15 d’oct. 2017

Tavolara, an almost kingdom islet

When we think about an island, we usually imagine a landmass isolated in the middle of a vast sea. But sometimes islands, especially big islands, are not so alone, they have islets around them and this reduces their isolation. These near islands could be used, in some cases, as stepping-stones, leading to the continent, or another big island, whilst in the past served as refuges for privateers and smugglers, or as imperial outposts. Today, they are part of the landscape – and seascape – that attracts so many tourists.

This is the case of Sardinia and the little islands that surrounded it. One of the many is Tavolara, in the east side of Sardinia, nearby the so called Emerald Coast. The islet has an extension of almost 6 square kilometres, quite all occupied by a mountain 1.854 feet high, with steep cliffs, and there are only a small plain with a beach in the west coast, and another small harbour in the west. It is uninhabited during most of the year, and the only constructions are two restaurants, opened only in summer, few houses, a lighthouse and some facilities of the Marina Militare Italiana and NATO. By May tourists begin to arrive, from mainland Sardinia, for daily excursions, and at the end of July many come at the Festival del Cinema Italiano, a film festival, in which the only beach of the island is turned into an open-air cinema. Anyway, Tavolara has a peculiar history, with gilt-toothed goats and a royal dynasty that has been claiming their rights on the islet for decades. 

During the past, Tavalora – apart for smugglers and privateers – was used by sailors as a reserve of water, and for hunting the goats, that, for sure, had not any gold in their mouth. The origin of this legend is the seaweed and lichen that the goats usually eat, that causes the yellow pigmentation of the animals’ teeth. Much more interesting is the history of the Kingdom of Tavolara which, as the goats’ precious teeth, is almost a legend.

At the beginning of the 19th century a family moved to Tavolara. They were the Bertoleoni family, coming from Bonifacio in Corsica, where they had lived as shepherds, sailors and merchants, since they moved to the island of La Maddalena, in the waters between Corsica and Sardinia. During the 18th century many left Corsica for Sardinia, escaping from the political instability that characterized Corsican society between 1729 and 1814. In this period the population faced a revolt against Genoa (1729-1769), who ruled the island since XV century, followed by the French occupation, started in 1769. French presence was considered temporary, until the Genoese could be able to restore their authority, but this never happened, and during the French Revolution the island was merged with France (1789). After a four years’ association with the British Empire, the so called Anglo-Corsican Kingdom (1794-1796), finally Corsica returned in French hands. Those events, and the consequences of the Napoleonic Wars, compelled many Corsicans to find their way in Sardinia.

While the Strait of Boniface was a front line between the French Empire and the Kingdom of Sardinia, allied with the British, the Bertoleoni prospered by smuggling in the waters between Corsica and Sardinia. They find a very strategic position to manage their familiar business: the islets between Corsica and Sardinia, which they literally occupied. The islands were used by shepherds who lived in the region of Bonifacio, in south Corsica, to escape from the Genoese, and then French, authorities. Bringing their cattle there was a way to avoid taxes and fees, and to illegally sell the animals in Sardinia. Bertoleoni did more than a seasonal stay in one of the many islets, they establish themselves in the isles of Santa Maria, Soffi and, finally, Tavolara. And they began claiming property, and sovereignty, upon them. Bertoleoni could do it due to a legal vacuum, because many of the near islands of Corsica and Sardinia were not mentioned in any international treaty signed to establish the sovereignty of the Savoia family (who obtained Sardinia in 1718) and France. Since they were no man’s land, the Bertoleoni tried to be recognized as kings of Tavolara, first under the leadership of Giuseppe (1778-1849, “king” between 1829 to 1833), then with Paolo (1815-1886, “king” from 1845) and finally with Carlo. But they had to face the opposition of the kings of Sardinia.

The Bertoleoni's coat of arms

According to the descendent of the Bertoleoni, their property rights were recognized by Carlo Alberto of Savoia, king of Sardinia in 1831-1849, who moreover recognized the sovereignty of Giuseppe. Both monarchs met on the island of Tavolara, where Carlo Alberto disembarked during a trip in Sardinia. There are several versions of the story, but when Bertoleoni, who was in his estate, approached him, he fiercely asked “who are you?” Carlo Alberto answered “I’m the King of Sardinia”, and in response Bertoleoni exclaimed “thus, I am the king of Tavolara”. This was, for the descendants of Giuseppe, a pact between two gentlemen that proves the recognition of their status of kings. Carlo Alberto would have paid other visits to Tavolara, and even acknowledged the sovereignty of the Bertoleoni with an official document.

In spite of this, the micro state had to face the opposition of the heirs of Carlo Alberto, who wanted to build a lighthouse on the top of Tavolara, and other naval facilities. Other Sardinian families too were claiming property on parts of the island. Pressures grew after the Kingdom of Sardinia was merged into the Kingdom of Italy (1861), and by the ends of the 19th century half of the island was sold or transformed in State property. Meanwhile, fishermen from the Isle of Ponza, a tiny Italian island in the southern Tyrrhenian Sea, begun to use the island as a seasonal base for their activities, with some families even established here. After the death of the king Paolo I (1886), a little revolution overthrew the monarch, and a republic was established. The inhabitants of Tavolara, freed from the Bertoleoni, placed themselves under the protection of the Kingdom of Italy. Monarchy was later restored, but in the new context the islet-realm was every day more unfeasible, thus the descendants of Paolo I changed their strategy. They kept a part the sovereignty dispute, even if the heirs of Paolo I continued to call themselves “kings”, and concentrated their efforts more in their right as landowners (meanwhile, part of the island had fallen in the hands of another family, the Marzano from Naples). The dispute lasted decades, until in 1962 the extensions of the military facilities forced the few inhabitants to leave the isle for mainland Sardinia. Today Tavolara is not a disputed island, and the Bertoleoni changed their family business. No longer are they shepherds and merchants, but owners of the tiny strip of land, called spalmatore di terra, where the only beaches, civil port facilities and restaurants lay. One of the two is called Ristorante da Tonino, il Re di Tavolara, and the very same name makes sure that there is not much to do for the Bertoleoni’s commercial rivals. Tonino, or Antonio I, is the actual “king”.

How much reality there is in this story? The existence of the kingdom is not proved by any documentary evidence. According to the authors of the most important book about the Tavolara kings – a journalist and one descendant of the royal family – all documentation was destroyed by Italian authorities during the Fascist dictatorship. The authors have no doubts about the truthfulness of the story, because they saw all the authentic documents before their mysterious disappearance. At this moment, the only demonstrable fact is that the Bertoleoni had been landowners of the island, and today they possess only a small part of it.

Carlo I and his family. The photo, according to Bertoleoni's
descendant, was exposed at Buckingham Palace
Otherwise, there are more elements that, according to the actual pretenders at the king’s title, proved the existence of their dreamed realm. The kingdom was recognized by the International Micropatrology Society, an organization which today no longer exists, and it is mentioned in the Enciclopedia Ilustrada Europeo-Americana (vol. LIX, Espasa-Calpe, Madrid). An entry of the publication talks about the State, and even if it wrongly called Tavolazzo, the encyclopaedia contains even the story of the recognition by Carlo Alberto. It reminds so closely the well-known tale of Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) Tlön, Uqbar, Orbius Tertius, in which a mysterious country existed only in a bootleg copy of the British Encyclopaedia, published in South America. And, as in Borges tale, Tavolara does not exist in any other encyclopaedia than the Eruopeo-Americana.

The final and most powerful evidence, and recognition, of the Kingdom’s existence, arrives from the very same Royal Navy. In 1900 HMS Vulcan was sailing in the Mediterranean, and it made a stop in the very same Tavolara. The Captain invited on board the royal family, offering them a meal and taking a photo of the Bertoleoni. The picture had been exposed for decades at Buckingham Palace until a day when, for not well-known reasons, it was removed. And, as is the case of all proofs here mentioned, there is not any evidence at all about the stop of the HMS Vulcan at Tavolara, the dinner on board and the picture. Maybe is this lack of evidence the result of an Anglo-Italian pact against the Bertoleoni? We hope that future disclosure of top secret records could help us to understand it. At the moment, the story of Tavolara and its pretender kings seems to be more a legend than a real story, and today the kingdom of Tavolara exists only between the walls of the best restaurant on the isle. There, surely, you will eat as kings!

If you want to visit some of the places mentioned in this article, we will be glad to put you in contact with a tour operator specialized in trips to Sardinia. Write to marcelfarinelli@gmail.com