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From the 11th to 13th centuries Corsica was ruled by the Italian city-state of Pisa, superseded in 1284 by its arch rival, Genoa. To prevent seaborne raids, mainly from North Africa, a massive defence system was constructed that included citadels and coastal watchtowers, many of which still dot the coastline.

On several occasions, Corsican discontent with foreign rule led to open revolt. In 1755, after 25 years of sporadic warfare against the Genoese, Corsicans declared their independence, led by Pasquale Paoli (1725–1807), under whose rule they established a National Assembly and adopted the most democratic constitution in Europe. They also adopted La Tête de Maure (the Moor’s Head) – a profile of a black head wearing a white bandanna and a hooped earring, which first appeared in Corsica in 1297 – as a national emblem. According to legend, the bandanna originally covered the Moor’s eyes, and was raised to the forehead to symbolise the island’s liberation.

Corsicans made the inland mountain town of Corte their capital, outlawed blood vendettas, founded schools and established a university, but the island’s independence was short-lived. In 1768 the Genoese ceded Corsica to the French king Louis XV, whose troops crushed Paoli’s army in 1769.

The island has since been part of France, except for a period (1794–96) when it was under English domination, and during the German and Italian occupation of 1940–43.

Corsicans have long cared for their island’s ecology. In 1972 the sparsely populated Parc Naturel Régional de Corse (PNRC) was established, protecting more than a third (3505 sq km) of the island.

The assassination of Corsica’s préfet (prefect), Claude Erignac, in Ajaccio in 1998 rocked Corsica, and in 2001, the French parliament granted Corsica limited autonomy in exchange for an end to separatist violence. The bill was overturned by France’s high court because it breached the principle of national unity, although Corsica was granted the right to have the Corsican language (more closely related to Italian than French) taught in schools. Few Corsicans support the separatist Front de Libération Nationale de la Corse (FLNC); and voted down a referendum in 2003 that would have seen the island gain greater autonomy. For now, Corsica remains part of France’s rich mix of cultures.