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Napoleon and Corsica



Bastia takes its name from the Corsican words for 'the fortress' (a bastia), the building towering over the sea which was built on the promontory at Cardo by the Genoese governor, Leonello Lomellini. In the second half of the 15th century, a new quarter sprang up around the primitive fort. It took the name of Terra Nova to mark it out from the older quarter called Terra Vecchia which bordered the port itself. Whilst Terra Nova became home to the Genoan governors of the island, Terra Vecchia remained the fief of the Corsicans who had come to Bastia attracted by the prosperity of the town. Over the period from the 16th century to the 18th century, the town increased in economic, political and cultural strength, to become the political centre of Corsica during the period of French occupation between 1796 and 1811. Bastia briefly lost her pre-eminence in favour of Ajaccio after the period but recovered it to keep it throughout the whole of the 19th century.
Visitors to Bastia often begin their exploration with the Terra Vecchia and the Place Saint-Nicolas. The Place itself is the result of 19th-century urban development, formed as it was from the earth excavated during the cutting of a railway tunnel. It was the site of public executions up to the 20th century. Agostino Giafferi, the head of the Crucetta Revolt - fiercely put down by Lucien Bonaparte and General Casalta - was shot here on 21 February 1798. During the Second Empire, a marble statue of Napoleon in Roman costume (carved by the Florentine sculptor Bartolini in 1853) was erected here. Place Saint-Nicolas is today a place where the inhabitants of Bastia come to stroll and chat. Continuing your visit to Bastia towards the Terra Nova, you come to the old port which was the scene of an important episode in Napoleon's childhood. It was here on 17 December 1778 that Charles Bonaparte, his two sons Joseph and Napoleon, together with the boys' uncle Joseph Fesch, set sail for France. Fesch was heading for the Seminary in Aix and the young Bonapartes were destined for the Collège d'Autun. Napoleon was to stay at the Collège for only three months before entering the Brienne military school. This was his first exile from his native soil and it was to last eight long years. However, throught his entire school life, Napoleon was to display excessive love for his island of origin as well as a fierce patriotism which was frequently noticed by his teachers and fellow pupils.
In Terra Nova, the Governor's Palace is worth a careful visit. It was in the prisons of this palace that high-ranking Roman clergymen were imprisoned in 1811 when they were deported to Corsica on orders from Napoleon. Today the building houses a museum of Corsican ethnography which presents the history, geology and archeology of the island. This museum has in addition a small collection of Revolutionary and First- and Second-Empire items, notably: bonbonnieres, boxes, fans, miniatures, albums of engravings, packs of cards from the Revolutionary period, porcelain, faience and furniture. Indeed it is a fine ensemble containing some exceptional exhibits: a small Apollo by Canova, the Empress Josephine's crystal service from Malmaison, a sculpted fragment from the Vendome column showing the head of a grognard, the death mask of the emperor offered to the town in 1834 by Madame Mère following a request by the inhabitants in favour of abrogating the law of exile of the Imperial family, etc. The museum is at present closed for reconstruction work, but is expected to reopen soon (for information call 04 95 31 09 12). A specialist library is open to researchers. The museum is also home to the Société des Sciences historiques et naturelles de la Corse, a society which has been publishing a bulletin since 1881.
On leaving Bastia, take the D80 in the direction of Cap Corse. The Cap Corse peninsula forms the northern most tip of the island and is 37 km long and 14 wide. The villages are all placed high up and linked to their ports by torrents. The largest of these ports is Macinaggio, in the commune of Rogliano, and several actors from the Napoleonic epic passed through here. A commemorative plaque set up in 1937 on the Post Office records these appearances: 'Historical events. On 13 July 1790 Pascal Paoli on returning from exile disembarked here and cried "O my homeland! When I left, you were in slavery, and I have returned and you are free". On 10 May 1793 Napoleon Bonaparte, coming from Ajaccio, disembarked in Macinaggio, then headed for Bastia and subsequently Toulon to fulfil his glorious destiny. He was never to see his island again'. The plaque omits to mention another member of the imperial family who took refuge here in Macinaggio. On returning from the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869, the Empress Eugénie took shelter here in the small port.


Calvi, the capital of Balagne, was founded by the lords of the island in the middle of the 13th century. When the city was handed over to Genoa in 1280, Calvi possessed a fort, and over the years this was transformed into a citadel which these days is classed as a historical monument. Major construction work undertaken during the 15th and 16th centuries gave the place the look it has today. Indeed the town's motto is still a declaration of loyalty to Genoa. As a fort of strategic importance, it was attacked by Paoli and his troops in 1755 and 1768 but it was not taken. Unable to take control of the castle and its port, Paoli decided to solve his problem by founding another port about thirty kilometres down the coast, the Ile Rousse.
During the siege of 1794 and the revolution, Calvi was the scene of heroic resistance. The French troops had been cooped up in the fort and under a siege, conducted by Paoli's English allies, for forty days. General Stuart, the commander of the besiegers, arranged his men on the hills around the city and pounded it with shell fire. With the city reduced to rubble by a hail of bullets and cannonballs, the French surrendered and were allowed by the English to retire with all honours on 10 August 1794. The siege of Calvi was a moment of success for one of the most significant figures in Napoleon's future career, the victor at the Battle of the Nile and Trafalgar, Horatio Nelson. Nelson was in command of one of the vessels during an assault on the city and it was then that he lost one of his eyes. In addition to this famous incident, the citadel was also witness to another event in the Napoleonic epic. On 11 June 1793, the Bonaparte family in flight from Ajaccio boarded ships in Calvi enroute for Toulon. A plaque on the wall of the ex-gendarmerie commemorates the event: "In this house Napoleon Bonaparte with his family was welcomed by his god-father Laurent Giubega as he fled Ajaccio, May-June 1793".
By taking the coastal train which goes from Calvi to Ile Rousse, it is possible to get off at Algajola. About 500 metres down the Aregno beach, there is an abandoned quarry for pink and yellow granite porphyry. It was this quarry which in 1810 was used for the pedestal of the Vendome column, and in it there is a remarkable monument, namely, the column (left unfinished) commissioned during the first half of the 19th century by the town of Ajaccio in honour of its most famous son, Napoleon I. The column measures 17 metres in length and 2.74 metres in diameter, has 32 facets and weighs 272 tonnes. It was carved by Italian craftsmen in 1836 but never transported to Ajaccio. Ever since, this column which was to have carried a replica of the statue by Seurre has lain abandoned in this deserted spot.


Famed for its remarkable site at the top of a chalk cliff, Bonifacio seems at first to be a peninsula. Indeed, the strategic importance of this place overlooking the strait between Corsica and Sardinia made the building of a citadel imperative. No-one knows the origin of the town, but the existing settlement was conquered by the Genoese at the end of the 12th century. The first castrum, of which several traces can still be seen, dates from this period. Using the natural features, the town was gradually encircled by ramparts and strong bastions. In one of these bastions, the Bastion de l'Etendard (a tower converted in the 16th century to house artillery), there is a small museum in which there are reconstructions representing the prehistoric past and also the history of the site. Wax figures appear in scenes such as: 'The woman of Bonifacio', 'The Genoese Guards', 'Charles V', 'Bonaparte in Bonifacio', etc.
According to tradition, in 1793 the young lieutenant colonel Bonaparte lived in the Rue des Deux Empereurs in the old town. In 1541, on his return from Algiers, the Emperor Charles V had stayed at number 4, and a commemorative plaque records that the future emperor Bonaparte was to live in the same house during the period February-March 1793 during the preparations for the Maddalena expedition. On his return from the failed expedition, Bonaparte surrounded by some sailors narrowly escaped assassination.
During the Second Empire, Bonifacio suffered a terrible tragedy. On 14 February 1855, La Sémillante, one of the last wooden sailing boats to be built in France, left Toulon for Constantinople with 301 sailors and 392 soldiers on board (reinforcements for the French troops fighting the Crimea). In the night of 15 February, a violent storm drove the frigate onto the rocks off Bonifacio. There were no survivors. Two new cemeteries had to be created on the Ile Lavezzi.
And there are other places on Corsica connected with the Napoleonic epic, most notably the villages where those who were to become close to the Emperor were born, for example:
Bisinchi, in the Morosaglia canton, was the birth place of the Abbot Ange Vignali (1784-1836), the priest who gave Napoleon extreme unction and took his funeral ceremony on St Helena;
Lama was the birth place of Jean Noël Santini, Napoleon's faithful servant who followed the Emperor into exile and ended his life as guardian of the Emperor's tomb in the Invalides;
Morosiglia is the village where the house of Dr Antommarchi, Napoleon's doctor on St Helena, still stands today;
Bastelica was the birth place of Nunzio François Costa (1763-1832), who went with Napoleon on the Sardinian expedition and who helped Letizia and the children flee Ajaccio - he was subsequently promoted to captain of the gendarmerie and came twice to the island of Elba;
La Porta d'Ampugnani was the birth place of François Paoli, lieutenant in the Compagnie de Gendarmerie de la Méditerranée, who commanded the Gendarmerie on Elbain 1814;
Porto Vecchio was the birth place of François Filidoro, captain of the port of Porta Ferrajo which came under Napoleon's orders when the latter was exiled to Elba;
Olmeta-di-Tuda and La Porta were the birth place and home town, respectively, of Horace Sébastiani, the Division General who fought at Austerlitz, Spain, Russia, and in the campagne de France;
Soveria was the birth place of Jean-Baptiste Cervoni, the Division General killed in 1809 at Eckmühl.
The thread linking all these men from Corsica is their extreme loyalty to the Emperor: indeed most of them followed him into exile and to his death, and Napoleon remembered many of them personally. Twenty-one Corsicans figured in his will, amongst whom were dear remembrances from his childhood (his nurse Camilla Illari, the Abbot Recco, Nunzio Cosat, Jérôme Levie and the friends and partisans of Bocognano). This desire to remember the faithful companions of his childhood and youth show the Emperor's noble attachment to, and sincere gratitude towards, his compatriots.



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