Dreaming of Corsica

Pascal Paoli: Père de la patrie corse

by Antoine-Marie Graziani
Paris: Tallandier, 340 pp., x21.50 (paper)

I had got upon a rock in Corsica and jumped into the middle of life.”

—James Boswell,in a letter to Pasquale Paoli

Not long ago, at the start of a bicycle tour of Corsica, I found myself in a hotel on the northeastern coast, in Bastia, Corsica’s largest city. In the breakfast room was an oversized reproduction of an engraving which had been done in 1806 by the French artist Carle Vernet, who had accompanied Napoleon on his Italian campaign. Vernet specialized in battle scenes, so it was not surprising that there are soldiers in the foreground, what look like a fleet in the harbor in the background, and a tower-like structure with smoke rising behind it. The caption under the picture read “Déli-vrance de la Corse.”

Corsica has had several “deliverances”; the date for this one was given as “29 Vandemaire 5,” that is, five years after the beginning of the Revolutionary Calendar in 1792, which puts it at 1796. This was the year that the French delivered Corsica from the English, who had in turn delivered it from the French in 1794, who had in turn delivered it from the Pisans. A bit puzzling was the matter of the tower. By the beginning of the eighteenth century the Genoese had constructed eighty-five stone coastal watch towers of which sixty-seven are still standing in various condition. All but four of these towers are round, while the one in the engraving is square. The locations of the existing square towers do not seem to correspond to the scene shown in the lithograph. Perhaps Vernet imagined it or the tower he drew was destroyed.

One of the surviving square towers is near Nonza, a village on the west side of Cap Corse. Our tour passed through Nonza and we stopped at a café for lunch. I asked the proprietor about the origin of the tower and he replied with great confidence that it was “Paoline,” which meant that it had been built by Pasquale Paoli—pronounced “pauli.” He also told me that Paoli—referred to in Corse (corsu), the dialect of Italian spoken along with French on the island, as “U Babu di la Nation” (“the father of the country”)—had written the American Constitution. Reticence prevented me from informing him that his tower had been built by the Genoese in 1550 and that our constitution had other authors. But I could have cheered him up by informing him that there are four old American cities with the name “Paoli” in deference to the “Babu.” That Paoli’s fame had spread to his contemporaries as far away as America is owing almost entirely to the then twenty-five-year-old James Boswell’s seven-day visit to him on the island in 1765. This visit resulted in Boswell’s book An Account of Corsica: The Journal of a Tour to That Island and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli, which he published in February of 1768. The book was a runaway best seller …

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