Enrico Cappelletti - November 28, 2005 00:00 EST

Like every grand tale of shipwreck and lost treasure, the story about the Polluce has it all. A paddlewheel steamboat shipwrecked in 1841, it is the centrepiece of a drama spanning more than one and a half centuries and has all the necessary ingredients: drama and tragedy, greed and crime, passion and politics. And it is still ongoing, Polluce is about to be excavated once more as this story goes to press.

This incredible tale is not just about a dramatic shipwreck in which one of the two colliding steamboats sinks in the matter of minutes off the island of Elba in the Mediterranean taking along with it to the bottom of the sea a huge treasure--although this aspect of the wreck alone would be dramatic story in its own right. The story isn't complete either by including the following inquiries and legal proceedings, which took place in Livorno (Leghorn) in the years 1842 to 1846, right in the middle of a turbulent period of history when European nationalism flared up and new states were born or unified including modern Italy. We have spanned one and a half centuries to include a clandestine excavation of the wreck and illegal removal of the treasure in the 21st century as well as an international scandal and a police matter which reached into several European countries.

Rise of nationalism

In 1841, every little kingdom, duchy or territory in the politically fragmented area around the Tyrrhenian Sea seemed to, maybe not surprisingly, have some stake or claim on this wreck and it's precious cargo. In that day and age, there were no such notions as territorial waters or international treaties governing legal matters pertaining to the seas. A ship's owner had little or no protection nor was there a supporting legal framework in regards to salvaging a lost ship or its cargo. Indeed, this was also the case of the Polluce and it's owner, one de Luchi Rubattino from Genoa.

First attempts

Following the loss of his vessel, de Luchi Rubattino desperately staged several salvage attempts. However, the wreck was lying far deeper than any previous salvage work. Attempting to salvage the wreck of the Polluce was an unbelievable enterprise at the timeā€"it was the first time anyone had tried to go so deep. After two failed attempts, de Luchi Rubattino predictably ran out of money a gave up. He spent 500,000 lire to buy a brand new boat and salvaging attempts cost up to 470,000 lire. Also as an interested parties we have the king of Sardinia for whom it was its most important trading vessel and the king of France who supplied some of the equipment for the salvage attempts including some heavy lifting chains which can now be found at the naval base of Toulon in southern France. A report of these recovery attempts, in the form of a 48-page booklet dated 1841, is then passed down history from a colonel serving the archduke of Tuscany.