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Corsica (France, Traditional province)


Last modified: 2004-07-03 by ivan sache
Keywords: corse | corsica | moor's head | tortil | headband | st. maurice |
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[Flag of Corsica]by Pierre Gay

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Description and use of the 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 [udk97] claims that this flag is the emblem of the Corsican separatists, but this is erroneous. This 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

Origin of the Moor's head

The Aragonese hypothesis

The origin of the Moor's head has been the subject of several legends 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). The text of the lecture (in French) is available on the website of the Corsican Academy.

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. I am summarizing below the most relevant parts of the lecture. I have rearranged some parts of the lecture, for the sake of clarity.

Heraldical meaning of the Moor's head

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 the following:

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 description 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.

Meaning of the headband

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 mentioned 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.

Pearls and ear pendants

In the arms dated XVIIth and XVIIIth 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.

Legends (among others)

  • A Corsican cut the head of a Sarracen chief he had identified by its white headband. In order 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. This legend was reported by Nimou in his book Choses de Corse (1936).
  • Corsairs abducted the fiancée of a young Corsican from Aleria (a city located on the eastern coastal plain) and sold her to thekKing of Aragon. The Corsican set free his fiancée and killed the lieutenant sent after him by the king. He exhibited the lieutenant's head as a trophy all over the island.

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 city of Sardinia, as proved by parchments kept tin the municipal archives of Cagliari. It is often said, without solid evidence, that the king of Aragon adopted the Moor's head after the battle of Alcoras or Alarcos (1046) during which king Peter I 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 it is not attested before the beginnning ot the XIVth century.

The Moor's head in Corsica from XIIIth to XVIth century

In 1376, Giovanni della Grossa wrote that Arrigo della Rocca, the leader of the Corsican pro-Aragonese party, had placed on his banner a griffin surmonted 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 Piemontese bands. 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 XIII-XVIth century period is that Corsican chiefs might have used the Moor's head as their banner, although this was not the official emblem of Corsica.

The Moor's head in Corsica from XVIth to XVIIIth century

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 popularized the Moor's head. Blaeu's atlas was translated in Latin as Atlas major between 1662 and 1665. Corsica was represented there by a golden shiled 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.

Pascuale Paoli and the Moor's head

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, surmonted with a royal crown with fleur-de-lys, itself surmonted 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-lys. The French Revolution kept the Moor's head, but suppressed the fleurs-de-lys. 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.

Ivan Sache, 4 August 2002

Another historical hypothesis related to Aragon was reported by the Corsica Guide. It says that the Moor's head appeared on the Corsican flag in the XVIth century, following the drawing of a map of the possessions of Philip II, King of Spain, by an Italian geographer. Corsica had then no official emblem, and the geographer used the Moor's head because of the proximity to Sardinia, whose flag bears four Moor's heads.

Ivan Sache, 31 March 2000

St. Maurice as the Moor

The Jesuit trained Mario de Valdes y Cocom wrote an essay about St. Maurice and the imagery of the Moor's head in a special article for PBS' Frontline. The essay is entitled: Sigillum Secretum (Secret Seal) - On the image of the Blackamoor in European Heraldry (a preliminary proposal for an iconographical study).

The parts relevant to the Moor's head on flags say:

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 XIth century. As a corollary, the Black figure became a symbol of evil.

Modern heraldits 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 Xth century. Maurice has been portrayed as black since the XIIth century.

Valdes writes: '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, 18 Febuary 2001