A depiction of King Federico I in the 1770s, wearing a Prussian-inspired military coat in the black and red colors of the Corsican Noble Guard.
It is almost impossible to find an analysis of King Federico I
of Corsica which does not place the king’s Prussian upbringing at the very foundation of his personality and approach to governance. The Neuhoffs had been subjects of the Electors of Brandenburg since the annexation of the County Mark in 1666, but Federico had more exposure to the administrative and military apparatus of the Prussian state as a young man than most Neuhoff barons. His father had been a Prussian government councillor with considerable public authority in the County Mark, and Federico himself - before going off to foreign lands to become a prince - had been a junior officer in the army of Friedrich the Bold.
Notwithstanding the electorate’s defeat in 1760, King Federico saw Brandenburg-Prussia as a model to be emulated. Certainly the Prussian army had achieved remarkable feats, but Berlin’s power had not arisen from martial prowess alone. The efficiency of the Hohenzollern administration was equally remarkable: The Austrians had been so impressed by the revenue which Friedrich extracted from conquered Silesia that, upon retaking the province, they tried to keep the Prussian system intact rather than restoring their old system of administration. Recognizing Prussia’s accomplishments, however, was much easier than emulating them. Prussian kameralismus
relied upon an educated and disciplined civil service, as well as the resources to directly expand the economy through infrastructure, invest in new industries, and promote internal colonization.
Federico’s grand ambitions immediately stumbled upon financial reality, as Theodore had not kept his fiscal house in order. The royal lands had been mismanaged, particularly in the last half of the 1760s after Queen Eleanora’s death, and the king refused to raise taxes so as not to endanger his popularity. As a consequence, the state’s expenses ballooned far beyond its revenue. Federico estimated that the government’s revenue in 1769 was less than two million lire
, or just over 400 thousand livres. Maintaining the kingdom’s little army and navy alone cost nearly that much. Theodore had “balanced the books” by taking out loans and had concealed the extent of the debt from his own government.
The new king attempted to close the budgetary gap with new taxes and reforms to existing taxes. A new customs office, the scrittoio delle dogane
, was set up to collect import tariffs on “luxuries” like sugar and coffee as well as goods which competed with domestic imports like wine, furniture, and woolens. A Genoese-era gabelle on salt fish was put back into effect. Anchorage fees were raised and more vigorously enforced. The taglia
- the hearth tax - was modified such that instead of a flat one-lira
tax on all households, the amount varied from one to three lire
(the constitutional maximum) depending on the head-of-household’s profession.
One of the king’s key reform measures involved the sovvenzione
, the controversial agricultural tax originally introduced by the French. Widely disliked and often evaded, the sovvenzione
was a 5% tax on the gross product of land. In keeping with fashionable physiocratic ideas, the king proposed making it from a tax on net
rather than gross
production. By taxing only a farmer’s surplus, he reasoned, nobody would ever be taxed into going hungry, and a “fairer” tax might also help curb rampant evasion. Because a net tax would produce much less than a gross tax, however, Federico also proposed to raise the rate from 5% to 10%. This caused considerable controversy, partially because of common farmers who misunderstood the reform and thought the king was merely doubling the land tax.
The king’s ideas had some merit, but their implementation displayed his lack of political skill. Virtually no effort was made to drum up support from the notabili
or any other constituency, nor does Federico appear to have solicited much advice from local leaders, the dieta
, or even his own cabinet. As the state’s financial troubles under Theodore were not well known, many assumed that the new taxes and more stringent enforcement of domain rights were simply a sign that the new king was greedier than “u bonu Tiadoru
.” The fast pace of reforms and new taxes introduced within just a few years of his coronation ensured that almost everyone had something to be upset about, even if they benefited from a change to the tax laws in some other way.
Not surprisingly, it did not take long for the king to start running into serious resistance from Corsica’s democratic institutions. The dieta
accepted his initial proposals without much comment, and even swallowed the modified sovvenzione
despite news of sporadic unrest in the pievi
(mostly by farmers who did not understand it). In 1773, however, the king introduced the “contract gabelle” (gabella dei contratti
), a tax on the sale or lease of real property. This was not Federico's invention - other states, including Tuscany, had a very similar tax - but the king favored it as a means to raise revenue from the towns, which hardly contributed to land taxes but had plenty of taxable rents. It also applied to the sale of agricultural land, however, which upset just the sort of landowning notabili
who were over-represented on the dieta
When the dieta
rejected the new tax, Federico took a drastic step and threatened to defund the consulta generale
. Traditionally the procuratori
were fed, housed, and given a small stipend at the government’s expense for the duration of the three-day assembly. By withholding this money the king seems to have imagined that the people, seeing the practical effects of the state’s grave financial situation, would elect a new and more compliant dieta
. Instead it made the king look even more grasping and miserly. Although many procuratori
were nobles and other notabili
who did not need the money, there were also many farmers for whom serving as procuratori
was a hardship that the subsidy helped to mitigate. They were incensed that the king would raise their taxes and then take away their means to come to Corti and complain about those same taxes. When word reached the king that many of the pieve
elections had turned into impromptu rallies against the revocation of the subsidies, he quickly backtracked.
There was to be no grand showdown. Certainly it was a rebuke to the king; the newly elected dieta
was largely the same as before, and the king’s ministers had to endure some heckling at the consulta
. His defeat, however, has been greatly exaggerated. The actual legislation at issue, the gabella dei contratti
, was nevertheless approved later in 1773 (albeit at a reduced rate). Rather than picking any more fights with the dieta
, Federico turned his energies thereafter towards enforcing existing taxes and enhancing the profitability of the crown lands. These approaches, however, proved just as fraught with difficulty.
Federico had long been critical of Theodore’s system of luogotenenti
, the powerful appointed governors who administered the provinces. As a rule, Theodore had given these positions to the most powerful clan leaders among the naziunali
to both reward them and tie them to his rule. This made political sense at the time, but many of them used their office to enrich themselves and expand their networks of patronage in the provinces. They were also largely unaccountable, as their status meant that firing
them was politically dangerous; in theory they served at the king’s pleasure, but under Theodore the office of luogotenente
was effectively a life appointment.
Realizing that it was not tenable to simply abolish positions held by some of the grandest nobles in the realm, Federico sought instead to undermine them with newly formed camere provinciali
(“provincial chambers”). These were administrative committees staffed by commissari
appointed from among the local notables. Initially these were only proposed as “advisory” bodies to the luogotenenti
, but the royal lieutenants weren’t fooled; they correctly saw the camere
as threats to their independence and did everything they could to impede their operation. In some cases the king simply had to wait for luogotenenti
to exit the scene on their own, as was the case in Ajaccio province where the camera
did not assume any real power until the death of Marquis Luca d’Ornano
in 1776 at the age of 72.
Although often obscured by the other controversies that clouded Federico’s reign, the provincial chambers were a genuine improvement. They were more efficient and had less opportunity for corruption than the luogotenenti
, and the committee system prevented any single person or clan from monopolizing state power within the provinces. Perhaps even more importantly, the chamber system opened the business of administration to a wider group of notabili
- lesser nobles, proprietari
, and lawyers who sought a role in local government - rather than leaving it to a handful of marquesses and their clients.
The king’s handling of administration at the national level was less inspired. Federico came to power convinced that, unlike Theodore in his later years, he would be an active and engaged monarch who devoted himself to the business of state. His idea of activity, however, was to monopolize practically all decision-making in his own person. This too was reminiscent of Prussia, as Friedrich the Bold had been notorious for making his own desk the nerve center of the Prussian administration. Corsica, however, was not Prussia. The king was not dealing with humble and disciplined civil servants, but proud Corsican noblemen. They joined the government expecting to wield real influence and have their voices heard on matters of state, not to be the king’s glorified secretaries whose only purpose was to pass information up and hand the king’s orders down. The king was not impervious to good counsel, but he did not often solicit the advice of his ministers or defer to their consensus, and actual meetings of the cabinet were rare occurrences that served mainly for the king to explain decisions he had already made.
Nobody felt this disillusionment more keenly than the king’s notional first minister, Marquis Alerio Francesco Matra
. Don Alerio was the chief of the powerful Matra clan of Serra and had an admirable revolutionary record. Although too young to have participated in the early years of the revolt, the marquis had commanded a militia battalion at the Second Siege of Bastia, led the campaign that crushed the filogenovesi
in Fiumorbo, held the rank of lieutenant-general, and was one of the two primary negotiators of the Treaty of Monaco in 1749 - all before the age of thirty. Politically, he was a rather astute pick. Although he was a northerner, the southern sgio
could hardly grumble; Don Alerio was as grand a noble as they, and shared many views with the gigliati
(although not their Francophilia - a few months in the Chateau d’If during the Revolution had apparently cured him of that). He could also count on a strong base of support in the north, not only from his own clients and allies in Serra and the other eastern pievi
but from those of the great Marquis Gianpietro Gaffori
of Corti, Don Alerio’s brother-in-law and longtime political ally.
Coat of arms of the Matra family
The marquis was initially grateful for the appointment, but he was also a proud and ambitious man who had expected that being in Gaffori’s role
meant he would possess Gaffori’s power
. It soon became clear that Federico’s idea of a “prime minister” was really more Giafferi than Gaffori - a figurehead who existed primarily to lend the government his prestige. It had been enough for the venerable Luigi Giafferi, but it did not suffice for Alerio Matra. For the moment he simply grumbled, but this disaffection and embarrassment over the irrelevance of his title would eventually lead Don Alerio down an unlikely path from a conservative figurehead to a willing (if temperamental) ally of "liberal" and parliamentary reformers.
Federico’s autocratic disposition and his deficits as a politician soon dissolved the great hopes which had accompanied his ascent to the throne. The gigliati
who had been among his strongest supporters as prince were frustrated by his monopolization of power and his fight with the luogotenenti
, while the asfodelati
objected to his aristocratic and conservative cabinet, his disinterest in Theodore's free-trade economics, and his contempt for what they considered "constitutional governance." Disillusionment was not restricted to the politically active notabili
, either: Once a popular hero for his "resistance" to the French during the Barefoot Revolt, Federico would end up sparking an actual armed uprising in the highlands over his attempts to wring more revenue out of the domains, a course he deemed necessary after running into resistance to his tax policy in the dieta
. His talent for alienating his subjects was best expressed by a 19th century Corsican historian, who observed that “the king [Federico] was first a soldier, and so he fought - with the farmers, with the shepherds, with the nobles, with the consulta
, with the dieta
, with the luogotenenti
, with his ministers - and finally, with his own son.”