Portoferraio, bewitching town
Article from 2010 Elbaper2 magazine.
Written by Massimo Scelza, Director of the local magazine Corriere Elbano
Wanting to trace the origins of Portoferraio, we must go back to the ancient Roman period. Approaching from the sea in the 1st century BC, the bay of Portoferraio appeared guarded by 2 luxurious Patrician villas. One was at sea level and the other at the summit of the Grotte promontory, overlooking the Tyrrhenian coast. Construction of buildings began around the bay, and mooring sites made access to the island easier. Elba coastlines were at the crossroads of the principal mercantile routes: italic wine heading to the West, fish-based sauces, oil and wheat coming from Spain, Gallia and Africa and directed to the markets of the Roman Empire. Concurrently, a small borough, in antiquity called Fabricia was developing in the area where Portoferraio is found today. Of the ancient village only a few dwellings are visible beneath Fort Stella. The necropolis was established in marginal areas, near the water-mill northwest of the village.
The construction of the present Portoferraio, on the ancient Roman site of Fabricia, began in 1548 during the conflicts between Francis I of France and Emperor Charles V of Spain. The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I, took advantage of the war between the 2 'giants' to take possession of the princedom of Piombino, at the time under the Appiani rule, who also governed Elba Island, because of its strategic importance for sea trade in the Mediterranean. He then had several fortifications erected on the island, beginning with the construction of the main town of Portoferraio, originally called Cosmopoli in honour of the Grand Duke. Construction works were entrusted to two military architects, Giovan Battista Belluzzi and Giovanni Camerini. Three principle patrolling centres soon took shape: the Linguella Tower and the Forts Stella and Falcone. The first, basic layout underwent several renovations and changes, executed up to the 18th century, also on commission of the Lorraine's.
Elba Island suddenly entered the spotlight of the international scenario in 1814, when the Fontainebleau Treaty named it as the destination for the exile of Napoleon Bonaparte. Sound testimonies to the presence of the Emperor in Portoferraio are still well preserved, and tourists often visit San Martino Villa, Napoleon's summer mansion embellished with vineyards and woods, the Palazzina dei Mulini, official residence of Napoleon and his court, and the Teatro dei Vigilanti, (formerly the Fortunati), commissioned by Napoleon on the premises of a deconsecrated church dedicated to the Madonna del Carmine.
During the 20th century, the Island lived the Industrial revolution, with the erection of a steel processing plant, with its blackened masonry chimneys and the grand Hennin wharf that stretched out to sea, where the mercantile harbor is now located. The town today is the sum of all of these extraordinary epochs. A beautiful, yet incomplete town, rich with traces of a visible and perceptible culture, permeated by Renaissance elegance in the pink of its staircases, the grey of its granite, the ochre mellowed by the centuries, of its fortresses caressed by a deep blue sea and contoured by the luxuriant green bay. A town never conquered by enemies, despite assaults by pirates and mercenaries. A town that conquers visitor's hearts with its cobblestone roads leading upward to the Forts, their military role ended leaving space for the discovery of breathtaking panoramas. A town that conquers with its scents and flavors of an ancient cuisine, moving sunsets, the light that paints the walls of houses decorated with geraniums and hydrangeas, with the fresh, clean beauty of its young people, the pride of the elderly, the old but never out of fashion habit of welcoming visitors. Portoferraio is a town to be fully lived, with emotion and tolerance, passion and curiosity, and with love, lots of love.
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