10 May 2014

Napoleon's island idyll on Elba 1814-15

Elba is an island of 12,000 inhabitants in the Mediterranean, only 20 km off the Tuscan coast. Bec­ause of its steep geography, the largest town of Portoferraio requires some vigorous walking. The town is surrounded on three sides by the sea, facing a natural harbour that was, and is very attractive.

beautiful Portoferraio harbour

This island has changed hands many times. It stayed with the Grand Duchy of Tuscany until the C18th when, due to its strategic position in the Mediterranean Sea, the tiny island was argued over by France, England and Austria. Then in 1802 it was transferred to France. But it was only after the exploit­ation of new iron mills in Rio Marina that the town started to grow and the community infrastructure started to be built. Decades after the end of the Napoleonic Era, Elba became part of the newly united Kingdom of Italy in 1860, enabling Portoferraio/Iron Port to thrive.

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’s staff were given decent accommodation was well, so that although the Brit­ish did not want him to escape, they treated him with the dignity due to an emperor. It would be interesting to know who paid for Napoleon's 1000-man army on Elba – their salaries, housing, food, clothes and weapons. And he looked after their cultural needs as well. Napoleon had an old church converted into Teatro dei Vigilanti, complete with three tiers of seats from where they could watch the stage below.

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

After Napoleon left the island, the summer home Villa San Mart­ino was abandoned until the Russian Prince Anatole Demidoff married one of Napoleon’s nieces and took over the building. There the prince established what is today known as the Galleria Demidoff, designed to house arte­facts, artworks and gardens in celebration of Uncle Napoleon. So the main house Palazzo dei Mulini, and the smaller Villa Demidoff San Martino, together make up the National Museum of the Napoleonic Residences on Elba.

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.


Mandy Southgate said...

I know the story of Napolean on Elba but I wonder where I read about it - have you perhaps mentioned it before? I can't think where else I would have read it. In any event, I quite like that part of Napolean's story - i find the attempt to censure him interesting given his actions.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It seems that political/military leaders often escape the harshest penalties. Perhaps the captors worry about raking up old wounds and sentiments. Jefferson Davis, the defeated president of the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War, for example, was released after a short term following his capture, never really brought to trial, and returned to being a private citizen.

John Tyrrell said...

Well Hels I am sure you expected me to disagree with what you have written!

I doubt whether the citizens of Elba asked the questions that Stephen Cooper did! Why should they think the same way as a twenty first century British historian?

Also I don't think that Napoleon murdered 3 million people, and threatening to invade Britain was hardly a crime, certainly not in the context of the revolutionary wars in which Britain was at war with France, was supporting the Bourbons and financing all Napoleon's enemies!



Joseph said...

Our tour guide showed us the flag of Elba which was originally designed by Napoleon. White with Napoleon's bees in a red stripe. The locals must have liked him since they kept his flag.

Hels said...


I knew all about Elba in theory but had never been there until a couple of years ago. We went on a cruise from Rome to Barcelona, stopping one day at each of the islands en route. Longer stays would have been more satisfying, but at least for Elba I saw most of what I wanted to see.

Hels said...


that is so true. I saw an analysis of Lord Kitchener's orders in the Boer War - he definitely needed to be brought before a military court for opening concentration camps for Boer women and children, and ordering the deaths of Boer prisoners.

Instead he was given more titles and a higher rank, and by the First World War, Lord Kitchener was given the top cabinet position in Parliament.

Hels said...


the flag is interesting because apparently Napoleon designed it _before_ he landed on the island. It was created as part of his ceremonial welcome to his new land, along with a canon salute, welcome speeches by dignitaries and a tour of inspection.

Depending on which source you believe, Elbans still love the flag because the bees are their symbol of intelligence and industry.

Hels said...


I tried to be as balanced as I possibly could, especially since the good citizens of Elba seemed very proud of their progress during Napoleon's stay on their island.

But yes I realise we are still some way apart. There is a book I read years ago that will be helpful... let me look at my old files.

Mandy Southgate said...

I thought these were your own photos Hels. This is what I love about my own travels - when history comes alive for me. In fact, it is what I didn't like about travelling with friends and family - they don't allow me time to study and read exhibits. Le husband knows me by now - he allows me to read and take notes!

Hels said...


Agreed totally. All our friends travel in groups but I do not want to look at shops, eat endlessly or admire mountain views. Joe and I want to see everything built since the First Crusade of 1096 AD - cathedrals, castles, monuments, stately homes, art galleries, city parks, parliaments, museums etc etc.

Oh yes ..and I don't want someone to say that we have to be back at the hotel by 5 pm. The time is ours!

Mandy Southgate said...

You'd be perfect travelling companions for me then!!

Train Man said...

Apart from the two villas, are there any other Napoleon related places to visit in Elba? Next time we visit Tuscany, I want to know if it is worth making the special effort and how long to allocate.

Hels said...

Train Man

one thing I didn't mention was that Napoleon built a good library of thousands of books, taken from French libraries or bought from Italian bookshops. See it in his villa.

The Mineral Museum displays the history of the industry with mining equipment, workers' tools and amazing images. Mining existed before and after Napoleon's time, but he was the leader who fully supported the industry.

The Church of the Misericordia and its museum next door are connected to the story. They have two rooms full of Napoleonic relics.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen,

We do wonder why it is that we continue to be fascinated by Napoleon and other figures of history whilst still others, many, many more in number are just consigned to the dusty history books never to be read? This is an intriguing account which poses as many questions as it answers. Whatever, it is amazing how well he was treated there given what had taken place and his part in it all.

Elba looks to be a delightful island, made more beguiling now through your post. We shall go there ourselves one day, perhaps.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

When Napoleon was to be sent into exile for the first time, he was apparently given a choice of three lovely Mediterranean islands. He chose Elba. Wise man.

For the second exile, he was not given a choice. The French Commissioner wrote about St Helena that it was the most isolated, the more unaffordable, the most difficult to attack, the poorest and the most unsociable place in the world (June 1816).