The history told by Gaia Rum

Giglio Island History

When I was young I believed what everyone had always told me, that the Giglio Island was created out of one of Venus’ seven pearls. Sometimes, on calm summer nights when the sea’s surface shimmered, I felt like I could hear Venus singing her love song as she looked for her lost pearls. It was a sad moment for me when I discovered that the island had existed long before the Greeks and their gods, during the prehistoric, Paleolithic era as proven by the megalithic remains of the Cote Ciombella in Giglio Castello and the Dolmen on the path between Cannelle and Castello. It was one of those coming-of-age moments like finding out that Santa does not exist. In times like this, you might wish you didn’t exist either, or that Christmas itself didn’t exist. Now that its religious sense is only left for a few, what’s the point of Christmas without Santa? And what is the point of an island without a legendary origin story?

Once I had left the celestial myths behind, the earthly deeds of earthly peoples were all that remained. To find out what events this small strip of rock had been involved in forever-and-ever-amen, I turned to Armando the doctor, the island’s local physician and official historian who is a celebrity in our community, a legend you might say. Armando taught me that our “little rock” was a trading center for centuries, starting with the Etruscans who exploited its iron deposits in Campese. Romans like the Ahenobarbus family — who built a luxurious patrician villa in the “Castellare” area of Porto now called Saraceno or “Ban Saracino” for the locals — owned slaves and traded wine, oil, wheat and fish bred in the “Cetaria” (whose remains you can still see today in the Bay of Saraceno) with the imperial capital. After the Visigoth invasion and the fall of Rome, Romans escaped Barbarian conquerors by taking refuge on Giglio.

Shortly before the year 1000, it became a refuge for Bishop Mamilian, the saint who wanted to be buried here after his death on Montecristo, an island to which he had fled to escape Genseric. All that remains of Saint Mamilian on Giglio is an arm, which was returned to the parish church in the 17th century thanks to the intercession of Giglio-born Monsignor, at the time a cleric in the chamber of Pope Innocent XIII. I am not sure how this is possible, but it seems like in every corridor of power is a hidden Giglio native there to intercede on our behalf. In any case, thanks to Monsignor Miliani, we also managed to obtain an ivory Christ once belonging to the pope himself, attributed to sculptor Giambologna, and now in the parish church of Giglio Castello.

Before the arm’s return home, the island became a fief of the Monastero delle Tre Fontane and a busy center for monastic activities, which it remains to this day, especially in winter.

The island subsequently fell into the hands of Margaret, daughter of Aldobrandino, count and custodian of the Monastero delle Tre Fontane, Until she was excommunicated by Pope Bonaface VIII for “fellonias et excessus enormes” (poor thing! All she did was leave her first husband and try four more before finding a decent companion). The fief of Ansedonia to which Giglio belonged became the subject of bitter disputes between the Aldobrandeschi and Orsini families on the one hand and the Caetani on the other.

I don’t know how the story between these families ended, since Armando just glossed over what were mainly family matters irrelevant to the island’s fate.

By the 11th century, the island had come under the rule of the Pisans, who started building the castle with the fortress, the entire city walls and, a few years later, the towers of Porto and Lazaretto. The latter is now a private residence still visible on the Lazzaretto promontory just beyond the port. In this period, on May 3, 1241, the waters of our beloved little island were the site of an important naval battle between the fleets of Emperor Frederick II, composed largely of Pisan galleys, and the Republic of Genoa allied with the pope, in which the emperor got the better of the Genoese.

When Florence conquered Pisa in 1406the people of Giglio became Florentine subjects until 1448 when naval soldiers of Alfonso of Aragon, King of Naples, landed on the island and established his garrison there. In 1460 the king ceded the island to the Republic of Siena, and then the years of the Corsair raids started. The first, most ruinous of these took place in 1534 by Ariademus Barbarossa, who captured 700 residents and brought them as slaves to Constantinople. The last, most epic raid occurred on November 18, 1799, at which point in history the island resumed its legendary status.

The story goes that a scant number of men and women managed to roundly defeat seven “sciabbecchi” (Arab ships) that had arrived in the Bay of Campese loaded with thousands of men. With the help of cannons fired from atop the Casamatta, terrible acts by soldiers guarding the Torre del Campese who refrained from firing a single shot when the sciabbecchi arrived, wine skins destroyed to prevent the Turks from getting drunk before the assault, and the intercessions of all the saints, especially the one par excellence, Saint Mamilian, and his sacred arm pulled out for the occasion, Giglio natives managed to drive off the Turks, killing and wounding 500 of them during the assault according to later accounts. From that day forward, no Turkish pirate was ever seen off the island’s coast again and each year since the people of Giglio have celebrated the feast day of Saint Mamilian of the Turks.

The end of the pirate raids in the Mediterranean Sea also marked the flourishing of coastal towns like Giglio Porto, which soon thereafter became the island’s commercial heart. Porto was repopulated by people from Liguria and southern Italy, mainly fisherman. Life went on peacefully until the second postwar period when tourism began. But this is a story too recent and everyday to be worth telling.

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