The moment we think of Elba four things come to mind: the wonderful sea around the island, the lush, green Mediterranean bush, the magnificent beaches with all the unique inlets, and, last but not least, Napoleon, even though he only stayed on the island for less than a year.
The history of this island, however, isn't limited to the mere ten months of the French Emperor's stay, but starts much further back in time: it starts in the Middle and Upper Paleolith; there is proof of this in the Archaeology Museum in Marciana, along with evidence from Saint Giuseppe's eneolithic burial and from the subapennine villages on the Marciana mountainside, as told by Doctor Umberto Gentini, ex Director of the Tuscan Archipelago Tourism Promotion Office.
"History has chosen the island of Elba as its theatre where important events are shown: every Mediterranean civilization has left proof of its presence on the island. Nature, art and ancient culture are all held in 224 square metres of microcosm, creating a unique atmosphere, bringing breathtaking views back to life, all this thanks to past civilizations.
According to mythological tales, Giasone stopped in Porto Argon, now called Capo Bianco, during his adventurous search for the Golden Fleece; and according to Virgil's Aeneid, three hundred young men from Elba set sail from Porto Argon to offer their assistance to "Pio Enea" in his difficult fight against the Rutuli. As regards the Etruscans, Elba proved to be an unlimited source of richness: the mines were already being exploited as far back as the VIII century BC and the iron being exported all over the Mediterranean, bringing the Etruscans much wealth.
In this way the first ovens were born, in which minerals were melted night and day, and according to Aristotole, this gave way to the name Aethalia, or spark, a name given to Elba by the Greek sailors. The five century rule of the Etruscans can be seen today in the various necropolis, or what remains of the ovens, or the numerous "hillside villages" standing out from breathtaking surroundings.
As the Etruscan rule came to an end, the Romans not only inherited their iron and steel industry but also improved the granite deposits and discovered the mud baths in the Terme San Giovanni, not to mention the beautiful landscapes and excellent wines.
To quote Plinio il Vecchio "The Island of Good Wine", and this explains the many ships carrying amphoras full of wine, many of which can be admired in the Archaeology Museums in Portoferraio and Marciana. These, along with amazing findings the sea has brought in, telling us the story of ancient sailings. The magnificent patrician villas in La Linguella, Le Grotte and Capo Castello were built in some of the island's most beautiful gulfs, and even today are places of absolute bliss.
During the Middle Ages it was the turn of the Maritime Republic of Pisa's to exploit the iron mines and granite deposits in Elba: indeed most of the columns in Piazza dei Miracoli were made from skilled stone-cutters from San Piero. There is much proof of the Pisan presence too: the elegant Romanesque churches and the tower of San Giovanni in Campo, built on a giant granite rock, but above all the majestic "Fortress" in Marciana and the Volterraio castle, standing on guard to protect the mountains and the sea.
The Medici arrived in 1548: Cosimo I built the fortified town of Portoferraio, considered a military gem. The harmony between sea, land and architecture was so perfect that the new town was given the name of Cosmopoli, "heart of civilization and culture, a perfect example of balance and rationality".
Immediately afterwards the Spanish settled in Porto Azzurro and built not only the majestic Forte San Giacomo, today a prison, but also various chapels, as well as the suggestive Santuario of Monserrato, set on a high "dolomitic" mountain.
In the XVIII century, the Austrians, the Germans, the English and the French fought to rule over Elba, going from frenetic diplomatic discussions to fierce battles, until it was given to Napoleon Bonaparte as "sole owner and leader". In only ten months of ruling he left very significant signs: he built roads, reorganized the mining economy, increased the wine production and exportation.
He made a nice theatre out of an ancient, deconsecrated church; the building has since been restored to perfection and today important cultural meetings are often held there.
When he returned to France for his famous hundred days, he left two residences that are now National Museums visited by thousands of people every year.
But there is more magic yet to come. Elba is the Macchiaiolo painters' paradise; both national and international artists get together in discreet meeting places, and open their mind and their heart to memories.
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