Elba Island is the largest of the Tuscan Archipelago’s islands, with its 223 km² the third largest in Italy, after Sicily and Sardinia.
The term Elba derives from the names Aithàle, Aithàleia and Aithalìa which were the three epithets with which the ancient Greeks indicated the island. All three derive from the Greek term aithàle which means “soot” perhaps referring to the iron of which the subsoil of Elba was particularly rich and which was extracted already at that time.
Geographical Features –
Elba, together with the other islands of the archipelago that are: Pianosa, Capraia, Gorgona, Montecristo, Giglio and Giannutri, is part of the National Park of the Tuscan Archipelago and is divided into 8 municipalities, which are:
– Campo nell’Elba;
– Porto Azzurro;
– Marciana Marina;
– Rio Marina;
– Rio Nell’Elba.
These municipalities are part of the Province of Livorno.
The island is located between the Piombino canal to the east, about 10 kilometers from the coast, the Tyrrhenian Sea to the south and the Corsica channel to the west.
The northern coasts are washed by the Ligurian sea, the eastern ones by the Piombino channel, the southern ones by the Tyrrhenian sea and the western ones by the Corsica channel. The soil is very varied, and divided into several parts depending on its conformation and the geological era in which it was formed:
The island of Elba is rich in headlands composed of mountains and hills, its main flat areas are located between Procchio and Marina di Campo, where the Elba airport and the Mola plain, located under the Capoliveri hill, are also located .
The western slope is dominated by the granodiorite ridge of Monte Capanne with its 1019 meters above sea level, created about 11 million years ago. On this side you can admire the Costa del Sole, a marvelous coastal stretch among the most beautiful in Italy and much frequented by tourists, which from the town of Colle Palombaia stretches along the coastal stretch of south-west Elba for about 10 km up to reach the town of Colle d’Orano in the municipality of Marciana.
On the east side of Elba is the oldest part dating back to around 400 million years ago, characterized by a hilly area where the famous iron deposits of Elba are also found. This is the mining area of Elba studied by geologists from all over the world.
Historical Notes –
Even if Elba is more famous for the events linked to Napoleon the history of this island is not limited to only the ten months of the French Emperor but starts from far away.
The first traces are found in the Middle and Upper Paleolithic, as evidenced by the finds found in the Archaeological Museum of Marciana, together with materials from the Eneolithic burial ground of St. Joseph and the sub-Apennine villages of the Marcian mountain, as Dr. Umberto Gentini tells us , former Director of the Tuscan Archipelago Tourist Board.
Then, according to mythological narratives, in Porto Argon, today’s Capo Bianco, which Jason stopped during the adventurous search for the Golden Fleece and, as Virgil reveals in the Aeneid, three hundred young Elbans sailed from the same port to bring help to the “Pio Enea” in the hard fight against the Rutulis. For the Etruscans, Elba constituted an inexhaustible source of wealth: as early as the 8th century BC they exploited the mines and exported iron throughout the Mediterranean basin, obtaining enormous wealth.
In this period the ovens were built, which day and night melted the minerals with high flares and, as Aristotle narrates, gave origin to the name Aethalia, spark, attributed to Elba by Greek navigators. Of the five centuries of Etruscan domination, several necropolises remain, some remains of melting furnaces and numerous “hill villages”, inserted in inimitable settings.
From the decline of Etruscan power, the Romans inherited the iron and steel industry, but they also enhanced the granite deposits and discovered the healing mud of the Baths of San Giovanni, the beauty of the landscape and the excellent wines.
“The island of good wine”, said Pliny the Elder. Thus an intense traffic of vessels loaded with amphorae flourished: many are preserved in the Archaeological Museums of Portoferraio and Marciana, and, together with surprising finds from the sea, tell the whole history of ancient navigation. The most beautiful patrician villas of Linguella, Grotte and Capo Castello rose up in the most evocative bays, today as then places of joy.
In the Middle Ages it was the Maritime Republic of Pisa to exploit the iron mines and the Elba granite: most of the columns that embellish Piazza dei Miracoli were modeled by the talented stonemasons of San Piero. From the Pisan period there are many testimonies: the refined Romanesque churches and the tower of San Giovanni in Campo, built on a huge granite boulder, but above all the mighty “Fortress” of Marciana and the manor of the Volterraio, sentinel of the mountains and seas.
In 1548 it was the Medici’s turn to give a particular impulse to this island: Cosimo I built the fortified city of Portoferraio, a true jewel of military urban planning. The harmony between sea, land and architectural works was so perfect that the new city was called Cosmopoli, “cradle of civilization and culture, an example of balance and rationality”.
Immediately after the Spaniards settled in Porto Azzurro and built the imposing Fort San Giacomo, which today houses the Casa di pena, but also several chapels and the evocative Sanctuary of Monserrato, set on a gloomy Dolomite mountain.
Subsequently, and we are already in the XVIII century, the Elba was disputed by Austrians, Germans, English and French, with frenetic diplomatic negotiations or fierce battles, until it was assigned in “full ownership and sovereignty” to Napoleon Bonaparte who, in ten months of government, left significant imprints: built roads, reorganized the mining economy, increased the production and export of wine.
From an ancient deconsecrated church, he created a gracious theater which, restored to its former glory by a skilful restoration, is now home to important cultural events.
On his return to France, for the fateful one hundred days, Napoleon left two residences, which became National Museums and visited every year by thousands of visitors.
The island of Elba’s ecosystem is influenced not only by its insularity but also by a climate that has predominantly Mediterranean features, except for Monte Capanne where winters tend to be moderately cold. Precipitation is concentrated in the autumn period and is fairly limited. The most frequent wind appears to be the sirocco characterized by a high rate of humidity. Relatively frequent are the marine trumpets. The snow appears regularly on the reliefs of the Monte Capanne from the end of December to the middle of March.
These climatic peculiarities besides the orographic ones determine the presence of a fauna and flora of all relief and diversification.
As mentioned, the Mediterranean climate and insularity are the main elements that influence the flora of Elba. Plant formation consists of the Mediterranean scrub. Of the original vegetation, once composed of large holm oak forests, today coppice woods survive; remarkable is the sporadic presence of the dwarf palm in some stations (Monte Grosso and Portoferraio). The complex nature of the territory at various altitudes has favored the presence, in the western district dominated by Monte Capanne, of chestnut woods documented since the Middle Ages, together with the presence of yew (Le Calanche, Monte Corto and Monte di Cote), holly (locally called caracuto and present in small stations in the valleys of Poggio and Marciana), red juniper, black alder, Neapolitan alder (Monte Giove and Fosso dei Melocci), black hornbeam, Turkey oak, downy oak, willow of Gallura (Le Calanche and Monte Giove), ornello , hawthorn (Le Calanche, Monte di Cote, Fosso dell’Acquitella), raven pear (La Galera), minor periwinkle, royal fern, red lily, star lily (The Table), narcissus, anemone, Gagea granatellii, Ornithogalum umbellatum, Cephalanthera longifolia, Romulea ramiflora, Tulipa sylvestris australis, orchids and some endemisms (Viola corsica ssp. ilvensis, Crocus ilvensis, Centaurea ilvensis, Biscutella pichiana ssp. ilvensis). Along the ditches, hanging from the trees of black alder, there are large lianas of Clematis vitalba, locally known as torchiaie. To note the recent discovery, on the slopes of Monte Corto, of the only station of Polygonatum odoratum present in the Tuscan Archipelago. In the mountain environment (Monte di Cote) and maritime (at La Cala in Marciana Marina) there is the very rare Tyrrhenian fern (Dryopteris tyrrhena).
In the central area (Monte San Martino and Monte Orello) the presence of black hornbeam is remarkable, together with the only Elba station of ferula (San Giovanni).
The eastern area of the island is instead characterized by some plant essences which are almost completely missing in the western Elba, including the endemic Centaurea aplolepa var. aethaliae, the star anemone, the ampelodesm and the asphodel. In the wet area of Mola, near Porto Azzurro, the presence of the water iris is noteworthy. On the maritime cliffs of Monte Grosso there are two of the three Elba dwarf palm stations.
Of notable importance is also the mycological population that among the most common species includes: Boletus edulis (selvo), Boletus aereus (moreccio), Boletus regius (porciano), Leccinum lepidum (lecciotto), Amanita caesarea (coconut), Macrolepiota procera (bubbola) ), Clitocybe nebularis (cemballo), Clitocybe infundibuliformis (cembalella), Hygrophorus russula (lecciaiola), Lactarius deliciosus (barghigiana), Cantharellus cibarius (gallastruzzo) and Lepista nuda (mortellazzo).
Even the fauna, like floristic biodiversity, still maintains a good level of density even if threatened by some intensive farming practices, the use of pesticides and excessive tourist presence.
As for the birdlife, many specimens belong to insular subspecies of the Sardinian-Corsican System. We include species such as the Corsican gull, the raven, the Bonelli’s eagle, the lesser eagle, the Egyptian vulture (now extinct but attested in 1839), the Sardinian buzzard, the kestrel, the grillaio, the harrier, the queen’s hawk , the spotted hawk, the jackdaw, the scops owl, the barn owl, the owl, the tawny owl, the long-eared owl, the swift, the pale swift, the venturone còrso, the solitary sparrow, the Sardinian magnanine, the sordone, the beccofrusone, the common cruise, the fiorrancino, the woodpecker, the black bunting, the Sardinian goldfinch, the stiff neck, the nuthatch, the red partridge, the kingfisher, the hoopoe, the storm bird, the lesser berta, the sula, the shag, the gray heron, the red heron, the little egret; according to some studies, at Elba there would be a probable endemic subspecies of verzellino. The capture at Marciana (2 November 1901) of the only specimen of Baird thrush found in Italy is of considerable importance. The birds of Elba were studied by numerous ornithologists such as Ettore Arrigoni degli Oddi, Giacomo Damiani, Giovanbattista Toscanelli, Edgardo Moltoni and in 1897 the Ornithological Collection Elbana was founded, consisting of about 900 stuffed specimens, located in the Villa of San Martino at Portoferraio. Among the amphibians, the Sardinian tree frog, the Sardinian discoglosso, the toad, the emerald toad. Among the reptiles the viper, the snake with the collar, the white snake, the snake, the gecko, the luscengola.
As for marine reptiles, the presence of the Caretta caretta should be noted. The terrestrial mammals are those typical of the Mediterranean environment, such as the hedgehog, the marten, the hare, the mustiolo and the minor crocidura; in the chestnut woods of Monte Capanne is the dormouse. Interesting is the presence of an endemic subspecies of wild mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus ssp. Ilvanus). In some coastal cliffs (Monte Grosso, Monte Calamita, Colle Palombaia) and the hinterland (Sanctuary of the Madonna di Monserrato) there are wild goat specimens. After the extinction of the Maremma wild boar around 1802, the Central European wild boar was introduced for hunting purposes in 1963, a species that has reproduced to excess causing serious damage to the Elban ecosystem; the first pair of wild boar, coming from Grosseto, was released in the Valle di San Martino, near Portoferraio. Another entry for hunting purposes, which took place in 1976, was that of the mouflon, which is also today in supernumerary on the Mount Capanne Massif. The plant essences most affected by wild boar and mouflon are the red lily, the butcher’s broom, the star lily, the cyclamen. Among the marine mammals we find the common whale, the small whale, the sperm whale, the orca, the grampus, the bottlenose dolphin, the dolphin. No longer present is the monk seal. The fish are well represented. Among them we remember the sunfish, the gray notidano, the spinarolo, the fox shark, the cetorino, the white shark (called tacca di fondo), the emery, the gattuccio, the dogfish, the verdesca, the trigone, the torpedo, the grouper, the barracuda, the amberjack, the tuna, the bonito, the corvina, the leccia. Among the coelenterates is the red coral and the Cladocora caespitosa. Among the insects, the endemic butterfly Coenonynpha elbana and the cicada (sporadic and present mainly on the extreme western slope, between Colle d’Orano and Pomonte).
Environmental Safeguard Actions –
To avoid a further decrease of some fauna species but also of many floristic species, a specific program of remodeling of agricultural practices should be launched, towards agroecology, favoring the cultivation of native varieties and highly associated crop models with optimal rotations.
Furthermore, in 1950 the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno began an imposing reforestation of conifers on the whole island, in particular on Mount Orello (October 1950), on Mount Perone (April 1951) – where they had been started in 1935 – and on Monte Calamita (March 1953), for a total of 500,000 plants on 1500 hectares. The species of conifers used were mainly Pinus pinaster and Pinus pinea, followed to a lesser extent by Pinus radiata and Pinus canariensis. In an isolated mountain area (Le Calanche, Monte Tiratoio and Malpasso) specimens of Pinus nigra from Corsica were planted in the autumn of 1954. Other trees used in the reforestations were Acacia pycnantha, Acacia saligna and Acacia mollissima.
We say that this reforestation technique, with the choice of some species, is no longer feasible today having to go to recover the original habitats and therefore the native species.