Historical reenactment of Napoleon landing on Elba at the bicentennial of his exile. Photo ©Roberto Ridi. Handout via The Gourmet Gazette
What did he see first, the pristine turquoise and emerald waters, the sparkling mineral rocks visible from afar, the bright white beaches, the breathtaking vistas? Napoleon Bonaparte died in exile 200 years ago on May 5th 1821 on the remote island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean, but his first place of “exile” was closer to home and visibly more hospitable. The Italian island of Elba in the Tyrrhenian Sea, technically part of Toscany, is where he lived from 1814 until 1815 before escaping and making his dramatic return to France. On Saint Helena he was a prisoner, on Elba he was a sovereign, sovereign of an island that was mineral rich, filled with ports and strategically located. Today Elba is regarded as a paradise for travelers looking for something unique, far from the madding crowds with great wine and beaches to boot. Throughout the summer of 2021 special events are slated to take place commemorating the island’s most famous resident.
It is an island of wilder shores and it was on these shores that Napoleon Bonaparte arrived on Elba on May 4th, 1814 at Portoferraio where visitors can still see the exact zone where he first set down his foot. The Emperor would remain on Elba until February 27th, 1815 when he managed to slip past his guards to head back to France, another flight of the eagle so to speak. His time on the island would be something of a happening for the island’s inhabitants, used to the tranquility of their island land.
For the emperor was merely a sometime sleeper, preferring to spend his time reading philosophy and science and who enjoyed gardening. As he wandered from place to place on the island he set up diverse places to live and relax in. And so today dispersed about Elba are the villas and residences that welcomed the Emperor. In addition to his celebrated homes of the Villa dei Mulini and the Villa San Martino in Portoferraio, ever the great organizer he set up dwellings inside the walls of Forte San Giacomo à Porto Azzurro and in Rio, near the island’s mineral museum in an old villa that was the palace of the government but where Napoleon regularly stayed.
He was passionate about wine and immediately recognized the value of the island’s Aleatico wine, which has become somewhat cult, and so in a way established Elba’s first controlled designation of origin. He established a wine estate and a hunting preserve in San Martino where he planted diverse grape varieties and imagined two wine labels, a red Côte de Rio, and a white Monte Giove. Napoleon was also behind the construction of the Teatro dei Vigilanti in Portoferraio, a theater which remains in activity today. Among the unusual « Napoleonic » documents that can be found on Elba is the passport of a woman named Madame Mère conserved in the island’s historic archives. Madame Mère was none other than Maria Letizia Ramolino, Napoleon’s mother — Mère meaning mother in French — who came to the island using the name Madame De Pont.
©Trish Valicenti for The Gourmet Gazette