The Napoleonic Villas at Portoferraio

As well as being a natural paradise due to its many beauties and the variety of ores it conceals underground, the Island of Elba is also famous for Napoleon's short exile on the island.

After the disastrous Russian campaign and his defeat at Leipzig, Napoleon was exiled to Portoferraio. He left important reminders of his presence. During his short stay (less than 10 months), he administered his new realm, the Principality of the Island of Elba, with great energy, reorganising its transport, trade and agriculture. He made so many innovations that within a short time the whole of the Island of Elba was united under a single flag. In fact, he designed Elba's flag, which is white with three golden bees on a red band. It is still proudly flown right across the island.

He chose a residence between the Stella and Falcone forts, in the high part of Portoferraio, which he adapted to his needs: the Villa Dei Mulini. He brought many novelties with him, and was accompanied by a small court which attracted painters, musicians and various artists. Three women dear to Napoleon Bonaparte were on the Island during his exile: his sister Pauline, his mother Letizia and his lover, Maria Walewska. Life in Portoferraio ceased to be monotonous: the lovely, intelligent Pauline Bonaparte gave new energy and novelty to the town's society.

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The town had never been so elegant or busy. Napoleon ordered the construction of a small, richly decorated theatre in the high part of Portoferraio, and the Teatro dei Vigilanti, converted from the old church of the Madonna del Carmine, is still a symbol of his passage. From his residence, standing on the cliff at the entrance to the gulf of Portoferraio, he could observe both the town itself and the ships entering the harbour. The residence is easily reached via steps in the old town centre known as the “salita Napoleone”, next to piazza della Repubblica, where a large car park is available. It is modest compared to the splendours of Versailles, but it still has a ballroom, an officers' saloon, the Emperor's personal study with his beloved books, his bedroom and the Pages' room. It is decorated in period taste throughout.

For the summer, he chose a cooler residence, in green surroundings just outside Portoferraio: the Villa di San Martino, a gift from his sister Pauline, who bought it with funds raised by selling a valuable pearl necklace. She had it converted with period decorations and references to Napoleon's military campaigns. Examples include the Egyptian Room and the Lovers' Knot Room. The villa was expanded with the addition of a gallery by the Emperor's cousin, Prince Anatoly Demidoff, one of his fervent admirers; its contents include a statue of Napoleon's sister Pauline by Antonio Canova, entitled "La Galatea".

The Villa is about 10 minutes' drive from Hotel Acquamarina in Portoferraio along the road to Procchio-Marina di Campo. A well-marked left turn after about 5 kilometres leads to the entrance to the lovely avenue of the Villa di San Martino. There is a large car park which can also accommodate coaches.

Watch the video of the things to see during a tour of the Villa Dei Mulini:

Watch the video of the things to see during a tour of the Villa di San Martino:

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