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Corsica (France, Traditional province)


Last modified: 2015-04-08 by ivan sache
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[Flag of Corsica]

Flag of Corsica - Image by Pierre Gay, 6 July 2000

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Flag of Corsica

The flag of Corsica is white with a Moor's head in the middle. In Corsican, the flag is called a bandiera testa mora, "the flag with the Moor's head".
Dorling-Kindersley Pocket Book [rya97] claims that this flag is the emblem of the Corsican separatists, but this is erroneous. The flag is the emblem of all Corsicans. Most of the 250,000 inhabitants of Corsica are nationalists in the sense they want the originality of the culture and language acknowledged and protected, but only a few of them are separatists claiming independence.
The Corsican flag is hoisted very frequently in Corsica, even on isolated mountain huts. On the building of the Chamber of Commerce in Ajaccio, it is even hoisted at the honour position and on a tallest pole than the French tricolour.

Ivan Sache, 13 April 2001

The Moor's head

Heraldic meaning and variants

The origin and meaning of the Moor's head has been and still is a matter of legend and speculations. In February 1995, Jerôme Potentini gave a lecture at the Corsican Academy (Accademia Corsa), entitled Quelques idées sur l'origine du drapeau corse (Some ideas on the origin of the Corsican flag).
To my knowledge, this text is the best available report on the Moor's head. The author quotes his sources and makes a clear distinction between evidence, interpretation and legend.

The Moor's head is often used as a canting coat of arms by families whose name is based on the roots Maure or More. This is the case not only in Corsica, but also in continental France, Flanders, Augsburg, and Switzerland. According to Gheusi, the Moor's head used on such arms is mostly shown in profile and looking towards dexter (that is towards viewer's left). Its blazoning is tête de nègre de sable, naturellement animée et tortillée d'argent.
In this description, animée (animated) means that the eyes are white and clearly visible. The heraldist Paillot gave a similar blazoning, which he illustrated with eight blasons showing the Moor's head. In all of Paillot's blasons, the head belongs to a black man (nègre, but without any pejorative connotation) with thick lips, a flat nose and freezy hair. This representation fits the traditional description of Moorish slaves captured and traded by Christians, or of Moors who occupied for a long time Spain, the south of Portugal, parts of the Mediterranean shore of France and several Corsican villages. In the latter cases, the so-called Moors were not black Africans but Arabs or Islamized natives from Maghreb.

Berthelot and Ceccaldi, quoting the historian Carpacino, believe the headband was a royal symbol. Therefore, the Moor would be a defeated Moorish chief. However, Antonetti points out that Carpacino mentioned the headband as a royal symbol in the Hellenic world only. The heraldist Paillot mentions a tortil, that is a twisted ribbon, and not a headband. The tortil is tied behind the neck where it constitutes two small pieces. The tortil is placed either on the eyes or the forehead.

In the arms dated from the 17th-18th centuries, the Moor's head is consistently shown with pearl necklaces and ear pendants. Therefore this Moor was indeed a Moorish woman, most probably a slave. These female representations might have been inspired by the trade of Moorish slaves, which was ruled during the Renaissance by Genoa, then ruler in Corsica.

In his Notice historique sur les blasons des anciennes provinces de France (Historical note on the coats of arms of the ancient French provinces, 1941), Jacques Meurgey writes that the island once used three Moor's heads as its emblem, subsequently reduced to a single one; the oldest Moor's head dates back to 1573.
The modern arms of Corsica are sometimes supported by two giganti marini (sea giants) each holding a club, invented by Pascal Paoli. Meurgey further refutes arms sometimes ascribed to Corsica, "Argent a cross gules" (indeed Genoa), and "A cross cantonned with four Moor's heads (indeed Sardinia).

Origin of the symbol: The Aragonese hypothesis

Potentini reports (and rejects) a few legendary origins of the Moor's head.
Nimou (Choses de Corse, 1936) tells the story of a Corsican who cut the head of a Sarracen chief he had identified by its white headband. To preserve the head as a trophy, he wrapped it into a piece of white fabric. Since he could not preserve the head too long, he decided to draw it on a white piece of fabric.
Another popular legend says that corsairs once abducted the fiancée of a young Corsican from Aleria (a town located on the eastern coastal plain) and sold her to the King of Aragon. The Corsican set free his fiancée and killed the lieutenant sent after him by the king, exhibiting the lieutenant's head as a trophy all over the island.

Historical elements presented by Potentini support an Aragonese rather than Corsican origin of the Moor's head.
In 1297, Pope Boniface VIII (1235-1303) vested the King of Aragon with powers on the Kingdoms of Sardinia and Corsica. The Moor's head was reported on the Aragonese arms (four Moor's heads around a red cross) for the first time in 1281. These arms were used until 1387, when King Jaume I restored the former arms of Aragon. The kings of Aragon were not really interested in Corsica, and there is no evidence they imported their arms to Corsica. They occupied Sardinia, however, which explains the Moor's head in the arms of Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, as proved by parchments kept in the municipal archives of Cagliari. It is often said, without solid evidence, that King Peter I of Aragon adopted the Moor's head after the battle of Alcoras or Alarcos (1046) during which he had defeated four Moorish kings. The only solid conclusion which can be drawn is that the Moor's head is not of Corsican origin but was probably imported by the Kings of Aragon, although its use is not documented until the beginning ot the 14th century.

In 1376, Giovanni della Grossa wrote that Arrigo della Rocca, the leader of the Corsican pro-Aragonese party, used on his banner a griffin surmounted with the arms of Aragon. However, Grossa did not describe explicitely these arms. Vincentello d'Istria, another pro-Aragonese leader, who became in 1418 the first native Vice-Roy of Corsica, was also said to bear the arms of Aragon, again not described explicitely.
Sampiero, Colonel of the Corsican regiment in the service of the king of France (1547), was reported to have used a black flag with a white cross and a Moor's head in the center. The Moor's head was allegedly added to the regiment flag to distinguish it from the flag used by the Regiment of Piedmont. The military historian Poli, however, believes that the report was erroneous and that the Moor's head had been added by modern authors. He said that France would have not tolerated mercenaries using an Aragonese symbol.
Corsico-Sardinian mercenaries, however, might have used banners with the Moor's head. Such banners are shown on several paintings and frescos, carried by Corsican and Sardinian regiments or mercenaries in the service of the Pope or Italian Republics. A painting, dated before 1466, by Piero della Francesca (1416-1492) in the St. Francis church in Arezzo, is the best example of these representations. Corsicans and Sardinians served indistinctively in the same regiments, which might have used the arms of Cagliari on their banner. The conclusion for the 13th-14th century period is that Corsican chiefs might have used the Moor's head on their banner, although this was not the official emblem of Corsica.

In 1573, the Italian geographer Mainaldo Galerati "reestablished" the Moor's head as the emblem of Corsica in his atlas showing the possessions of King Philip II of Spain and their respective arms. The atlas published in 1662 by the Dutch Johan Blaeu and translated in Latin as Atlas major between 1662 and 1665 popularized the Moor's head. Corsica is represented on the atlas by a golden shield with a tortil-wearing Moor's head and a Triton armed with a trident.
Using Blaeu's atlas, Seutter published in 1731 in Augsburg a map of Corsica decorated with a Moor's head. On 12 March 1736, the adventurer Theodor von Neuhoff (1694-1756) landed in Aleria, where he was proclaimed King of Corsica. He used a white flag with a Moor's head with a headband on the eyes. Neuhoff might have seen Seutter's map in Augsburg where he had been stationed. A coin minted at that time in Corsica shows a head, which was interpreted either as the Moor's head or Neuhoff's head. Neuhoff left Corsica after six months, but his story was widely popularized in Europa. This might be the reason why the Moor's head has been considered as the official symbol of Corsica since then.

In a letter dated 23 June 1760 from Rivarola, Pascuale Paoli (1725-1807) proposed a flag for Corsica. The reverse should have been charged with a picture of St. Dévote and the obverse should have been charged with the Moor's head as represented on the maps at that time. During the Consulta of Vescovato, on 24 May 1761, it was decided to mint coins with the arms of the Kingdom of Corsica. A Moor's head with a tortil on the forehead was placed on a shield, surmounted with a royal crown with fleur-de-lis, itself surmounted with a globe and a cross. The shield was flanked by two marine deities. These arms were placed, with some variation, on the Corsican flags. Paoli created a Corsican navy, whose ensign was a Moor's head on a white field without any secondary attribute. As said above, the tortil was placed on the Moor's forehead instead of eyes. Paoli was reported to have said: "The Corsicans want to see well, liberty shall follow the torch of philosophy and we shall not be scared by the light." According to Ambrogia Rossi, Paoli also said: "Now the placement of the royal headband shall indicate our dignity and no longer our shame as our enemies would prefer to see it."
However, Genoese archives prove that flags with the headband on the Moor's forehead already existed in 1731. Paoli seems to have indeed officialized the placement of the headband on the Moor's forehead. After the battle of Ponte-Novu (1769) and Paoli's exile to England, France kept the Moor's head but suppressed the headband and added fleurs-de-lis. The French Revolution kept the Moor's head, but suppressed the fleurs-de-lis. Between 1794 and 1796, Paoli attempted to create an Anglo-Corsican kingdom. Its official emblem associated the Moor's head and the Royal arms of England.

St. Maurice as the Moor

The Jesuit Mario de Valdes y Cocom wrote the essay Sigillum Secretum (Secret Seal) - On the image of the Blackamoor in European Heraldry (a preliminary proposal for an iconographical study) for PBS' Frontline, including a discussion on the use of the Moor's head on flags.
The four Moor's head shown on the flag of Sardinia are traditionally associated to the four Moorish emirs which were defeated by a King of Aragon in the 11th century. As a corollary, the Black figure became a symbol of evil.
Modern heraldists suspect that the Moor's head is, however, the very opposite of a negative symbol. The Moor's head could have referred to St. Maurice, the black patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire from the beginning of the 10th century. Maurice has been portrayed as black since the 12 century.

Quoting Valdes:

The insignia of the black head, in a great many instances, was probably meant to represent this soldier saint since a majority of the arms awarded were knightly or military. With 6,666 of his African compatriots, St. Maurice had chosen martyrdom rather than deny his allegiance to his Lord and Saviour, thereby creating for the Christian world an image of the Church Militant that was as impressive numerically as it was colourwise. Here, no doubt, is a major reason why St. Maurice would become the champion of the old Roman church and an opposition symbol to the growing influence of Luther and Calvin. The fact that he was of the same race as the Ethiopian baptized by St. Philip in Acts of the Apostles was undoubtedly an important element to his significance as well. Since this figure from the New Testament was read as a personification of the Gentile world in its entirety, the complexion of St. Maurice and his Theban Legion (the number of which signified an infinite contingent) was also understood as a representation of the Church's universality - a dogmatic ideal no longer tolerated by the Reformation's nationalism.
Furthermore, it cannot be coincidental that the most powerful of the German princes to remain within the Catholic fold, the archbishop Albrecht von Brandenburg, not only dedicated practically all the major institutions under his jurisdiction to St. Maurice but in what is today one of the most important paintings of the Renaissance, had himself portrayed in Sacred Conversation with him.
Even more blatant was the action taken by Emanual Philibert, Duke of Savoy. In 1572 he organized the order of St. Maurice. The papal promulgation published at its institution declared quite unequivocally that the sole purpose for this knighthood was to combat of the Reformation. The order still exists although it has now combined with the Order of St. Lazarus. The white trefoiled cross of the combined order belongs to the former. The particular symbol of St. Maurice's blackness that must have most antagonized the Protestant faction, however, was the one regarding the mystery of pwapal authority. Scholars have been able to show, for example, that in the theological debates of this period, even the abstract adjectives, black and white, were defiantly acknowledged by apologists of both stripes to represent the Church and the Reformers respectively.

Ivan Sache, 14 June 2009

Independent Corsica (1755-1769)

There is only one flag dating from the short period of independence of Corsica (1755-1769) still preserved today; this flag is also the oldest known Corsican flag featuring the Moor's head.
The flag belonged to Giusseppe Maria Massesi (1716-1791), the Grand Chancellor of the independentist leader Pasquale de Paoli (1725-1807). Massesi retired in 1769 in the village of Ersa in the house of his son- in-law Antonio d'Antony. Kept in the family house, the flag was offered in 1960 to the municipal museum of Bastia by Canon Mordiconi-d'Antony. For the four next decades, the flag was displayed in the museum as the "Flag of independence" and presented as "the only relic from the Battle of Ponte Novu" [8-9 May 1769], perpetuating the family tradition. However, chemical analyses failed to detect traces of gun power which would have validated the tradition.
Due to conservation issues and heavy degradation by light, the flag (photo) is no longer shown to the public, Restored in 2000, the flag is shown only in specific instances, for instance from 9 to 20 December 2014 (presentation).

The design of the flag partially matches the description prescribed by a consulta (assembly) in November 1762. The two marine giganti (giants) are replaced by fauns. The crown represents the Regno di Corsica (Kingdom of Corsica). The Moor is represented with a pearl necklace and ear-rings (photos), as on decorative elements of the time and without allegoric value. Paoli insisted that the headband should be placed on the forehead and not the eyes of the Moor, as a symbol of liberation.

Ivan Sache, 12 December 2014

Corsica in the "Book of All Kingdoms"

[Flag of Corsica]

Flag of Corsica in the "Book of All Kingdoms" - Image by António Martins, 24 November 2007

The "Book of All Kingdoms" [f0fXX], of 1350, tells the voyages of an anonymous Castilian friar and is illustrated with 113 flag images, referred to (though seldom described) in the text.
The 55th flag mentioned and illustrated in the "Book" is attributed to Corsica.
The 2005 Spanish illustrated transcription of the "Book" [f0f05] shows a white flag with a red cross throughout, shown in the ogival default shape of this source (identical to the 3th and 28th flag images).
The anonymous author of the "Book" describes the flag thusly: Las señales dende son un pendón blanco con una cruz bermeja, porque la ganaron los ginoveses a los catalanes (The device thereof is a white pendon with a red cross, for it was taken over by the Genoese from the Catalans.) Curiously, this design does not match the flag of Genoa in this source, lacking the word Justicia, to which it is though attributed.

António Martins, 24 November 2007