The Castello del Volterraio
The Castello del Volterraio is the oldest fortification on Elba. The origin of its name is uncertain and may derive from the Etruscan word ‘vultur’ (vulture) or the Volterra region, where the architect, Vanni di Gherardo Rau originated from. He took charge of the reconstruction of the castle in the thirteenth century.
The earliest parts of the building date back to the Etruscan period . It was then enlarged in 1281 by the Pisans who used the fortress for defensive reasons. It was later reinforced in 1440 and is one of the few fortresses on Elba never to have been raided by the Turkish pirates whose raiding parties sacked Elba on numerous occasions. During the terrible sieges of 1544 and 1554, many Elbans found refuge and protection within the massive walls of Volterraio. Due to its strategic location, visible from almost every point on the island, it will always stand to guard and defend the entire territory of Elba.
Today, the castle is in a state of decline. However, it has been acquired by the National Park of the Tuscan Archipelago which is overseeing a restoration project. Despite its current state, and as long as care is taken when visiting, it is worth climbing to the top of the hill upon which it stands to admire the majestic remains of its walls and enjoy a unique view over the bay of Portoferraio.
Portoferraio was founded at the behest of Cosimo I, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, from whom the city symbolically took the name Cosmopolis in 1548. It was originally conceived as a military garrison with the goal of defending the coasts of the Grand Duchy and of the island of Elba, as well as serving as headquarters for the Knights of St. Stephen.
It remained under the rule of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany until the 18th century, when the island, due to its strategic location, was in the crosshairs of a war between France, Austria, and England. In April of 1814, with the Treaty of Fontainebleau, the island was granted to Napoleon Bonaparte as the seat of his first exile. Napoleon chose Portoferraio as the island’s capital; in the city today it is still possible to see the two villas that served as his residences, the Villa di San Martino and the Villa dei Mulini. It was thanks to the reign of the French emperor, albeit brief (1814-1815), that Portoferraio grew exponentially in importance and modernity, as did the rest of the island, due to the infrastructure he created as well as the development of the iron mines of Rio Marina. During this period, Portoferraio became the main port used for the transport of iron (ferro) from the mines of Elba to the mainland; it is from this role that the city derives its name. Today, Portoferraio is the port of access to the island of Elba. With its 12,000 inhabitants, Portoferraio is the capital and heart of Elba.
Marciana is the vastest municipality on Elba and is situated in the west part of the Island. The first documents that attest the existence of the «Comune Marcianae» (Marciana municipality) are from the XIII century. The first nucleus of the fortress is also from this time period. At a later time, Marciana was chosen as the seasonal residence of the Appiano Princes, who commissioned the construction of a Mint. Despite its population, which amounts to only a little over two thousand people, the Marciana municipality is made up of the homonymous administrative center, a typical hilltop village, and of seven communities: Poggio, another hilltop village, Sant’Andrea, Zanca, Pratesi, Chiessi, Pomonte and Procchio, all focused on seaside tourism. The majority of the territory of the Marciana municipality sits inside the perimeter of the Tuscan Archipelago National Park, highlighting the importance of the local plant and wildlife. Marciana, the administrative center, and the hilltop community of Poggio are more focused on the valorization of the traditions of Elba in terms of history of the territory and of its unique enogastronomy.
The church of Santa Caterina
The church of Santa Caterina is a sacred building located in Marciana. It was built in the sixteenth century on the site of an older chapel which was incorporated into the new building. It is one of the biggest churches on the island of Elba, it has three naves, and rises to a ceiling that is partly rib vaulted and partly cross vaulted. There are eight eighteenth century altars along the side walls, built partly in brick and partly in marble, which still retain their respective altar pieces. The baptismal font in granodiorite dates back to 1435 and is surmounted by a small, eighteenth century, gilded wooden statue of John the Baptist.
Palazzina dei Mulini (Palazzo of the Mills)
The Palazzina dei Mulini was Napoleon’s primary residence in Portoferraio. It was built in 1724 by the Grand Duke Gastone de’ Medici and initially it did not look as it does today; it was remodeled according to the needs of Napoleon by Paolo Bargigli, an architect from Livorno. The remodeling included the addition of a floor to the main structure that connected the two original buildings in order to create a ballroom for parties. The entrance is found on the ground floor, where a gallery links the main rooms of the Emperor’s apartment: the first room you come upon is the hall, then the library, and then the bedroom. Passing the staircase that brings up to the ballroom, you reach the study, originally intended for Marie Louise, but actually only inhabited by her sister Paulina, and then the valets’ room. The original furnishings, brought by Napoleon from his sister’s (Elisa Baciocchi) residence in Piombino, have been lost. A meticulous restoration project for the residence has led to the refurnishing of the rooms with beautiful empire style pieces from the eighteen hundreds, which recreate the imperial atmosphere that lingers in the rooms of the building. On the other hand, the library still stores the most important Napoleonic materials: the books that the Emperor took with him from the libraries in Fontainbleau and those that were given to him by his uncle, cardinal Fesch. Today the Palazzina dei Mulini, Napoleon’s official residence, is a National Museum. On the occasion of the bicentennial celebrations of 2014, the building has undergone the first phase of restoration, which will be followed by others to bring the villa back to its original splendor.
Villa San Martino
The Villa San Martino or Villa Bonaparte is one of the two residences that Napoleon Bonaparte used during his stay on Elba between May 1814 and February 1815. Located in the San Martino community in the Municipality of Portoferraio, even though often thought of as his countryside home, it was actually the one dedicated to the private life of the emperor in exile. For his public life and activities he used primarily his other home, the Palazzina dei Mulini (Palazzo of the Mills), which is located in the higher part of Portoferraio. Even though it is a rather small villa, Napoleon did not want it to be missing any of the comforts and refinement of Parisian lifestyle. The structure has a simple square layout, with the first floor dedicated to social life and the ground floor dedicated to the bathrooms, among them the neoclassical one known as of Paolina that has a fresco depicting Verità (Truth). On the first floor the Emperor commissioned the construction of a library, where he is said to have spent a lot of time. The two most important rooms are the Sala del nodo d’amore (The love knot room) dedicated to his marriage to Marie Louise of Austria, and the Sala egizia (Egyptian room), decorated with hieroglyphics and pyramids, a large zodiac on the ceiling and other scenes representing the main feats of Napoleon; in the middle of this room we also still find an octagonal tub.
Campo, with its 4.657 inhabitants, is the second largest municipalità in Isola d’Elba. It is very sparse, as the town is built by several smaller towns that are now municipal villages: the capital town is Marina di Campo. During the Middle Ages, as part of the Republic of Pisa, Comune de Campo indicated two hill towns of San Piero in Campo and Sant’Ilario in Campo. The current village of Marina di Campo was built in the following centuries nearby the fields (campus in Latin) formerly named Maremma dell’Elba, for its wetland characteristic. The town, called Port’i Campo, developed around Torre di Marina di Campo, certified in 1596, and the small church of San Gaetano da Thiene. Nearby there is the San Mamiliano church, presumably early Romanesque and documented as of the fourteenth century, that preserves bone relics of the Saint. The municipal area also includes l’isola di Pianosa and l’isolotto della Scola. In the western part of town lies the Costa del Sole, which includes the most famous and the most beautiful location of the island.
La Pieve and the San Giovanni’s Tower
La pieve di San Giovanni in Campo and the Torre of the same name are located on the panoramic street where Sant’Ilario goes toward Monte Perone.
La pieve di San Giovanni in Campo is a sacred building in Pisan-Romanesque style located in Morota, municipality of Campo nell’Elba. The building is a plant with a single nave with semicircular apse. At the top of the facade, above the cruciform window, there’s the bell tower with a single light. The construction of the church dates back to the twelfth century. Lacking a roof thanks to the attack of a pirate named Dragut in 1553, in alliance with Francesco I, it was partly officiated until 1837 with a temporary roof that covered only the part of presbytery. The church was restored in 1973.
La torre di San Giovanni is a defense tower also located in Morota. The tower is positioned strategically, on a spur of granite rock. Presumably it was built in the eleventh century by the Republic of Pisa for the defense of its territory, with the help of the maritime traffic control around the Piombino canal; as a result, the defensive structure passed on to the Principality of Piombino. The tower, a common structure for this type of defense, was visibly connected the fortress of Volterraio. The tower, even though it was damaged throughout the centuries, continues to dominate Golfo di Campo. In 1995 it was restored by the Superintendent of the monuments of Pisa, with interventions that repaired some of the damages caused by a sudden movement or the rock on which the building stands.
Capoliveri is one of the eight municipalities on the island of Elba. The name of the town is widely believed to have originated during the Middle Ages; one of the earliest mentions of the town is in the form of Capolibero, and dates back to 1260. The names Caput Liberum and Caput Ilvae, meanwhile, were recorded by local scholars in the 18th century. The meaning is uncertain. Perhaps the name is related to the god Liber, or Bacchus, alluding to the winemaking already present in Roman times. Or, more likely, the name may derive from the island terrain where Capoliveri crops up (libero, “free,” as it is surrounded by the ocean).
Capoliveri shares a historic link with Napoleon Bonaparte. After Napoleon’s Italian campaign in 1799, an obstinate resistance arose amongst the people of Capoliveri. When the citizens killed a group of French soldiers fleeing from Longone, the counterattack of a garrison originating from Portoferraio destroyed almost the entire town. This historical background explains why, when Napoleon arrived in exile as the Emperor of Elba in 1814, he was greeted with skepticism in Capoliveri, while all the other municipalities of Elba welcomed him as a liberator. Until 1906, Capoliveri belonged to the municipality of Porto Longone, now called Porto Azzurro. Today, one of Capoliveri’s most important economic resources is tourism.
Poggio is part of the ‘comune’ of Marciana, on the island of Elba, situated at a height of 330 m above sea level on a spur of Mount Capanne.
During the eighteenth century there were major changes in the fabric of the village, particularly with the enlargement of the two churches of San Niccolò and San Defendente. In 1814 Poggio was often visited by Napoleon Bonaparte during his exile on Elba. The village was visited by the artist Telemaco Signorini in 1898, who immortalised it in numerous paintings. From 1946, Poggio became an international tourist destination due to the creation of the Terme Fonte di Napoleone (Napoleon’s spring) and the Locanda Monte Capanne hotel. Amongst the hotel’s guests were Winston Churchill, Greta Garbo and Giorgio De Chirico. The latter, whilst on holiday in Poggio in August 1950, decided to have a vast residence built on a ruin in the village and to call it symbolically, Forte Pelio (Fort fleece), in reference to myth of the Argonauts.
A short distance from the village there are two places related to the presence of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in 1814. The Fonte di Napoleone (Napoleon’s spring), formerly known as the Fonte dell’Acquaviv (Acquaviva spring), and the nearby Piazzetta di Napoleone, so named since at least the 1840s and characterized by the presence of a roughly hewn granodiorite seat on which Bonaparte is said to have sat.
The Mines of Capoliveri
The excavation of minerals on the island of Elba, and in particular in the municipality of Capoliveri, originated long ago, as testified by the various archeological finds dating back to ancient Rome and even earlier, to the Etruscans. Until the 18th century, the promontory of Mt. Calamita was frequented by naturalists and geologists, who scrambled up precarious paths in order to study the magnetite that was said to attract the iron parts of ships that passed in front of the peak called Mt. Calamita, “Mount Magnet.” It was under the grand duchy of Lorena that the first dockyards to offer new economic prosperity to Capoliveri were opened, which until that point had sustained itself solely through farming and fishing. There were three Capoliveri mines: Calamita, Ginevro, and Sassi Neri. The principal mineral extracted was magnetite, though limonite and hematite could also be found in small amounts. Also found was copper both in its pure form and in other mineral forms, especially malachite and azurite. For this reason it was theorized that copper had been mined in this region in ancient times, even earlier than the mining of iron. Since mining there came to an end in the early 1980s, the mines have been all but abandoned. Now they are the focus of a project to re-launch tourism, through operations that make them accessible to visitors and for scientists to study.
Sansone Beach, deemed by many as the most beautiful of the entire Elba Island, is found in Portoferraio, close to the steep white coast typical of the north side of the island, which spans between Capo Bianco (Cape White) and Capo Enfola (Cape Enfola). This beach’s water is crystal clear, especially in those days when the sirocco wind is blowing. Since access from the road is not extremely easy (10 minutes walk), this enchanting white pebble beach is usually not heavily frequented.
The first beach that you come upon from the access trail is the La Sorgente (The Spring) beach, also small and made up of tiny white rocks. To reach Sansone Beach you have to continue down a second trail that climbs back up the small hill. Once over the promontory that separates the two beaches, you have to follow the last stretch of trail, slightly steep, to finally reach the beach, still wild today and without food and drink stands or state concessions.
Capo Bianco (Cape White) Beach
Capo Bianco (Cape White) is a white pebble beach with crystal clear water, not far from the center of Portoferraio. A beautiful shore of white gravel, like the other nearby beaches in this span of the coast, it is found between a low and rocky ocean floor and a brittle white eurite rock promontory, which is the source of the pebbles that the ocean shapes to form the shoreline. The most fascinating part of this beach is the east side, towards the promontory, with its ocean floor that spans all the way to the nearby Secche di Capobianco (Cape White Shoals); this beach is also popular because of the high number of sunlight hours that it gets. The sunrays usually hit the beach until sunset. On the promontory that separates this beach from Padulella, the gun houses of the anti-aircraft coast battery that were set up to defend Portoferraio in the Second World War are still visible. However, to reach this part of the beach, one is often forced to wade through a few meters of water to get around a rocky cliff that the sea brushes up against, depending on the tide and temporary consistency of the shoreline. On the side of the beach towards the Capobianco promontory, the summer also brings striking sunsets that color the white cliffs.