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THE HISTORY OF AJACCIO

 


 


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The citadel watchtower

The citadel watchtower
  

The first route is a historical walk which takes us back to the origins of the town. The starting point is in front of the citadel watchtower. Ajaccio works its magic on the visitor through its magnificent gulf, often compared with the bay of Naples. One can easily imagine that it was these harmonious curves which encouraged the first ancient inhabitants to settle here. In fact, in the Saint-Jean quarter, to the East of the modern-day town, there are remains dating from the third century AD which suggest Roman occupation, and the remains of a Paleochristian basilica have been also uncovered there. Moreover, the Bishop of Ajaccio is mentioned in the letters of Gregory the Great around the year 600.

The establishment of a Genoese colony in the 12th century brought properity to the town. The aim of the Genoese was to set up a new port providing protection on the sea route between Calvi and Bonifacio. Hence they chose Ajaccio as the site for a small strong hold, Castel Lombardo, of which nothing today remains. Because the site proved malarial, it was abandoned during the 15th century and, in 1492, the rocky promontary of Capo di Bollo on the tip of the Leccia was chosen as the site for a new town. About a hundred Genoese and Ligurian families, the Bonapartes among them, were sent there to colonise it. The broad outline of the plan of this old town can still be seen around the citadel. It was arranged around three roads spread out like a fan: the strada del Domo (rue Forcioli-Conti), the strada San Carlo (rue du roi de Rome) and the strada dritta (rue Bonaparte) on which stood the town gate.

The Citadel was built when the town was founded in 1492. At the time, ther citadel itself was merely a castello, in other words a keep and a lower precinct. In 1502, strong defensive walls were built around Ajaccio. The citadel was modified and extended during the occupation of the French between 1553 and 1559. In the latter year, in accordance with the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis, Corsica was returned to Genoa. The engineer Jacopo Frattini was sent to Ajaccio to fortify the citadel: he erected a solid bastion on the seaward side and dug a wide moat separating the citadel from the town on the landward side. It was not until the first quarter of the 18th century that the island tried to free itself from the yoke of its occupants. The nationalists tried four times to seize Ajaccio, namely in 1729, 1739 and 1763, but without success, and the town which one traveller of the time called the "prettiest little town in the Mediterranean" passed directly under French jurisdiction when Corsica was ceded by Genoa in 1768. And as the fortified part of Ajaccio, the citadel must have played a major role in these events. It certainly was an object of fascination for the young Napoleon. Many historians have recounted how Napoleon used to go to watch the changing of the guard there. And even though this has never been verified, it is not entirely surprising given that the Bonaparte family house was not far away. On the other had, much more than conjecture were Napoleon's repeated attempts in 1792 and 1793 to seize the castle. Having chosen to side with France and having been nominated Lieutenant-Colonel in the Corsican National Guard, he fought Paoli's forces several times, but never managed to take the citadel. It was on the final failed attempt in June 1793 that Napoleon and his family was forced into exile. Today it is unfortunately not possible to visit the citadel since it is occupied by the armed forces, but by taking a walk down the Boulevard Danielle Casanova and the Quai Napoléon the plan of the whole can be imagined.

Bust of Napoleon (Musée du Capitellu)

Bust of Napoleon (Musée du Capitellu)
  

Before leaving Boulevard Danielle Casanova, visitors should take time to view number 18. There in a building dating from the Genoese period stands a small charming private museum, the Musée du Capitellu. Here the entire history of Ajaccio (from the foundation to the present day) is retold through the memorabilia of one family. On show are items of porcelain, silverware, furniture, and crockery alongside paintings by Corsican artists of the 19th and 20th centuries. But the 'jewels' of the collection are undoubtedly some Italian works dating from the 16th century. Contrary to the famous phrase which defined Ajaccio as 'one large Napoleonic monument with a few houses around it', there are only a few items relating to Ajaccio most famous son. Indeed whilst a small bust of Napoleon greets visitors as they enter, it is Elisa Bacciochi's husband Felix (b. Ajaccio 1762) who is the subject of many of the later exhibits. In the few exhibition cases containing Napoleonic material there are: an ensemble of figurines representing Napoleon's squadron of the 13th Hussars, conscripted in 1813; and a gilded silver campaign service by Biennais offered by the Emperor. In addition to this town house, the Bacciochi family also had a family palace situated on Rue Ange Moretti outside the centre of town, Villa Bacciochi, which is today the private school 'Saint Paul'. The chief attraction of the Musée du Capitellu, however, lies not so much in the exhibits as in the welcome given to the visitor by the museum curator Mr Ottavi-Sampolo. It would appear that there is nothing that he does not know about the history of the town, and he recounts it with enthusiasm and charm.

From Boulevard Danielle Casanova, take the Rue du Roi de Rome, one of the oldest in the city, as far as Avenue Macchini, then at the very start of the Cours Napoléon, turn left into Rue du  Général Lévie where stands the Musée A Bandera, immediately identifiable by the fresco on the façade depicting the great figures of Corsican history, Sampiero Corso, Pascal Paoli and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Paoli and Bonaparte. Fresco on the façade of the musée A Bandera

Paoli and Bonaparte. Fresco on the façade of the musée A Bandera
  

The Musée d'Histoire Corse Méditerranée A Bandera is designed as a museum for the general public, and for the visitor is a useful introduction to the island. In an arrangement which is very informative and easy to use - but on the other hand less defensible in museological terms - the exhibition covers ten centuries of history. Describing itself as monument to Corsican history, the museum traces the key episodes in the island's history from Pre-history and the famous standing stones right up to the Second World War, during which the island was the first French department to be liberated. Of particular interest to the Napoleonic visitor are rooms three and four, since they deal respectively with: the stages of national uprising which led to Corsican independence; the 'Father of the Homeland' Pascal Paoli; the French conquest; and to a lesser extent the First and Second Empires. The exhibits take the form of arms, costumes, coins, short plays, figurines and dioramas, and everything is accompanied with very detailed descriptions. Hence Napoleon's Corsican policy, a subject which it would be difficult to present with artefacts, is dealt with in detail by the text, which gives details of: the reconquest of the island in 1796 from Italy; the fight against the various insurrections; the division of Corsica into two departments, Liamone and Golo; the subsequent reunion in 1811 of the two departments with Ajaccio as the principal town; the lowering of charges and the removal of customs duties on imported goods. The 'dark side' of this policy was embodied by the appointment of General Morand, the governor who ran the island with what was in effect a military dictatorship. And it was the excesses of this 'Giustizia Morandina' which most of all led to the tarnishing of the Emperor's reputation in his native land. Indeed, Napoleon himself recognised that he had not done enough for his people: "I was ungenerous to the Corsicans; I was wrong, I should have done more. It is true that my name alone has brought them something and that they think that I did a great deal. In fact, all the ministers and marshals were open to me helping them. I reacted against that, but unbeknownst to myself, many found positions' (Cahiers de Sainte-Hélène, May 1816). One picture is particularly interesting in this respect - it gives a list of the Corsicans who served the Empire.

 

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