The transformation from being a sea town to an important iron extraction centre

Although there is very little information concerning Rio Marina during the prehistoric and Neolithic periods, there are important traces of Neolithic settlements.

There are no details of when work in the iron ores actually started, but we do know the Etruscans began as far back as the eighth century BC, and the remains of the furnaces they used are proof both of iron extraction and intense work with iron and steel.

Just like the iron and steel work, that in the iron ores also continued through the Roman period. The mines were exploited during the Middle Ages by the Pisans, who built a huge compound for stocking the iron in the area known today as Spiazzi, and here we can see the first buildings where the vein was. The inhabitants continued living in Rio Alto up to the middle of the 18th century, and were divided into three groups: quarrymen, farmers and sailors.

At this point the small, hillside town lost its third group because they moved down to the sea and founded Rio Marina, then called Marina di Rio. This third group went on to lead an important role in the economy of Rio.

The new town consisted mainly of sailors, ship owners, ship builders, shippers and caulkers. The quarrymen were but a small minority, at least up to the 19th century, and in a scale of merits a sailor had much more presige than a miner, because the sea was much more important than a mine.

The Rio navy, as regards the ratio of men to ships, was in no way inferior to the Ligurian one, but came up against serious problems with the arrival of steam. Steamboats took the place of sailing boats, and steamships literally pushed the "wind bags" off the main courses; even the Rio Marina sailing ships started to disappear, initially being limited to coastal navigation and later being used soley as barges for transporting minerals.

This dramatic transformation is described in a romantic way in the novel "Sunset in Elba" by Luigi Berti.

The shipowners, however, didn't lose heart. Some leave Elba and settled in the main ports of the Mediterranean (Genova, Marseille and Barcelona), but those who choose to stay behind abandoned their sea life and started working in the mines, where they had the chance of better wages. This way, not only did they manage to keep their social status, some even improved it.

Giuseppe Tonietti was one of these men. He was the elderly captain of his own ships and in 1888 started renting out mines. The relationship between Tonietti -sir Giuseppe - and his workers was the same as the one he had with his crew when he was an old sea dog: the leader and his followers. Whatever he decided was unquestionable. Rio Marina underwent drastic changes: hundreds of men, tools in hands, walked through the streets of the sea town where the wash houses, the canals, the roads and the bridges became one with the houses.

Once Tonietti's paternalistic-familiar moment had passed (1899), the crowds of workers fully understood the economic importance of what they were doing. This unfamiliar situation, however, brought with it moments of tension and in 1911 there were joint miners' and sailors' strikes; this bond still exists even today.

Some people say here you have a sea culture, but saying it was forged in the iron mines is probably more correct.

Request a free quote