The monumental complex of Le Grotte dominates the stretch of sea between Populonia and Portoferraio, and stands opposite the Roman building known as La Linguella, on the other side of the bay. The first archaeological excavations on the hill (1960-1972) were carried out by Giorgio Monaco, an Inspector at the Superintendency of Antiquities for Etruria.


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The building, constructed using the opus reticulatum technique, followed architectural plans for a complex made up of “block” units, arranged on two artificial terraces, all emerging from the surrounding territory. For many years it was interpreted as a luxurious maritime villa designed for the purposes of otium (private relaxation) for an important member of the senatorial elite. However, today the complex tells a different story, thanks to research conducted between 2019 and 2022 by the University of Siena.

For those approaching from the sea, the vaults of the podium, on which the villa stands, resemble “caves” and this is how the villa acquired its name.

The complex is the result of two distinct construction phases.

In the first phase (40-30 BC), coinciding with its initial construction, the building was closely connected to the storage and distribution of water. This was not only for watering crops and meeting the needs of the buildings on the plain below, but above all for supplying water for ships passing through this part of the Tyrrhenian. It was probably built at the same time as the construction of an aqueduct (the arches of which can be seen in many 18th-19th century pictures of the promontory).

At the end of the 1st century BC, a general restructuring of the area led to a change in the building’s purpose, and its end use. The interior areas connected to the provision of water were sealed off and filled in with earth, to raise the floor levels. They were then decorated with mosaic and opus sectile pavement floors. In the rooms to the north, built as a raised foundation for a building above it, and probably used as storage rooms in the first phase, a baths suite was built, along with a cistern for rainwater.


The layout of the new rooms, and the sophistication of the decorations found here, show that, in this phase, we are looking at a private monumental complex, with formal rooms, gardens and pools with spectacular water features. Moreover, the presence of decorative motifs closely connected to the political propaganda of Emperor Augustus allows us to link the owners of this building directly to the Imperial household.


The building was abandoned at the end of the 1st century AD, perhaps as part of a specific plan, and with the most precious fixtures and fittings being stripped and relocated. This would explain the absence of valuable materials and decorative elements.

The floors and structures became damaged over the centuries due to agricultural work, but the most serious destructive event occurred when the area was used for military purposes. Indeed, between 1799 and 1802 Elba was the theatre of armed confrontation between the French on the one hand and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany on the other, supported by the British Navy. Many outer walls were demolished in order to set up a battery of siege cannons.

Since then, despite the damage caused by time, and above all by man, the remains of the complex of Le Grotte still stand majestically over the bay of Portoferraio, and await visitors in order to tell them of their centuries-old history.


During the first decades of the first century a.C. the owners of the villa added a commodity without which a large vacation residence was not complete: termal baths. Some spaces of the lower floor were renovated in order to obtain a complete baths circuit, reachable over a stair from the living areas. Recognizable are the calidarium hot air ducks  heated

 trought hollow spaces of the double pavement and used as sauna and hot baths, two adjoining rooms, probably a changing room, an  intermediate rest area, and the frigidarium with a small half circle shaped basin for the absolutions with cold water. Baths were build on the south-eastern corner of the villa, the sunniest during the afternoon hours, near the sunset.


In the center of the villa, around a large bassin, expanded a vaste garden, sourronded by a peristyle or collonade. The back walls of the peristyle were covered with paintings representing gardens, giving the illusion of a much larger area than it really was; the top of the colonnade supported

a terracotta frieze, representing in relief between two musicians a young girl with butterfly wings: Psyche.

Towards the North, the basin, through a long pipe, discharged its water into the lower gardens. At one end of the basin existed a large area facing the sea, a privileged panoramic point of the whole complex. On both sides of this area one can probably recognize the  dominus and the domina’s private quarters.


In the Villa delle Grotte, as in most of  Villas in the Vesuvian region, the open areas are larger and more important than the enclosed living areas.


A powerfull wall, enforced and animated by semicircular niches, delimited a large terrace and was at the same time the monumental façade with which the villa presented itself to those arriving from the sea. This terrace also was a garden, with a small artificial canal probably carrying  water from the garden’s large basin, with the colonnade into a second basin  placed parallel to the straight part of the containment wall.


The Villa’s water supply was guaranteed by two large cisterns, the first one upstream and filled by a terracotta acqueduct with waters coming from Orello mountain. The second was installed in the lower floors on the western side of the complex. The cistern consists of three communicating pieces, thoroughly covered by a plaster of brick fragments and potsherd, able to render the inner walls waterproof. The central vault has a skylight, necessary for periodical cleaning and the maintenance. The stairs, on the contrary, were built during the 18th century in order to use the cistern as a deposit during the siege of Portoferraio, when an artillery position against Portoferraio was placed on the promontory.


The mostly used construction technique while building the villa was the opus reticolatum: the walls were realized using stones of a pyramidal shape, the square surface of these block can still be seen on the facades. The tips of this pyramidal blocks are in fact turned towards the side to have a better hold with the mortar.This technique needed expert workers to shape the blocks, but the building of the structures itself was much quicker. Such structures were then covered with plaster. Only the large external terrace walls were left without plaster and the various materials were used in such way as to create harmonious coloured effects.