Corsica

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The Corsican Don Juan - an excerpt from Corsica

If you’ve been to Seville, you may recall that the ‘real’ Don Juan was named Don Miguel, or more precisely Don Miguel de Leca y Colonna y Magnara y Vincentello, who was born in Seville in 1627. Fewer people, however, realize that he was a Corsican. The Leca were one of the noblest families on the island, whose lineage, exhaustingly confirmed by both Genoese and Spanish nobiliaries of the time, traced their descent back to the semi-legendary 9th-century Ugo Colonna. Miguel’s father, Tomaso Magnara di Leca, was from Calvi; his mother, Jeronima Anfriani Vincentelli, also descended from the Leca, was from Montemaggiore; her family house, the Casa Colonna d’Anfriani, still stands.

Miguel was 14 when he saw Tirso de Molina’s play Don Juan de Tenorio, the drama that would inspire Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Byron’s Don Juan. Miguel was inspired, too: he decided he would become Don Juan in real life. Raised as a Spanish gentleman, handsome and rich, he was irresistible, and he was ruthless, seeking greater and greater challenges, pursuing only the most virtuous women, only to drop them cold after seducing them, often killing their male relatives along the way. He was proud when his contemporaries called him ‘Don Juan, the worst man in Seville.’

Unlike Corbara’s Sultana Davia of Morocco, Miguel did come back to Corsica in search of his roots, after a fashion. Learning that his father had fathered an illegitimate daughter on an Anfriani cousin before leaving for Spain and that she was being raised by an uncle in Montemaggiore, he decided to outdo the fictional Don Juan by seducing his sister. He was about 20 at the time, and arrived under an assumed name with a letter of introduction from himself, saying he was a close friend of Don Miguel. He courted her, and she fell under his sway and promises of marriage, and was just about to yield to him when he triumphantly declared: ‘You are my sister, and you love me, and you are mine!’ A good Corsican girl schooled in the horrors of incest, she screamed and woke the house, and after a brief sword fight he escaped.

Don Miguel returned to Seville, as bad as ever, and had just arranged to elope with a nun whose father he had killed when like a true Corsican, he started having dreams and trances that warned him of his death. Terrified, he repented, and went from the very worst to the very best man in Spain, so pious, benevolent and dedicated to the poor that when he died in 1679, canonization procedures were begun. The investigations of his life, deposited in the Vatican, were pilfered by Napoleon, and are now in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.

Vendettas and Bandits

One mustn’t judge Corsican morals by our little European ideas. Here a bandit is generally the most honest man in the region.

Gustave Flaubert

Along with ‘maquis’ as a synonym for the Resistance, the word vendetta is Corsica’s only contribution to the English language. Its practice goes back to Homeric times, and has at its root an extraordinary sense of honour, perceived within a person as the ideal of self-worth but, just as importantly, perceived without by one’s neighbours. As possibilities for wealth and advancement were limited on the island, honour was a person’s most prized possession, to be defended at all costs. What made Corsica such an extreme case was pinpointed by Dorothy Carrington: ‘Pride, antique hubris; the worst part of honour. A foreigner is always liable to underestimate this trait in the Corsican character because he is simply unable to believe that pride in such dimensions can exist.’ Corsican history is striped with the comet-tails of proud men burned up by their tragic destiny, in which the vendetta nearly always played a leading role.

Along with pride, history and geography conspired to make Corsica fertile ground for the blood feud. Although the Genoese governor Giorgio Doria eventually produced civil and criminal statutes for the island in 1571, it was common knowledge even then that judges invariably decided in favour of whoever paid the highest bribe. Up in their mountain valleys, Corsicans could only rely on their own clans to maintain the law and preserve their honour; as a correlation, any taint was felt by all the family (up to the degree of third cousin was the unwritten rule), who would act as a unit to settle scores with the family to the degree of third cousin of the transgressor. Crime, in fact, was always low because the penalty was severe and implacable: death. Vendettas often led to the total extinction of a family , and as such acted as the perfect deterrent to sheep-rustling, rape, adultery or disputes of even the most trival kind – dozens have died after a quarrel that began over a tree cut down or a straying donkey.

A unique feature of the vendetta, compared to the blood feuds of other nationalities, is that Corsicans, from their enormous pride, would never accept blood money in exchange for a life. As a result, Corsica was deadly: during the worst period, between 1682 and 1714, the annals record 28,715 violent deaths (out of a population of 120,000) which made the odds of being killed in a vendetta were roughly one in 150, enough to make the South Bronx in the 1970s seem like a Sunday school.

‘It’s a form of suicide,’ as a Corsican once told Dorothy Carrington, especially as vendettas were often provoked on purpose. Women, who were expected to remain not only virgins but literally untouched by any man before marriage, were often the cause. All a man had to do was approach a girl in a crowded public place (often as she was leaving Mass) and pull off her headscarf, an act called the attacar. Everyone around would cry out, ‘Disonorata! Disonorata!’ (shamed! shamed!) and it was understood that the girl, even if she violently resisted the attacar, had to at once marry the culprit or die a spinster, or see her family embroiled in a bloody vendetta.

Not surprisingly perhaps, women took a leading role in perpetuating the vendetta, in spite of the perverse results that more often than not brought about the death of their husbands, brothers or sons. A mother would bring her children to the corpse of their murdered father, stick her finger in the wound, and with the blood make the sign of the cross on her little one’s brows with terrible imprecations for vengeance. The shirt of the victim, stained with blood and torn by stilettos, would be hung on the wall; when the body was laid out on the kitchen table, the plaintive lamenti sung to mourn a natural death would be replaced by the bloodcurdling wails of the voceru, demanding vengeance, reaching a frenzy while the other women tore their hair and garments and plunged their nails into their breasts til they drew blood, crying ‘De sangue sentu una sete/Di morte sentu una brama’ (‘I have a thirst for blood/I have a hunger for death’). As they sang, the men in the next room grimly kept time, banging their rifle butts against the floor.

To show that the family was in a state of war, they let their hair and beards grow, and boarded up the windows and doors of their house, so that the only entrance was by ladder. From then on no one was safe. Men went to church armed to the teeth, never knowing when they might be ambushed; in a vendetta all means were good to an end. Men who failed to exact revenge were publicly scorned and humiliated by their families and neighbours (a state called ribeccu) until they did the deed.

Because nearly every family in Corsica had enemies, the Genoese exploited the vendetta time and time again to rid themselves of troublesome rebels, usually offering the killers money and a new life in Genoa where they might escape revenge. Paoli came the closest to eradicating the scourge by impartially executing all vendetta killers, including one of his own cousins, then razing their houses and erecting a ‘pillar of infamy’ on the site. His attempt to undermine the old concepts of honour ended with the coming of the French, and it wasn’t long before the Corsicans were back to settling their own scores again, often against the ‘invaders’. The French responded with hideous tortures and executions, but to little effect, as men involved in a vendetta expected to die anyway. Yet as times became more settled (by the late 19th century the murder rate dropped to under 50 a year) the French literati found the vendetta and the whole ideal of honour fascinating as a primitive yet rather noble relic of antiquity. Two key works were Prosper Mérimée’s bestselling Colomba, inspired by a real-life vendetta in Fozanno in the 1860s, and the more romantic Les Frères Corses by Alexandre Dumas, an outlandish swashbuckling tale of vengeance undertaken by Siamese twins parted at birth.

Banditry was the natural offshoot of the vendetta. Short of the complete extermination of a family, a vendetta could at least come to a hiatus when a man vanished into the maquis after murdering the enemy who dishonoured his family. The word ‘bandit’ in this case harks back to the original sense of the word, as in ‘banned’ from society: as everyday brigands became more common in the 19th century, those who killed because of pride and duty became known as bandits d’honneur. In the maquis their families would supply them with food, and they were protected from their enemies or the police by an implacable law of silence. Bandits d’honneur became folk heroes, the tragic embodiments of the Corsican ideal; Victorian-era travellers would come to visit them in their hideaways, and usually left deeply impressed by their conversation. Some bandits were famed for their piety; several churches, especially in the Castagniccia, have charmingly naïve works of art sculpted by bandits. They even had a patron saint, Pancrace.

The noble and pious bandits, however, were a minority; most were desperadoes who terrorized the population. Some, like Théodore Poli, ‘King of the Mountains’, or the Bonelli brothers of Bocognano, enjoyed a certain cult status for their Robin Hoodish exploits against the French gendarmes. After the First World War, as Corsica came into closer contact with the rest of Europe, the bandit d’honneur became a rarity; personal possessions replaced personal honour, and bandits took to large-scale criminal activity, imposing ‘taxes’ on the population in exchange for protection. As the violence increased, the Corsicans tired of them, and the French Army was able to wipe out the last bandit, Spada, sending him to Bastia to be guillotined in the 1935; officially, the last vendetta ended in the 1960s.

Last bandit? Well, not quite. In July 2003, the French police finally bagged goatherd Yvan Colonna, the suspected assassin of Préfect Claude Erignac in 1998 and the most wanted man in France, in an old stone barn near Porto-Pollo. Eight of Colonna’s colleagues were captured the year after Erignac’s death, but nothing the police did for years- interviewing every separatist on the island, examining the records of eight millions of phone calls, searching throughout metropolitan France and South America- brought them any closer to the man they believed actually pulled the trigger. On Corsica, Colonna acquired the mythic status of the bandits of yore- and the head inspector began to suspect, just like the bandits of yore, Colonna was hiding right under their noses in the maquis. His family were put under surveillance and were spotted taking an unexplained walk on a cold rainy day. It was noticed that the fugitive’s friends often turned off their mobile phones when walking in the woods. Searches were made of hundreds of isolated huts and barns in the area and in several they found stacks of recent newspapers. Infra red cameras were installed in those barns, and Colonna was spotted, talking to his goats (a known habit of his) and arrested the next evening, without resistance. The fact that it occurred only days before the referendum on autonomy designed by Nicolas Sarkozy didn’t play well- the police were accused of knowing where Colonna had been hiding all along and having saved his capture as a piece of theatre just before the vote.

The French police then began to round up everyone suspected of lending aid and succor to Colonna while he was on the lam, sparking demonstrations. In Ajaccio thousands came out wearing t-shirts saying ‘We all gave shelter to Yvan!’ In Olmeto and Propriano, there were angry protests condemning this French intrusion on the most fundamental pillars of the Corsican soul-the tradition of hospitality and code of honour. At the time of writing Colonna waits in prison in Paris, claiming innocence and awaiting trial.

© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls