I first really noticed it on the prow of our ferry, the Kalliste, during our dawn docking in the Corsican port of Propriano.
The sea breeze is holding it straight out: a white flag with a black head adorned with a piratical bandana.
“Cool!” methinks. “We’re on a pirate ship.”
And then I notice the same flag flying on the rocky quay.
“Ah!” methinks. “We’re on a ship with a Corsican crew and they are flying their home flag!”
And this is true.
Yet, just a few hours later, pulling into the rocky quay at Porto Torres on Sardinia, I see a strikingly similar image: the very same black head with the very same piratical bandanna, but repeated four times around a red cross.
“Hmmm!” methinks. “Something that transcends modern nationality is at work here!”
I’ve grown more and more intrigued; especially when I saw one I thought was a joke, where the bandanna was pulled down over the eyes.
“Crafty!” methinks. “Some modern huckster will make a tidy mint with that whimsy!”
What I’m seeing isn’t whimsy, but history.
The black head? It’s a Moor’s head. It has been incorporated into Corsican and Sardinian political imagery for hundreds of years.
Here are some of the variants that have occurred over time:
- The oldest known versions were female. The modern ones appear male.
- With and without necklaces.
- With and without an earring.
- In the oldest versions, the bandanna was a blindfold. (It was raised as a political statement in the mid 1700s.)
- Crowned and, like the modern versions, uncrowned.
- Eyes closed or eyes opened.
- Facing toward or away from the flag pole.
- More than one head (Sardinia) or only one (Corsica).
Interestingly, the versions I’m seeing are actually quite recent. The Corsician flag was revitalized in 1980. The Sardinian flag was revised in 1999.
Sound goofy? What would the flags of the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan look like if French Canada had kept the Upper Peninsula, England the Lower Peninsula, and the actual residents of Michigan were actively rebellious against both overlords?
Residents on both sides of the Strait of Bonifacio are all chummy members of the European Union now, so perhaps the two flags are less likely to continue evolving.
Relatively quiet modern politics doesn’t prevent crafty modern hucksters from turning a tiny mint by reusing the Maure (That’s a catch-all term for the Moor’s Head, which is also used by politically-minded folks in other parts of the world.). If Coke and cookies can do it, anyone can.
For this article, I borrowed a couple official political images from WikiMedia Commons: