On a spring day, the clearness of the horizon could dispel any doubt about the reasons behind why, in May 1947, the City Authorities (on the advice of steadfast Paride Adami) decided to change the town’s name from the austere Portolongone to the more delightful Porto Azzurro, a binomial that contains the true essence of the town and its people: the port, a source of life since the very beginning, blends with an undisputable blue that, beyond the Focardo, mixes the immensity of the sky and the magnificence of the sea.
It isn’t a coincidence that Spain, with Philip II’s Spanish Armada, set its sights on this stretch of land in 1557, a certain target for Turkish-Barbary attacks, sure, but home to one of the most secure seaports on the Peninsula.
It didn’t matter what the inhabitants of Elba thought (nor Ferdinand I, Grand Duke of Tuscany); this is emblematic of the fate of the naval base that the Mediterranean islands were subject to in the era when absolutist and hereditary monarchies had the upper hand.
Among the streets in the town center, history continued to march forward: Napoleon Bonaparte, by then in Exile, stayed overnight in one of the seaside residences, enjoying his evening there (a stormy one, according to tradition) before he left the next day, pledging to return in the future. But this is another story…
Spanish influence can be seen everywhere in this area: in the family names (Rodriguez, Aragona), in the toponymy, in the reverential Don; Catalonia exists in family traditions and in the devotion to the simulacrum of the Madonna Nera di Monserrato – the hermitage built in 1606 by the first governor atop a rocky hill that reminded him of his home.
The Sanctuary overlooks a valley, where Spanish traces mark the landscape with a cottage and its chapel in an Iberian-Baroque citrus grove, at the entrance to which sits two guard lions.
Downstream, where the ships lightly rock in the water and the sailors and fishermen repair the boats singing monotonous and sweet songs (as the historian Gregorovius recalls), the impressive Chiesa del Carmine and the smaller Chapel of the Sacro Cuore di Maria stand out, protective guardians of a past still very much alive.
In 1746, at the end of their Grand Tour, two English painters arrived in Elba: Alexander and John Cozens, fresh from their discovery of Italian art.
In the weeks they spent here, the two men immortalized several of Elba’s best features. One of the most depicted areas is Porto Longone, or better, Porto Azzurro. In the collection of watercolours, today held in the British Museum, the small town appears to be nestled at the foot of a Fortress, with two domes towering over the rooftops (only one remains): photographs that immortalized a village that, in just 100 years since its foundation, experienced wars, epidemics and famines, but in front of which, an imposing Sail rocked lightly back and forth over the waves of the sea.