“Sardinian nationalists admire Catalonia, but this interest isn’t mutual. Sardinia isn’t as high-profile as the Catalan process!”

Marcel A. Farinelli

Sardinian historian, specialised in Sardinia and Corsica

Marcel A. Farinelli.
Marcel A. Farinelli.
INTERVIEW. Marcel A. Farinelli (Alghero, 1978) refers to himself as a “doctor of history, passionate for the islands”. A conversation with him proves that this is indeed the case: Corsica and Sardinia are his areas of specialisation, but he talks a lot about the fascination he feels for the island territories of the Mediterranean, bursting with history and diversity, from Alicante to Crete and from Genoa to Tunisia. While in Barcelona he’s published two books about his native town: El feixisme a l’Alguer (Fascism in Alghero) (Angle, 2010) and Història de l’Alguer (History of Alghero) (Llibres de l’Índex, 2014).

Nationalia: When Salvador Dalí spoke about Perpignan, he said that the train station in the capital of Northern Catalonia was the centre of the world. Looking at the history of Alghero and all the peoples, empires and states which have come and gone, leaving their traces, you get the sensation that although this Catalan city in Sardinia isn’t the centre of the world, it might be the centre of the Western Mediterranean.

Marcel A. Farinelli: That’s a good metaphor. It’s a transit point because it’s strategic, it has a natural port, because Sardinia and Corsica are in the centre of the region… Various powers that wanted to control the Mediterranean have passed through: Pisans, Genoans, Catalans, the Spanish, the Dynasty of Savoy, the British with Admiral Nelson, Italy… During the Middle Ages, any ship leaving Barcelona or the Balearic islands stopped off in Alghero. Furthermore, it’s a city which attracts people from outside. There are people who you would never think of having been there, for example Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince, during the second world war…

N: What was he doing in Alghero?

M. F.: Alghero had an airport. He was a pilot and, as fascism began to crumble in 1943 and the island was consigned to the Allies, he used it as a base. During the war he took photos of military interest in the south of France and Corsica. He made one of his last flights from there. Or another case: Elizabeth Taylor made a film there. My parents’ generation still remember it.

N: Aside from Saint-Exupéry and Taylor, the historical ebb and flow has spattered the coasts of Sardinia, and those of Corsica, with small linguistic and cultural islands. Alghero is certainly the best known example here in Catalonia, but we have other curious cases such as the Ligurian community of San Pietro and Sant Antioco in the south of Sardinia, or the Greeks of Cargèse on the east coast of Corsica, or the Ligurians of Bonifacio on the south of the island. How has this diversity survived for so long?

M.F.: This is my theory; Sardinia and Corsica are two big islands, and isolated. More so than Sicily, for example, which is relatively easy to get to from the Italian peninsula. This means that Sicily has been a bigger part of the history of Southern Italy and that its population has become more uniform. But Sardinia and Corsica are further away, and they’re like two big mountains in the middle of the sea. When the maritime powers arrived, the interior of both islands remained on the fringe while the attempts at colonisation were concentrated on the coast. All of these areas which you mentioned were colonies created from scratch. And the colonisers reproduced their traditions, uses and customs there. The relationship between these areas and the interior has never been easy. One of the most extreme cases, actually, is that of the Greeks of Cargèse.

N: Why?

M.F.: Because they were involved in several failed attempts at setting up colonies, both in Sardinia and Corsica. After the Ottoman conquest of Crete (1669), the Greeks emigrated to various parts of the Western Mediterranean, such as British Minorca. One group, however, set themselves up near to Ajaccio, on Corsica, where they founded the town of Paomia and gained some lands there. During the Corsican revolt against Genoa (1729-1769) the Greeks, who enjoyed the favour of the Ligurians, were brutally attacked and had to seek refuge in Ajaccio. However, when the city fell to the rebels, the Greeks fled to Minorca and Sardinia. Here they founded the colony of Montresta, a site near to Bosa, to the south of Alghero. It wasn’t an uninhabited area – they were the pasture lands for the herds of Sardinian shepherds. The Greeks didn’t last long there – a conflict broke out with the locals and they were thrown out by a force of arms, with several deaths as a result. Then some of them returned to Corsica – now under French rule – where they established the settlement of Carèse, on the outskirts of Ajaccio. The dramatic experiences of these Greeks shows the dynamic difference between the interior and the coast, a constant in the history of both islands. Aside from the ones you mentioned, there are cases of the Genoese legacy of Ajaccio on Corsica, or the whole Gothic Catalan legacy in Cagliari in Sardinia…

N: In fact the centre of Cagliari was Catalan-speaking during the reign of the Aragonese crown. Could a second Alghero ever have survived?

M.F.: The difference was that Cagliari was the Sardinian capital, a bigger city than Alghero. The power change was accompanied by a change in the ruling class and the people who lived in the centre of the city. Therefore the Catalan language was lost. Alghero had aspects which made it different – it was well fortified and is situated in the north of the island which, as a territory, has always been more complicated for the established powers in comparison with the south of the island which is more accommodating for whoever is in power. During the 19th century, the city tried to stand out for its specialities, for example fishing, and that also included its Catalan heritage. But actually the Sardinian which is spoken in the south of Sardinia has been heavily influenced by Catalan vocabulary.

N: More than the Nuoro dialect which is spoken in the central-eastern part of the island.

M.F.: That’s why at the end of the 18th century they chose Nuoro dialect as the base for the Sardinian literary language, because it’s purer. But in reality, there are more speakers of the southern variety.

N: There’s another community with a similar history to that of the Greeks of Cagliari, let’s say a certain nomadism, which is that of the Ligurians who left the coast of Tunisia and ended up next to Alicante.

M.F.: It’s one of those stories that helps you to understand what the Mediterranean region is like. I find it fascinating. In the 16th century, the Ottomans gave the island of Tabarka, in Tunisia, to a Genoese family, as a fiefdom. People from Pegli, a small village near to Genoa, moved to Tabarka. There they started to exploit the coral and they ended up setting up a Ligurian community of rich merchants – a maritime rival to the Algheresos, by the way. When the coral ran out, the community entered a crisis. The Bey of Tunis invaded the island and enslaved the population, although in the end they were freed and moved to Sant Antioco and San Pietro, the two islands to the south of Sardinia which we’ve already mentioned. There they founded a new city and focused on fishing tuna and working the salt mines. They have been able to maintain their Ligurian dialect and seafaring culture to the present day, standing out from the land-based Sardinians who are shepherds and miners. Some of those Ligurians went to the islet, Illa Plana, next to the coast of Alicante. However, here they lost their language.

N: Would you say that the fact that the island is internally so diverse has made it more difficult for a Sardinian nationalism to emerge and to convince all of these populations of the benefit of establishing a communal political project for self-determination?

M.F.: It’s always said, and I don’t know if it’s a legend or not, that the emperor Charles V said that the Sardinians were “few, crazy and disunited”. The problem is that Sardinia has always had a small population. Even now, driving around the island, you’ll see that between one village and the next there’s absolutely nothing. This has always led to a lack of internal connection, especially with very little communication between the north and the south and with a strong rivalry between the respective capitals: Sassari and Cagliari. This hasn’t created a country. It’s a little bit like the history of Italy: a thousand capitals, a thousand dynasties, a thousand rivalries.

But speaking specifically about Sardinian nationalism, the reason why it never started in a strong way is linked to the island’s economy. During the 19th century, Sardinia didn’t undergo industrial development, mining exported almost all of the island’s production. There wasn’t even a capitalist agricultural industry which could give rise to an emergent entrepreneurial class which could lead a nationalist movement. The middle class has always been too small, too weak and too closely linked to the Italian state – their power relied on being members of the Italian parliament, or town mayors...This pulled them away from independence. The same thing happened on Corsica. There was no structured movement, as was the case in Catalonia, which could lay the foundations for their own nationalism. The tempo for the states was also different. At the same time that Catalonia was experiencing a renaissance, Italy was going through the fallout of unification which created an unfriendly climate for nationalist movements trying to construct something different from that of Italy.

N: Despite that, before and especially after the First World War, a political Sardinian movement began to emerge which led the way for the foundation of the Sardinian Action Party in 1921 which demanded independent institutions for Sardinia and included figures such as Camillo Bellieni, Luigi Puggioni...Which areas did these people come from?

M.F.: Many were the children of middle class property owners. There were people from the provinces who went to Sassari or Cagliari to study and became lawyers, doctors, engineers…

N: They weren’t linked to that level of power which was most loyal to the Italian state as you mentioned, of the mayors, the deputies…

M.F.: They were from a second layer. Let’s be clear, they weren’t labourers or peasants. But they were very radical, and they went to university during a period of social changes, of slightly unstructured struggle. There were no large workers’ movements in Sardinia, but there were revolts, sometimes violent, and without a clear political leader. Those who started the Sardinian Action Party grew up with the narrative of confrontation with those who they referred to as “continentals”, meaning those who came from the continent - the Italians. From that generation, the most recognised figure was Antonio Gramsci, one of his major slogans was: “Out with the continentals!” It was a generation which dreamt of liberating Sardinia, but it was ambiguous on this point, we don’t know if they wanted to expel “the continentals” because they were a symbol of the Savoyard monarchy – and then found a new, republican Italy – or if they wanted to expel them to make Sardinia independent. Neither Gramsci nor the founders of the Sardinian Action Party were supporters of independence. In 1918 and 1919 Gramsci flirted with the idea of initiating a peasants uprising in Sardinia – because there were no workers – and proclaim a federated republic with Italy, in the Soviet style. Gramsci wasn’t a Sardinian nationalist, but he understood that there was a momentum for reclaiming identity on the island and he took advantage of it.

One example of this is the production of cheese, which was very important on the island of Sardinia, and which at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries was dominated by Italian companies. A demand began to emerge on the island for cheese production to be controlled by the shepherds themselves, through cooperatives, in order to eliminate the class of Italian businessmen. It was always a very practical fight rather than one about identity. This could even be seen in the Sardinian Action Party who, during this period, didn’t have a programme to save the Sardinian language or culture, nor to demand educational powers – basically they wanted to improve the quality of life for Sardinians, to bring Sardinia to the modern world.

N: Another one of the Sardinian federalists – and founder of the Sardinian Action Party, like Bellieni – was Emilio Lussu who wrote that Sardinia should have a status within Italy similar to that of the cantons within Switzerland. Lussu, in fact, predicted that after Fascism, Italy would have no other option than to become a federation. After the Second World War, it became apparent that Lussu had been wrong in his prediction. Why?

M.F.: Italy as a country, although many won’t admit it, went through a de facto civil war between 1943 and 1945. A part of the left-wing resistance movement aimed at starting a revolution while the Christian Democrats and the monarchists were completely against it. In theory, the idea of the left, of which Lussu was a member, was to found a federal state. But they ended up agreeing on autonomy for four regions – Sardinia, Sicily, Aosta and Trent-South Tyrol – which would later become five with Friuli-Venezia Giulia. But in 1948 the Christian Democrats won the first elections and remained in power for the next 50 years. They were scared of the Communists controlling parts of Italy if they came to power in any of these regions, so these autonomous regions, from the start, remained quite restricted for this reason. And the communists, who previously had criticised the federalist model, ended up defending it.

N: Both Bellieni and Puggioni, as well as Egidio Pilia, declared their preference for federalism, not just as a way to restructure Italy, but also with a Mediterranean perspective. They supported the idea of extending relations to Corsica, Catalonia, the Balearic islands, Provence and even to Crete, with the aim that in the long run this could lead to a great Mediterranean federation. Has the current Sardinian political movement kept this ideal?

M.F.: For me this is the most interesting part of the Sardinian theory. But it never got passed that historic moment. The idea arose because the Sardinians didn’t like the label “nationalists” - they associated it with the nationalism of the state. And they tried to overcome it. They wanted fraternity between nations, from the ideas of Mazzini, of making a Europe of nations, of peoples.

N: But Mazzini’s idea was much more aimed at the large nations of Europe: Italy, Germany…

M.F.: Without a doubt. The Sardinians took it and applied it to smaller groups. In any case, the idea didn’t stick. The one who brought it back was Antoni Simon Mossa who was, in fact, the main heir of Bellieni, the great ideologue of the Sardinian Action Party of the first era. Mossa talked of the need to come to agreements with all oppressed peoples as an alternative to the Europe of the large nations. That doesn’t really happen now. For a start, the Sardinian and Corsican politicians, who should be first to start up communication, do it very little. I think that it would benefit all of the big islands of the Mediterranean to come together in agreement, because they are all linked to mainland states and all have the same problems: physical connections, the cost of transport, electric energy… They should create a space where all of these island societies can agree on a common struggle within the European framework.

As far as Catalonia is concerned, in the ten years that I have lived here, I’ve seen very little enthusiasm from Catalan politicians and from the Generalitat to talk with other autonomous institutions. There was a time when Artur Mas was always comparing Catalonia with Massachusetts, or then with Scotland. And I always thought that there are two islands right next to Catalonia which are in a similar situation. Sardinian nationalists admire Catalonia, and not only because of what’s happening now, but also because of the linguistic policies of the ‘80s. But this interest doesn’t go in the other direction. Sardinia isn’t as high-profile as the process!

N: Earlier you mentioned some of the colonial aspects from a Sardinian and Corsican historical point of view. During the ‘60s and ‘70s, the neo-sardinian movement also took this direction, criticising the installation of military bases and petrochemical industries on the island – unwanted in other parts of Italy –, new tourist developments benefiting Italian elites… Antoni Simon Mossa even compared Sardinia with Cuba! Has any part of this colonial critique remained in modern-day Sardinia?

M.F.: Less and less. Of course, there’s still the idea that it’s the holiday location of the most privileged Italian class. When I was little I realised that the children from Milan had all the most recent toys, I could see there was a distance between us. Part of that is still there. But the anti-colonialist rhetoric has been lost, even though some far-left movements (a minority) hold on to it. Current movements try to go beyond the idea of colonial victimisation, towards real policies. But in Mossa’s time it was understandable – Cyprus and Jamaica had become independent and they were islands, like Sardinia, and they were fascinating. There are also sectors of Sardinian society who consider the Piano di Rinascita – a plan for economic development for Sardinia in the ‘60s – as a colonial proposal, because in order to build factories, they displaced agricultural and pastoral lands. Figures such as Mossa made the criticism that this meant implementing an economic model which was foreign to the island and he considered it an imposition. It’s not strange that this was the time when the Sardinian movement began to take up the issues of culture and language.

N: From then until the present day, Sardinia has seen a veritable explosion of independence parties. One of the recent ones which gained a lot of traction was Project Sardinia, surrounding Michela Murgia, which the polls pointed to as the possible winner for the 2014 Sardinian elections. However, the result at the ballot boxes ended up being much lower than expected.

M.F.: They lack a bit of political experience. Apart from the experience of the Sardinian Action Party in the 1980s, there has never been a political force which has told the Sardinians that they need a strong regional government to stand up to Italy. If you ask Sardinians if they feel more Sardinian or more Italian, they always say Sardinian, and they always criticise Rome. But it seems that in order to solve their problems they always end up allying themselves with the strongest party in Italy. During Berlusconi’s time this was very evident. Berlusconi governed Italy in coalition with the post-post-fascists of the National Alliance, and in Sardinia he won a resounding victory. In this coalition he joined with Lega Nord and the Sardinian Action Party. How do you explain that? Well, it’s the evolution of Italian politics – put your principles to one side and make tactical alliances, but I don’t think that has achieved anything.

Sardinia has given Italy two presidents. Francesco Cossiga was one. I remember that in Sardinia everyone criticised him, not because of how he governed, but because he didn’t do anything for the island. People didn’t realise that Cossiga wasn’t a President from a nationalist Sardinian party, but rather an Italian Christian democrat of Sardinian origin who was working for Italy.

N: You spoke earlier about the pro-independence candidate Murgia. A member of her list, Omar Onis, told me that “Sardinian autonomy has ended up becoming a fetish and, at the same time, a burden, a weapon of distraction for the masses”. Do you agree?

M.F.: Yes, because it’s an autonomy which doesn’t work in reality. Sardinian politicians weren’t able to utilise the autonomy to win more space for self-government. They haven’t worked systematically, like the Catalan political class did, to increase self-government. Even the Sicilians have been more able to gain more self-government. After 2000 there was an attempt to write another Statute for Sardinia, but it didn’t go anywhere in the end.

Another problem, on top of that, is that Sardinia carries very little weight within Italy. Sicily and Sardinia are both autonomous regions, but Sicily has double the population and sends more members of parliament to Rome. Thus the Italian state has heard Sicilian voices a lot more than Sardinian ones. This can be seen in many aspects: for example in the difficulties which Sardinia has consistently had in negotiating more favourable prices, or discounts, for the islanders who have to use aerial or maritime means of transport. Any Sardinian victory has been seen by Rome almost as a concession and that’s partly because Sardinia hasn’t had the instruments to reap the benefits of its power. Corsica, on the other hand, has achieved much better conditions, and that even with the complicated history between the island and the French state.

N: In fact, Corsican political life has, for the last few years, undergone developments which still seem far off in Sardinia: the members of the Corsican Assembly – and not just the Corsican nationalist parties – have agreed on a series of demands, such as the co-officiality of the language, the demand for a form of Corsican citizenship, the PADDUC… That has culminated, now, with the historic victory of the Corsican parties in the elections on the 13th of December last year. Now there is a lot of French media attention on Corsica. And what the Corsicans have achieved, they’ve done with a population which represents a much smaller part of the population of France than that of Sardinia in Italy. Why is there this difference?

M.F.: I think that the topic of violence explains a lot of things regarding how it has arrived at where it is. The French state takes more interest in Corsica in general. I was there in 2012 and even then the press talked a lot about the attacks of the FLNC – without mortalities – during what was called “the blue night”.

N: Therefore, you think that in this way, the independence movement has forced the French state to give more attention to Corsica.

M.F.: In a way yes.

N: But beyond the violence, afterwards you need to go to the elections and get people to vote for you.

M.F.: For sure. And many of those who were part of the FLNC during the ‘70s and ‘80s saw that and moved into politics. There was also a geopolitical factor. Corsica has a marked Italian influence. It’s not that Italy has recently made claims Corsica – as it did during Risorgimento and fascist era –, but it could theoretically be possible. During the years of more intense violence on Corsica, Corsican nationalists were running programmes from a radio station on the island of Elba, near the Tuscan coast. And the French secret service blew it up. This geopolitical issue may help explain France’s attention towards Corsica. Nobody, however, has claims on Sardinia.

Another factor to keep in mind is that many people from continental France end up living on Corsica. The French government might have an interest in resolving its problems with the Corsican nationalists.

N: A Corsican nationalism which has presented a united front in the second round of elections, something which has been a key for victory.

M.F.: That the coalition of pro-autonomy and pro-independence Corsican parties won was great news. The first generation of Corsican nationalists who decided on the political path appeared in the ‘50s, but the reaction of the French state was very severe, even hysterical. The youth section of the Corsican Regionalist Action party moved to the FLNC as a reaction. After that came France’s dirty war against the Corsican nationalists, with the creation even of a type of French GAL, the FRANCIA. This interrupted the evolution of Corsican nationalist movement. Now it’s as if they’ve managed to move past this interruption and the Corsican nationalist movement can return to politics.

N: In 2017 Corsica will have a new political entity, the unique territorial authority, which the current Corsican government wants to make as pro-autonomous as possible. In Italy, on the other hand, we’ve spent months following the debate over the constitutional reform put forward by the prime minister Matteo Renzi in which many voices in Sardinia, in Friuli or in the Vall d’Aosta accused him of wanting to centralise powers.

M.F.: That started during Berlusconi’s era, with the idea of extending a form of strange federalism through the whole of Italy in alliance with Lega Nord. It seems that Renzi is following the line of watering down the autonomy of the five regions with a special statute. It may be that Renzi wants to make a more centralised state. We hope that it’s just his own idea and not something more general in Italian politics.

Interview with David Forniès (@davidfornies). Translation from Catalan by Alex Berry.