At 8 pm on May 3rd 1814, Napoleon Bonaparte, the former Emperor of the French, arrived in the pretty harbour of Portoferraio on the island of Elba, aboard the British frigate Undaunted; he disembarked the next day at 2 pm, to be met by the sub-prefect, local clergy, and other officials. With him were his faithful generals Bertrand, Druot and the former commander of the Imperial Guard, Pierre Cambronne, along with 600 Guardsmen. Ten months later, he departed under cover of darkness aboard the tiny flagship of his equally tiny navy, the brig L’Inconstant, on the night of Sunday February 26th, 1815, and embarked on the inveterate gambler’s last throw of the dice – the so-called Hundred Days in which he recovered France and almost defeated the British and Prussians at Waterloo.
Napoleon’s exile on the island of Elba is one of those footnotes of history that are always rather intriguing. What must it have been like for this towering military and political genius to be reduced to sovereignty over a mere 220 square kilometres and 11,400 inhabitants, a speck in plain sight of the coast of Italy, just 10 kilometres away? At times, it must have seemed like a sick joke – Napoleon himself disparagingly referred to Elba as “an operetta kingdom” – yet at other times it seemed as if he had resigned himself to his fate and was content to live in a form of retirement.
Mind you, Napoleon’s version of retirement would exhaust most people. During his 300 days on the island, he reorganised his new kingdom’s defences, gave money to the poor, reformed the customs and excise system, repaired the barracks, built a hospital, paved parts of Portoferraio for the first time, organised regular rubbish collections, set up a court of appeal, and established an inspectorate to widen roads and build bridges. In between times, he read voraciously (and left a library of 1,100 volumes to the city of Portoferraio), played with his pet monkey, grew avenues of mulberry trees, and planted vineyards. I rather suspect that any modern government that was this active would be unassailable!
Today, Elba is a very popular holiday destination for Tuscans; a mere three hours from the capital by road and ferry, it is accessible and yet it also feels remote. Leaving Piombino, the rather unlovely Tuscan port that is the closest point to the island, its popularity is underlined by the sheer volume of ferry traffic: there are three ferry companies that service the island, providing a virtually continuous service every half hour or so. The island itself looms ruggedly out of the Tuscan Sea, and on a sunny day the short journey is magical, as is the arrival into the sheltered harbour of Portoferraio, dominated by fortifications erected by the Medici after they took the place over in 1546. The town, incidentally, gets its name from the iron ore that used to be one of the island’s principal exports, and you can still see the old mines high up on the mountains opposite the harbour.
But beautiful though the town of Portoferraio is (particularly viewed from over a very nice lunch and a glass or two of wine at one of the restaurants that line the curved waterfront), the pursuit of Napoleon was our primary mission on the first day of our visit, and so, suitably refreshed, we climbed the steep stairs leading up from the Piazza Camillo Benso Conti di Cavour (that’s a mouthful) to get to the retired Emperor’s city pad, the Villa Mulini.
The building’s official title is actually the Palazzina dei Mulini, which seems appropriate for a place that is rather larger than your average villa, but nowhere near grand enough to really wear the title of Palace with pride. Still, it’s a pretty nice retirement option, sited high on the cliffs so there is a breeze even on the hottest days (the Palazzina actually gets its name – the Palace of the Mills – from the three windmills that were demolished to make way for Napoleon’s garden).
Inside, the bedrooms and more intimate living rooms are all on the ground floor, while the upper floor – added at Napoleon’s request – is dominated by a large and airy reception room whose floor to ceiling windows open to the garden, giving it a wonderfully open and airy feel. The rooms are all furnished with items from the period, either original or reproductions; in one room, rather incongruously, stands the Emperor’s campaign bed, a reminder that this man, though he had at his disposal such sumptuous palaces as Versailles, the Tuileries, and Fontainebleau, was at heart a soldier for whom this simple contraption was as comfortable as a four poster.
Apart from the accommodation for the Emperor, the house was also home to his mother, Letizia, the fierce old matriarch who was probably the only woman other than Josephine of whom Napoleon was genuinely afraid, and his sister, Pauline, the only one of his rather grasping brood of siblings who came to join him in exile. As one wanders from room to room, it’s quite easy to imagine the miniature court that must have formed around the villa’s illustrious new owner, though it all must have seemed rather surreal compared to the glittering recent past. Even so, to all accounts, far from looking down on his Elban subjects, Napoleon seems to have treated them with courtesy and even affection.
Walking in the gardens on a bright summer’s day, it is hard to resist posing the question of why, given such idyllic surrounds, Napoleon would have ever wanted to leave. The Emperor himself frequently said that he was content to see out his days here, and that his days of world domination were done. But perhaps he was just gulling his “jailers”, the commissioners who were appointed to make sure he behaved himself. Of course, such a tiny dominion would probably never have been enough for such a titanic force of nature. But his erstwhile enemies, in their foolishness, also did their level best to offer him sufficient provocation to take his final gamble. They withheld the payments that had been promised for his upkeep, and they denied him access to his wife and son. But most of all, the Bourbons, having returned to power without learning or forgetting anything, soon reduced France to such a state of discontent that Napoleon was pretty sure he would get a good reception if he came back. And so, on that dark and moonless February night, he slipped aboard L’Inconstant and sailed off to his destiny at Waterloo.
Intriguing as the story of Napoleon is, there is much more to see on Elba than just his villa. The island’s landscape is absolutely spectacular, and although it is small – you could drive from one end to the other in a couple of hours – it is packed with fabulous vistas and amazing little harbours. Unfortunately for us, we only had time to do a quick drive to visit a couple of the more immediately accessible – Porto Azzuro and Rio Marina, both on the eastern side of the island – before catching our ferry back to Piombini. But we’d love to come back one day and spend a bit more time exploring this lovely place.