The National Park of the Tuscan Archipelago, the largest marine park in Europe, includes all the main islands of the Tuscan Archipelago: Elba, Capraia, Gorgona, Pianosa, Montecristo, Giglio and Giannutri. The different geological formation of the islands influenced their diverse shapes and environments. Man has also contributed to this heterogeneity. He has lived here from ancient times, used the natural resources and played a significant role in forming today’s landscape.
The Park can boast an unusual, continuous occupation, which has left extremely important traces dating from the Palaeolithic period, almost without a break to the Renaissance. The visible macro-themes of the occupation of the archipelago are linked to the exploitation of iron, to residential occupation determined by the beauty of the places and to the control of the sea routes.
In the coldest period of the last glaciation, approximately 20,000 years ago, Elba and Pianos were part of a vast peninsula which stretched from the Tuscan coast towards Corsica as a result of the drop in the sea level. The Palaeolithic hunters and Neanderthal man were, therefore, able to reach these areas rich in wild life on foot. Stone tools and waste materials found in some sites on the island of Elba and Pianosa are clear evidence of these periods of occupation.
It was, however, the metals, and especially the copper present on the eastern side of the island, which gave rise to a stable community settlement, beginning from at least the 3rd millennium BC, between the late Copper Age and the early Bronze Age. According to some sources, the extraction of minerals on the island appears to have been the work of the “Ilvates”, a people from today’s Liguria, hence the name “Ilva”, the ancient name for Elba.
A strong rise in the population can be seen at the beginning of the Iron Age, when we find numerous settlements on the slopes of Mount Capanne, founded by communities of shepherds and farmers.
If we can legitimately conjecture that the trading of iron existed before the Etruscans refined the process techniques, it is certain that, by the 7th century, this metal was rare and was only used to make arms and precious decorations. The need to protect this precious, natural resource led to the creation between the 5th and 4th century BC of a defence system of strategic points, from which to control the landing places. Hill-top fortresses have been identified in various places on the island of Elba. Between the 4th and the 1st century BC, the steel industry on the island expanded, as shown by a massive presence of waste found throughout the island. A large extraction and processing plant has recently been discovered in Cavo that was active between the 3rd and the 1st century BC. The intense population of the islands in this period is seen in the necropoli of Proficuo and Burraccio.
The early Middle Ages are currently the period which is least documented. Some finds indicate that in the period between the 9th and 10th century, extraction of iron began once again and that later between the 11th and 12th centuries it began to be processed in Maremma.
During the rule of Pisa (11th century) and the following rule of Genoa – limited only to Capraia – defence works were increased with the construction of fortresses and settlements on high ground.
In 13th century Gorgona, the ancient Urgon, already inhabited perhaps by the Etruscans and certainly during the Roman era, the people of Pisa built a fortress, today known as “Torre Vecchia” [Old Tower], thus named after the Medici built the current “Torre Nuova” [New Tower] in 1406.
At the same time a system of parish churches and suffragan churches spread throughout the area: single-nave, fairly small buildings, with apse and wall belfry, according to a Romanesque model from Pisa without any polychromy (parishes of: San Michele in Campoliveri, San Lorenzo in Poggio, San Giovanni Battista in Campo, San Giovanni near Portoferraio; and the churches of: Santo Stefano alle Trane and SS. Pietro and Paolo in Campo all’Elba).
In 1399, Elba, Montecristo and Pianosa became part of the Appian state of Piombino. During this period, there were numerous pirate incursions, which damaged the settlements and had a negative effect on the island population. The fortresses of Marciana on Elba and Montecristo were rebuilt and new mountain fortresses were built high up in response to these attacks.
Later, around the second half of 1500, Elba passed under the rule of Cosimo I de Medici, who founded Cosmopolis, today’s Portoferraio, around the ancient Roman Fabricia.
At the beginning of 1600, the south-easterly part of Elba became the property of the Spanish, who built the forts of San Giacomo and Focardo around the Gulf of Langone. In the same period, churches that were often isolated were rebuilt or built in the full spirit of the Counter-Reformation to become proper sanctuaries.
With the reforms in Livorno put in place by Pietro Leopoldo towards the end of 1700, land reclamation and terracing was carried out in order to cultivate vines, giving rise to scattered towns and new centres of gemmation. Traces of these terraces and what was named “heroic” cultivation because of the steep slopes without the aid of any mechanisation still remain.
In 1796, Elba was occupied by the English and three years later by the French, who unified it with Tuscany. From 1814 to 1815, it was an independent domain and Napoleon’s residence.
In the second half of 1800, agricultural penal colonies were set up on Pianosa, Gorgona and Capraia, which enabled the agrarian landscape to be maintained for some considerable time. At the same time, there was a surge of mineral working on the island of Elba. 1899 saw an industrial turning point, with the foundation of the Società Elba and the construction the following year in Portoferraio of the first carbon coke blast furnace to produce cast iron, and then steel.
The iron and steel complex was irreparably damaged by the Allies’ bombs and ceased working at the end of the Second World War. The mines, concentrated in the areas around Rio Marina, Rio nell’Elba and Capoliveri, continued working until 1981. The extremely interesting mineral heritage and industrial archaeology can be visited and forms part of the Mineral Park of the Island of Elba, which is based in the former Palazzo del Burò in Rio Marina.