Last Updated on 2023/01/04
A small island full of history: Etruscans, Greeks, Romans, hermits, prisoners inhabited this island for more than 3000 years before becoming a nature reserve.
The history of the island begins with the Iron Age. The Etruscans exploited the forests of oak needed to fuel the bloomeries of the mainland where the iron ore of Elba’s mines was melted.
The Greeks gave Montecristo its oldest known name, Oglasa or Ocrasia, after the yellowish color of the rocks.
The Romans, however, knew it under the name Mons Jovis, and erected an altar to Iuppiter Optimus Maximus, of which some traces remain, on the highest mountain.
During the imperial age the Romans opened some quarries to extract granite, perhaps used in the construction of villas on the islands of Giglio, Elba, and Giannutri.[Wikipedia]
Around the middle of the fifth century AD the caves of the island became home to several hermits escaping from the Vandals of Genseric, the most important of whom was St. Mamilian.
They christened the island “Mons Christi”, from which the modern name is derived. At the beginning of the seventh century Pope Gregory the Great submitted them to the monastic rule of the Benedictines. In this period the Monastery of St. Mamilian was founded; as a result of donations to the Church its wealth became legendary, and a chapel was built in the St. Mamiliano Cave where the saint had lived in the fifth century.
In 1216 the monks joined the order of the Camaldolese. Thanks to the donations of several noble families, the monastery became powerful and rich, and this gave rise to the legend of treasure hidden on the island. Once a possession of Pisa, the island was later acquired by the Principality of Piombino.
In 1553, Ottoman pirate Dragut, heading for Elba, stormed the monastery, enslaved the monks and decreed its end. After that, the island was uninhabited. In the second half of the sixteenth century, together with most of the Tuscan Archipelago, it became part of the Stato dei Presidi, a client Spanish state.[Wikipedia]
Annexed to the French Empire under Napoleon, after his fall the island became the possession of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. The first attempts to colonise Monte Cristo, at the time owned by Charles Cambiagi, were made in 1840 by two German hermits, Augustin Eulhardt and Joseph Keim, who eventually abandoned the attempt. In 1843 other people arrived with the intention of cultivating the island: the young Tyrolean Adolph Franz Obermüller, and after a few months, the Frenchman Charles Legrand and his girlfriend. Also during 1843, there were other attempts of colonisation by the French agriculturalist George Guiboud, which ended with yet another failure.
In 1846 some Genoese made a similar effort, while in 1849 the Frenchman Jacques Abrial was able to farm the island for three years. In 1852 a rich Englishman, George Watson-Taylor, bought Monte Cristo and transformed Cala Maestra into a garden, planting eucalyptus and many exotic plants, among them the Asiatic Ailanthus altissima, an invasive species which now infests the island.
The few modern buildings of Monte Cristo, such as the Royal Villa, date from this period. The island was then purchased by the Italian Government on 3 June 1869 for the sum of £100,000. Montecristo had previously been plundered in 1860 by Italian exiles living in London, who had come to Italy to join up with the Camicie rosse, but were shipwrecked on the island. Faced with the huge sum of money claimed by the owner to repair the damage, the government thought it better to buy the island, which was still uninhabited.[Wikipedia]
After other attempts at colonisation in 1878, the Italian government founded a penal colony there, a branch of that in Pianosa. In 1889 Monte Cristo was given to Marquess Carlo Ginori, who restored the Villa and transformed the island into a hunting ground. In 1896, Monte Cristo was the honeymoon destination of Victor Emmanuel III of Savoy (at that time crown prince) and Elena of Montenegro, and after 1899 it became a royal hunting ground for Victor Emmanuel’s exclusive use. During the Second World War the island, important because of its position between Italy and occupied Corsica, was garrisoned by the Italian army. After several episodes of vandalism and speculation attempts, the nature reserve was established in 1971.
In December 2011 it was reported that black rats, present on the island at least since Roman times, have greatly increased in numbers and pose a serious threat to the birds of Monte Cristo. Due to the inaccessibility of the terrain, the island was bombed from the air with poison pellets, as had recently been attempted on Giannutri and Sardinia, despite concerns raised by environmental groups that indigenous species of wildlife and the surrounding waters might also be adversely affected. The Ailanthus trees were also to be eradicated.[Wikipedia]
The conditions that restricted the establishment of human settlements on Montecristo have favoured the preservation of its flora and fauna. Animals and plants once found throughout the Mediterranean still live on the island. Of particular interest are the giant heather formations covering the valley floors and several thousand-year-old oaks that manage to survive at the highest altitudes. Also interesting are the Montecristo viper (Vipera aspis hugyi, a subspecies also present in southern Italy, and today considered introduced by humans) and Discoglossus sardus, an amphibian found only in a couple of islands in Tuscany and Sardinia.[Wikipedia]
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