony between the sea, land and buildings was so perfect that the new city was called Cosmopoli, a “cradle of civilization and culture, an example of balance and rationality”.Immediately following this, the Spanish occupied Porto Azzurro and built the imposing Forte San Giacomo, today the seat of the prison, as well as several chapels and the evocative Monserrato Sanctuary, nestled on a somber “Dolomite-like” mountain. In the 18th century, Elba was fought over by the Austrians, Germans, English and French, with chaotic diplomatic negotiations or stubborn battles, until it was given in “full ownership and sovereignty” to Napoleon Bonaparte. During the 10 months the French leader governed the island, he had an important impact: he built streets, reorganized the mining economy and increased the production and exportation of wine. A deconsecrated ancient church was transformed into an elegant theatre that, returned to its ancient splendour after a skilled restoration, now hosts important cultural programs. Upon returning to France for those 100 fateful days, Napoleon left behind two residences, today the seat of the National Museums and visited every year by the thousands.
Cover image credit: Anna Frisk