Sampiero Corso,1498 – 1569: ‘The Most Corsican of Corsicans’

I once had a French teacher whose family was Corsican.  Among the family possessions was a dagger, on one side of which blade was engraved “Vendetta”, on the other, “Morte”.

Hardboiled, the Corsicans. Perhaps no surprise that a Napoleon could come out of there.  For overall toughness and misfortune in love, however, we can argue that Sampiero has the marshal beat.

He was born a commoner and a reduced lower aristocratic mother.  With a background like that, the military was a natural. He apprenticed as a soldier at age fourteen.

He was good at it, too.  He led Corsican mercenaries for France’s house of Valois during the Italian wars and was more successful than not.  The money was good, too.  By 1547, he was a colonel and rich enough to marry Vanina D’Ornano. He was forty nine.  She was fifteen.

Work took him back to Corsica again.  The island with its nooks and crannies and location just off the shores of France and Italy is well suited for military intrigue against both of those countries.  It was under Genoese control at the time, and as a local boy, Sampiero was naturally chosen to help France take the place.  He did prevail in a few fights against the Genoese Admiral Andrea Doria, but as will happen, politics put the island out of play – a truce between the two parties and a split in influence made it no longer a place for fighting.

In 1560 he was governor of Aix-en-Provence, a family man with that too young for him wife and thier children.  Business called him to Constantinople, during which time that too young for him wife took up with the children’s tutor, who was moonlighting as a spy.  He managed to convince her to run through Sampierno’s fortune, and together they hightailed it back to Genoa.

Not before Sampieno found out.  The ship was intercepted, and he dealt out justice himself by strangling the woman. Not exactly Desdemona, but harsh none the less.  There is some thought that Shakespeare had this in mind when plotting Othello, and it does just make you wonder how it would have played had Desdemona been a bit less lily white, a bit more of a flirt.

He got his comeuppance soon thereafter.  He returned to Corsica in 1563 with the intention of getting the place some freedom.  A bloody thing it turned out to be.  Never a rich island, the place had been squeezed by the Genoese for years and was ripe for revolt. Foreign powers (France, the Ottomans) wishing to keep Genoa and her Habsburg allies distracted helped nudge Sampiero along, but never forcefully enough to make any real difference. Once his Genoese enemies put a price on his head, Sampierno’s days were numbers.   Some Corsican mercenaries went for the money.  He was decapitated in 1567 and his head displayed in Napoleon’s hometown of Ajaccio.  Corsica would remain a Genoese until 1729 began the new fight for independence – a story in and of itself.

Vendetta/Morte indeed.


4 thoughts on “Sampiero Corso,1498 – 1569: ‘The Most Corsican of Corsicans’

  1. I just got re-acquainted with Othello, so I enjoyed the speculation about the possible connection with Corso and his too-young-for-him wife.

    • You know you’ve made it when you start turning up in fiction. I’m not familiar with the book (or the author, if I’m honest), but it has not been added to the To Read file, for which I thank you

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