As well as being the most important town on the Island of Elba, Italy’s third largest island, it is also the major port . Due to the fact that the town sits on a rocky promontory, thus acting as a natural defence, this ensured a past and present safety and well being of the port, as well as a certain financial stability. As soon as you enter the port, the numerous fortifications built from 1548 onwards on request of the Medici, immediately catch your eye.
The new settlement developed near Fabricia, the old town of Roman origin that the Medici bought from Carlo V. In the Middle Ages, the town was given the name of Ferraia, because it was precisely from here that the ships left laden with the iron extracted from the ores on the island.
In order to ensure that the port was fully protected from the raids on behalf of the Barbareschi pirates, once Cosimo I de’ Medici was in full command of the stronghold, he had Giovanni Camerini and Giovanbattista Belluzzi build a majestic defence structure: this was the birth of Cosmopoli. Forte Falcone and Forte Stella were built on the promontory, while Forte della Linguella was built to protect the wet dock, and all three were surrounded by a wall with ramparts, many of which were built right down to the sea. In order to encourage a demographic growth, facilitations were granted to those who chose to settle there. Since the iron left the island from here, the name Cosmopoli was however soon changed to the original Roman name of Portoferraio, and slowly but surely the town flourished, so much so that from 1637 to 1751 it was home to the grand-ducal fleet.
When the French Empire came to an end, Portoferraio became the capital of a tiny kingdom under Napoleon who was exiled there after his defeat in Lipsia, where he remained for ten months before fleeing back to France in order to regain his power. Today, Portoferraio, once a Medicean outpost in the Mediterranean, is without a doubt the Island of Elba’s most popular port during the summer for tourists who come on holiday.
Not to be missed:
All the sixteenth century military buildings that made Portoferraio impregnable can still be seen today. Although Forte Stella has been turned into homes for civilians, its majestic walls stand proud high on the promontory, while Forte Falcone, further up, has maintained its original structure.
Part of Fronte di Terra, built by Buontalenti from 1588 onwards, is open to the public, while on the wet dock Forte della Linguella, with its characteristic Torre del Martello that seems to rise up from the sea, is home to the Archaeology Museum. Sad to say, most tourists think of Portoferraio as nothing more than the port where the ferries get in, but there is much more to see and get to know: not just the many military structures, but also the complex, defence structure Cosimo I de’ Medici had built; the Napoleonic traces; in short, what remains of the two thousand year old history, that dates back to the Romans up to the Unification of Italy.
The moment the ferry comes in to the wet dock in the port in Portoferraio, you can’t help noticing the majestic fortresses that stand tall proudly overlooking the bay, built on request by Cosimo dei Medici: the huge Forte Falcone, and Forte Stella with its unique lighthouse and Torre della Linguella.
A walk from the tourist port up to the city walls of the old part of the town is indeed worthwhile. Make sure you go and see the famous Villa dei Mulini, the official residence of Napoleon and his court; you will find the furniture, the weapons, the paintings, the Emperor’s library, and the garden all very interesting.
The Church of the Reverenda Misericordia is also worth a visit; the Romanesque church of Saint Stephen, the most significant example of Romanesque religious architecture on the Island of Elba, proof of which lies in the many archaeological remains dating back to Roman times found nearby, is also very interesting.
The Civic Archaeology Museum, inside the Medicean Linguella Fortress, is another must: here you will find amphoras, anchors and marine equipment from shipwrecks dating back to the archaic period, as well as Roman remains found in the nearby villas. The Foresi Picture Gallery, inside a large sixteenth century building in the old part of Portoferraio, is something else to see; here you can admire paintings, prints, miniatures and furniture from the XVI to the XIX centuries. The beautiful Villa San Martino, Napoleon’s country residence, is only 5 km from Portoferraio, and should also be seen.
The Villa in San Martino, where Napoleon spent the summer, is just outside Portoferraio. Here you will find numerous prints dating back to the Napoleonic period in the Demidoff Gallery.
On the road towards Rio nell’Elba, on the other hand, you can admire the remains of a Roman villa dating back to the I century BC, as well as the remains of the Volterraio, the Pisan stronghold dating back to about the XII century,