Among the many colourful characters in Nissart history, Catarina Segurana holds a special place in the hearts of locals, and for good reason.
Ask any French person the name of a female patriotic heroine who fearlessly faced off with enemy armies, the answer will be Jeanne d’Arc. Unless you ask a Niçois – then it’s Catarina Segurana. Her feisty and fearless intervention saved the besieged city from the Franco-Ottoman invasion in August 1543. Her weapons of choice to repel hostile soldiers? A wooden paddle. And the sight of her blank derrière.
It has therefore become a beloved local tradition to honour La Ségurane’s heroism and bravery on November 25, the feast day of St. Catherine, with a wreath-laying ceremony at her memorial in Old Town (pictured below), a mass in the splendid and rarely accessible St. Augustin church straight across, and local traditional song and dance. This year though the Niçois were treated to an extra-special performance…. we’ll tell you about that in a minute.
But first, a look back to the historic events of 1543. Catarina Segurana, a local washerwoman, and her fisherman husband live a simple and quiet life in Nice while there is warring activity all around the Mediterranean. She is nicknamed La Maufaccia (the Ugly One), not for her looks but for her fierce and determined demeanour. After years of Italian-French disputes over the region, the French army under François de Bourbon and Turkish Ottoman forces, led by Hayreddin Barbarossa, join up to take Nice from Charles II, Duke of Savoy. A fleet of 110 galleys lands in Villefranche, 6 kilometers east of Nice, completely destroying the peaceful fisher village. Days later, as the attackers arrive in Nice, they meet with stiff resistance. The Niçois have barricaded themselves behind the castle walls, determined to defend their city while cannon balls rain down on them.
The standoff culminates in a major battle on 15 August. At the head of the local citizen defense, none other than Catarina, armed only with her washerwoman’s wooden peddle. One sharp blow with it sends the first enemy soldier in her path spinning. Our heroine grabs his flag, and, so the story goes, uses it to wipe her bare posterior with. This is more humiliation than the tough Muslim aggressor army can bear, and off they run.
Whether the latter part is true or if it is a colourful legend, is not ascertained. For a couple of centuries after this feat, there is not even a mention of Catarina in the archives. This has created a bit of myth, relegating her into the realm of lore and legend rather than the history book. A couple of centuries later, historians begin to agree that she was indeed very much alive, but men were simply too embarrassed to admit that it was a woman who singlehandedly delivered the city from the enemy. She was eventually saved from oblivion by historians and writers who have since revived her life and her stories in countless books, poems and plays.
Speaking of plays…. one such was put on at the 2016 homage to the brave lady, and one that could not have been better told: “Catarina Segurana!”, jointly written by Sylviane Palomba, Thomas Marenda, Pierre Petitfrère (who all also perform), and Frédéric Rey (who directs), co-produced by Théâtre de la Semeuse, Les Soufflarts, and la Chance du Débutant, and performed at Centre Culturel la Providence. It is the title heroine’s story, exquisitely performed in Italian commedia dell’arte style, complete with masks, sword fights, and lots and lots of humor. Taking unabashed artistic license to stray into other centuries, all the historic characters that played a role in the siege show up, from Barbarossa to Souleyman the Magnificent, the Duke of Savoy to François le Bourbon, as well as the odd visitor from later times. And they all brilliantly poke fun of some modern day references …. the virtues of line fishing over mass fishery, tourism marketing, or the old rivalry with Marseille, for example… elevating the play from educational to hilarious, with a pace and energy quite unusual for France. But then again, this is really Nizza, with all its Italian bravado. The audience, among them President of the Paca Region Christian Estrosi and City Councillor Jean-Luc Gag, rewarded the show with long minutes of standing ovations, and the president’s promise to ensure it will be performed in schools throughout the region.
This play was representative of Nice in every way. Mixing history, folklore and culture, with a side of hearty humour, is what Nice does best. The result is a joyful, flamboyant mélange of rich and earthy flavors, like its people and its heroes. Here, ceremony isn’t stiff or elitist. The spirit of this region is one of pride in its roots, and resistance to what Paris dictates or what other cultures want to impose… and always has been, just like back when Catarina Segurana defied the Paris-Ottoman coalition.
Théâtre de la Semeuse
2, montée Auguste Kerl
Tel: +33 4 93 92 85 08
Lead image © François Le Niçois; photo of Catarina Segurana plaque and celebrations © Natja Igney; all other images courtesy Catarina Segurana Facebook page