Following the discovery of the ‘Dame de Bonifacio’ (Lady of Bonifacio) skeleton in Bonifacio’s limestone cliffs (dated to 6570 BC) it’s been known that the area has a long history of human habitation.
It is also believed that there are references to its inhabitants in Homer’s Odyssey, around 7th century BC. The name Bonifacio, however, is thought to derive from the Tuscan Count Bonifacio who officially founded the town in 828 AD.
Bonifacio has also been ruled by Pisans, Genoese and French, adding to its rich diversity of character.
The ‘Dame de Bonifacio’ (Lady of Bonifacio) refers to the remains of a young woman, carbon dated to 6570 BC (i.e. from the late Mesolithic or early Neolithic period).
Her skeleton was found in the ancient cave shelter of Araguina-Sennola, near the village of Capello north of Bonifacio, proving that the area was inhabited in prehistoric times. A reproduction can be seen in Bonifacio’s Mémorial du Passé Bonifacien museum in the Bastion de L’ Étendard (the original is in Musée Départmentale in Levie).
Some believe that the giant cannibalistic Laestrygonians described in Homer’s Odyssey may refer to Bonifacio’s early inhabitants (7th century BC).
Bonifacio fits Homer’s description of an excellent harbour closed in on all sides by an unbroken ring of precipitous cliffs, with a narrow channel in between (i.e. the Goulet de Bonifacio, or Bonifacio Narrows).
Although Romans inhabited a village on the site, Bonifacio only really came into being in 828 AD, when Tuscan Count Bonifacio founded the town and from where it gets its name. He built a castle on the peninsula, given its strategic location for protecting the outermost frontier of Tuscany.
Although most of Bonifacio’s present citadel dates from later times, a round tower ‘Il Torrione’ remains from this original 9th century citadel.
In 1092, Pope Urbanus II gave Corsica to Republic of Pisa, and the Pisans ruled Bonifacio for nearly two centuries
Towards the end of the 12th century, the Genoans fought for and captured Bonifacio. They promptly massacred the local population, replacing them with Ligurians (to whom they offered exemption from tax and port duty).
The town was extended, and a large Genoan garrison built and fortified over the years, for protection against increasing attacks.
For centuries, Bonifacio’s heavily fortified citadel was considered to be impregnable.
In 1420, the King of Aragon laid siege to Bonifacio for five months, in an bid to impose the rule of Spain on Corsica. His attempt failed thanks to the tenacity of Bonifacio’s garrison and the local population who all joined in the defence of the citadel.
Legend has it that the Escalier du Roi d’Aragon (King Aragon Steps) in Bonifacio’s cliff face were carved by the Aragonese in a single night in 1420 as a surprise attack.
The steps however existed before then, probably used by locals to carry water to the citadel from a well that was discovered by monks.
The Genoans of Bonifacio faced a further siege in 1553, this time from an alliance between French troops (led by Henri II of France) and the Turkish pirate Dragut. An envoy was sent to obtain help from Genoa, however he was intercepted and forced to report back that the Genoans had refused to help. The Bonifacians were therefore tricked into agreeing to surrender. The Turks then went against their word and pillaged the town and massacred the garrison.
Together with the rest of Corsica, Bonifacio was returned to the Genoans after a short period and the port enjoyed prosperity until the late 18th century, when the French took ownership of Corsica.
The French took control of Corsica in 1768 through the Treaty of Versailles. They eliminated the autonomy and privileges that the merchants had enjoyed, ultimately leading to Bonifacio’s commercial decline as the merchants moved away.
During the two world wars of the 20th century, Bonifacio reassumed its strategic importance. The French Foreign Legion was based in Bonifacio from 1963 to the early 1980s
Today it is tourism that has revived this historical town from its prolonged period of commercial decline and transformed the town into a glamorous, sophisticated and unique historical coastal town.