Rio nell'Elba, an ancient town
Article from 2010 Elbaper2 magazine. Written by Marco Firmati, Archeologist
The town of Rio was built upstream the rich mineral quarries in Eastern Elba and close to an inexhaustible water spring. In the Middles Ages, it developed thanks to iron extraction and processing activities, initially under the rule of the Municipality of Pisa.
The heart of the town consists of a compact nucleus of buildings, once surrounded by the bulwarks, which are still visible in correspondence to the bastions of the Church of Saints Giacomo and Quirico. In town and in the vicinity are places that give testimony to the history of this mining district, such as the Garibaldi Theater, the Canali Spring, the Public Wash House, and the Hermitage of Saint Catherine. Thousands of tourists visit these historical sites that represent ideal venues for cultural events and ceremonies.
The main street in the town centre, Via Ilario Zambelli, hosts the little Garibaldi Theater. Since its inception in the 18th century, this theater has been a benchmark for the worldly life in town. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was also used as a cinema theater; it has been recently renovated with a look that respects both traditional architecture and functionality features. Currently, it is used for theater performances, meetings, conferences and civil weddings.
Public Wash House
The very name of this town, Rio, draws inspiration from the stream (from the Latin rivus) that springs from the Canali source, east of town. Several watermills were built along the stream, of which 22 remained active up to the 19th century. Thanks to a complex irrigation system, the water from this stream was used largely for agricultural purposes. Downstream from the source, we find the Public Wash house, which was crucial for the hygiene of the local community, as well as an important meeting place. This place consisted of truss-roofed premises with long basins where water flowed continuously, guaranteeing maximum hygiene and, most importantly, limiting the diffusion of epidemic illnesses. The town removed any possible sources of pollution from the area surrounding the wash house, such as animal stables.
Hermitage of Saint Catherine
Outside of town, close to Mount Serra, soars the church of Saint Catherine, whose construction probably dates back to the Middle Ages, when the prosperous, nearby borough of Grassera still existed. This iron mining village was in fact destroyed by the Turkish army around the mid-16th century.The church, as it appears today, is the result of several renovations carried out in various epochs. In 1624, the Lords from Piombino donated a painting to the church representing the mystic wedding of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. The hermitage was abandoned around the mid-19th century and today is used as a cultural center. The church is still today a favourite destination of pilgrims on Easter Monday; young unmarried women bring with them a cake symbolizing fertility to be blessed, which they then give to their sweethearts. Outside, one can still admire the Orto dei Semoplici, with its wide array of medicinal plants that grow spontaneously on this Island thanks to the mild climate and fertile soil.
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