beautiful Portoferraio harbour
I wonder what the locals made of the 45-year-old prisoner Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte when he and his personal guard of 600 men were transported from Paris to Elba in 1814. I presume the locals asked the same excellent questions that Stephen Cooper asked. Why was the Emperor treated so lightly? After all, he had subjugated most parts of Continental Europe, threatened Britain with invasion, caused the death of three million citizens and burned Moscow. No effort was made either by the French or by the international community, to bring him to justice. Furthermore, Elba was only 64 ks from his native Corsica, 240 ks from mainland France and very very close to Italy, where his family continued to hold power.
Although the 1814 Treaty of Fontainebleau allowed him to retain the title Emperor and to rule over Elba, Napoleon was supposed to be prisoner. He was warmly welcomed off his ship and onto the island, with flags, heartfelt speeches and a tour of inspection of his new island home. And he was not cut off from the outside world: he was allowed to read newspapers and letters, and to receive visitors who arrived on boats. His worst punishment was that his second wife and his beloved only son were sent to live in Austria.
Two houses on Elba were adapted or built for the Emperor’s court, Villa dei Mulini in Portoferraio and the Villa San Martino just 5 ks out of town. Neither place was a palace, but they were very comfortable homes with enough dignity for Napoleon to welcome his overseas visitors with pride. Not bad for a prisoner being held in disgrace.
Napoleon's Villa dei Mulini in Portoferraio.
His town house had all his personal quarters on the ground floor of the home, while the top floor was totally dedicated to the entertainment of his courtiers and guests. The impressive library, increased by the good booksellers of Livorno, was installed in the town house, as promised. Napoleon continued to live a very learned and cultivated life. He had a four-post bed with red silk curtains, Empire-style console tables, bronze mirrors and candlesticks.
Napoleon shared the architectural design of his humble two-storey summer resort with architect Paolo Bargigli, and also was involved in the villa’s decorations and furnishings. Any money needed to create this summer residence came from Napoleon’s sister Princess Pauline, wife of Camillo Borghese, 6th Prince of Sulmona, an Italian nobleman. She must have really loved visiting her brother - this princess organising gala events for Napoleon to which the most suitable members of Elba society were invited.
Another import was Vincenzo Revelli who came from the Turin court to be the “court painter” of Elba. In one room, Napoleon could linger over his victories in Egypt 13 years earlier, amid paintings of ancient Egyptian architecture and Pharoic writings. Frescoes, hailing Napoleon's victories alongside his heroic French armies, were lavishly painted on the villa walls.
Napoleon's summer residence at Villa San Martino,
just outside Portoferraio
Napoleon ruled Elba as governor for only 300 days. He was constantly trying to improve the lives of the 12,000 islander inhabitants, perhaps while plotting to get enough boats together to escape from the island. In his 9+ months there, he created a small navy and army (to defend the island from whom?), developed the iron mines, ruled on modern agricultural methods, built roads and redesiged his two residences. He spent tax payer money on public works like draining the island's marshes and on an impressive improvement of the legal and education systems. He also oversaw improvements to the island's iron-ore mines, the revenue of which funded many of his pet projects.
Totally separated from his second wife and son who had been sent back to Austria, struggling for the allowance guaranteed to him by the Treaty of Fontainebleau, and perhaps fearing a worse and more remote exile than Elba, Napoleon escaped back to France in late February 1815. His Mediterranean idyll ended; his misery on St Helena had not yet started.
Looking up the harbour cliff face,
note Villa dei Mulini on the right
One last thought. Do the local inhabitants of Elba really still say a Mass each year for Napoleon’s soul at Misericordia Church in Portoferraio? If true, it suggests that the old French Emperor was loved by at least the important part of Elban society. This should not surprise us at all. At least half the modern scholarship on Napoleon saw him as a man as a soldier of the revolution, a saviour, a peoples' hero and a leader of the Liberal Empire, in France but also presumably on Elba.
For beautiful photos of Elba, see Exiled like Napoleon to Elba Island in the blog Sarah Laurence. For a good read, find Neil Campbell's book Napoleon on Elba: Diary of an Eye Witness to Exile, Ravenhall Books, 2004. And "Napoleon on Elba 1814" by Stephen Cooper in History Today, 15th April 2014.