Napoleon Bonaparte landed on the Island of Elba on May 4th, 1814. In Portoferraio it is still possible to see the exact area where the French emperor set foot on the island. From that moment until February 27th, 1815, the local daily life was shaken up by the presence of Napoleon and his traces are all over the place. While waiting to celebrate the bicentenary of his death, which occurred on May 5th, 1821, we are sharing five interesting facts related to the General’s stay on the island: conflicts, visionary projects and…romantic legends.
A home in every town for the emperor’s sleepless nights
Napoleon slept very little, it is said that four hours a night were more than enough for him. He had a passion for philosophy and science, gardening and engineering and, due to his habits as a scholar and thinker, the French General arranged to have a residence in every town across the island, in order to have a quiet retreat anywhere. The villas and rooms that welcomed Napoleon’s restless passage are all over the island. After a first night on at Elba, the Emperor in exile chose the Palazzina dei Mulini as his primary residence. Part of the defensive system of the Medici fortresses, the villa is located between Forte Falcone and Forte della Stella and it takes its name from the presence of old windmills around the place. Here, Napoleon seems to have spent many of his nights in the garden, walking and planning some new revenge. As a summer residence, he chose Villa San Martino, located in the inner area of the island. The mansion was refurbished to become the love nest to share with his wife Maria Luisa, but she never joined him on the island. Few people know that in addition to the famous Villa dei Mulini and Villa San Martino in Portoferraio, Bonaparte also had a dwelling set up within the walls of Forte San Giacomo in Porto Azzurro and in Rio, in an old villa located next to the building now hosting the Mining Park Museum.
The ideal farm: the San Martino wine project
Bonaparte is attributed the merit of establishing the first “DOC” (Denomination of Controlled Origin) of Elba, having recognized the value of Aleatico wine, as documented on a paper called “the Emperor’s Privilege”. Napoleon’s passion for wines translated into the ambitious project to start up a winery and hunting reserve around San Martino, where he had vines planted near his beautiful residence, and planned to launch two brands: the red “Côte de Rio”, inspired by the red color of the mountains rich in minerals, and the white “Monte Giove” that recalled the granite of the homonymous peak. He actually calculated with precision how many barrels he would get out of the harvest of 1815 – which never happened, though.
Secret documents and false identities: Madame Mère’s passport
The historical archive of the Island of Elba in Portoferraio preserves the passport used by Napoleon’s mother, Maria Letizia Romolino known as Madame Mère, to reach Elba with a false identity. On the morning of August 2nd 1814, the 65 year old noble woman from Corsica, with the false name of Madame De Pont, wearing simple clothes, got on the deck of the English brick Grasshopper anchored in Livorno to reach Elba to support her son during the fall.
The adventures of the Theatre of Vigilanti
Established in Portoferraio as an initiative of Napoleon, in the deconsecrated church of Carmine, the Theatre of Vigilanti is still active today and hosts a rich program of shows every year. The accomplishment, however, was not easy for Napoleon. In fact, he could not rely either on the payment of taxes despite the establishment of the principality on the island or on the annuity he was due from France; so, to finance the project, he had the idea to put the 65 theatre’s dais on sale: affording to buy a dais was a status symbol for the wealthiest families of the island, so the initiative turned out a success.
Moreover, right here, Napoleon’s sister Paolina organized the Carnival ball the day before Napoleon’s escape, which took place on February 26th, 1814. Paolina’s intention was mainly to hide the upcoming catastrophe, but also to allow his brother a last farewell to the community of Portoferraio.
The legend of the Vantina
Napoleon’s stay on the Island of Elba inspired numerous folk tales that were handed down for generations in the narrow streets of the island’s villages. Among these, the legend of the Vantina, told by the elderly in the squares of Capoliveri. Due to the high taxes imposed by the emperor in exile, a riot suddenly broke out in town that prompted him to deploy his troops and a battery of twelve-pound guns with the aim of razing the stronghold of Capoliveri. What to do, then, if not try to negotiate? And who could be the perfect candidate for the negotiation? They all agreed it was the young Vantina, the beautiful daughter of Mastro Vantini was entrusted with the task of representing and saving the entire community. It is said that a glance was enough to breach the heart of Napoleon who, convinced by Vantina’s humble and kind manners, decided to withdraw his soldiers, saving Capoliveri and its inhabitants.