France: Treasure viewed on Corsica's streets

By Sabine Glaubitz

Treasures often remain hidden - at the bottom of the sea, for example, or perhaps in some musty cellar. In Bastia, one often only needs to walk through the streets, eyes wide open, to discover them.

Bastia, Corsica's treasure chest of Baroque art. Photo / Thinkstock
Bastia, Corsica's treasure chest of Baroque art. Photo / Thinkstock

Bastia, the city of churches and chapels at the foot of the Pigno Massif, is Corsica's treasure chest of Baroque art.

Right at the start of the Rue Napoleon street is a jewel of early Baroque: the Oratorium Saint Roch. The street is also dubbed as the Champs-Elysees of Bastia. This is perhaps because it is one of the longest streets, and leads directly the citadel.

Or perhaps because this street of Napoleon, who was born on Corsica in 1768, was where in past times the patrician families lived a life of affluence.

The oratorium itself looks modest from the outside. But the chapel inside, dedicated to Rochus of Montpellier, the patron saint of those stricken by the plague, is a jewel of early Baroque: gold, marble, richly-carved furniture and countless angels decorate the interior. To the left of the entrance, Saint Rochus sits atop a throne, clothed in flowing blue robes.

Before the Genoans in 1300 began their five-century reign over Corsica, it was the popes who ruled. Faith, customs and superstitions are still very important here. As a result, on August 16 once every three years the statue of Saint Rochus is taken out of its glass case and is carried in a grand procession through the streets of the old city centre.

As one gets closer to the citadel on the other side of the harbour, the opulence of the churches becomes more obvious. The highlight is the Rue Saint Jean. It is here that Bastia's landmark keeps watch over the harbour - the twin-steepled Baroque church of Saint Jean Baptiste dating back to the mid-1600s.

Saint Jean Baptiste was built by the poor people living in the "under city',' as this section of Bastia was referred to. The church was meant to be larger and more imposing than the Sainte Marie Cathedral, the church of the wealthy class, standing directly opposite on the other side of the harbour. Today, it is Corsica's largest church.

To get to Sainte Marie one must go around the old harbour and then up a steep set of steps. This church also has a tiny jewel. In the competition with the church across the harbour, Saint Jean Baptiste, the people from the wealthy "upper city'' district donated massive amounts of silver jewellery and other silver objects to be melted down.

From all the earrings and other ornaments of the wealthy locals a masterpiece weighing 480kg and standing 2m tall was created: a silver statue depicting Holy Mary's ascension to heaven.

The final chapter of all this extravagance was written by the Sainte-Croix chapel, the sole oratorium in all of France built in the rich lavishness of Rococo, the late-Baroque of the period 1735 to 1790. Decorated in the style of Louis the 15th, the chapel contains in one of its niches the "Black Christ.''

And there is a legend attached to the chapel. The cross, illuminated by a supra-natural light, is said to have been found near the city by fishermen. The fishermen took it to the harbour and set it inside a niche of the harbour wall.

The niche is still visible today. But one day, the cross had vanished. Later on, it was found - so the legend goes - in a tree, precisely on the spot where today the opulent oratorium now stands.


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