Protoferraio And The Island Of Elba

ELBA, though easy of access as compared with some of the interesting inland towns of Tuscany, seems to be little known, as it certainly is little frequented by English travelers. To take there-fore, in the first instance — with apologies to the well-informed —a few facts of elementary geography.

Elba is the principal island of the Tyrrhenian Archipelago. It is situate ten miles east of the nearest point on the mainland of Italy, and fifty miles south-west of Leghorn. Its superficies is eighty-six square miles; the extent of its sinuous coast, some seventy-one miles; its greatest length, between the perpendiculars (so to speak), eighteen miles; its greatest breadth, east of Cape Pina, six miles;1 its population some twenty -five thousand souls. The coast is steep and rocky; the whole island one intricate mountain chain; the soil ferruginous and very fertile; the climate mild and healthy. Portoferraio, on the north coast, is the capital city, and the island contains four other communes—Marciana, Rio, Porto Longone, and Campo. Administratively, Elba forms part of the Province of Leghorn; ecclesiastically, it is within the mainland diocese of Massa Marittima. The King is represented in the island by a Sub-Prefect; the Bishop of Massa by a Vicar-General. Excavating in the important iron ore mines, working the extensive Government Saline or saltpans, sea-fishing and seafaring, agriculture and viticulture, are among the chief industries of its hardy, laborious, and orderly population.

There are two ways of getting to Elba. You can go from the small port of Piombino (four hours by train from Leghorn, six hours from Rome), whence a little packet-boat, taking an hour in the transit, runs twice daily to Portoferraio. Or, what is much pleasanter, you can go by Florio-Rubattino boat twice a week direct from Leghorn. This is one of the most delightful sea-trips imaginable. The steamer touches first at the island of Gorgona, then at the island of Capraia, proceeds thence to Marciana in Elba, and so along the splendid island-coast to Portoferraio. The whole journey, which is done by day, takes some eight hours. Sometimes—a contingency to be avoided—a gang of convicts, chained together and surveillanced by files of carabineers, will be among your fellow-passengers, for Gorgona and Capraia, as also Portoferraio and Porto Longone in Elba, and the island of Pianosa beyond, are important Italian convict establishments. Their villainous scrubby faces, in contrast with their farcical costume of striped fustian and jaunty little cap, produce a gruesome, shuddering effect as they sprawl there on the lower deck munching great hunks of bread, or playing at chuck-farthing to pass the time. But the experience is interesting, more especially if the brigadier is easy-going and does not resent your having speech with his engaging charges. Sometimes the boats that row out to the steamer at Gorgona or Capraia are manned by convicts, veritable galley-slaves they seem thus afloat. They have come to fetch off the new arrivals to their settlement, or it may be to bring aboard some prisoners who are changing. There are at the present moment some nine hundred and fifty convicts in the island of Elba. and nearly two thousand in the whole of the Tuscan Archipelago.

Soon the finely-placed lighthouse of Portoferraio comes in sight, and, rounding the point, one of the finest sights in all Italy breaks upon our astonished view—the vast, deep inland bay of Portoferraio, which might comfortably ensconce in securest shelter the whole of Her Majesty’s great navy. One turn more, round the point called La Linguella, which is entirely occupied by the convict establishment, and we are in the actual harbour of Portoferraio, facing the picturesque little town with its houses piled high above one another, amphitheatrically grouped, and crowned by majestic old fortresses.

In Portoferraio the traveller will make his headquarters. There is but one hostelry here into which the English traveller will venture, the Albergo delle Api, or Bees, so called from the famous charge in the Buonaparte family arms. Baedeker calls it “fair,” and as this has somewhat of the sound of a damnatory clause, I will make bold to call it “good.” Good it will certainly seem to the real traveller accustomed to the world’s by-ways. It is rough certainly; rough it will seem to the pampered sojourner on the Riviera; but it is clean, and a slight know-ledge of Italian will procure you simple, whole-some fare. In the remotest parts of Tuscany you can always eat well if you ask for a ” bistecca sui ferri,” or beefsteak off the grill. Add in warning tones ” senz’aglio ” (without garlic). ” E naturale,” the serving-man will reply, though but for your warning the grill would have been soused in what is said to be the best of digestives were but the British stomach already seasoned to it. And beware, too, of sage (salvia), with which they love to lard a plain roast of beef in quantities, so as to make it tasty forsooth!

In Elba—except the deep footprints of Napoleon, and I leave these alone for the present—there are scarcely any “sights.” There is, of course, the ” sight ” of Nature at her best and beautifullest, in forms unique to herself and which can only be seen in Elba. But the traveller should not neglect to ramble about the wonderful old fortifications which dominate both land and sea, and made Portoferraio in times past practically impregnable. Until recently he might wander there at his sweet will, but now a permit (never refused) from the officer in command of the few troops is necessary. The fortifications are today destitute of even a single cannon to salute the warships which occasionally call, but there is no doubt that Portoferraio, with its splendid bay and great natural advantages, might be made to contribute powerfully to the safety of the now defenceless Tuscan coast. But modern Italy has her hands full, and her treasury empty. She must wait years for the security which helps nations to develop; but one of her first tasks in the better days that we all hope are in store for her, will be to make of Elba a second La Maddalena.

From Portoferraio endless and delightful excursions may be made. It is wise, and it certainly is pleasant too, to use boats as much as possible. The roads, though excellent, are few and tortuous, carriage-hire is dear, and hired horseflesh inferior. Most enjoyable is the sail along the northern coast to Marciana Marina. There is a good inn here where you can sleep in cleanliness and comfort: best bedroom, one franc; second best, fifty centimes; or, if the fancy take you, a room may be shared with commercial travellers at thirty centesimi a bed. Here, too, as else-where, you may be sure of a wholesome meal (grilled beefsteaks), and the same pure yellow wine of the island that you get everywhere, rich in iron and tonic properties.

From Marciana there are some beautiful and interesting mountain excursions—to Poggio, for example, or to Marciana Alta. Do not go in company of a botanist, or you will take all day in reaching your destination. Never have I seen, in the same narrow corner of the earth, so wonderful, so varied an array of wild flowers. I was (unfortunately) in the company of a botanist who lost his head as only the scientific can, mumbled the names of flowers of which I had never heard, of scrubby weeds that used to grow but will no longer grow in England, and of ferns that had no right to grow in the altitude we found them. The cactus hedges and hedgerows of prickly pears in Elba are a sight which even the most unbotanical mind is constrained to admire, and the richly embroidered carpets of poppies, borage, scabious, dog-daisies, marigolds, vetches—richer and more deeply coloured than the English variety, red, blue, violet, yellow, mauve-afford a picture which the common observer will enjoy even more than the greedy herbalist.

From Marciana, by way of Poggio, you may reach the highest point of Elba, Monte Capanne, 3343 feet above the sea-level—no mean altitude for so small an island, and a sufficiently stiff climb. From the summit on a carefully chosen day you may see what the birds’ eyes view—the whole island girt by the deep blue sea, in the north the islands of Gorgona and Capraia, in the south the island of Pianosa and the rock of Monte Cristo known to readers of Dumas. Seek out a guide at Poggio. It is a pleasant variation to descend on the other side of the Capanne to Campo, and thence you can drive to your natural headquarters, the Albergo delle Api at Portoferraio.

But there is perhaps, after all, one “sight ” in Elba. It has been celebrated by Aristotle and Virgil (” Insula inexhaustis Chalybum generosa metallis,” and everybody goes to see it: the rich, splendid iron-ore mines of Rio-marina, chief prop and backbone of Elban industrial life. To drive to Riomarina by the winding road through Porto Logone and Rio d’Elba is a lengthy matter (fully three hours) and costly beyond reason. It is quicker, more economic far, and far more pleasant, to take a sailing-boat across the bay to the little agglomeration of houses known as I Magazzini. There, if an hour and a half’s walk along a roughish mule path—the moiety of it a gradual ascent—should prove too much, a horse can be had all the way to Rio for two livres, or you can take the horse half-way to where the descent begins for one livre. It is a beautiful walk, but here again it is as well to leave the botanist behind at the inn, or send him round by carriage. There is the same wealthy profusion of wild flowers, and there are shrubs and roots on inaccessible crags which he will risk his neck and disturb your peace of mind to get hold of. Midway you pass the towering summit of the Volterraio, crowned with the fine ruins of its keep and castle. Elba, perhaps, more than any other civilised spot in the Mediterranean, was troubled in mediaeval times with the ravages of the Barbary pirates. When all else failed, and the inroad of them could no longer be stemmed, the islanders took refuge in the Castle of the Volterraio, and there is no record of their ever having been dislodged from that impregnable stronghold. Even Barbarossa failed in the attempt.

The iron-ore mines are Government property; indeed the general land laws of Italy differ in a most important respect in Elba. On the continent the landlord is proprietor of soil and subsoil, on the island of the soil only: for the Government reserve to themselves the right of appropriating all further discoveries of iron ore. This law survives from feudal times, when the Princes of Piombino were owners of the mines, and it was continued by the Grand Dukes of Tuscany when they acquired the whole of the island in 1815. The Elbani—who are, strangely enough, regard being had to their isolated position and simple habits, the most intensely ” modern ” of the Italians —are keenly alive to this difference to their detriment in the law.

The Government lease the mines at a hand-some royalty to the highest bidder. Hitherto the lease had been of the shortest—seven, five, or even three years. But in 1897 a new departure was decided upon, and the mines were offered for a period of twenty years, with the right to extend to twenty-five years. After an exciting bid the lease was acquired by a lucky young islander, the Cavaliere Ubaldo Tonietti, at the high royalty of seven and a quarter francs a ton on all ore exported, and fifty centimes a ton on the ore used in Italy. Blast-furnaces exist at Fallonica on the mainland others are to be set up in Elba itself; and with the ever-increasing industrial activity of Italy, there is the possibility that a great many tons may be disposed of on which only the trifling royalty of fifty centimes need be paid to the Government. The lessee is limited by the terms of his contract to an annual output of 250,000 tons, and if this were all exported abroad, it will be seen that the Italian Government would net for itself the handsome sum of 1,787,500 livres in royalties. In July 1899 Signor Tonietti parted with his lease to a large company. The deposits of the ore are superficial, and can be worked with great economy and despatch. Some experts have stated that the mines will become exhausted in about thirty years’ time.

By far the greater part of the ore is consumed in English blast-furnaces, where it is highly prized, and by far the greater part of it leaves the island in British bottoms. In 1897 some sixty British vessels loaded ore at Rio, as opposed to sixteen foreign vessels. There is no port at Rio; the steamers are loaded from lighters in the roadstead, but the operation is carried out with surprising celerity. With the increased consumption of ore in Italian furnaces, there is likely to be little enough left, in the future, for English requirements.

To me one of the most attractive (simpatico) spots in the island is Porto Longone, on the east coast. This was for two centuries a Spanish possession, and it still bears a distinctly Spanish impress. Spanish and Italian blood mix well, and produce a fine race. And so the inhabitants of Porto Longone seem to convey an immediate impression of all good qualities—courtesy, cheerfulness, intelligence, and even physique. Hard by the picturesque Spanish fort is a terrible Ergastolo, or prison, where murderers, condemned to absolutely solitary confinement (for capital punishment does not exist in Italy), drag out their miserable existence, and often enough succumb to the dread and hopeless severity of the system. The natural harbour of Longone is one of the finest and safest in Italy.

A word on the history of Elba. I do not propose with a modern writer to go back to the Stone Age and the Etruscans, to Aristotle and Diodorus Siculus. It is sufficient to say that at the beginning of the eleventh century the island was a possession of the Republic of Pisa, that at the close of the thirteenth century it passed by force of arms to the sister Republic of Genoa, and once more back again to the Pisans. In 1392 it became by treachery the possession of Jacopo Appiani, Secretary to the unhappy Pietro Gambacorti, Lord of Pisa, and it remained undivided in the Appiani family until 1545, having, however, been made a fief of the Holy Roman Empire in 1509. In 1545 the Emperor Charles V. gave Portoferraio and some three miles of the territory beyond it to Cosimo I., Grand Duke of Tuscany; in 1603 Philip III. of Spain acquired Porto Longone and the castellated hill-tops around, which passed in 1759 to the Bourbon Kings of Naples; the remaining and far greater part of the island, including the rich iron-ore mines, continued, as a fief, in the hands of the Appiani until, on their extinction, it was acquired by the Ludovisi, and subsequently, through marriage, by the Buoncompagni family. It will thus be seen that this small corner of much-divided Italy enjoyed the sway of three separate masters.

Indeed it is a curious and interesting, if some-what intricate, problem to consider the position of Elba territorially and from the point of view of allegiance, at the end of last century, when the European war was at its height. Elba had three immediate masters, as I have said, but only one of them was absolute—the other two had feudal overlords.

1. Ferdinand III., Grand Duke of Tuscany, held Portoferraio as a fief from Francis II., the Emperor.

2. Ferdinand IV., King of Naples, held Porto Langone as a possession of his House.

3. Don Antonio Buoncompagni, Prince of Piombino, held the remainder of the island as a fief from Charles IV. of Spain, who in turn derived the fief from the Emperor.

This then was the curiously complicated position of allegiance when the French came to Elba in 1799:

1. The immediate master of Portoferraio was at peace with France, while his feudal sovereign, the Emperor, was at war.

2. The master of Porto Longone, Ferdinand IV., was at war with France.

3. The vassal Prince of Piombino was at peace with France, so was his immediate overlord, Charles of Spain, but Charles’s feudal sovereign in turn was at war with France. It makes the head spin, and assuredly the territorial complications of Italy in the past, and the necessity of understanding them, must have largely contributed to develop the sharp wits for which Italians are famous.’

In 1814 Elba was for the first time in its history to become an independent principality, united under one lord who lived upon its soil. The Treaty of Fontainebleau stripped Napoleon of all his ill-gotten possessions save this little island (for Elba, with Tuscany, formed part of the French Empire), which, in the words of the treaty, was to form ” sa vie durant, une principaute separee qui sera possedee par lui en toute propriete et souverainete.” I wonder why English schoolboys always speak as if Napoleon were a prisoner in Elba in the same sense that he was in St. Helena: can it be that their text-books tell them so? For Napoleon was nothing of the kind: he was the independent sovereign of a new State, theoretically free in his actions, and possessing his own army and navy, his court and ministers, his capital city and special coat of arms and flag.

Napoleon arrived at Portoferraio on the 3rd May 1814 on board his Majesty’s frigate Undaunted, and landed the day following, being greeted from the forts with a salute of twenty-one guns. On the voyage out he had devised a coat-of-arms and flag for his new kingdom: argent, on a bend gules, three bees or. The flag was first hoisted on the Undaunted in Portoferraio harbour, and when afterwards floating on the citadel, was solemnly saluted by the English frigate. The Elbans welcomed Napoleon with transports of delight. It was natural enough, perhaps. Their island took a sudden dignity and importance in the eyes of all the world for sovereign they had got the greatest conqueror of the time, famous, too, for his administrative abilities. He was, moreover, reputed to be bringing a vast treasure with him. The people looked forward to a new era of plenty and prosperity. And they were not disappointed.

The very next day after landing Napoleon was up at five in the morning, making a minute inspection of his capital city, and from that moment he never relaxed his efforts to improve the condition of Elba. He made roads, planted trees, built houses and a theatre, and strengthened the fortifications. He developed trade and all local industries, and improved the system of working the mines at Rio. He formed an army of fifteen hundred men (eight hundred of them were of his “Old Guard “), and a navy of five ships, the largest of them a brig, in which he afterwards returned to France for the memorable Hundred Days. His budget was not much more than 100,000 francs, and the vast treasure of which the Elbans gossiped was only about three mil-lion francs. Nothing is more interesting than to trace the daily life of this extraordinary man in his miniature Empire. He was constantly busied for the welfare of the State, and confesses to having been remarkably content and happy.

Napoleon’s reign in Elba lasted little over ten months. He started for France, quite openly, on the 26th February 1815 with a flotilla of ten ships and nine hundred men, lord of the smallest kingdom, commander of the smallest army and navy, that ever undertook the conquest of the world, and lived to look back with regret from his island prison in the Atlantic to his island kingdom in the Tyrrhenian Sea.’

Visitors to Elba all go to see the little villa of San Martino, Napoleon’s country house, situated about three miles from Portoferraio. It is a modest and insignificant structure, having but a dozen rooms, but it is splendidly placed in face of the great bay, and commands a fine view. Prince Anatole Demidoff, whose wife was a sister of Jerome Buonaparte, bought it in 1851. In front of it he built a museum two hundred and seven feet long, the roof of which forms a gar-den terrace to the villa, and herein he placed his wonderful collection of Napoleon relics and memorials. It was a genuine “sight,” and drew crowds of travellers. The shell of the Museum still exists, but its contents, alas! were sold and scattered by the Prince’s heir. In the villa itself there is, I think, but a bed, a table, and a chair left of Napoleon’s belongings. The whole property has now been acquired by Signor Ubaldo Tonietti, the late lessee of the mines, and he has put it in fine order. A permit to see the villa, costing one franc, must be obtained in the town before starting.

In Portoferraio itself, Napoleon’s town house, known as I Mulini—insignificant enough that also—still exists, and is now occupied by the Genio Militare. It is situated at the top of the town between the forts La Stella and I1 Falcone, and overlooks the open sea to the north. From the garden there is a path descending to a little cove where Napoleon used to bathe. In the Church of the Misericordia is a mask of Napoleon, said to be one of the only two copies in existence, the other being at Les Invalides. Every 5th May, the anniversary of Napoleon’s death, a mass, attended by the civil and military authorities, is said for the repose of the soul of the former sovereign of the island, and five hundred francs’ worth of bread is distributed to the poor. Prince Anatole Demidoff is the founder of both the mass and the charity.

The persistency and potency of the Napoleonic legend in the island is illustrated by a curious and, I think, little known fact of recent history. After the disaster of Sedan the Elbans heard the rumour that Napoleon III. on his release would choose their island as his future residence. On the 1st November 1870 an address to the fallen Emperor, signed by fifty-five notables of the island, was drawn up, offering him hospitality and a warm and loyal welcome. The address was sent by the Mayor of Portoferraio to Count Brassier de Saint-Simon, Envoy at Florence of the Germanic Confederation, praying that his Excellency would be pleased to charge himself with its safe delivery to the Emperor, then at Wilhelmshohe. Count Brassier seems to have been unable or unwilling to undertake the task, and to have been a very long while in coming to a decision, for it was not until the 1st March 1871 that the Mayor of Portoferraio finally transmitted the address direct to the Emperor himself. It runs as follows:

” PORTOFERRAIO, i novembre, 1870.

” SIRE,—Les habitants de la ville de Portoferraio ont ete vivement emus a la nouvelle que votre Majeste pour retablir sa sante avait choisi le sejour de 1’Ile d’Elbe.

” Les souvenirs de 1814 et 1815, qui ne se sont jamais effaces, ont fait battre avec violence le coeur de ceux entre nous qui ont eu le bonheur de connaitre et d’admirer de pres le glorieux fondateur de votre dynastie, comme de ceux qui, ayant vu le jour plus tard, ont connu le grand homme par les traces bienfaisantes qu’il a laissees chez nous.

” Le successeur de Napoleon I celui qu’un immense malheur vient de frapper, ne peut etre recu dans notre ville qu’avec la plus grande reconnaissance. Venez, Sire, nous serons fiers d’accorder 1’hospitalite et d’entourer de nos soins le parent de notre Souverain, l’homme a qui notre Italie bien aimee do it en grande partie son affranchissement.

” Nous avons l’honneur d’etre, Sire, de votre Majeste les tres humbles et tres obeissants serviteurs.”

(Fifty-five Signatures.)

And this was Napoleon’s graceful reply:

” WILHELMSHOHE, 10 mars, 1871.

” MONSIEUR LE SYNDIC,-J’ai recu 1’adresse par laquelle les habitants de Portoferraio m’offrent 1’hospitalite dans leur ville, pensant que j’avais choisi 1’Ile d’Elbe pour y fixer ma residence. Quoique cette nouvelle n’ait jamais eu aucun fondement je suis heureux du temoignage de sympathie qu’elle a provoque et dont j’ai ete vivement touche.

” Veuillez, Monsieur le Syndic, vous faire aupres de vos concitoyens l’interprete de mes remerciments et croire a mes sentiments devoues.


This little incident, as far as I am aware, has never been mentioned in any Life of Napoleon III., and is certainly worthy of being put on record.

Much might be written of the island of Elba, of its historic memories, its natural beauties, its busy industries, its peaceful and charming inhabitants, did but tyrant space permit. Better far, though, than reading about Elba is to go and see for oneself. Why so few travellers visit the island is a constant puzzle to the few who know it; but in an age of travel, the time cannot be far distant when Elba will get her full measure of the appreciation due to so delightful and unique a corner of the civilised world.