The Corsican Nobility
Sampiero Corso with the arms of d'Ornano above him
Corsica had once possessed a feudal nobility with deep roots, originating with the Lombard and Frankish lords who had migrated to the isle in the Carolingian period and defended it against Saracen piracy. A few powerful families came to dominate the island, including the counts of Ornano, Istria, Bozzi, Rocca, and especially the Counts of Cinarca - the Cinarchesi
- who frequently bore the title of “Count of Corsica.” Yet despite allying with the Kings of Aragon, who claimed the title of King of Corsica, the nobility proved unable to contend with the growth of Genoese influence and from the late Middle Ages they steadily lost their power and independence. Beginning in 1485 the Cinarchese lord Giovan Paolo di Leca launched a series of armed uprisings against Genoese rule, but was finally defeated in 1501, while his fellow nobleman and ally Rinuccio della Rocca was assassinated on the orders of Admiral Andrea Doria in 1511. The castle of the Cinarchesi was razed and di Leca, the last Count of Corsica, died in exile.
Later in the 16th century the celebrated condottiere
Sampiero Corso, who married into the clan of Ornano, attempted to drive out the Genoese with the aid of his French masters. Yet Sampiero was not any more successful in prying the island loose from the Republic’s grasp than his predecessors, in part because of the support of many Corsicans who preferred Genoese rule to that of their own feudal aristocracy. After Sampiero’s assassination, the Genoese cracked down hard on the old noble families and Corsica’s feudal era was ended for good. The Republic’s aim thereafter was to reduce what remained of the nobility to a state of powerlessness and irrelevance to avert any future challenge to Genoese rule. In this task, it succeeded admirably.
Although some descendants of the old noble families still existed in the 18th century and treasured their pedigrees - real or invented - they no longer made up a distinct class of Corsican society. The native elites which the Corsicans of Theodore’s day called notabili
(“notables”) were a diverse and somewhat vague group who were defined as much by social and economic status as genealogy. Many claimed noble blood of one sort or another (mostly from continental Italian families rather than the old Corsican feudal houses), but the notabili
included lawyers, magistrates, physicians, and other professionals (usually educated abroad) who were recognized as preeminent members of society. An educated professional or wealthy proprietario
who held influence in his community was considered a notabile
regardless of who his distant ancestors were. The Corsican honorific sgiò
(from the Italian signore
) was used for addressing this elite, alongside the Spanish-influenced don
, which had a more aristocratic connotation.
Foreign visitors to Corsica in the 18th century often remarked upon the equality of the people, which although typically exaggerated did have some basis in fact. In part this was because of the levelling effects of poverty. The absolute material divide between rich and poor was simply not very great, a consequence of the ruthless suppression of the native elites and Genoa’s tendency to concentrate land and wealth in the hands of its own citizens. Moreover, because the common Genoese farmer was a property owner, there was no obvious lord-serf dichotomy among the Corsicans. Free lavatori
observed a level of casual familiarity with “nobles” which was not common elsewhere; there are frequent reports, even post-independence, of the children of nobles and commoners playing together and proprietari
sharing a table with their tenants. A nobleman might be entitled to an honorific - indeed, he was likely to insist upon it - but no Corsican would bow and scrape before him.
Yet outside observers often missed the extent to which Corsican inequality was social rather than economic. In Corsica, where no family had immense wealth and feuds were common, kinsmen tended to matter more than coins and the notabile
families which thrived were those which forged alliances, established client relationships, and accumulated political power in their village and pieve
, activities which in Corsica neither required nor generated a large amount of material wealth. A certain notabile
might have only a private chapel and a fresh coat of paint on his house to denote his superiority over his neighbors, appearing very “equal” indeed to outsiders, but such humble appearances obscured the fact that his family had dominated the village and every aspect of its communal life for generations, often holding hereditary (or effectively hereditary) offices like that of caporale
The Corsican notabili
, even those with undisputed noble blood, were never integrated into the Genoese aristocracy. The Genoese ruling class was a small circle of elite families who rarely opened their ranks even to their own countrymen, and they emphatically rejected the appeals of the supposed Corsican nobles to be recognized as their peers. Over centuries of Genoese rule only a small handful of Corsicans were ever admitted into the Genoese Liber Nobilitatis
(also known as the “Golden Book”). The Genoese established a representative council, the dodici
, to placate the native elite, but the dodici
was a mere advisory body with no real influence in Genoese policy.
This neglect was to prove fatal, for although the Corsican Revolution did not begin with the notabili
the failure of the Republic to adopt them into the elite and give them a real stake in the survival of the state resulted in most of them eventually turning to the party of the naziunali
. Many had remained aloof from the rebellion initially, which had begun as a lower-class tax revolt, but they resented their exclusion from any sort of position of power and the utter disrespect shown to them by the Genoese. It was no wonder that when Theodore arrived, immediately established a Corsican aristocracy, freely dispensed noble titles to regional elites craving honors and recognition, and invited them to take positions of power in his cabinet and his royal Diet, many of the notabili
flocked to his cause. For them, the Revolution was a means to realize their ambition for social position, respectability, and political power which the Genoese had constantly frustrated.
Illustration of a young Corsican nobleman, early 19th century
The Corsican monarchy recognized only three grades of nobility, as established by Theodore - in ascending order of status, these were cavaliere
was not a title of nobility, but rather a title of royalty
reserved for members of the extended House of Neuhoff.) The Corsican system of nobility was further distinguished by two unusual features. Firstly, Corsican noble titles were not feudal
titles, even nominally; in other words, a Corsican marquis was not marquis of
Secondly, the heritability of titles was not defined by primogeniture, but modeled after the German practice of equal inheritance by all male-line descendants, which was consistent with Corsica’s own tradition of partible inheritance. In other words, every son of a marchese
would become a marchese
. Prior to their inheritance, the children of nobles did not bear a title but were nevertheless considered nobles entitled to the honorific sgiò
Unlike the German nobility - and for that matter, the Genoese nobility - the Corsican nobility was not a hermetically sealed oligarchy. Because the pre-Theodoran concept of “nobility” on Corsica was rather vague and the class of notabili
was not exclusively “noble,” elite marriages tended to be based more on power, resources, and shared interests than pedigree. As such, Corsican law recognized no such thing as a “morganatic marriage;” the legitimate sons of a nobleman and his common wife were fully noble and would inherit their father’s title upon his death. It may be that this system also suited the sensibilities of Theodore, who had after all been disinherited as a child because of the imperfect pedigree of his mother.
The perks enjoyed by the Corsican nobility were mainly of the social and honorary variety. They occupied a privileged place in grand ceremonies and theoretically enjoyed greater access to the king, as their rank allowed them to enter the royal antechamber. The only real difference between the three grades of nobility was their ceremonial order of precedence. Aside from the more colloquial sgiò
, Corsican nobility were entitled to the formal honorific illustrissimo
(“most illustrious”), while sua eccellenza
(“his excellency”) was reserved for princes and relations of the royal house. In casual usage - that is, everywhere outside the royal court and formal ceremonies - the honorific of don
was ubiquitous at all levels below the king, although generally only for titled nobility.
As an aside, Theodore initially used sua eccellenza
for himself - a very modest title for a monarch - but over the course of the 1750s a much grander title, sua maestà serenissima
(“His Most Serene Majesty”), became standard. This title appears to have originated purely out of spite. As the story goes, when signing the Treaty of Monaco in the name of his sovereign Don Alerio Francesco Matra could not stand the idea of his king having a lesser style than that of “His Most Serene Highness” the Doge of Genoa on such a historic document, and thus wrote out “His Most Serene Majesty
” as an act of petty one-upmanship. As the Treaty of Monaco was widely circulated in both in the continental popular press and among royal chanceries, “His [Most] Serene Majesty” was taken to be the proper title of the King of Corsica, and Theodore’s chancery eventually began using it under pressure from the nobility who felt that a “modest” title would lower the respect given to their country abroad.
There were, however, a few perks of nobility that were not purely honorary. The nobility always had the right to appeal a judicial sentence against them to the king, and their homes could not be trespassed by officers of the law without a royal writ. This protected them from the summary judgement of the Marcia
, which otherwise allowed no appeal to the crown unless it was requested by the padri del commune
. As their sole sartorial privilege, noblemen were permitted to wear a sword with their civilian dress in public, but this was not a privilege much envied by the Corsican people who were not in the practice of wearing swords anyway.
Unlike in France, where the nobility enjoyed broad fiscal privileges, the Corsican nobility had no special exemption from taxation. There was, however, a small and curious exception for those houses which could trace their lineage back to the original medieval aristocracy of Corsica. The original raison d’être
of the first Corsican nobility had been to defend the island against Saracen corsairs. As “crusaders” defending the frontiers of Christendom they were excused from paying the tithe, for their support for the Church was already provided through military service. Obviously by the 18th century the nobility no longer provided this service, but those families which plausibly traced their lineage back to the Middle Ages jealously guarded their exemption and had managed to defend it even under Genoese rule. Theodore did not overturn this custom, and thus a further distinction existed between the nuova nobiltà
(“new nobility”) who paid the tithe and the antica nobiltà
("old nobility") who did not. In all other respects, however, there was no difference between the “new” and “old” noble families.
Although an autocrat by nature, Theodore was a great believer in meritocracy and did not consider a lack of nobility to be a disqualification for either military or government service. While nobles tended to dominate high military ranks and state offices, they held no exclusive rights to them. Only a select few honors were reserved for noblemen. Certain seats in the Consulta Generale
were allotted to the nobility, as we shall see, and the Guardia Nobile del Corpo
- a small ceremonial guard unit which would arise later in Theodore’s reign - explicitly admitted only the sons of the nobility. The Ordine Militare della Redenzione
, Theodore’s order of chivalry, was also restricted to those who could prove noble descent.
Badge of the Ordine Militare della Redenzione. The exact symbolism of the badge, created by Theodore himself, remains unclear, although many have presumed the triangle inscribed with Theodore's initial to be a Masonic reference. Originally the knights were supposed to wear a sky-blue mantle, but this was later changed to green, which had been established as the "royal color" during the Revolution and matched the green ribbon (not shown) of the badge.
The Military Order of Redemption occupied a special place in the hierarchy. Theodore had originally declared that membership in the ordine
made one a “noble of the highest degree,” which overrode normal precedence; a hereditary cavaliere
awarded with the order preceded even a marchese
, although not a principe
(who was royal rather than noble). Its lofty status was somewhat compromised, however, by the fact that Theodore had used it rather liberally as a fundraiser, not only selling it to Corsican notables but to dozens of foreigners who had purchased it as a novelty. This was addressed by a royal declaration which retroactively separated the order into two grades, proper knights and cavalieri stranieri
(“stranger/foreign knights”), the latter being an “honorary” variety of the order which was less privileged.
The order as originally created exempted a knight from “all taxes and contributions” except an up-front contribution (originally set at around £250 sterling, but prorated based on the wealth of the knight). This had made a great deal of sense during the Revolution, when taxation was ineffective and Theodore needed to come up with cash wherever he could. With independence and the establishment of a real fiscal structure, however, this blanket exemption was a clear liability. Fortunately, since the order was not hereditary it could not create any permanent untaxed class, but nevertheless Theodore endeavored to weasel out of the obligation. In 1753 he declared that the exemption covered only those taxes which had existed when the knighthood was awarded
- which, for most knights who had been elevated during the Revolution, meant only the taglia
(hearth tax) and the tithe. The wording was then changed for any future
members of the order such that the exemption explicitly covered only those two taxes.
 On the continent one might use the formula of “Name, Count of Place,” but this did not work for the Corsican nobility. “Luigi, Marchese di Giafferi
” is incorrect as “Giafferi” is a family name, not a title or place; there is no “Marquisate of Giafferi.” Only princes, who had nominally territorial titles, used the continental formulation, e.g. “[Don] Federico, Principe di Capraia.”
Instead, Corsican noble titles were used as honorifics, i.e. Marchese Luigi Giafferi
(or more fully, il signore illustrissimo marchese Luigi Giafferi
). But such a formulation was used only when the height of formality was called for; in ordinary usage Don Luigi
would suffice, or Don Luigi Giafferi
to be more formal and/or specific. Marchese Giafferi
was acceptable, but uncommon, in part because the Germanic style of multiple inheritance meant that “Marchese Giafferi” could refer to several different men from the Giafferi family. Don Giafferi
is incorrect; the honorific of don
can only ever precede a first name. These distinctions were not always picked up on by foreigners, and Corsican lords with possessive family names were a source of particular confusion. Marquis Luca d’Ornano is often (incorrectly) referred to in English sources as “the Marquis of Ornano” as if he held a feudal title to Ornano, which he did not (although his ancestors were indeed Counts
of Ornano, one of the houses of the antica nobiltà