Italy – Corsica

CORSICA, with Sardinia, forms a world apart. At a remote epoch these two islands were but one, and it is curious to find that Corsica, which politically now forms part of France, is geographically as well as historically much more Italian than its sister island. A glance at a map is sufficient to convince us that Corsica is a dependency of Italy, for while abyssal depths of more than 500 fathoms separate it from Provence, it is joined to the coast of Tuscany by a submarine plateau, the mountains of which rise above the surface of the waters as islands. The climate and natural productions of the island arc those of Italy, and the language of its inhabitants is Italian. Purchased from the Genoese, then conquered by main force, Corsica in the end voluntarily united its destinies with those of France. It has now been connected for more than three generations with the latter, and there can be no doubt that most of its citizens look upon themselves as Frenchmen.

Though only half the size of Sardinia, Corsica is nevertheless larger than an average French department. The fourth island in size of the Mediterranean, it follows next to Cyprus, but is far more important than that island, and only yields to Sicily and Sardinia in wealth and population. It is a country of great natural beauty. Its mountains, attaining an altitude of over 8,000 feet, remain covered with snow during half the year, and the view from the summits embraces nearly the whole of the island, its barren rocks, forests, and cultivated fields. Most of the valleys abound in running water, and cascades glitter in all directions. Old Genoese towers, standing upon promontories, formerly defended the entrance to every bay exposed to incursions of the Saracens, but they are hardly more nowadays than embellishments of the landscape.

Monte Cinto, the culminating point of the island, does not pierce the region of persistent snows. A huge citadel of granite, whose fastnesses afforded a shelter to the Corsicans during their wars of independence, it rises in the north-western portion of the island. From its summit we can trace the whole of the coast from the French Alps to the Apennines of Tuscany. There are other peaks to the north and south of it which almost rival it in height.* This main chain of the island consists throughout of crystalline rock. Transverse ridges connect it with a parallel range of limestone mountains on the east, which extend northward through the whole of the peninsula of Bastia, and shut in, farther south, the old lake basin of Corte, now drained by the Golo, Tavignano, and other rivers The whole of the interior of Corsica may be described as a labyrinth of mountains, and in order to pass from village to village it is necessary to climb up steep steps, or scale, and to ascend from the region of olives to that of pasturage. The high-road which joins Ajaccio to Bastia has to climb a pass 3,793 feet in height (Fig. 134), and even the road following the populous western coast ascends and descends continuously, in order to avoid the promontories descending steeply into the sea. These physical obstacles sufficiently explain why railways have not yet been built.

The western coast of the island is indented by numerous gulfs and bays, which resemble ancient fiords partly filled up by alluvial sediment. On the eastern coast, which faces Italy. the slopes are more gentle; the rivers are larger and more tranquil, though not one of them is navigable; and the ground is more level. This portion of the island is known as J Banda di Centro, or ” inner zone,” in distinction from the Banda di Fuori, or ” exterior (western) zone.” The eastern coast appears to have been upheaved during a comparatively recent epoch, and ancient gulfs of the sea have been converted into lagoons and swamps, quite as dangerous from their miasmatic exhalations as those of the sister island. If we add that the mountains in the west obstruct the passage of the vivifying mistral, that the heat in summer is great, and droughts frequent, we have said enough to account for the insalubrity of the climate. The maritime basin between Corsica and Italy is almost shut in by mountains, and purifying breezes are rare there. Between Bastia and Porto-Vecchio not a single town or village is met with on the coast, and in the beginning of July the peasantry retire to the hills in order to escape the fever. Only a few guards and the unfortunate convicts shut up in the penitentiary of Casabianca remain behind. Nothing more melancholy can be imagined than these fertile fields deserted by their inhabitants. Plantations of eucalyptus have been made recently with a view to the amelioration of the climate.

Owing to the great height of the mountains we are able to trace in Corsica distinct zones of vegetation. Up to a moderate height the character of the vegetation is sub-tropical, and resembles that of Sicily or Southern Spain. There are districts which can be numbered amongst the most fertile of the Mediterranean. One of these is the Campo dell’ Oro, or “field of gold,” around Ajaccio, where hedges of tree-like cacti separate the gardens and orchards ; such, also, is the country to the north of Bastia, with its aromatic flowers and luscious fruits. Olive forests generally cover the lower hills, their silvery foliage contrasting with the sombre verdure of the chestnut woods above. Balagna, near Calvi, on the north-western coast of’ the island. is famous for its olives, whilst another valley, on the opposite side of’ the island, near Bastia, can boast of the most magnificent chestnut-trees. Chestnuts, in some parts, constitute the principal article of food, and enable the inhabitants, who are by no means distinguished for their industry, to dispense with the cultivation of cereals. Some political economists have actually proposed to fell these trees, in order that the inhabitants may be forced to work.

Chestnut-trees grow up to a height of 6 to 50 feet. The virgin forests which formerly extended beyond them to the zone of pasturage have for the most part. disappeared. In the upper Balagna valley, Valdoniello, and Aitone, however, magnificent forests may still be seen, and a larch (Pinus altissimuns), the finest conifer of all Europe, attains there a height of 160 feet. These splendid trees, unfortunately, are rapidly disappearing. They are being converted into masts, or sawn into staves and planks.

The pasturing grounds above these forests are frequented during summer by herdsmen with their flocks of sheep and goats. The agile moufflon is still met with there in a few rocky recesses, and the shepherds assert that wild boars, though very numerous on the island, carefully avoid its haunts. The wolf is unknown in the island, and the bear has disappeared for more than a century. Foxes of large size and small deer complete the fauna of the forest region of Corsica. The malmignata spider, whose bite is sometimes mortal, is probably of the same species as that of Sardinia and Tuscany ; the tarentula is the same as that of Naples, but the venomous alit known as innafantato appears to be peculiar to the island.

We know nothing about the origin of the aboriginal inhabitants of Corsica. There are neither nuraghi, as in Sardinia, nor other antiquities enabling us to form an opinion with respect to their manners. But there exist near Sartène and elsewhere several dolmens, or stazzoue, menhirs, or stantare, and even avenues of stones, which are similar in all respects to those of Brittany and England. We may assume, therefore, that these countries were foi merly inhabited by the same race.

The inhabitants of Corte, in the interior of the island, and the mountaineers of Bastelica, boast of being Corsicans of the purest blood. At Bastia the type is altogether Italian, but as we travel into the interior we meet men with large fleshy faces, small noses devoid of character, clear complexion, and eyes of a chest-nut colour rather than black. Phoclaeans, Romans, and Saracens, who maintained themselves here until the eleventh century, were succeeded by Italians and French. Calvi and Bonifacio were Genoese settlements, and at Carghese, near Ajaccio, we even meet with a colony of Greek Mainotes who settled there in the seventeenth century, and whose descendants now speak Greek, Italian, and French. But, in spite of these foreign immigrations, the Corsicans have in a large measure retained their homogeneity. Paoli was rather proud of a Genoese proverb, which said that the ” Corsicans deserved to be hanged, but knew how to bear it.” History bears, indeed, witness to their patriotism, fearlessness, and respect for truth ; but it also tells us’ of foolish ambitions, jealousies, and a furious spirit of revenge. Even in the middle of last century the practice of the vendetta cost a thousand lives annually. Entire villages were depopulated, and in many parts every peasant’s house was converted into a fortress, where the men were constantly on the alert, the women, protected by custom against outrage, sallying forth alone to cultivate the fields. The ceremonies observed when a victim of the vendetta was brought home w ere terrible. The women gathered round the corpse, and one amongst them, in most cases a sister of the deceased, furiously called down vengeance upon the head of the murderer. The voceri of death are amongst the finest national songs. Foreign domination is to blame, no doubt, for the frequency of these assassinations. The judges sent to the country did not enjoy the confidence of the inhabitants, and these latter returned to the primitive law of retaliation.

Though Corsica gave a master to France, the spirit of the people is essentially republican. The Romans barely succeeded in enslaving it, and even in the tenth century the greater portion of the island formed a confederation of independent communities known as Terra del Comune. The inhabitants of each valley formed a piece (plebs), by whom were elected a podesta and the ” fathers of the commune.” These latter appointed a ” corporal,” who was charged with the defence of popular rights. The podestas in turn elected a Council of twelve, who stood at the head of the confederation. This constitution survived conquest and invasion. In the eighteenth century, when fighting heroically against Genoa and France, Corsica declared all citizens equal. It was institutions like these which made Rousseau say that “that little island would one day astonish Europe.” Since that time the Napoleonic era has whetted the ambition of the Corsicans, and they appear to have forgotten their traditions of freedom.

Corsica is one of the least-populated departments of France. The eastern slope of the island, though more fertile and extensive than the western, and formerly densely peopled, is now almost a desert. The Roman colony of Mariana no longer exists, and the Phocaean emporium of Melia has dwindled down since the thirteenth century into an isolated homestead standing close to a pestiferous swamp. At the present time the great centres of population are on the western coast, which faces France, enjoys a salubrious climate, and possesses magnificent ports.

The Corsicans certainly appear to deserve the charge of idleness which is brought against them, for they have done but little to develop the great resources of their island. Fishing and cattle-breeding they understand best. In many parts agricultural operations are carried on almost exclusively with the help of Italian labourers, known as Lucchesi, because most of them formerly came from Lucca. Thanks, however, to the impulse given by France, a commencement has been made in the cultivation of’ the soil, and olive oil, equal to the best of Provence, wine, and dried fruits already constitute important articles of export.

Corsica abounds in ores, but they do not appear to be as rich as those of Sardinia. Formerly iron mines alone were worked, the ore being conveyed to the furnaces near Bastia and Porto Vecchio ; but of late years copper mines have been opened at Castifao, near Corte, and argentiferous lead is being procured from a mine near Argentella, not far from Ile Rousse. Red and blue granite, porphyry, alabaster, serpentine, and marble are being quarried. There are many mineral springs, but the only one enjoying a European reputation is that of Orezzo, which rises in the picturesque district of Castagniccia. Its ferruginous water contains a considerable quantity of carbonic acid, and is recommended as efficacious in a host of diseases.

The most important town of Corsica, though not its capital, is Bastia, thus named from a Genoese castle built towards the close of the fourteenth century on the beach of the bill village of Cardo. Bastia stands about a mile to the north of the two former capitals of the island, viz. Mariana and Biguglia, of which the former has left no trace, whilst the latter has dwindled down to a miserable village. The geographical position of Bastia is excellent, for it is within easy reach of Italy, and frequent communications with that country have exercised a most happy influence upon its inhabitants, who are the most civilised and industrious of the whole island. Its harbour is small, and far from safe, but it is much frequented. The city rises amphitheatrically upon hills, and is surrounded by delightful gardens and numerous villas.

St. Florent, only six miles from Bastia, but on the western coast of the island, has an excellent harbour, but the atmosphere hanging over its marshes is deadly. Ile Rousse, farther to the west, is the principal port of the fertile district of Balagna. It was founded by Paoli in 1758, in order to ruin Calvi, which had remained faithful to the Genoese. This object has been attained. Ile Rouse exports large quantities of oil and fruit, whilst the old town of Calvi, on its whitish rock, is a place without life, frequently visited by malaria. The coast to the south of Calvi, as far as the Gulf of Sagone, though exceedingly fertile, is almost a desert, and many parts of it suffer from malaria. Ajaccio, however, at one time merely a maritime suburb of Castelvecchio, standing a short distance inland, lias risen into great importance. It is the pleasantest and best-built town of the island, and Napoleon, the most famous of its sons, showered favours upon it. The inhabitants fish and cultivate their fertile orchards. They also derive great advantages from a multitude of visitors, who go thither to enjoy a delicious climate and picturesque scenery.

The other towns of Corsica are of no importance whatever. Sartène though the capital of an arrondissement, is merely a village, and the activity of the district centres in the little port of Propriano, on the Gulf of Valinco, one of the trysting-places of Neapolitan fishermen. Corte is famous in the history of the island as the birthplace of the heroes of the wars of independence. Porto Vecchio, though in possession of the best harbour of the island, is frequented only by a few coasting vessels, whilst Bonifacio, an ancient ally of the Genoese, is important only because of its fortifications. The prospect from the isolated limestone rock upon which it is built is exceedingly picturesque. The mountains of Limbara stand out clearly against the sky, and in front we look down upon the granitic islets dotting the Strait of Bonifacio, so dangerous to navigators. It was here the frigate La Sémillante foundered in 1855 with nearly a thousand souls on board.