On St Helena, as he lay dying Napoleon remembered the church of his childhood: 'If they forbid my corpse, as they have forbidden my body, a small piece of land in which to be laid, I desire to be buried with my ancestors in Ajaccio cathedral in Corsica'. This quotation, engraved on a marble plaque at the entrance to the cathedral, shows how important the place was to Napoleon during his life. The archdeacon Lucien, his great uncle, was a priest there. On 15 August, 1769, it was here that Napoleon's mother Letizia, at the mass of the Assumption (itself also a celebration of the first year of attachment to France), felt her first birth pangs.
Napoleon's baptism was held there on 21 July, 1771. Furthermore, the funeral chapel of the Bonaparte family was kept there, although this was to be transferred to the Second Empire imperial chapel in Palais Fesch.
In 1559, the Conseil des Anciens placed a demand before the Senate in Genoa and before Gregory XIII that Ajaccio should be given a cathedral as a replacement for the previous Saint-Croix built in the 15th century - that church had been knocked down in 1553 to make room for developments in the city's defences. The new cathedral was completed in 1593 and dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A Latin inscription above the great door (see inset) makes mention of the building's origins: 'This holy church was built using money from the episcopal mensa, after the site had been empty for five years, following the wishes of the pious people of Ajaccio, and according to the permission granted by the Senate of Genoa and Pope Gregory XIII. Jules Giustiniani, made bishop by Sixtus V, laid the final stone in 1593. Would that he could have laid the first!' This last remark makes reference to Giustiniani's regrets at not having been able to preside over the construction work right from the start and as a result not having been able to design a larger building. It is true that the cathedral is remarkable for it modest dimensions - the Latin cross is only just delineated by very shallow transepts and the three aisles seem to short for their height and width. However the seven side chapels, the imposing dome and the fine ochre façade give the building an indefinable charm.
To the right, on entering the cathedral, there is the marble font in which Napoleon was baptised. This plain basin carved with Giustiniani's coat of arms was given a bronze font cover in 1900. This work of Tuscan inspiration bears the inscription in gold lettering 'Heic baptisatus Imperator Magnus'. The main altar was given by one of Napoleon's sister, Elisa Bacciochi, princess of Lucca and Piombino. Like the four columns of the reredos with their black marble shafts, the altar is from the Dei Suffraganti church in Lucca.
Three of the side chapels are particularly interesting. The Chapelle de la Vierge de la Miséricorde, dedicated to Ajaccio's patron 'A Madunuccia', contains a beautiful statue of the Madonna set in a retable composed of marble columns with yellow shafts. The Chapelle de Notre-Dame du Rosaire was consecrated in 1765 - tradition has it that the Bonaparte family tomb was here. The arch of the chapel is decorated with the Mysteries of the Virgin and two niches contain statues of Saint Domingo and Saint Catherine of Sienna. The last of the three chapels, the little Chapelle de la Madonna del Pianto is decorated with paintings by Tintoretto's son.