Fancy a treasure hunt? About 1000 years ago, Tuscany witnessed a period marked by natural disasters and frequent pirate attacks, which consequentially led to the construction of numerous churches. At the time, Elba Island was under Pisa’s ecclesiastical jurisdiction; for this reason, the same architectural style of Pisa's main cathedral was applied to a series of smaller Romanesque-style churches on Elba. All of the churches built on Elba Island boast similar dimensions and the same architectural features. For example, the length of the nave is always two times the church’s width and features a semi-circular apse on the back wall. The churches are all oriented East-West and display a small belfry among the main entrance. High on the eastern and western walls you’ll find a small Greek cross-shaped window. Each of the following churches you’ll find on Elba Island were built by local stonemasons using the area’s local stone.
The most well preserved church still in use today is the Church of Santo Stefano alle Trane, located on a small hilltop overlooking Schiopparello and Magazzini. This beautiful structure dates to the second half of the 12th century. Though the belfry did not survive the withering of time, the façade still preserves its unique series of three blind arches. Above the secondary doors, you’ll see beautiful floral and animal decorations sculpted in stone. Centuries ago, this would have been the main church of a nearby village called Latrani, which no longer exists today.
The Church of Santi Pietro e Paolo (now known as the Church of San Niccolò) is in a panoramic spot on the outskirts of San Piero. Partially integrated into the 15th-century fortress, the church was subsequently renovated. A portion of the nave was left uncovered to create a sort of internal patio while a series of central columns divide the nave into two portions. The two apses were later truncated; indeed, two altars now stand on the far wall. On the northern and southern internal walls you’ll find a number of beautiful frescoes of saints and the Crucifixion attributed to a Catalan artist from the 16th century.
The Church of San Giovanni in Campo was once a medieval priory that overlooked the towns of San Piero and Sant'Ilario. This is Elba Island’s largest Romanesque church and is surprisingly well conserved, including its beautiful belfry (the only remaining on the island). On the southern side, traces of a former building can be discerned, perhaps the remains of a hermitage for the many monks present in the area. This church is located on the road going up to Monte Perone from Sant'Ilario or San Piero.
The Church of San Lorenzo in Marciana is found on a plateau in the valley below Poggio and Marciana. The church nave boasts a rather irregular shape and still maintains portions of its original belfry. Blocks of local granite were used to build the church, stones that were cut much larger than Elba Island’s other churches.
The Church of San Michele in Capoliveri was recently restored and used as a mortuary chapel. The structure is located beneath the town of Capoliveri on the old road that once connected Capoliveri to the port of Mola. Only the apse and part of the northern wall are part of the original structure, but even these smaller sections reveal that this church was once the most beautiful Romanesque church on Elba Island. In the morning of November 17, 1376, with joy and surprise for the church congregation, Pope Gregory XI held mass here.
If you have time, there are other churches worth seeing on the island, such as the Church of Santa Maria della Neve in Lacona, which was later enlarged, and the Church of Sant'Ilario. These beautiful age-old monuments exude centuries of charm - truly magical places that enchant their every visitor. To this day, countless marriages are celebrated in these tiny churches, splendid spaces that are well worth the treasure hunt to find them.
This is a guest post by Fiona Buttigieg – Visit Elba Social Media Team.