23 April 2011 - The Independent - Harriet O'Brien
Gunfire cracked loudly from the valley below the church. As I stopped the car, another shot rang out and a couple of shiny black choughs flew from their perch on the bell tower. More fire was followed by the barking of dogs. In the recesses of my mind I conjured an act of Corsican vendetta taking place below me.
Yet the canine accompaniment was, I realised, a likely indication of rather less dramatic scene – in all probability an afternoon game shoot. From the shelter of the car I peered warily down the slopes clad in scrub and spindly holm oaks.
But on hearing a distant shot and fading barks, I reckoned there was little risk of encountering stray bullets, so I got out to explore the church that I had come to see.
Built in a random arrangement of green and white stone and set on a neatly clipped sward of grass, the little church of San Michele looks as if it has been transposed to its site in northern Corsica from another world, arriving slightly jumbled, which isn't far off the local legend. The story goes that the residents of the village of Murato woke one morning to find that the thick wood crowning a hill beyond their cottages had disappeared. In its place was a strange and wonderful church. It had been built by angels.
The more pragmatic explanation is that San Michele de Murato was constructed in about 1280, during the tail-end of the era when Corsica was governed by the city-state of Pisa – and long before France laid claim to the island. The simple, barn-like structure is typical of the Pisan Romanesque style (the bell tower is a later addition). It is remarkable, though, not only for its asymmetrical stone patterning, but also for its embellishment of small carvings. Snarling animals, primitive-looking human figures and strange symbols adorn the entrance archways and the high arcades around the exterior. Above one narrow window recess a naked Eve with enormous hands is given an apple by the serpent. Below it, a band of vines is flanked by an angel and a knife-wielding man. When you gaze at the carvings you tune into a primeval, slightly eerie quality that resonates with the landscape around.
Wild, ruggedly beautiful Corsica was acquired by France only in 1768. I had read of how, for centuries before, it had been a Mediterranean magnet for raiders and invaders – Vandals, Pisans, Genovese and British had variously fought hard for this territory. But even so, I had little expectation of how un-French the island would be.
Corsica lies about 160km from mainland France and it remains defiantly, idiosyncratically, a culture apart. They speak French here, but the Corsican language – a direct offshoot of Tuscan-influenced Latin – is also used widely. To read the remainder of Harriet's feature, please click to view the online version.