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The Corsican Guard (Italian and Corsican: Guardia Corsa) was a military unit of the Papal States composed exclusively of Corsican mercenaries on duty in Rome, having the functions of an urban militia and guard for the Pope. Preceded by several militias composed of Corsicans since the fifteenth century, the Corsican Guard was formally founded in 1603 under Pope Clement VIII. The unit was disbanded in 1662 upon request of the French king Louis XIV, following an incident between Corsican soldiers and Frenchmen near the French Embassy in Rome at Palazzo Farnese.
Origin and formation of the Corsican Guard
The presence of Corsican expatriates in the vicinity of Rome is attested at least since the 9th century, when a small Corsican colony existed in Porto near Fiumicino during the pontificate of Pope Leo IV (r. 847–55): at the same time, we know about the existence of a Corsican nunnery along the Appian Way. In more recent times, Corsican emigration to Rome began slowly during the 15th century, after the end of the Avignon papacy, when the city offered again job opportunities to immigrants. Previously, the traditional emigration areas of the Corsicans, pushed to leave their country by the poverty and the anarchy reigning in Corsica during the Middle Ages, had been Liguria and Pisa, but during the 1400s Corsicans began to settle in Senese and Latial Maremma, and from there in Rome. Initially they were living scattered in the city's rioni but, at the onset of 16th century, they concentrated on Tiber Island and in the part of Trastevere lying between the harbour of Ripa Grande and the church of San Crisogono, having the center of their community in the now disappeared Piazza dell'Olmo ("Elm square"). San Crisogono became the national church and cemetery basilica of the Corsican nation in Rome, and over the centuries was used as burial place of several Corsican military officers. Originally the Corsicans could find in the city and its surroundings only humble jobs, above all in the field of sheep breeding and wine trade (the island's wines were very sought after in that period), the only exceptions being a career in the church, as a servant in the Vatican palaces or as soldier of the Pope or some of the Roman baroni; consequently, they did not become well integrated in Roman society. This situation, together with their fierce character, pushed many Corsican immigrants toward crime; many Corsicans were active as thieves and robbers, both in the city and in the Roman Campagna. Although the Corsicans were certainly not the most turbulent group of immigrants in the city, the reputation gained in this way was so bad that the popes issued many laws against them: among them, the decree issued in 1475 by Pope Sixtus IV (r. 1471–84) that forbade Corsicans from settling in the city unless they were able to pay a caution of two hundred ducati each and explicitly promised in advance not to bear weapons, or that issued in 1500 under Pope Alexander VI (r. 1493–1503), which ordered the expulsion of all the Corsicans from Rome and the Papal States.
In practice, nevertheless, all these decrees remained a dead letter, and their only effect was to raise the group cohesion of the Corsicans in Rome, which began a successful course of integration of their community into 16th-century Roman society. In Renaissance Italy, Corsicans had the reputation of being courageous men: in the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican, painted between 1580 and 1583, Italian cartographer Ignazio Danti wrote in the cartouche above the map of the island: "Corsica has received four major gifts from Nature: its horses, its dogs, its proud and courageous men and its wines, most generous, that princes hold in the highest esteem!". Consequently, it was not difficult for Corsicans to find employ as soldiers in the service of the popes, often reaching in that way officer rank and a high social status. These mercenaries formed the nucleus of a Corsican militia, which therefore preceded the establishment in 1506 of the better known and still existing Swiss Guard. Between 1468 and 1471, four companies of heavy cavalry composed of Corsican knights were enrolled by the Pope. During the reigns of Popes Alexander VI and Julius II (r. 1503–13) these companies were reinforced. In 1528, after the rout of Marshal Lautrec in Naples, the remains of the French army moved north through the Papal States. Among them were Corsicans bands in the service of France, amounting to 3,000 men. Six hundred of them stopped in Rome, and there they took service under Clement VII (r. 1523–34). Among these troops, were the compagnie di ventura (mercenary bands) of Condottieri Sampiero Corso and Raffaello Corso. In 1543, the members of the Corsican militia living in Trastevere asked the Pope the permission to establish the Arciconfraternita della Madonna del Carmine, with its seat in San Crisogono. This confraternity became with time one of the most important in Rome; still existing to this day, it is responsible for one of the most traditional Roman feasts, the Festa della Madonna de noantri ("Feast of our Virgin Mary" in Romanesco), which takes places each year in July in Trastevere.
In 1603 Pope Clement VIII (r. 1592–1605) recruited in Corsica six hundred infantrymen. This act marks the official beginning of the Corsican Guard. The soldiers were quartered in the rione Regola, between the church of the Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini and that of San Paolino, not far from Ponte Sisto, and in rione Ponte, at Vicolo dei Soldati ("Soldiers' Lane"), which got its name from another barrack occupied by Corsican soldiers. Another place attended by the soldiers was Vicolo dell'Armata ("Army Lane"), also in Regola, a short side lane connecting Via Giulia with the shore of the Tiber, where existed an inn, the Osteria dell'Armata ("Army Inn"), so called because it was attended by Corsican soldiers belonging to the Pope's guard.
According to contemporary diplomat Fulvio Testi, the Corsican Guard was reinforced in 1637 when, because of an increase of criminality in the city, pope Urban VIII (r. 1623–44) recruited four hundred Corsican soldiers. However, according to Testi their arrival did not make the situation better.
Corsicans were notorious in Rome for their tendency to engage in fights and brawls, and the soldiers of the guard were no exception. Under the reign of Urban VIII, on 21 April 1642, Easter Monday, a fight broke out among Corsican soldiers and the Corazze ("cuirasses"), another Papal corps composed almost exclusively by men from Bologna, who were quartered at the slope of S. Onofrio on the Gianicolo hill. Two Corsicans died, and only the intervention of Cardinal-Nephew Francesco Barberini, who approached from nearby St. Peter's Basilica, put an end to the fight. The Corsicans did not give up, and during the following days fights broke up at Via della Lungara, Tor di Nona and Castel Sant'Angelo. Merchants and shopkeepers in Via dei Coronari and the surrounding lanes of rione Ponte were forced to barricade themselves, fearing the sacking of their homes and shops. At the end, only another intervention of Cardinal Barberini with many soldiers on the 2nd of May ended the fights. On the following day, gallows were set up near the hospital of Santo Spirito, in Borgo, and seven Corsican soldiers were hanged. Another one, who had killed a wounded corazza while a friar of Sant'Agostino was confessing him, was executed by hitting his head with a mallet.
End of the Corsican Guard
The end of the Corsican Guard, triggered by an incident occurred in Rome on 20 August 1662, gives an insight on the evolution of the geopolitical situation in Europe and on the growing French influence in Italy. Towards the middle of the seventeenth century, the presence in Rome of numerous diplomatic missions of the European states had ended up creating a paradoxical situation, because the major powers—through over-extension of the concept of extraterritoriality, the so-called "liberty of quarters",-had in some cases provided their embassies with real military garrisons (which were free to bear weapons throughout the city) and led to the transformation of entire areas of the city center into free zones, where criminals and killers could find refuge, untouchable from the law.
Pope Alexander VII Chigi (r. 1655–67) tried to limit these excesses and was soon satisfied both from Spain as well as from the Holy Roman Empire. In contrast, Louis XIV of France (r. 1643–1715), who was hostile to the Pope, sent to Rome his cousin Charles III, Duke of Créqui, as Extraordinary Ambassador together with a reinforced military escort, in order to anger the Roman court and the Pope's family. The ambassador's task was apparently to sabotage the pope's effort to create an anti-ottoman alliance. Regarding the liberty of quarters issue, Créqui rudely asked the pope to extend it well behind the limit of Palazzo Farnese, including via Giulia, which was part of the way that the Corsican soldiers had to walk along each day in order to reach the Carceri Nuove (the state prison) from their barracks at the Trinità dei Pellegrini. The commander of the Guard, Don Mario Chigi, reacted to that by ordering 150 soldiers to patrol the streets of Rome. On 20 August 1662, a serious brawl at the Ponte Sisto erupted between some Corsican soldiers controlling the bridge and Frenchmen belonging to the retinue of the French ambassador. The affront must have been particularly serious (many more such incidents are reported since 1661, but without serious consequences), because even the soldiers at rest in the barracks of the Guard at the Trinità dei Pellegrini near Palazzo Spada came to besiege the nearby Palazzo Farnese, residence of the French ambassador, demanding the delivery of the Frenchmen responsible for the clash. A shootout followed, triggered by the casual return to Palazzo Farnese, under heavy French military escort, of the wife of the ambassador. A page of lady Créqui was mortally wounded and Louis XIV took the happening as a plea to escalate the confrontation with the Holy See, already started under the government of Cardinal Mazarin.
The Pope and the Governor of Rome, Cardinal Lorenzo Imperiali, acknowledged the gravity of the incident at once, and dismissed the Corsicans immediately, nominating a commission to decide the amount of the indemnity to France. However, the Duke refused any accommodation and on 1 September left Rome for Tuscany, accompanied by the Cardinals of the French faction.
The reaction and the claims of the King of France against the Pope give the measure of the power, but also of the personality and of the methods adopted by Louis, who after the withdrawal of his ambassador from Rome, expelled the papal nuncio in France, proceeded to the annexation of the French papal territories of Avignon with the Comtat Venaissin, and seriously threatened to invade Rome, if Alexander VII failed to apologize and bow to his wishes.
These included the immediate dissolution of the Corsican Guard, the issuing of an anathema against Corsica, the hanging in retaliation of a number of soldiers and condemnation to service in galleys as rowers for many others, the removal of Cardinal Imperiali from his office of Governor of Rome, the banishment of the commander of the Guardia Corsa, Mario Chigi, brother of the Pope, and the erection near the barracks of the Guard by the Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini of a "pyramid of infamy" which would curse forever the Corsicans who had dared to challenge French authority.
The Pope at first opposed the terms and tried to prevaricate, but the threat of a descent of the French army onto Rome gradually bent him to the king's will. With the humiliating Treaty of Pisa signed on 12 February 1664 the Corsican Guard was disbanded forever and some soldiers hanged, the pyramid of infamy was erected, and Mario Chigi was exiled from Rome. In exchange, the seized papal territories were returned, but in July, in Fontainebleau, the Cardinal-nephew and son of Mario, Flavio Chigi, was forced to humiliate himself and present the apologies of Rome to the King of France, who four years later gave permission to demolish the monument of infamy.
During the negotiations Louis XIV had taken the opportunity to expand its influence in Italy showing off as the protector of the Italian principles. Because of that, he forced the Pope, always in the context of repairs for the Corsican Guard affair, to return Castro and Ronciglione to the Duke of Parma and to compensate Francesco II d'Este, Duke of Modena, for his rights over Comacchio.
- Esposito (1986), p. 608 Cite error: Invalid
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- Associu di a guardia papale, a Corsican association devoted to the history of the Guardia Corsa (in French and Corsican)
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