CAPOLIVERI – PAST & PRESENT
Capoliveri was founded as a fortified point on a natural stronghold in Etruscan-Roman times. One of its Latin names was Caput Liberum, derived from the cult of Dionysius/Bacchus (also known as Liber) referring to the fact that fine wines were made here even in antiquity.
Until the 13th Century, Capoliveri was the only fortified town on the island of Elba, and during the period of Pisan rule the economic importance of its iron ore workings led to the town being chosen as the base of the “Capitanìa”, and thus the island’s administrative, political and military headquarters.
It retained this role until the 15th Century when, with Pisa in decline and sold to the Visconti family of Milan, Elba passed under the jurisdiction of Gherardo Appiani, Lord of Piombino, through the direct influence of the Spanish Crown. It was in this period that Capoliveri suffered the disastrous raid in which Barbary pirates laid waste the town and razed its ancient walls to their foundations. The fortifications were rebuilt, but were eventually destroyed for the second time in the early 18th Century after the battle between French Imperial and Spanish troops.
This was followed by a period of French rules during which the island, poverty-stricken after three centuries of warfare and partitioning, finally saw a return to some prosperity with the rebuilding of roads, harbours and the public works of the old villages, the recovery of the agricultural sector and the reopening of the iron ore mines.
After his military and political defeat at the hands of the allied powers, Napoleon Bonaparte chose Elba as his refuge in exile and became its ruler. The illustrious governor had intended to destroy the stronghold of Capoliveri because the town’s inhabitants had not paid him sufficient homage, but was dissuaded from these warlike plans through his passion for a young townswoman called Amelia Vantini.
After Napoleon’s departure, the island of Elba and Capoliveri in particular enjoyed a period of economic rebirth under the efficient administration of the Grand Dukes of Lorraine, thanks to the recovery of the wine industry and an increase in iron mining, which continued to expand until the second half of the 19th Century. However, the late 19th Century was a time of great hardship: the Phylloxera disease struck a serious blow to the area’s wine-growing economy and Capoliveri saw a large proportion of its population emigrate to South America. This first period of migration was followed by another, after the Second World War, when many people from Capoliveri emigrated to Australia in the hope of finding work and a better future.
During the last few years, with the final closure of the last mines, Capoliveri’s economy, like that of the whole of the island of Elba, has been revolutionised by the tourism industry, which has taken the place of all other forms of economic production but has not erased the distinctive character of Capoliveri’s people, who have adapted to the changes without forgetting their past. The source of economic sustenance has changed but the town’s past as a society of miners and farmers is still very much alive in its traditional feast days and celebrations.
When the sun goes down, around the essences of the island summer, redolent with the myrtle, wild mint, wild fennel and rosemary of the maquis that envelops the town and runs down to the edges of the sea, Capoliveri has fresh, vibrant emotions to offer: piazza Matteotti, which from June to September hosts concerts and theatrical, dance and cabaret performances, is just the start of a range of attractions that line the alleys, squares and steps, crammed with stands and stalls selling local crafts and jewellery. And no evening visit is complete without a pause in one of the many restaurants that throng the town, guided by the inviting aroma of fish from Elba’s traditional cuisine.