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Calvi (Municipality, Haute-Corse, France)

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[Flag of Calvi]by Ivan Sache

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Presentation of Calvi

Calvi is a port of c. 6,000 inhabitants located on the gulf of Calvi, on the Mediterranean Sea, and protected by a fortified citadell built on a rocky promontory. Because of its strategic location, Calvi was involved in most of the events of the complicated history of Corsica.

The Roman times

The oldest human remains in the area of Calvi date back to the Neolithic. After several expeditions, the Romans settled in Corsica around 100 BP and developed agriculture. The Greeks brought olive-trees and the techniques of olive oil production. The region around Calvi is called Balagne, form a Greek word meaning "olive grove".
The Romans called the gulf of Calvi sinus caesia or sinus casalvi, which is a possible origin of the name of Calvi. Another theory links Calvi to the root cal-, which gave calanque in Provencal and calanche in Corsican, associated with the suffix -bili to form Calbili. There are other toponyms in the area bearing a name built on cal-, for instance Calenzana, Moncale, Calacuccia. It is also possible that Calvi was named after the Latin adjective calvus, bold, recalling that the city was built on a barren rocky promontory.

During the Pax Romana, Calvi was an important port of commerce: copper and lead from Spain, as well as curved tiles and oil lamps from Gaul were traded for olive oil, wine, honey and salt meat produced in the hinterland of Calvi. The city housed also an important military post, with a garrison of 14 centuries, that is 1,400 men. The civil population was ruled by a prefet. The famous geographer Ptolemeus wrote in the second century that "Calvi was the most famous port of Corsica".
Christianism reached Calvi via the commerce port. A first, paleo-Christian basilica Santa Maria Vecchia (Old St. Mary) was the seat of a small bishopric. An apocryphal legend from the XIIth century tells the martyre of Restituta, a rich Roman patrician, during Diocletian's great persecutions (303-305). Restituta's relics are kept in the parochial church of the neighbouring village of Calenzana.

In the Vth century, the Roman Empire collapsed and the island was invaded by the Vandals, the Wisigoths, the Sarracens and the Lombards. Pépin le Bref, king of the Franks and Charlemagne's father, expelled the invaders and granted Corsica to pope Stephen II through the exarchate of Ravenna (756), which was the starting point of the temporal power of the papacy. Nearly nothing is known on the history of Calvi during the papal administration.

The Genoese rule

In 1091, pope Urban II, lacking troops to defend Corsica, ceded the island to the Republic of Pisa, causing the wrath of Pisa rival, the Republic of Genoa. During the next two centuries, the island was divided between partisans of Pisa and Genoa. Calvi and the north of the island supported Genoa. In 1268, the leader of the Genoese party, Giovaninello de Pietru all'Arretta, was pursued by the Pisan party, led by Giudice di Cirnaca. Arretta entrenched himself on a rocky promontory above Calvi and his enemies could not capture him. Therefore he decided to fortify the promontory and to build city walls.
In 1220, Franciscan friars built a convent in Calvi, where St. Francis of Assise was said to have called when returning from the Holy Crusade.

In 1294, Jacopo Doria, lord of Calvi, could not pay his debts to the Republic of Genoa. He was forced to sign with the doge of Genoa a protectorate treaty, which was in fact a cession act. Calvi was placed under direct Genoan administration. Since Pisa was still claiming Corsica, pope Bonifacius VIII decided to appoint a third party. In 1295, king of Aragon Jaime II was given Corsica as a permanent domain. Calvi refused the deal and took an oath of semper fidelis (permanent loyalty) to Genoa. Both Genoans and Pisans refused to withdraw from the island.
In 1420, the Aragonese rule was still not established. King Alfonso V, supported by the Corsican warlord Vincentello d'Istria, sent 80 warships, which brought the first firearms to Corsica. The Aragonese army easily defeated the local warlords and the whole island was conquered, except the port of Bonifacio, in the south. Genoa sent a fleet to run the Aragonese blockade. In Calvi, Pietreo Baglioni, later nicknamed Liberta, led an insurrection which slaughtered the Aragonese garrison. Defeated in the main fortresses of the island, Calvi and Bonifacio, Aragon had to withdraw.

In 1453, an assembly of Corsican dignitaries decided to appoint the St. George's Office (Officio San Giorgio, the oldest bank in the world) from Genoa to manage the island. The Office was a genuine state, with its own currency, laws, army and colonies in the Mediterranean area. The famous architect Cristoforo Gandino was hired by the Office to rebuilt the fortifications of Calvi. The cittadella (small city) was reorganized around the castello (fort), protected by the towers of Mozza and Castellana and a drawbridge (now destroyed). The bastions of Spinchone, Malfetano, Teghjale, San Antonio d'Alto and Celle were added to the city walls. The cittadella was achieved in 1492.
Calvi had specific statutes and was rule by a podestate appointed by the Office. The podestate had full executive and judicial powers, and was also responsible of the fortifications. He was assisted by a castellano (commander of the garrison), massari (tax collectors), a scrivano (clerk), gabillotti (coast guards) and chiavateri del sal (salt tax collectors). A campanero was in charge of the sundials.
Forty members of the Genoese administration and the local aristocracy were randomly chosen to constitute the Consiglio general (General council), which elected councillors and syndics.
In the beginning of the XVIth century, the cittadella grouped 6,000 inhabitants on an enclosed area of 2.5 hectares.

In the XV-XVIth centuries, Calvi was one of the wealthiest ports of the Mediterranean basin. The merchants and ship owners built elegant houses and funded several religious buildings, decorated with work of art commissioned to the most famous Italian artists. An oratory dedicated to St. Anton was built in 1510 on the rampart walk, and was used as a meeting place by the Brotherhood of the Cittadella, which still exists.

In the middle of the XVIth century, king of France Henri II searched for a port of call in his struggle against Charles V of Spain, and decided to invade Corsica. He was supported by Sampiero d'Ornano, a.k.a Sampiero Corso, condottiere in the service of the Medicis and king of France François I, and one of the models for Shakespeare's Othello. All Corsica was invaded except Calvi, which refused to surrender. In July 1555, Calvi was besieged by a fleet of 100 galleys commanded by admiral de la Garde and Dragut, sent by the Ottoman sultan Soliman the Munificent. Sampiero Corso commanded an army of 1,000 which attacked Calvi via the hinterland. On 10 August, the inhabitants of Calvi took out a black Christ from the St. John the Baptist's church and walked in procession inside the city walls. A "miracle" occurred: Dragut withdrew since he had not been paid for his contribution to the siege and the French admiral, severely injured, ordered to lift the siege. The Republic of Genoa granted the city of Calvi the motto Civitas Calvis semper fidelis.
However, the siege caused several destructions outside the city, and several inhabitants moved to Sevilla. Giovanni Antonello de Vincentello became there the richest man of the Christendom, Matteo Vaschi was appointed private secretary by king of Spain Felipe. Tomaso Manara is mostly known as the father of Miguel de Manara, a.k.a. Don Juan.

In 1567, an ammunition supply was struck by lightning, killing 132 and destroying 35 houses. The St. John's the Baptist church was damaged and rebuilt with money sent from Sevilla. In 1576, the new church was upgraded to a cathedral by pope Gregor XIII. In 1625, the bishops of Sagone, trashed by the pirates, moved to Calvi with their wealth. In 1652, the Genoese governors decided to leave Bastia and Calvi became officially the capital city of Corsica.

The incorporation to France and the 1794 siege

From 1729 to 1768, anarchy succeded to an uprising against the Genoese. Calvi did not support the national insurrection led by Pascual Paoli and the short-lived independent Corsica. On 15 May 1768, the Republic of Genoa ceded Corsica to the Kingdom of France. In 1790, a lawyer from Calvi, Lorenzo Giubega, wrote a report on the situation of Corsica and suggested reforms to avoid an English invasion. The civil war resumed in Corsica, and the Bonaparte family was supported by Giubega, Napoleon's godfather, who helped them to flee to continental France.

In 1793, the international anti-French coalition occupied several cities in the south of France. From Toulon, Admiral Hood ordered Horatio Nelson to besiege Calvi. Nelson sailed to Calvi on the Agammemnon, with a troop of 1,500 men. 40 cannons were provided by Corsicans of the English party. On 12 July, Nelson was injured and left an eye. After a 18-day siege, the 150 survivors of the garrison and the 450 injured defendors surrendered and were granted the honours of war by the Brits. During the siege, the citadel was hit by 24,000 cannonballs, 4,500 bombs and 1,500 shells.

The modern era

During the First and Second Empires, very few salient facts took place in Calvi. The city came to life again in the middle of the XXth century thanks to mayor Adolphe Landry. Originally a professor of political economy and the founder of the French school of demography, Landry (1874-1956) was minister under the Third and Fourth Republics and mayor of Calvi for nearly 50 years. Landry transformed Calvi, then a small fishing port, into an attractive sea resort. A port of commerce, a marina (1970), an airport (1951) and a railway station were built to attract tourists. Beautiful hotels were built, which had rich customers such as Princess Grace of Monaco and Prince Rainier during their honeymoon. Prince Youssopov, one of the murderers of Rasputin, bought a villa that became a meeting point for the emigrated Russian aristocrats. The designer Christian Dior showed his new collections on the port of Calvi.
Today, the marina has 450 moorings and receives 45,000 skippers per year. Passenger traffic with the continent is 86,000 per year via the sea and 212,000 via the air.

Calvi is also renowned for its jazz and festival and the Festiventu (festival of the wind).

According to a local tradition, supported by some historians, the navigator Christopher Colombus was borne in the citadel around 1436, where a Colombo family was known.


These two sites show beautiful images of the citadel and the Balagne area.

Ivan Sache, 23 November 2003

Description of the flag of Calvi

The flag of Calvi is a banner of the municipal arms, which are the arms of Genoa:

Argent a cross gules

The flag can be seen in the German tourist guide Korsika, by E.H. Ruth, M. Siegfried & H.R. Fabian (Bucher Verlag, Munich, 1999), flying over the citadel along with the Corsican flag.

Ivan Sache & Pascal Vagnat, 23 November 2003

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