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Calvi (Municipality, Haute-Corse, France)

Last modified: 2021-03-18 by ivan sache
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Flag of Calvi - Image by Ivan Sache, 18 March 2021

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Presentation of Calvi

The municipality of Calvi (5,666 inhabitants in 2018: 312 ha) located on the north-western coast of Corsica.

The oldest human remains in the area of Calvi date back to the Neolithic. After several expeditions, the Romans settled 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 "an 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 relates 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 town 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 town housed an important military post, with a garrison of 14 centuries, that is 1,400 men. Ptolemy prsented Calvi in the 2nd century as "the most famous port in Corsica".
The Christian religion reached Calvi via the commerce port. A first, paleo-Christian basilica, Santa Maria Vecchia, (Old St. Mary) was the seat of a small bishopric. A legend elaborated in the 12th 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 neighboring village of Calenzana.

In the 5th century, the Roman Empire collapsed and the island was invaded by the Vandals, the Wisigoths, the Saracens 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.

In 1091, pope Urban II, lacking troops to defend Corsica, ceded the island to the Republic of Pisa, causing the wrath of Pisa's 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 walls. In 1220, Franciscan friars built a convent in Calvi, where St. Francis of Assisi is 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 appointed a third party to rule the island. In 1295, king of Aragón James 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 Bonifaciow, in the south. Genoa sent a fleet to run the Aragonese blockade. In Calvi, Pietreo Baglioni, later nicknamed Liberta, led an insurrection that slaughtered the Aragonese garrison. Defeated in the main fortresses of the island, Calvi and Bonifacio, the Aragonese had to withdraw.

In 1453, an assembly of Corsican dignitaries appointed 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 architect Cristoforo Gandino was hired to rebuilt the fortifications of Calvi. The citadel was reorganized around the fort, protected by the towers of Mozza and Castellana and a drawbridge (subsequently suppressed). The bastions of Spinchone, Malfetano, Teghjale, San Antonio d'Alto and Celle were added to the town walls. The citadel was achieved in 1492.
Under its proper Statutes, Calvi was ruled 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 General Council, which elected councillors and syndics.
In the beginning of the 16th century, the Calvi citadel grouped 6,000 inhabitants on an enclosed area of 2.5 hectares.
In the 15th-16th 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 artworks commissioned to the most famous Italian artists. An oratory dedicated to St. Anthony 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 16th century, King of France Henry II, in search for a port of call in his struggle against Charles V of Spain, invaded Corsica. He was supported by Sampiero d'Ornano, a.k.a Sampiero Corso, a condottiere in the service of the Medici' and of King Francis 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 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 town of Calvi the motto Civitas Calvis semper fidelis (The Town of Calvi Always Loyal). The siege, however, caused several destructions outside the town, so that several inhabitants moved to Seville. Giovanni Antonello de Vincentello became there the richest man of the Christendom, Matteo Vaschi was appointed private secretary by the king of Spain. 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. Damaged, the St. John the Baptist was rebuilt with money sent from Sevilla. In 1576, the new church was upgraded to a cathedral by Pope Gregor XIII. In 1625, the bishop of Sagone, looded by the pirates, moved to Calvi. In 1652, the Genoese governors left Bastia, so that Calvi became the capital of Corsica.

From 1729 to 1768, anarchy succeeded 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. 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 anti-French coalition occupied several town 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. Forty cannons were supplied by Corsicans supporting the English party. On 12 July, Nelson had an eye lost. After a 18-day siege, the 150 survivors of the garrison and the 450 injured defendors surrendered and were granted the honors of war by the Brits. During the siege, the citadel was hit by 24,000 cannonballs, 4,500 bombs and 1,500 shells.

Calvi resumed activity in the middle of the 20th 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. He 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 fashion designer Christian Dior used to present his new collections on the port of Calvi.

Ivan Sache, 23 November 2018

Flag of Calvi

The flag of Calvi (photo, photo) is white with the greater municipal arms, "Argent a cross gules", also the arms of Genoa.

Ivan Sache, 18 March 2021

Banner of arms of Calvi


Banner of arms of Calvi - Image by Ivan Sache, 23 November 2003

A banner of the arms of Calvi 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.

Pascal Vagnat, 23 November 2003