21 Feb 2011

From Home to Rubble in Sixty Years (Part 1)

This article is about architectural decay/ abnegation achieved through the devastating effects of a combination of organised and opportunistic pillage, subjected to and illustrated by one of my grandma's properties.

I thought I'd share some of my knowledge and thoughts about this Corsican house with you, and how since it became uninhabited in the 1950s, my family, and then myself, have personally, painfully and powerlessly witnessed its escalating demise. The least I thought I could do was to pay tribute to this property, Maison Bonavita, and vent a few home truths in the process, in true La Baguette Magique style...

Maison Bonavita certainly was no ordinary Corsican home, with its mid-19th century style and modern comfort that gave the cold shoulder to any rustic preconceptions. It stood slightly aside from the nearest hamlet, on the hillside with commanding views to die for. In those days (and this still does apply nowadays to an extent), bourgeois houses and mansions always stood on elevations, with a vantage point.

Further up the path two American palazzi dating back to the same time period can still be found (one of which now derelict). American palazzi were so named in reference to those 19th century Corsican emigrants (mainly from the Cap Corse 'micro-région') who had made a fortune in Puerto Rico as coffee plantation owners and returned to Corsica (either permanently or temporarily) to build ostentatious mansions and necropolises flaunting their new wealth.

Our rural gentry retreat was what we'd call a maison bourgeoise, a status home of sorts compared to earlier, more rustic stocky constructions found in Corsican villages, often characterised by exposed stonework. Maison Bonavita's internal and external stonemasonry had been carefully rendered through to achieve that modern sleek finish. The rooms were spacious and ceilings higher than traditional Corsican rural dwellings.

The house was made up of two conjoined buildings linked up by a solid slate-floored entrance porch which you accessed via a ravishing curved paved staircase (which I do proudly remember), a work of art in itself that would cost a pretty penny to commission today! I am told that in the Summer, a specially-commissioned awning held by purpose-built wooden posts would be stretched across the porch, as a sun-screen/ parasol. Pictured above is what is left today of the once-glorious staircase area...

According to mémé, Maison Bonavita boasted two reception rooms. The house was tastefully decorated, as testified by the original ornate painted plasterwork, some fragments still visible today amongst the rubble as all the floors and ceilings have now regretfully caved in. The furniture was also rather refined - I am told - and contrary to the typical rural Corsican dwellings, this house not only had internal and external wooden shutters, it also had curtains, a penchant for civilised urban home interiors.

The house displayed countless attentions to detail in their minutiae, a proud yet sober display of architectural elegance, a sense of proportion and knowledgeable use of noble materials, in contrast with our modern-day Corsican properties which are hastily and cheaply put together!

Immediately underneath the porch stood a small standalone ground-level cellar. From personal recollection, I would say that the house had at least a total of four standalone ground-level cellars, one of which still equipped to this day with a rectangular stone basin used for wine-making. There was also a built-in bread-oven by the kitchen, to the rear of the property.

Finally Maison Bonavita was flanked by garden terraces landscaped with olive trees (still present). Yet one can easily imagine fragrant rose bushes and delicate lilies mingling to the more Mediterranean flora, in cottage garden style. (to be continued)

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