In the footsteps of Napoleon: a tour of his villas on Elba Island

History, art and Napoleon’s legacy, close to Désirée Hotel

Just minutes from Désirée Hotel by car or bike, the municipality of Portoferraio is home to two of the most important villas built on Elba Island by order of Napoleon, who spent 10 months in exile here between 1814 and 1815 after he was defeated at Leipzig.
Villa San Martino was built as a summer residence for the Emperor. Left empty after he fled from the island to lead the Hundred Days, the residence was built in elegant Parisian style. The villa is nestled in a valley covered with thick woodland, and despite the modest size of the eight rooms, it houses a number of prestigious art elements, brought to light by the recent restoration work.
One of the most elaborately decorated rooms is the Love Knot Room, which takes its name from a scene frescoed on the ceiling by the artist from Piedmont Antonio Vincenzo Revelli, portraying two doves pulling the ends of a ribbon with their beaks to form a knot. The scene is traditionally believed to be an allegory of the tormented love story between Napoleon and Marie Louise of Austria.

However, the most famous part of the villa is undoubtedly the dining room. Better known as the Egyptian Room, the decorations were ordered by Napoleon to celebrate the success of his Egyptian campaign. The walls are adorned with trompe l’oeil works depicting exotic battle scenes, surrounded by columns engraved with hieroglyphics. Still visible among these decorations on the wall is the Latin phrase "Ubicumque felix Napoleon", written by Napoleon himself. The central opening painted on the ceiling appears to stretch up towards the sky, while the zodiac signs around it govern the earthly events depicted. In the centre of the room is an octagonal basin from which water probably once flowed. The tour comes to a marvellous end with a stop on the balcony, offering regenerating views over the valley.

An art collection worth a visit

The Demidoff Gallery in Villa San Martino

In 1851, Villa San Martino became the property of Anatoly Demidoff, Prince of San Donato. He was the husband of Napoleon’s niece Mathilde Bonaparte, and had a museum built and dedicated to Napoleon at the foot of the villa. Until the prince’s death, this Neoclassical-style building hosted one of the most important collections of Napoleonic objects, as well as a rich ornithological collection of some 900 Elban birds, lost during the Second World War.
Today, visitors to the Demidoff Gallery can admire engravings, lithographs, etchings, and numerous portraits of Napoleon and his family members, as well as the Galatea sculpture by Antonio Canova, for which the Emperor’s younger sister Pauline is believed to have posed.
Portoferraio is also home to Villa dei Mulini, in the upper part of the old town, offering splendid views of the cliff. This was Napoleon’s urban residence he used for business. The name derives from the mills (mulini in Italian) that once stood in this particularly windy area of the island. The original layout of the building dates back to the 18th century, and it was built with an administrative function.

Napoleon’s legacy

Sophisticated rooms brimming with culture

Napoleon made a series of important structural alterations to Villa dei Mulini, building a magnificent Ballroom in Empire style, looking onto the canal of Piombino and used for official ceremonies. The demolition of a number of military buildings made way for the creation of a splendid Italian-style garden planted with roses, citrus trees and exotic plants, today embellished with a statue of Minerva and a copy of the Galatea sculpture by Antonio Canova.
The large library on the ground floor shows that Napoleon was a man of culture as well as action. This room is home to a rich collection of books belonging to the Emperor, most of them from his personal Fontainebleau collections, recognisable by the refined leather binding impressed with the imperial coat of arms.
Although the original furniture is no longer present due to looting over the centuries, the current furnishings on the two floors of the villa transmit the opulent atmosphere Napoleon liked to be surrounded by even when far from his luxurious imperial residences.

Discover Elba island with Désirée Hotel


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Sogear s.r.l.

Loc. Spartaia – 57030 Procchio – Marciana – Isola d’Elba (LI)
Tel. +39 0565 907311 Fax +39 0565 907884
Company Register Office Livorno
Registration number 00158410498
Company capital Euro 416,000.00


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    Sogear s.r.l.

    Loc. Spartaia – 57030 Procchio – Marciana – Isola d’Elba (LI)
    Tel. +39 0565 907311 Fax +39 0565 907884
    Ufficio del registro Imprese di Livorno
    Numero di iscrizione 00158410498
    Capitale societario Euro 416.000,00