Isola d'Elba

Isle of Elba: Open air architecture

An abundance of small Romanesque churches

A number of granite parish churches were built on Elba during the Romanesque period; all together they create an organic system, particularly in the Monte Capanne area, from which the building materials were obtained. These churches all have a similar structure: a single nave, a semi-circular apse directed towards the East, a few single-light windows and small wall belfries. Many of these long abandoned churches still have their evocative walls but no roof, they are small, precious receptacles from inside which it is possible to admire an extraordinary wedge of blue sky. Today, San Giovanni Battista, near Sant'Ilario in Campo, is an open air church with pillars at the corners and a bell-tower on the façade. The constant presence of the number three, such as the 3:1 ratio of the nave, and the windows - three on the apse as well as the side walls - is a reference to the Holy Trinity made by the Cistercian monks, who built the church; the building was also used as a hermitage until the mid 19th century.


San Niccolò, formerly Santi Pietro e Paolo, at San Piero in Campo, built on the remains of a Roman temple dedicated to Glaucos, was altered several times, setting back the façade, and was also fortified during the Renaissance. It is the only example of a church with two circular apses which, today, have been transformed into continuous walls, and a double wall belfry. The church contains various frescoes from the Catalan school which possibly date back to the 15th century. San Michele near Capoliveri (fig. 15), of Lombard origin, is one of the oldest churches on the island. Today completely ruined, only the apse remains, decorated with external aracatures, as well as part of the other perimeter walls.


San Quirico, near Rio nell'Elba, is also in ruins. It was built on the site of the city of Grassera which was razed to the ground by Turkish pirates. Santo Stefano alle Trane (fig. 14), Portoferraio, in the locality of Magazzini, has blind arches on the façade and corbels on the springers of the arches over the doors and the arcatures of the apses, featuring small heads, animals, flowers and vegetable decorations. This is the only Romanesque church still used as a place of worship. San Lorenzo near Marciana, now an open air church, was partly destroyed by Turkish pirates in 1554; it has an irregular plan, with an arch and architrave on the portal and the springer of a large wall belfry.


San Frediano and San Bartolomeo are two churches located on the western ridge of Monte Capanne; all that remains of them today are low perimeter walls which illustrate their rectangular shape and apses. After their original function was abandoned, they were even used as animal enclosures. On the eastern part of the island it is also possible to find the remains of the Romanesque churches of San Felo, derived from the name San Felice, in Rio Marina, and San Mennato or Bennato, in Cavo.

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