In the northern Apennines, the Palaeozoic basement involved in the Late Oligocene–Middle Miocene nappe stack contains metamorphic units for which hypothetical ages have been assigned on the basis of lithological correlations with the Palaeozoic formations of the Variscan chain in Sardinia. This uncertainty concerning the age poses limitations to reconstructing the Palaeozoic stratigraphy, defining the Alpine and pre-Alpine histories and correlations with other domains of the Variscan chain. We present the UPb age of detrital zircon and the 40Ar39Ar age of metamorphic muscovite for the Calamita Schist and Ortano Porphyroid, two metamorphic units of undetermined Palaeozoic age cropping out in the eastern Elba Island. The radioisotopic data allows us to: (i) define the Early Carboniferous and Middle Ordovician ages for the Calamita Schist and Ortano Porphyroid, respectively, as well as their derivation (flysch deposit and magmatic rocks); (ii) pose some constraints concerning their alpine tectonic and metamorphic histories. These new data generate a more precise reconstruction of the Palaeozoic sequence in the northern Apennines, and they document that the Palaeozoic basement involved in the alpine deformation underwent internal stacking with an inversion of the original sequence. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.