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Bonifacio (Municipality, Corse-du-Sud, France)

Last modified: 2016-11-12 by ivan sache
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Flag of Bonifacio - Image by Olivier Touzeau, 1 April 2016


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Presentation of Bonifacio

The municipality of Bonifacio (Corsican, Bunifaziu; 2,961 inhabitants in 2013; 13,836 ha; municipal website) is the southernmost municipality in Corsica and European France. The town is built on a limestone peninsula (1,500 m x 200 m) connected to the main land by the narrow St. Roch's isthmus. The writer Paul Valéry nicknamed the town "Corsica's picturesque capital".

Bonifacio was already settled in the Prehistoric times; excavated near the port, the bones of the "Dame of Bonifacio", a woman who died 7,000 years ago at the age of 35, are the oldest human remains found in Corsica. The site was successively settled by the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Phocians, and the Romans. Stone quarries were established by the Romans on Cavallo Island and in San Ba•nzo; remains of a villa, a jar tomb and several silver coins portraying emperors Antoninus Pious (138-161), Marcus Aurelius (161-180), Septimus Severus (193-211), and empress Palutilla ,the wife of Caracalla (211-217). The Romans are also recalled in the toponymy by the place called in Corsican Campu Rumnilu.
Bonifacio is usually said to have been organized as a town in 828 by Boniface, Margrave of Tuscany (828-834), on behalf of the German Emperor Lothair I. The historian Pierre Antonetti claims, however, that the name of the town was derived from the medieval Latin expressionbona factio, "construction".

Located on a rocky promontory watching the narrow (11 km in width) Strait of Bonifacio, which separates Corsica from Sardinia, Bonifacio was once known as the Corsican Gibraltar. This strategic place was first occupied by the Republic of Pisa. Bonifacio was then a den of pirates, who threatened navigation in the strait. The Republic of Genoa expelled the pirates at the end of the 12th century and established a colony, protected by a huge citadel. The original population was made of 1,200 volunteers selected according to their professional skills. The citadel was subsequently surrounded by a wall of more than 2 km in perimeter. The colonists were granted several privileges and were exempted from tax; municipal Statutes eventually conferred a significant autonomy to the town, whose defence was organized by Genoa. In the 14th century, the town minted its own coins, originally Genoese coins differentiated by adding a letter "B".
In 1420, King Alfonso V of Aragón (1416+1458) besieged Bonifacio in an attempt to conquer the whole of Corsica from Genoa; the resistance of the garrison, supported by the population of the town, forced him to withdraw. The most striking feature of the town, the King of Aragón's Staircase, made of 187 steps cut into the cliff, is said to have been cut in a single night by the troops of Alfonso V during the siege. It appears that the staircase was indeed established by Franciscan monks to reach a freshwater source gushing forth at the bottom of the cliff.
The town was eventually seized in 1533 by the Ottoman Greek privateer Dragut (Turgut Reis, 1485-1565), commissioned by Marshal de Thermes (1482-1562) on behalf of King of France Francis I (1515-1547). The mediation, some say the betrayal, of the Genoese envoy, Cattaciolo, prompted the governor of the citadel to surrender, which preserved the town from looting and saved the life of its defenders. The French increased the fortifications, adding earth ramparts and transforming the towers into bastions. The fortifications as they stand today were completed by the Genoese, after they had been retroceded the town by the treaty of Cateau-CambrŽsis, signed in 1559.
Corsica, Bonifacio included, was incorporated in 1768 to the Kingdom of France, which dropped the privileges once granted by Genoa; upset, several inhabitants left the town to Genoa. In 1793, Bonifacio was the base of the failed attempt of invasion of Sardinia known as "the unfortunate Maddalena expedition". Planned from Bonifacio by the Envoy Extraordinary Antoine Constantini and led by Bonaparte, the expedition ended into an humiliating withdrawal.

In the beginning of the 20th century, Bonifacio was a main center of production of olive oil (5,000 hl/ year) and cork. Tuna fishing and coral harvesting were additional sources of income. The town now lives mostly from tourism and transport, being the third commercial port (300,000 passengers/year) in Corsica after Bastia and Ajaccio.
The nature reserve of the Strait of Bonifacio (RNBB; 79,460 ha, 180 ha of islets included; website) was established on 23 September 1999 in the French part of the strait.

Ivan Sache, 1 April 2016


Flag of Bonifacio

The flag of Bonifacio (photo, July 2007) is white with the municipal arms in the middle.

The arms of Bonifacio are first known from circular seals appended to letters sent by local magistrates to Genoa in the second half of the 16th century. The arms feature a crenellated, polygonal fortress, of which three sides are visible, surmounted by three towers. The highest, central tower is surmounted by a patriarchal cross, while the lateral towers are each surmounted by a palm. The cross recalls that Pope Honorius III placed in 1217 the town under the protection of the Archbishop of Genoa and of the Genoese abbeys of Santo Stefano and San Siro, eventually rejecting the claims by Pisa on the town.
On the seal appended to a document dated 1569, the castle is charged with the letters "CB", for "Castrum Bonifacii" (Citadel of Bonifacio). The seal is surrounded by the writing "S(IGILLUM COMMUNITAS CASTRI BONIFACII COLONIE GENUEN(SIS)" (Seal of the Community of the Citadel of Bonifacio, Genoese Colony).
The Genoese historian and heraldist Accinelli represented the arms of Bonifacio in an armorial dated 1760. The shield is oval; "Or a castle argent on a base vert". The gate is half-opened; the bastion is crenellated in Ghibbeline style [swallow-tailed crenellations] while the towers are crenellated in Guelph style (square crenellations]. The cross is gules while the palms are vert.
After the incorporation of Corsica to France in 1768, the field of the arms of Bonifacio was changed to azure, the Royal tincture. The word "LIBERTAS" was added above the castle's gate, recalling the ancient privileges granted to the town and a lapidary inscription found on the Genoese Gate (Portone) of the town, "Libertas Pompeius Justinianus Communis". The arms are described by Aldo Agosto (Dictionnaire historique de la Corse), as follows:

Azure a castle or (alias argent) masoned crenellated sable port half-opened ensigned by three towers the central higher surmounted by a cross patriarchal gules the other surmounted with a small flame gules (alias a small palm vert) "LIBERTAS" inscribed above the gate".

The original palms surmounting the lateral towers were inadvertently changed to flames on successive representation of the arms; the flames were soon said to represent the ardent faith of the inhabitants of the town.
[Blog des Bonifaciens et des amis de Bonifacio]

Olivier Touzeau & Ivan Sache, 1 April 2016


Port of Bonifacio

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Flag of the Port of Bonifacio - Image by Olivier Touzeau, 1 April 2016

The port of Bonifacio (website) is locally believed to have been described in Book X of Homer's Odyssey, as the port of the Laestrygonian country: "When we reached the harbour we found it land-locked under steep cliffs, with a narrow entrance between two headlands."
Originally a beach where fishers pulled out their boats, the port was organized at the end of the 19th century. Revamped in 1990, the port of Bonifacio is the third commerce port in Corsica after Bastia and Ajaccio for passenger traffic (to Sardinia, 250,000 passengers per year). Cargo traffic with Marseilles was suppressed in the 1970s.

The flag of the port of Bonifacio (photo, July 2007) is a triangular pennant vertically divided blue-white-red. The blue stripe is charged with the citadel, as represented on the municipal arms, but or instead of argent. The white stripe is charged with a Moor's head, the traditional emblem of Corsica.

Olivier Touzeau & Ivan Sache, 1 April 2016