Napoleon and Elisa: Tangible signs of their presence in Tuscany

An itinerary along the Tuscan coast to discover Napoleon and a Princess

Lucia Maffei

At the end of the XVIII Century, a sleepy, conservative Tuscany and a large portion of Europe, too, is awakened by a strong, impetuous wave called Napoleon Bonaparte. In the course of just a few years, this petite Corsican soldier revolutionizes the political and institutional configuration not only of a post-revolutionary France, but also of an entire continent, becoming its last great emperor. This is a feat that few personalities can boast of before him. Only Julius Caesar at the time of the Roman Empire and Charles the Great in the Middle Ages had achieved similar epic results.

IN JUST A FEW YEARS, NAPOLEON BONAPARTE sets the bases for what will become the profile of a contemporary Europe by carrying out a series of veritable historical revolutions. The echoes and the tangible signs of this wave that strikes and changes the course of history reverberate in that portion of Tuscany that extends along the Tyrrhenian coastline and that today corresponds to the provinces of Massa Carrara, Lucca, Pisa and Leghorn. In this geographical area, for different reasons and for various prolonged periods, sojourned Napoleon himself, his mother Letizia, his wife Josephine, his sisters Elisa, Pauline, Caroline, brothers-in-law, brothers and even Maria Waleska, devoted mistress of the Emperor. A powerful family who spends its time in the different Tuscan cities, who governs, buys palaces and villas, turns over many church properties to the state, holds sumptuous feasts, brings the theatrical and musical arts back to life, carries out important reforms, revolutionizes the apparatus of power, fosters new artists and “imports” famous ones from imperial Paris, changes the cultural habits and customs of the people of Tuscany. It may not be by chance that when Napoleon is defeated by his former allies and signs the Treaty of Fontainebleau, he chooses the Isle of Elba as the destination of his exile.

WHAT IS LEFT TODAY, IN THE VAST AREA BETWEEN HILLS AND SEA, OF THIS GLORIOUS FRENCH PERIOD? In order to answer to this question and to be able to “read” the traces and signs, the suggestions of that period, to reconstruct a fascinating voyage across the veritable myth that Napoleon left behind, Roberta Martinelli, Director of the Musei Nazionali delle Residenze di Napoleone (National Museums of Napoleon’s Residencies, N.d.r.) on the Isle of Elba and Councilor to the Cultural Estate of the Province of Lucca, has ideated and catered to the project called “Napoleone ed Elisa: segni della presenza in Toscana” (Napoleon and Elisa: Tangible signs of their presence in Tuscany, N.d.r.)

Fruit of this project is a uniquely new travel guide. Through never-before published itineraries that touch upon the seaside and the coastline, the hills and cities of art, the recently published guide follows the traces left by Napoleon and his family – called by some “nomads of power” due to their incessant, continuous voyaging from one place to another of the Empire, following state matters and private passions. And the guide actually begins at the “end” of Napoleon’s voyage, on the Isle of Elba where the exiled Emperor will reign for ten months.

NAPOLEON ARRIVES ON A SMALL LAUNCH IN PORTOFERRAIO ON MAY 4, 1814, this small town of the tiny empire that remained following the defeat of his army and his departure from Paris.

“I arrived on the island five days ago. I have had gracious lodgings with a garden prepared for me. The climate is beautiful here.

I will be at my lodgings in three days… the island is healthy, the inhabitants seem rather good people and the town is very pleasant...” In a very short time, and with a speed that is still today shocking, Napoleon carries out a series of public works that bring this small island – subjugated by centuries of different dominations – back to life. He builds roads, enhances those activities connected with fishing and agriculture, selects exclusive vines, orders 500 mulberry trees to embellish the roads leading to the town but also to sell the leaves to silk producers, has streets and squares tiled, re-starts the island’s mining activity, conferring a fervor to it that will last well into the first half of the XX Century.

HE SETS UP HIS LITTLE URBAN COURT IN THE PALAZZINA DEI MULINI PALACE, located in the highest and most strongly fortified section of Portoferraio. Today, the Palazzina is a national museum visted by over 200,000 people every year.

The emperor personally chooses fabrics, furniture, decorations and accessories for his new town palace and for his summer residence, the villa of San Martino, today also a national museum. He personally carries out the restoration work and has the main hall of San Martino frescoed with Egyptian-style motifs, in memory of the mythical Egyptian venture. A marble tub in the center of the hall is used to grow papyrus plants. In those days, the Isle of Elba is the Mecca for many travellers who want to personally meet the man all of Europe is talking about. Napoleon thus organizes a complex court apparatus whose ceremonial is a perfectly mirror-like version of that of the Parisian imperial court. His mother also decides to live near her exiled son and establishes herself in the town of Marciana Marina while his sister, Pauline, will live for a short time in Portoferraio.

The suggestive memory of this beautiful princess, immortalized by the sculptor Canova, can today be found on the island at the “Scoglio di Paolina” (Pauline’s Rock) one of the most suggestive lieus of the entire coast of Elba, where it is said that the princess liked to go swimming.

NAPOLEON WILL LEAVE ELBA JUST TEN MONTHS AFTER HIS ARRIVAL TO BEGIN HIS 100-DAY ADVENTURE which will lead him just a short time later – definitively defeated – to a much more bitter and far-away island, that of St. Helens. If we return on the coast, we can reach the city of Leghorn, considered the door to the Mediterranean by Napoleon himself.

After a few miles, we find Pisa, the “capital of Knowledge”, where Napoleon’s reform of the university set the bases for the birth of the Scuola Normale, a sort of Italian branch of the Ecole Normale of Paris. Having reached Lucca, we find ourselves in the capital of the Principality, where Elisa enters for the first time on July 14, 1805, having been named Princess of Lucca by the Emperor himself. Her nomination marked the beginning of a period of great changes.

THE AIM OF THE PRINCESS WAS TO CREATE A COURT STYLE and to confer to the city the imprint of a veritable European capital, renewing it both in its urban form and in its institutions. To answer to the stylistic line of her brother, the princess creates a very complex and articulated court protocol that clearly distinguishes moments of public life from those of private life. She carries out a series of reforms and changes in the Principality that are mirror images of those taking place in Paris and in France in general under her brother’s reign. The entire province of Lucca, and in particular the towns of Viareggio and the thermal baths of Bagni di Lucca, created by Elisa herself, are the places where the brothers and sisters of the Emperor will establish themselves for long periods. We arrive then to Massa Carrara, famous for its precious marbles and sculptures. Like a true emperor, the princess here carries out an important industrial and commercial operation by re-launching the activity of the quarries through a complex economic system which almost immediately begins to bear its fruits.

THE MOST TANGIBLE SIGN OF THE SPLENDOR AND CELEBRATIONS are the palaces and the piazzas, which become the symbol of imperial power. Indeed, each of these cities – Lucca, Massa, Leghorn and Pisa – will have its own Imperial palace, housing the court and its new sovereigns, and a large piazza, always called Piazza Napoleone, directly in front of the palace: the urban lieus symbol of the empire and the scenario in which power exercises its role.The piazzas dedicated to Napoleon are always found in front of their palaces, and the sovereigns did not hesitate to tear down entire residential blocks in order to have available the flat terrain to build them. Power has the entire city as its theater, and it becomes indispensable that history forcibly crystallizes and becomes tangible with strong and distinctive signs both on an urban and architectural level. •

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