The flag of Corsica is one of the most identifiable and unusual in Europe. Against a pure white background a black face is depicted in a side profile – the dark outline makes a arresting contrast against the white. The image is even more striking as the black face is either blindfolded with a white ribbon wrapped around its eyes or features a white bandana on his forehead.
Typically, European vexillological tradition is dominated by crosses (including the Scandinavian, Saltire and more conventional St. George’s cross), stripes (both horizontal and vertical, tricolour and bicolour). As a result, those countries whose flags have a less conventional designs tend to stand out. Corsica’s design certainly stands out, but the black head design is also shared by its southern Mediterranean island neighbour, Sardinia .
Why do these two Mediterrianean islands feature this unusual design? In the Corsican dialect, the symbol is called ‘La Testa di Moru’ – the Moor’s head. It originates in the Kingdom of Aragon and was certainly used in Sardinia after the Aragonese conquest in 1297. In Sardinia, four moorish heads are separated by a cross of St George in the ‘Is Cuatru Morus’ – the Four Moors flag.
But is the symbol even older than this? In both Spanish and Sardinian tradition dating back to the eleventh century CE. In the Spanish version of the story the symbol appears during celebrations following the victory in the Battle of Alcoraz by King Peter I of Aragon and Navarre against the Arabs in 1096. The Sardinian version dates it even earlier, to 1017 when Pope Benedict II gave a banner featuring the design to a Pisan contingent fighting to help the Sardinians repel attacks from the Saracens led by Mujahid al-Amiri.
Originally, the four faces were turned right with bandages on their foreheads. Sometime during the 19th century, the faces flipped to face left, and the bandages slipped over their eyes. Only in 1999 did the four moors return to face to the right with uncovered eyes.
Corsica was also claimed by Aragon, but was never taken. The heraldic design did, however, make the leap from Sardinia to Sicily. It soon became a potent symbol of Corsican national identity. It was borne by the supporters of King Theodore, the short-lived ‘summer king’ of Corsica who temporarily freed the island from Genoese domination.
It finally became the official flag of the island in 1762 when Pasquale Paoli adopted it as the symbol of an independent Corsica. He ordered that the blindfold be lifted from the Moor’s eyes and placed as a bandana on his forehead to symbolise the liberation of the island and the coming of freedom.
Further south, the island of Sicily also has an unusual flag design. It does not share the black head of its northern neighbours, but instead has a thee legged design (also known as the triskelion or trisceli). A similar design is also found in the flag of the Isle of Man.