The Lily and the Asphodel
Emblem of the Constitutional Society. "Virtue Preserves Liberty."
The high visibility of the antics of the macchiari
, particularly in the foreign press, tends to obscure the fact that dissent against the French occupation was not universal. Certainly there was widespread dissatisfaction with the country’s management under French supervision, but plenty of Corsicans grumbled about taxes and impositions without resorting to terrorism. The devoti
were always a small clique of northeastern agitators who were not even representative of the local notabili
, let alone all Corsicans. Anglophile Corsicans ("filoinglesi
") attempted to portray Francophiles ("filofrancesi
") as former filogenovesi
,” and this may have been true of the Calvesi, who had never really been reconciled to the rule of the naziunali
and had welcomed the French with open arms. But the Calvesi did not speak for all Corsican filofrancesi
, and there were numerous prominent Corsicans with impeccable nationalist credentials who were suspicious of British intentions and desired reconciliation with France.
The most prominent filofrancesi
were found among the signori
, the aristocratic landlords of the south. As great families with large landholdings worked by sharecroppers and field hands, they considered themselves to be the local equivalent of the great French landowning aristocracy, and as they had largely fallen within the “Austrian occupation zone” during the Revolution they had never suffered at France’s hand. The sgio
were highly suspicious of urban-dwellers and their interests. French restrictions on the coral and shipping industries, which had incensed the Ajaccini to no end, made little difference to noble landlords. True, the great landowners not been entirely happy with the policy of the French under Bertin - particularly the imposition of the sovvenzione
- but this was easily dismissed as overreaching by a meddlesome bureaucrat.
The situation in the north was altogether different. Northern Francophilia was chiefly an urban
phenomenon, common among the residents of Calvi, Algajola, and Bastia (although Francophilia had ebbed in Bastia as a consequence of the recent French occupation). There was no landowning aristocratic class in the north equal to the sgio
. The population of the northern interior - where most Corsicans lived - consisted of smallholding farmers, pastoralists, and middling notabili
, whose image of France was still shaped by the Revolution. The generation which had fought and bled to defy the first French invasion yet lived, and a new generation of their children had been raised on stories of San Pellegrino and Ponte Novo.
Although southern aristocrats and northern urbanites did not make up a large proportion of the population, they possessed a potent weapon in religion. The English, after all, were notorious heretics; their very presence put Corsican souls in danger. Even among those who resented the French occupation, the actions of the macchiari
- who shot at Catholic soldiers and joined forces with invading “Lutherans” - were not entirely seemly at a time when the rest of the Catholic world seemed to be rallying together against Protestant powers. Time and again, the filofrancesi
appealed to Catholic solidarity and stoked fear of religious “pollution” to rally Corsicans to their side. Inevitably their invective came to include the Jews, who had eagerly welcomed the English into Ajaccio and posed the same threat to religious purity. Their religious emphasis may have inspired the popular nickname for the Francophile nobility - gigliati,
"lilied ones" - which was either a reference to their piety, as the lily had a long association with the Resurrection and the Virgin Mary, or a less complimentary reference to the fleur-de-lis
were a somewhat broader group of prominent northern naziunali
, urbanites and capocorsi
involved in maritime industries, and foreign-educated notabili
of an “enlightened” bent. Although these groups came to their pro-English position by different means, the popular appeal of the filoinglesi
was essentially nationalistic. While the filofrancesi
appealed to religious identity, the filoinglesi
spoke in the language of patriotism and national grievance, waving the bloody shirt of the Revolution and associating France with Genoese tyranny. The devoti
were fond of describing their uprising as “la grande vendetta,
” well-deserved vengeance for the Corsican blood shed by King Louis and his minions since the 1730s. Better to do business with heretics, they declared, than to be vittoli
- traitors to the nation.
It is possible to overestimate the importance of the English-French divide in Corsican politics. Anglophilia and Francophilia were frequently just proxies for other, more fundamental cleavages in Corsican society - landlords versus sharecroppers, Enlightenment reformists versus Catholic traditionalists, north versus south, urban versus rural, and so on. In a land with few roads and no means of mass communication, these cliques could not organize into popular movements or “political parties” as such. While some segment of “the people” might occasionally be mobilized for a certain purpose by appeals to religion or nation, the spat between filofrancesi
was mainly a quarrel between elites. Yet because these elites also constituted the ruling class of the kingdom, their divisions had consequences for the governance of the nation.
In the wake of the French occupation, the Corsican government was left with a dire financial crisis. French impositions and expropriations had left the government bankrupt, discredited, and largely nonfunctional. Many Corsicans had simply stopped paying taxes altogether, and most government ministries had effectively shuttered from a lack of funds. The royal household was solvent, but Queen Eleonora
refused to bail out the national government from her coffers. The British £10,000 annual “rent” for Ajaccio was like manna from heaven to Count Gianpietro Gaffori’s
destitute ministry, but it was only a temporary windfall and provoked the suspicion of filofrancesi
who feared that the island was in the process of being turned into an English colony.
Gaffori’s attempts to deal with this crisis were frustrated by the dieta
, which was substantially controlled by the sgio
and other prosperous notabili
who resisted any sort of progressive taxation. They suggested instead to raise the taglia
(capitation), which was constitutionally limited to three lire
but stood at only one lira
at present, or to establish tariffs which would naturally fall more heavily on the cities than the rural aristocracy. But Gaffori was loathe to do the former, fearing that raising the taglia
would provoke a revolt, and King Theodore
refused to allow the latter given his commitment to free ports and open trade.
Gaffori's solution was clever, but it further alienated him from landowning interests. To avoid a real fight with the dieta
, Gaffori sidestepped them by reviving the sovvenzione
, the 5% tax on the gross product of land introduced by the French administration. This tax had fallen into abeyance along with most of Bertin’s abandoned “enlightened” reforms, but because the dieta
had already approved it in 1753 Gaffori could argue that no further consent was necessary. This was an unpopular step which provoked opposition from both the sgio
and more modest proprietari
, and the implementation of the tax was dogged by the same problems that the French had encountered - the ambitious and expensive Catasto Reale
(the island-wide land survey) remained unfinished, the farmers had scarcely any hard cash to pay the tax, and enforcement was lacking. Gaffori attempted to address these deficiencies in various ways, from allowing payment in kind to hiring foreign surveyors, but revenues remained far below optimal.
Gaffori’s trouble with the dieta
stemmed in part from the peculiarities of Corsican “democracy.” Although in theory all property-owning households could vote, representation was not proportional, and thinly-populated rural pievi
had disproportionate influence relative to their population. Because the procuratori
were not elected by secret ballot, but in public assemblies, the process could easily be manipulated or controlled by powerful clans. Intimidation and bribery (often in the form of favors rather than hard cash) were serious problems, and violence was not unknown. Particularly in the south, where many farmers were dependent on sharecropping great estates, it was not feasible for ordinary people to oppose the local don
for political office. In some places pieve
offices had actually been hereditary before the revolution, and the effect of “Theodoran democracy” was merely to put an elective rubber stamp on what was still a de facto
hereditary succession. Far from being accidental, such loose oversight was a purposeful attempt to avoid angering local elites. In this way the gigliati
, despite being a small group of elite landowners, were able to throw considerable weight around in the consulta generale
Yet not all power flowed from the consulta
. The consulta generale
could not legislate on its own without a supermajority the gigliati
could never hope to achieve, and the dieta
was capable of restraining the king only on matters of war and the imposition of taxes. The entire apparatus of state - not only cabinet ministers but judges, secretaries, military officers, and provincial luogotenenti
- was appointed by royal prerogative, and the king increasingly favored the filoinglesi
for these positions. Theodore’s favoritism, however, had little to do with foreign policy or any specific cultural affinity for the English. Political Anglophilia tended to coincide with support for commerce and free trade, policies which the king had long advocated. But above all Theodore wished to protect freedom of conscience, which he had come to see not only as beneficial to Corsica, but as his lasting gift to humanity.
By the end of 1760, Theodore’s position - both in Corsica and in history - seemed secure. The Treaty of Paris had recognized the kingdom’s sovereignty and neutrality. Corsica was free of foreign occupiers and unburdened of the coercive “Monaco debt.” Theodore’s desire for fame and respectability which had motivated him all his life seemed fulfilled; the “Laurel King” who had risen from a debtor’s cell to a royal palace was known across the continent. Certainly his kingdom had many problems, and he was not blind to them. The king never lost interest in the affairs of the kingdom and was continually crafting legislation and proposing new plans for Corsican prosperity. The security of his position, however, also allowed him to think beyond mere practical politics for the first time in many years and consider what kind of legacy he would leave to Corsica and the world.
Despite his reputation in some quarters as a slippery trickster, Theodore was a man of strong moral conviction. His views on religious liberty and abolitionism were radical for the time. Such views were still controversial among the Corsican public, but they won Theodore praise from “enlightened” intellectuals and philosophes
who praised him as a visionary liberator. “Not content with merely lifting the fetters from [the Corsicans’] bodies,” wrote one admirer, “he has lifted the fetters from their minds.” Theodore, who was always a bit vulnerable to flattery, eagerly took up the proffered mantle of Europe’s foremost crusader for liberty. Prior to the Treaty of Paris, he asked the British to give him an island in the West Indies so that he might prove that a colony of “free negroes” would be even more productive than slaves. When the newly crowned Tsar Peter III
declared religious freedom in his domains, Theodore was certain that Peter was following his lead and wrote the Tsar a fulsome letter of praise and congratulations.
Peter III, Tsar of Russia
Yet Theodore could not be certain that his liberal vision would last beyond his death. The Corsicans remained a deeply conservative and religious people, and his heirs might not share the strength of his convictions. Fear of a conservative reaction against his reforms was responsible for finally convincing him to abandon any residual notion of leaving the succession to his nephew Charles Philippe, Comte du Trévou
, whose candidacy was floated by some of the gigliati
as a long-shot way of restoring French influence. The same fear motivated his attacks against the Church in the early 1760s, which would eventually lead to excommunication and the most serious political crisis of Theodore’s postwar reign. It also inspired him to cultivate native Corsican politicians who shared his views, in the hopes of creating a political class which would not merely accept
freedom of conscience in deference to the king, but would cherish and defend it of their own volition.
Theodore’s vehicle to accomplish this was the Constitutional Society (Società Costituzionale
), better known as the Society of the Asphodel (Società dell'Asfodelo
). Its origins are somewhat obscure. There is some evidence that its earliest members were associated with a briefly-existing Masonic lodge in Ajaccio set up by British officers during the 1758-60 occupation, but the Society denied any association with Freemasonry despite considerable similarities. Members of the society had to profess a faith in God, but the order was not explicitly Christian and admitted Jews from the start. The Society was indifferent to nobility, and members were supposed to treat one another with equal collegiality - at least within the context of the society’s meetings. The notional head of the Society was Theodore himself as Grand Patron (gran patrono
), but actual governance was provided by a commendatore
(a title evocative of the knightly orders) who was elected by the members.
The Constitutional Society was ostensibly dedicated to preserving Corsican independence and the 1736 royal constitution, as well as promoting “classical virtue” and “true piety.” In practice, it was a social club for liberal nationalists. The society also served as a venue for the circulation and discussion of texts from modern Enlightenment thinkers, which were not always easily procured in Corsica. The society was not formally Anglophile, and indeed conducted most of its business in French, the language of the philosophes
. Nevertheless, the Society’s support for freedom of conscience, its acceptance of non-Catholics, and its vaguely Masonic trappings tended to attract more filoinglesi
The Constitutional Society’s better-known name - the Society of the Asphodel - supposedly originated from a comment by Giuseppe Maria Masseria
, an Ajaccian lawyer and member of the Society, who exclaimed “let [the gigliati
] have the lily; I find there is no flower more beautiful than our asphodel.” For the Corsicans, this flower was laden with symbolism. A humble and hardy plant, the asphodel - known locally as the taravellu
- grew abundantly in mountain meadows and upon rocky outcrops. Its bulbs were ground up and eaten by the poor in times of famine, and it had come to be identified during the Revolution with naziunale
rebel bands in the mountains who subsisted on chestnuts and asphodel bulbs. Powerful curative properties were also ascribed to the plant in Corsican folk medicine. So closely identified was the flower with the island that it was commonly said that a Corsican who had gone abroad and forsaken his homeland had “forgotten the asphodel.” In the mid-1760s, as Theodore’s battle with the Church escalated, members of the Society started wearing asphodels in their hats or lapels to show that their allegiance to Corsica (and Theodore) came before their allegiance to foreign powers - including Rome.
A field of asphodels in Corsica
“Hidden” meanings of the asphodel provided - and still provide - fodder for conjecture and conspiracy theories. Not merely a national symbol, the asphodel also had a certain mystic reputation on the island. Corsican mazzeri
, “dream hunters” with quasi-shamanic powers who were said to foretell deaths, carried asphodel stalks as their weapons when they “fought” the mazzeri
of other villages in dream-battles.[A]
The flower was also known in some parts of Corsica as the fiori di morti
(“flower of the dead”), possibly an echo of its role in ancient Greece, where the asphodel was associated with the land of the dead and was often placed upon graves. In the Odyssey
, Homer describes the afterlife as a “meadow of asphodel,” and in some depictions Hades is shown with a spring of asphodel in his hand, and his bride Persephone wearing a garland of asphodel flowers. The Constitutional Society was hardly a cabal of mystics, but it is the nature of any “secret society” to generate rumors. Its superficial resemblance to a Masonic lodge and its associations with Theodore - who really was a “mystic,” as well as a Rosicrucian, alchemist, and probable Freemason - gave such rumors plenty of fuel. Some have gone so far as to suggest that Theodore himself suggested the symbol of the asphodel, not Masseria, as some sort of coded reference to his own esoteric interests.
Theodore’s personal connection to the society was rather vague. In the official version of events, he was merely “offered” the honorary position of Grand Patron by the already-existing Society, and despite being the nominal head he never attended its meetings. The purpose and interests of the Society, however, were so complementary to his own that it is difficult to believe he was not involved somehow in its formation. Minimizing his own involvement may have been a political necessity, and the royal presence was probably not conducive to lively philosophical discussions. Yet despite maintaining a certain distance from the Society itself, Theodore showed great favor to its members and often tapped Asphodelians for government positions. “Wearing the asphodel” was certainly never required
for high office, but in the last years of Theodore’s reign it became increasingly helpful - a trend that was deeply resented by the gigliati
, who perceived themselves as Corsica’s natural leaders and defenders of its Catholic faith.
 Theodore also proposed in this letter to serve as a mediator between Russia and Denmark in their incipient dispute over Schleswig. Peter did not take him up on this offer, but the two rulers did strike up a regular correspondence which would eventually result in a Russo-Corsican treaty of trade and friendship.
[A] For more on the unusual Corsican mazzeri
and their dream battles, I recommend Dorothy Carrington's The Dream-Hunters of Corsica
. Carrington theorized that the tradition of the mazzeri
was a remnant of ancient religious practice which survived the introduction of Christianity.