Magazine of art press and reviews from London
The mystery of the Treasure of the Count of Montecristo found in Sovana.
Part two: the island history, St. Mamiliano, the book of Dumas, legends of Maremma, and George Watson Taylor.
David Franchi – Monday, 7th January 2013
“use your good sense of narration, as it is needed for a legend”
The island of Montecristo, St. Mamiliano and later occupiers
The history of the island of Montecristo begins with Neanderthal man. The Greeks gave Montecristo its oldest known name, Oglasa or Ocrasia, after the yellowish colour of the rocks. Afterward, the Etruscans exploited the forests of oak needed to fuel the bloomeries on the mainland. The Romans called it Mons Jovis and erected an altar to Iuppiter Optimus Maximus of which some traces remain.
Any treasure is linked to a quest. The one of the Montecristo starts in the middle of the V century AD, when Saint Mamiliano took refuge in the island caves.
Born in Palermo, Mamiliano was the bishop of the town, where he is still venerated as patron saint. After the persecution from the Vandals of Genseric, Mamiliano was exiled in Cartagena (Tunisia), from where he moved to Sardinia. Eventually, he landed in Montecristo together with his friends and disciples, the other hermits Saint Ninfa, Eustochio, Proculo, Gobuldeo (from Quod vult Deus), Lustro, Vindemio, Teodosio, Aurelio, and Rustico. They christened the island “Mons Christi”, from which the modern name is derived and evangelised also the entire Tuscan Archipelago and surrounding areas.
The cult of Saint Mamiliano was very important at the beginning of the VII century, and Pope Gregory the Great submitted it to the Benedictines monastic rule. In this period in Montecristo, the Monastery of St. Mamiliano was founded and a chapel was built in the St. Mamiliano cave, where he had really lived. The Monastery received many donations from several noble families, including the Marquees of Corsica and their feudatories, becoming powerful and rich: this gave rise to the legend of the Montecristo treasure.
From then on, the Montecristo island has been targeted by many as a place where to find a treasure; therefore suffered many troubles and destructions. Incessantly object of pirates attacks, in Medieval times Montecristo became a possession of the Republic of Pisa and later was acquired by the Principality of Piombino (near Leghorn). In 1553, Ottoman pirate Dragut assaulted the monastery, incarcerated the monks and declared its end. After that, the island was abandoned. In the second half of the XVI century, it became part of the Stato dei Presidi – a small part of the Spanish Empire built to protect Rome and located in the Tuscan Archipelago with capital Orbetello (province of Grosseto). Annexed to the French Empire under Napoleon, after his fall the Stato dei Presidi became the possession of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
All of the abovementioned people were fascinated by the treasure legend born with the fabulous wealth of the Monastery. In the middle of the XIX century, the legend burst onto the worldwide scene, due to the publication of one of the most famous book ever printed, “The Count of Montecristo”.
Written by Alexandre Dumas (père), The Count of Montecristo was firstly published between 1845-46. It is the story of Edmond Dantès, a man who spends his life in looking for revenge for wrongdoing he suffered. In between the many troubles, Dantès is jailed for fourteen years in the Château d’If in Marseille (France). There Dantès becomes friend to the Abbé Faria (“The Mad Priest”), a fellow prisoner who is trying to escape through a tunnel, and who claims knowledge of a massive treasure and continually offers to reward the guards well if they release him. Faria gives Dantès an extensive education and he also confide in him. Just before dying, Faria tells Dantès the treasure location on the Montecristo island. Soon after Faria dies and Dantès uses his burial sack to stage an escape to a nearby island. He is rescued by a smugglers ship; he works with them since when they set sails to Montecristo. There Dantès simulates an injury and convinces the smugglers to temporarily leave him on Montecristo. He finds out the treasure and he returns to Marseille, where he learns his father had starved to death. Dantès buys a yacht, hides the rest of the treasure on board and purchases both the island of Montecristo and the title of Count from the Tuscan government.
Dumas, his travels and legends of Maremma
Is the Count of Montecristo pure fiction? Dumas travelled to Tuscany, the first time in 1840-42. Dumas was a passionate of Italy and of Tuscany. He has written books about his travels in Italy, for example, about Florence, the Medici family, and the Bourbons family. He also helped Garibaldi – both were Freemasons – and took part of the military Expedition of the Thousand that defied the Bourbons, kings of the South Italy, so reunifying Italy. He also founded a journal L’Indipendente to support the cause of Garibaldi.
Dumas visited the Tuscan Archipelago so many times that he probably has heard of the treasure legend. Piergiorgio Zotti said: “Sure. When Dumas was sailing the Mediterranean sea, hosted by Bonaparte, a relative of Napoleon, for sure he could have heard these legends. On the other hand, the legends of Maremma, such as the one of the Bella Marsilia who was kidnapped by the so called pirate Hayreddin Barbarossa (en. Barbarossa was an Ottoman Turkish admiral whose naval victories secured Ottoman dominance over the Mediterranean sea during the 16th century) can be found in Maremma but also in Venice, in Corsica and Constantinople. For example, in Moriani (Corsica) they used to make a big fire on the beach to remember St. Mamiliano. Because, when St. Mamiliano died, a big fire was made. It was a signal addressed to the people of the area, and they came from Corsica, from Tuscany, from Elba island, from Giglio island, and from the surrounding territories. The people of the Giglio island were given an arm of the saint as relic, which is still today kept in a silver reliquary in Giglio Castello, the island Castle (ed. This is on the hill just up above the reef where the poor relict of the Costa Concordia lays).”
The colonisation of Montecristo and George Watson Taylor
Many attempts to colonise Montecristo have been made: all of them failed. The first was in 1840 by two German hermits, Augustin Eulhardt and Joseph Keimrstly, at that time owned by Charles Cambiagi. In 1843, was the young Tyrolean Adolph Franz Obermüller, and after him a few months later, the Frenchman Charles Legrand and his girlfriend, followed by the French agriculturalist George Guiboud. In 1846 some Genoese tried again, while in 1849 the Frenchman Jacques Abrial was able to farm the island for three years.
The last non Italian attempt was made in 1852. The rich Englishman, George Graeme Watson Taylor, determined to invest his fortune in the purchase of the island of Montecristo. His story is so interesting and it connects this website to this millenarian legend.
George Watson Taylor bought the island for 52,000 Tuscan liras. He transformed into a garden Cala Maestra, the main wharf, planting eucalyptus and many exotic plants, among them the Asiatic Ailanthus Altissima, an invasive species which now infests the island. He also realized the few modern buildings such as the Royal Villa.
Watson Taylor was so proud of his refuge in the middle of the sunny Mediterranean sea that, without any title, started to call himself the Count of Montecristo, maybe referring to the homonymous and famous Dumas’s book.
We can say that George Watson Taylor had problems as soon as he arrived. The unfortunate Watson Taylor was involved in the events of the Italian unification, so far that he was prosecuted for an alleged act of sedition and his case was discussed by George Cavendish- Bentinck, the Conservative MP for Taunton – “Little Ben” to his contemporaries – who in 1862 reported to the House of Commons about Mr. Taylor’s situation: “When Mr. Taylor purchased the island, there was doing duty there a corporal belonging to the Board of Health or Sanità, named Durante, who was guilty of very gross misconduct towards Mr. Taylor. The latter made a representation on the subject to the Governor of Elba; the case was investigated, and Durante was removed.”
The nature of the misconduct was not specified, but Watson Taylor was then in an almost calm situation until 1859, when the Italian Unification took place. Mr. Cavendish –Bentinck continues: “Shortly after the Provisional Government was proclaimed, the guard of the island of Monte Cristo, which consisted of four privates and a corporal, became unruly and insubordinate, and these men with drawn swords constantly threatened Mr. Taylor, unless he gave them provisions and money. Mr. Taylor made a complaint to the Provisional Government established at Florence, through the medium of our representative, Mr. Corbet, and other authorities, against a corporal named Ricci, who had insulted Mr. and Mrs. Taylor in the grossest manner; but though the offence was proved, he escaped punishment, owing to his being the relative of an officer.”
When Tuscany was annexed to the Kingdom of Sardinia at the end of March 1860, the news remained unknown in Montecristo because the post arrived there in the beginning of April, as there was only one post per month. From Mr. Cavendish- Bentinck speech: “On the 1st of April, after an absence of five or six years, Durante, the very man who had been dismissed for misconduct, reappeared in Monte Cristo, and assumed the command of the guard. It was an important question how this man came to be sent there. He had been dismissed for notorious misconduct; and it must have been within the knowledge of the authorities that he was most disagreeable to Mr. Taylor, whom they were bound to protect. Mr. Taylor had no doubt that the man was sent there in order to get up a charge against himself.”
On the 3rd of May the announcement that Tuscany was annexed to Sardinia reached the Montecristo but Mr. Taylor never received any official notice. Durante left, and his successor behaved no better than he had done. On the 3rd of July, Watson Taylor wrote a letter to Sir James Hudson about the soldier who were behaving with insolence, insubordination and constantly making robbery. Taylor requested to Sir James if he would ask the Government of Sardinia to order the immediate removal of those offenders. In reply Watson Taylor was charged of sedition; because the evening of the 28th April 1860 the soldiers fired musket-shots should they were celebrating the birthday of their master. It was alleged that Mrs. Taylor told the soldiers that their King, Victor Emmanuel, was a bullock merchant, and that the corporal was struck on the breast by Mr. Taylor with his open hand without receiving any injury. Mrs. Taylor was sentenced to fifteen months’ imprisonment and Mr. Taylor to eighteen months’ imprisonment, for having incited their labourers to seditious manifestations, which were proved to have had no existence.