Volterraio Castle: Elba Island’s Guardian


Volterraio Castle: Elba Island's GuardianIts name is a mystery. Perhaps it derives from the Etruscan word vul-tur, which means elevated cliff, or from the Latin vultur which means nest of vultures. It could even be a way of indicating the provenance of the architect from the province of Pisa who was appointed in 1281 to reinforce the fortress which was built 2 centuries earlier, the volterrano Vanni di Gherardo Rau?

The exact construction date of this building remains unknown as it has become lost over the many centuries that it has remained standing. However, it is known that parts of it were inserted during Medieval times. According to a legend, the original castle was built according to the wishes of the legendary Etruscan queen, Ilva. Consequently, traces of walls and Roman china, perhaps coming directly from statues, were discovered within the castle.

Due to its great position perched on the peak off a cliff which is incredibly difficult to reach, Volterraio has been continually reconstructed over time. A mass of large stones and sturdy walls, the castle was the perfect point from which it possible to observe the flow of oncoming traffic of carts from the mines of Elba Island, the location of this illustrious castle, which used to transport iron materials to the loading point for materials which were to be exported to mainland cities of the continent. From here it was also possible to keep an eye on the mill’s fuel sources down below. However, most importantly, it was considered for centuries as an excellent location for defence purposes as from here the entire sea was in full view and so the Saracen pirates, and any other kind of enemy, who often plagued the surrounding seas, could be spotted at long distance thus providing a great advantage against the opposition. In the event of an enemy coming into sight from this excellent viewpoint, a signal was made by those on watch, using fire, and eventually with the use of cannons, which would immediately warn the islanders of a possible attack. The signals were so effective that, for a very short, they were also received by other cities along the Tuscan Coast, such as Piombino, and sometimes even as far as Florence. Other evidence of Volterraio Castle’s stint as a great defence structure can be seen by its surrounding walls which served as protection in the event of an invasion.

Despite its large size and status as a great defence structure, the castle has never possessed a large amount of weapons. A document from the year 1575, tells of how the castle was equipped with only 85 firelocks, 1 cannon, 24 rifles and 4 shotguns. Truly nothing to boast about. Yet, unlike other fortresses on the island, despite the many times it has been under attack, Volterraio has never been conquered. This is partly thanks to building extensions which were carried out during the 1400′s and 1500′s, following the successful resistance of an attack by Tunisia in 1402. Such expansions allowed them to successfully resist a series of attacks made by the Turks under the command of the terrible Barbarossa in 1544. Even attacks by the dreaded Saracens together with French troops in 1553 and 1554, during the period in which there were many wars breaking out throughout Italy, were successfully foiled. With the peace which followed these victories, the fortress found that it was in fact sitting on the boundary which was dividing the island into two strongholds, that of the Spanish and that of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Following another significant political and military event which occurred in 1688, Volterraio oversaw further expansions including the addition of the fort’s chapel.

We have already stated that Volterraio, Elba’s only fortress, has never been conquered by any of its many assailants despite its lack of weaponry. However, its excellent position cannot be the only reason behind the fortress’ undisputed victory. The secret behind its continued success is simply down to the fact that the fortress is a small, truly ingenious piece of military architecture containing endless hidden details designed to trick any intruders. For example, those who examine the castle closely will notice that the blackbirds perched all over the castle are smaller than normal. This is a trick used to make the castle seem bigger than it actually is from a long distance. Furthermore, the mast, which is another name used to describe the fortress’ main tower, does not have any inside stairs and was only accessible by the walkway enclosed within the fortress’ walls so that it was easier to defend in the event of an intruder managing to enter the courtyard, which was strategically placed at the highest point of the castle to make it difficult to reach. The fortress’ main entrance was however situated at the lowest point of the castle leading to which there was a blocked pathway which without following made it impossible to enter. As a result, any intruders were forced to find other more obscure ways of entering including crossing the fortress’ breakwater head-on, sideways through holes in the castle walls and attempting to climb the fortress’ elevated staircase. Other hidden features which were included to reinforce the fortress’ strong defence against attack include underground tunnels which used to link all battle stations together, thus allowing quick access or escape when necessary, and tunnels dug to intercept any underground attempts made by enemies of reaching the castle. All of this, along with its favourable position clinging tightly a steep rock, make it absolutely indestructible.

Despite the large number of attacks the castle received, whenever possible its keepers would try to make peace with the opposition as opposed to engaging in an all out war. Eventually, during the time when the terrible Turks had been defeated, battles involving the French, Spanish and other European colonies stayed away from Elba Island. The end of Volterraio Castle was the result of the clever policy of an illustrious king, Leopaldo II who was the Grand Duke of Tuscany. This took place during the years immediately after the Vienna Congress in 1815 which reshaped the fibres of the new continent. Leopaldo’s policy stated that Tuscany would no longer be subject to any military activities. However, Napoleon, who was enjoying a luxurious exile on Elba Island, had already left the island to meet his final defeat. As a result of Leopaldo’s policy, Volterraio was no longer needed and was in turn completely abandoned. Unfortunately, this was not before the only devastating attack of the castle’s history, in 1798, which came as a result of the deployment of Napoleon’s troops.

From then on, the weather has had no mercy on the castle transforming into the ruins that can be seen today, with walls that are covered with vegetation which make the castle blend into its rugged mountainous backdrop. However it stills sparks a certain amount of fear in those who attempt the backbreaking ascent up to the castle. Yet it is only in this way that we can truly appreciate the fortunate position of this Vulture’s Nest, with an amazing view of the surrounding land and sea which stretches out for miles. The only sounds to be heard are those of the wind and the birds which are constantly flying through the air of this remote spot. A word of warning: remember that it is better to make your descent from the cliff top before sunset! Not only for fear of falling and hurting yourself as a result of the lack of sunlight, but also because it is said that here the agonizing groan of the Volterraio’s many ghosts can be heard! According to many, these ghost are those of the Christians who were boiled alive by Saracen pirates in the view of horrified defenders of the castle, in an attempt to intimidate them during their many invasions, and also those of Barbarossa’s soldiers who died of hunger whilst in hiding from their attackers.

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