Iconic Corsican Places: the Church of San Michele, Murato

Pisan church at Murato

Open any guidebook about Corsica and you’re likely to come across a picture of this exquisite Romanesque church in Murato. Prosper Mérimée, who was Inspector of Public Monuments, said in 1839 that it was “the most elegant and the most attractive church he had come across on Corsica.” We visited the site in 2014 and I heartily agree with him.

Legend has it that the church was constructed by angels in one night. More prosaically, it was built in the Pisan style in the 12th century, around 1140, on an elevated site outside the village. This was deliberate, in order to serve as an assembly point for people living in isolated spots in the area. Situated at an altitude of 475 metres, the view of the Nebbio (a region of northern Corsica) below is stunning.

View from Murato
View from the church of San Michele on a hazy day

The city state of Pisa ruled Corsica from 1077 to 1284, before being definitively defeated by their great rivals, the Genoese. Some of Corsica’s most beautiful and graceful churches date from the Pisan period.

The charm of this church lies not only in its proportions but also in the polychrome stone used in its construction. It’s a mixture of limestone from Saint-Florent (the port at the base of Cap Corse) and serpentine, a greenish stone from the River Bevancu. Immediately beneath the roof, a carved frieze depicts gargoyles and mythical beasts.

San Michele detail
Detail of the carvings beneath the roof

When we visited, it was a shame that the bell-tower was covered with scaffolding and we were unable to go inside. We learned that the original bell-tower was raised in 1855 at the request of the villagers, who wanted to hear the bell chiming more clearly. The bell-tower is now, perhaps, a little too tall for the rest of the church.

San Michele front

The village of Murato itself played an important part in Corsican history. Pasquale Paoli, the leader of the independent republic from 1755 to 1769, expelled the monks from the monastery and established his headquarters there. He set up a mint, which struck Corsica’s own coinage, although it was difficult to get even some Corsicans to accept it. When he returned from exile in England in the 1790s, he took up residence again in Murato.

The church gets a brief mention in my first Corsica novel, The House at Zaronza. Maria, the main character, is giving the new village schoolmaster, Raphaël Colombani, a tour of Zaronza. It turns out that he knows rather more about Corsica’s history than she does. Among other things, he tells her about the church in Murato. The village also gets a mention in The Corsican Widow, when Paoli (who has a cameo role in the book) travels from his HQ to Zaronza in Cap Corse to review the coastal fortifications.

Maria never got a chance to see it. I have every intention of going back.

San Michele rear
Detail of the stonework

You might also like:

Iconic Corsican Places: the Paoline Tower, Nonza
Forgotten Revolutionary: Pasquale Paoli and Corsica

Copyright © Vanessa Couchman 2018, all rights reserved

Published by Vanessa in France

We moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I'm fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs. I also write historical novels and short stories.

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