The Corsican littoral is constellated with these towers (Corsican: torra, plural torri), which are now one of the symbols of the island. Although not all of them have a Genoese origin — some are Florentine — they are generally called Genoese towers, without distinction. These vestiges are classified Monuments historiques (historic buildings).
The construction of these towers started in the 16th century, at the request of village communities to protect themselves against the pirates. In 1530, the Republic of Genoa sent two extraordinary representatives, Paolo Battista Calvo and Francesco Doria, to inspect the fortifications defending the island from the Barbary corsairs. In 1531, the construction of ninety towers on the Corsican littoral was decided, thirty-two of them in the Cap Corse.
The work began under the supervision of two new Genoese representatives, Sebastiano Doria and Pietro Filippo Grimaldi Podio. The objective was to extend to Corsica the system of vigilance already in force on the Mediterranean circumference. Placed on headlands, the watchtowers were intended to prevent and defend against attacks by Barbary pirates and of the dangers coming from the sea.
The towers caused multiple problems for the Genoese authorities; their isolated locations made them prime targets for pirates and constructional defects caused collapses. Several inventories of the towers were carried out but no precise number could be determined. The Republic of Genoa also had to deal with many financial conflicts, quarrels of communities, defection of guards, unpaid debts, and requests for supplies or weapons.
Consequently, from the end of the 17th century until 1768, the date of the conquest of the island by France, the number of maintained towers decreased considerably. When Pasquale Paoli was elected President of the new independent Corsican Republic in 1755, only 22 towers remained, some of which were occupied by the French troops. The continual guerrilla wars during the paolian period caused the destruction of several of these buildings, including the towers of Tizzano, Caldane, Solenzara. The battle for the landing of the British troops of the Anglo-Corsican Kingdom in 1794, ruined the Santa Maria Chjapella and the Mortella. By the end of the 18th century, few towers were still intact.
Today the Genoese towers represent a considerable heritage. Of the 85 towers existing at the beginning of the 18th century, 67 still stand today. Some are in ruins; others are in very good state. Most of them are classified Monuments historiques.
An important work of restoration, financed essentially by the local authorities although they are not owners, was produced to save some of them. Unfortunately, by lack of means and program of restoration, many of these symbols of the island worsen more and more.
The garrison of a tower consisted of between two and six men (Corsican: torregiani), recruited among the inhabitants and paid from the local taxes. These guards were to reside permanently in the tower. They could move away no more than two days, for the supply and the pay, and one by one. They ensured the lookout with regular fires and signals: every morning and evening they assembled on the platform, informed navigators, shepherds and ploughmen about safety, communicating by fires with the closest towers located in their sight, and supervised the arrival of possible pirates.
In the event of alarm, a signal was given on the terrace at the top of the tower, in the form of smoke, fire or the sound of culombu (a large conch), warning the surroundings of the approach of hostile ships. It was followed by the general withdrawal of the people and animals in the interior of the country. The two closest towers in sight were ignited and so on, which made it possible to put the entire island in alarm in a few hours.
Certain garrisons had to be defended against the invaders, and combatants’ remains were found at their bases. Thus, the famous Torra di l'Osse took its name from the bones buried along its walls.
The towers were always insufficiently armed. They were used mainly as customs stations and daymarks. The torregiani often neglected their military role, to concentrate on the control of the maritime trade and the perception of various taxes. They were also trading wood and cultivating in the surrounding lands.
Although unjustified absence of a guard was prohibited under penalty of galley as well as the replacement by a person other than the titular guards, as times went by, some towers were deserted. They deteriorated, fell in ruins, or were destroyed for lack of defence.
The Genoese towers are built of stone, 12 to 17 m high for 8 to 10 m of diameter. Most of them are circular, some have a square plan; they always have four floors:
- the reserves, in the basement of the tower; a niche was used to store food and ammunitions; water was kept there in a cistern, filled from the terrace by a direct duct;
- the living room, on the first floor; sometimes separated from the guardroom by a simple wooden floor and forming with it a single space of life;
- the guardroom, on the second floor; pierced with balistrarias to allow the torregiani to watch;
- the terrace, at the top of the tower, for the observation; bored with machicolation or murder-holes, was flanked by a bartizan.
To pass from one level to the other, trap doors and scales were used. The entry door was accessible by a long sliding scale, directly to the first floor. Alternately, the guards lived in a single room equipped with niches and a chimney, and located under the guardroom.
Notes and references
- Franch Ministry of Culture: Map of protected Genoese towers
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Genoese towers in Corsica.|
- Photo album from free.fr (French)