28 Mar 2017

American Palazzo: Ornate Fragments of Faded Corsica

In the Cape area of Corsica where I reside are little architectural gems that stand tall and proud: Maisons d'Américains, plantation-style American palazzi built during the second half of the 19th century by Corsican Cape landowners who had emigrated to the Americas (specifically to Alabama, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Venezuela). Under the Real Cédula de Gracias, an immigration-based settlement Decree promulgated in 1815 by the Spanish Crown and aimed at keeping its New World territories pacified, trade incentives were offered alongside free land and fast-track settlement and naturalization process to eligible applicants. Corsican landowners like my ancestors took advantage of the Royal Decree of Graces to emigrate to the New World. Colonists set up sugar cane and coffee plantations, but some ventured into the lucrative gold mining industry. Dedication and hard graft rewarded them in the short space of one generation (25 years) with the proverbial fortune, the American Dream come true!

This maison d'Américains is our case-study house!

The Americans (as they would be referred to) returned to Corsica to flaunt their newly-acquired wealth and elevated status in society. They had opulent and prominent - slightly ostentatious - stone houses erected, in that nouveau riche style which redefined modern living expectations for the rest of the populace. Comfort by way of spacious room lay-out with tall ornate ceilings, long and wide corridors, sweeping stone staircases that resembled a sweep train dress, large windows flanked by wooden persiennes (louvred shutters) to filter in light and keep away the sun, and above all a refined, uncompromising neo-classical architecture with Toscan and Caribbean influences, that set new standards of living. It incorporated marble cladding, wall panelling, colonnades, rosaces, cornices, rotundas, porches, loggias and imposing balconies over 360° vistas. Not to mention the luxury of modern convenience: running water, cast-iron stoves, bathrooms, and a marked desire for further domestic innovations (electricity and telephone). As surprising as it may seem, there are approximately 140 maisons d'Américains in northern Corsica.

The villa palazzo in Erbalunga embodies the archetypal seaside colonial retreat. (pict source)

The landscaped grounds of such properties featured belvederes, outbuildings (stables), dovecotes, gazebos, fountains, basins, panoramic terraces, urn planters, ornamental trees and shrubbery with a lush exotic inclination. In any way, the ornamental garden was a marked move away from the traditional Corsican working garden organised around efficiency (fruit and vegetables).

Palazzo Altieri a.k.a. Villa Henri, Bastia

Those fairytale manor houses were meant to recreate an enchanted colonial lifestyle. Yet the way these properties met their fate was a mixed bag after WWII, in disenchanted ways mostly, bar for the odd estate that had remained unspoilt by the vagaries of fashion fads, progress and changing fortunes, still bringing to this day delight to those fortunate enough to tread its threshold.

Château Stopielle, a bijou of a place, protected by two (Napoleonic?) eagles.

Yet the majority of maisons d'Américains have had the misfortune to be reinvented distastefully, by impoverished owners, whimsical idealists with more money than sense, unscrupulous property developers chasing the quick buck, neophyte interior designers who got their styles and budgets mixed up, self-appointed architects who bit more than they could chew, and the despicable curse of the cowboy builder who looted the riches and wrecked the dream, with the catastrophic consequences that such a potent combination of flawed talent entails: botched cosmetic surgery at 'best', deadly open-heart surgery at worst!

Some American properties like our case-study house (cf. top picture) have met an unfortunate and deadly demise called indivision, which plagues many a property, big or small in Corsica. A number of disagreeing/ divided heirs scattered around Corsica, France or the wider world fail to reach an agreement over the fate of a property which they each inherit in part. More often than not, such a property with multiple owners ends up in limbo, falling into disarray, i.e. decay. Let's not blame decay on the ravages of time for looters, professional or otherwise, are the main culprits. This is exactly what happened here. The mansion was eventually boarded up, albeit too late: more than 30 years after being abandonned. Plenty of time for looters (namely builders, architectural salvage dealers, antiques dealers, and private individuals) to mercilessly dismantle it down to the husk of its bare walls. The walls may be bare and the rooms empty but from the outside, you can make out that the ceilings are everything but bare, tantalising us with what once was. This revelation is a delightful and bittersweet insight.

The big reveal, observable with the naked eye from outside!
The ceiling through one of the south-facing windows on the first floor is shrouded in guipure.

And how exquisitely ornate the ceilings are! A welcome burst of colour, freshness and originality that breaks down the solemn, almost sinister-looking environs. As crept out as I felt, all by myself with only Tickle (my Jack Russell) as bodyguard and unlikely ghostbuster, I still relished on those glimpses of civilised, domestic, rural bourgeoisie bliss that my lens clumsily captured from afar. May I be forgiven for imagining a Balzac damsel in distress waving from one of the gaping windows. But no Rastignac shall dash to her rescue, I'm afraid.

Trompe l'oeil painted ceiling, Erbalunga, 2009 (pict source)

In Corsican society, painted ceilings were a status symbol, a tangible sign of social advancement and financial achievement, in other words material prosperity. As a rule of thumb, the more ornate the ceiling, the more coins in the coffers... Built in the early 1860s, our case-study house has additional kudos; in 1869, Empress Eugénie (the wife of Emperor Napoléon III) stayed over for the night!

'L'Impératrice Eugénie entourée de ses dames d'honneur au Palais de Fontainebleau', by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, 1855 © Photo RMN-Grand Palais, Domaine de Compiègne/ Daniel Arnaudet.
ibid, (detail of Eugénie) © Photo RMN-Grand Palais, Domaine de Compiègne/ Daniel Arnaudet.

Here is how the story unfolds. Empress Eugénie's ship was returning from the Suez Canal opening ceremony and got caught in a storm. It took shelter in a safe harbour off the northern Corsican coast. The Empress disembarked upon the recommendation of one member of the crew who originated from the village off the harbour. Along she went (up what is now referred to as the Chemin de l'Impératrice) on an impromptu visit to the village and met its inhabitants (including my great great grand parents), all gathered to welcome her. The Empress was so touched by the warm welcome that she bestowed the village church a magnificent white and pink Carrara marble balustrade, for which she would receive undying gratitude and appreciation.

Our ceiling bird of Paradise as he appears through the window.
I flipped him over for a better appreciation of his plumage!

Now let's take a look at my close-ups. I have pushed the capabilities of my Sony digital camera (not a DSLR although I mean to purchase one) as far as they can accompany me in photographic prowess by wide and large. The limited capabilities have been tested to the limit here, hence do pardon the mediocre result. We manage nonetheless to work out the rough lines of the meticulous ceiling decor, albeit in a truncated fashion since the photos were taken from outside. A peek of note: vignettes featuring exotic birds (a magnificent bird of Paradise which I originally mistook for a parrot, see above) and floral fronds that celebrate the promised land of The Americas. We note scalloped medallions that may be holding a monogram or insignia, but which the blurred photographic renderings make it impossible to decipher. We have ceiling roses and trompe-l'oeil stucco motifs that recreate 3D frescoes.

Wildlife fresco vignette (pict source)
Wildlife fresco vignette (pict source)

My heart breaks over this house. I have witnessed its long, steady and unrelentless demise in my 40-plus years of visiting the family village in Corsica. I have only trespassed its grounds twice (and felt terribly bad every time!): a few days ago for a few snatched photographic moments, and six years prior, on my mum's insistence. We had ventured beyond the gardens and tiptoed into the vacant, door-less property, witnessing its pitiful state. Curiosity got the better off my mum as she dragged me upstairs but I could not go beyond the top of the staircase to the first floor. I felt a malaise that crippled me to the point of fretting. It was as if I could feel the pain of the place standing in its graceful desolation, its mute, interiorised sorrow and bitter abandonment. I felt like we didn't belong there, that we were intruding upon a forced introspection. I dashed down the stairs and ran outside. I left the house but I felt the house in me, an odd feeling that has never quite left me.

All I want is hook up a crystal chandelier to that ceiling rose!

My grandma remembered the house when it used to be lived in, happy, vibrant and ordained, in its elegant demeanour, with its prim and proper wooden shutters, painted green, its charming picket gate and well-kept grounds. Now it stands orphaned, wrecked and dishevelled. The grapevine regularly delivers news of the house being saved and redeveloped, magically bouncing back into life thanks to some mysterious samaritan, whoever they might be. Like Sleeping Beauty waiting for her prince, I am enclined to believe that fairytales have a way to materialise when - and only when - we put our heart and soul into it. And fairy godmothers busy themselves around like pollinators, sprinkling the magic pollen - financial magic that is - to make dreams happen. May the grand dame be resurrected into life for it needs - and so deserves - its happy ever after!

Sources: (1) Palazzo photography by Mirabelle Design Inspiration. (2) Unwinding off the scenic coastal road north of Bastia, the villa palazzo in Erbalunga embodies the archetypal colonial retreat. Photography by Michel Roux, via Destination Cap Corse. (3) Palazzo Altieri (also known as Villa Henri), is located in the northern Corsican town of Bastia. Unaccredited painting, via the Altieri family genealogy website, Famiglia Altieri. (4) Château Stopielle, an architectural bijou nested up a mountain off the tourist map, with a seaside view to die for! Photography by Angela Perigot, via her blog E Quale Simu. (5-6) Ceiling fresco photography by Mirabelle. (7) Austere exteriors are not necessarily a taster of what awaits you inside a property, as testified here in the charming coastal resort of Erbalunga, with this sublime trompe l'oeil painted ceiling. Photography by Le Blog de Cath. (8) 'L'Impératrice Eugénie entourée de ses dames d'honneur au Palais de Fontainebleau', by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, 1855 © Photo RMN-Grand Palais, Domaine de Compiègne/ Daniel Arnaudet, via L'Histoire par l'Image. (9) ibid, detail of Eugénie © Photo RMN-Grand Palais, Domaine de Compiègne/ Daniel Arnaudet, via ibid. (10-11-14) Ceiling fresco photography by Mirabelle. (12-13) Wildlife fresco vignettes, via Expocorsica. (15) Palazzu Nicrosi has recently reinvented itself as a guest house. Its original owner made his fortune in Alabama (U.S.A.) in the space of 22 years, and had the palazzo built upon his return to Corsica. Pictured is one of their salons, under the watchful eye of Mr. Nicrosi.

Palazzu Nicrosi was built after its owner made a fortune in Alabama, U.S.A. (pict source)

*Palazzo (in Italian), or Palazzu (in Corsican) is a maison bourgeoise of palatial proportions. Corsican dialects are etymologically close to Italian, as they share commonality in terms of history and geographical proximity. The northern Cape dialect is very close to Tuscan dialect.

Further Reading:
  • [French article] A selection of Cap Corse palazzi, via Expocorsica, includes our derelict palazzo. The Expocorsica programme ran between 2007 and 2012 and was coordinated and developed by the School of Architecture at the University of Puerto Rico. Its aim was to document a number of American palazzi in northern Corsica, yet it went beyond the mere architectural and historical facts. 'This Program –besides being a historic preservation endeavor– inquires about the complexities of Puerto Rican identity.'
  • [French article] Built in 1875, Château Stopielle is one of the most ravishing palazzi that is and which I had the privilege to visit nearly 5 years ago. The exuberantly-decorated family home is for sale and a local governmental agency is raising funds in order to purchase it so as to preserve the coveted estate's invaluable history which is testament to the socio-economical history of the Cape area of the island.
  • Corsican Interiors and Exteriors by Mirabelle, is an introduction to Corsican living, with a brief reference to the American palazzi.
  • From Home to Rubble in Sixty Years, a two-part article I wrote on my sister blog La Baguette Magique in 2011. A first-hand insight into the ravages of indivision and the organised pillage of older properties, as witnessed through the pillage of a house... which my family owns.

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