by Nora Fahmi
photo by Roberto Ridi VisitElba
The Tuscan island of Elba is well known for its glorious beaches and striking landscapes, but less widely known is this island gem’s connection to Napoleon Bonaparte. (IT)
After France’s defeat in the War of the Sixth Coalition in May of 1814, Napoleon signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau, which forced him to abdicate as emperor of France. He went into exile on Elba, then a French territory, over which he was granted full rule and allowed to keep a personal army of 600 men. Despite Elba’s residents being welcoming of Napoleon’s stay, his reign was short-lived. Longing to become France’s emperor once again, he escaped to Paris 300 days later, on February 26, 1815. However short, those 300 days have left a mark on Elba forever.
In fact, each August 15 the town of Portoferraio celebrates Napoleon’s birthday with plenty of fanfare that includes fireworks and the firing of cannons. “We celebrate a great leader, a man who has had a huge impact on the island, especially on its economy and infrastructure,” says Edoardo Pucciarelli, Tuscany expert at My Travel in Tuscany blog. “He encouraged agricultural activities, prioritized road-building, improved the iron-ore mine industry and brought drastic changes to the educational system. Indeed, he did more in his short reign than any other ruler before him.” To this day, Napoleon’s legacy lives on throughout Elba.
Villa dei Mulini
“Napoleon’s primary residence was strategically located in the higher part of Portoferraio where the coming and going of the boats could best be seen,” explains Maurizio Testa, owner and manager of the information portal www.visitelba.com. Aside from its enviable location, the Villa was also lavishly renovated as per the Emperor’s requests. The addition of a fancy ballroom within the villa and a little theatre right next to it were only some elements of Bonaparte’s home makeover project. Indeed, Villa dei Mulini was also a place where he enjoyed entertainment and good company. “Now a national museum, guests can admire furniture that dates back to Napoleon’s time there and visit the property’s lush gardens where Bonaparte spent the better part of the day.”
Villa di San Martino
Villa di San Martino, located in the town of San Martino in Portoferraio, was Napoleon’s summer residence. Of the home’s eight rooms, the Egyptian room and the Lovers’ Knot room are the most impressive, Pucciarelli notes. “The Egyptian room is decorated with scenes of Napoleon’s successful Egyptian campaigns, a large zodiac and an octagonal basin.” The stunningly frescoed Lovers’ Knot room is dedicated to his union with Empress Marie Louise.
Built in 1677, the lovely Mercy Church of Portoferraio is just a short walk from Villa dei Mulini. The church celebrates a special mass every year on May 5, the date of Bonaparte’s death. A one-euro entrance fee allows visitors to see the small museum (next to the church), which contains a flag given by Napoleon to Elba on May 4 1814, as well as a bronze cast of the Emperor’s head and hand.
Teatro dei Vigilanti
Napoleon was an avid theater-goer so to satisfy his passion he ordered the construction of Elba’s first theatre. Once completed, his sister Paolina organized plays and balls. In an effort to keep Napoleon’s imminent escape a secret, she organized a grand carnival ball the evening prior to his departure. His brief appearance that evening was his last on the island. Today, the theatre presents a varied program and is home to the Elba Musical Island of Europe Festival, a yearly event that brings musicians from around the world to the island.