The incredible story of Cospaia

The writing is still there, carved on the lintel of the little church: “Perpetua et firma libertas”. It is the fleeting, almost hidden trace of an incredible story: that of Cospaia, a small town in the Upper Tiber Valley that, for nearly four hundred years, was the smallest republic in the world.

A lazy hill. A few houses, almost hugging the small Temple of the Confraternita, barely separated from the short and squat elevation of Via San Lorenzo. All around, the silence of a quiet countryside. The border between Umbria and Tuscany must certainly pass through here somewhere. Within a radius of twenty kilometres, the road signs show place names that confuse travellers. There is Caprese, the tiny, wooded birthplace of the great Michelangelo. Not far away, the beloved land of Piero della Francesca: Sansepolcro. The first hours of dawn provide the same, extraordinary light that the artist poured into his paintings. The clarity of perspective, the wonder of the colours, the emotion in the eyes. Like that experienced by those who contemplate the “Madonna del Parto”, a moving tribute the artist made to Monterchi, the birthplace of his mother. A piece of Umbria in Tuscany. Or vice versa. It’s not important. It’s just a question of boundaries. A stone’s throw away, there’s Città di Castello with its extensive art gallery: Raphael, Signorelli, Ghirlandaio.

Alongside the straight and easy road, suddenly there’s Anghiari: the tranquil plain reminds one of the famous battle and the great lost painting by Leonardo.

The beauty blurs the boundaries between the two regions. History was made at Cospaia. Accidentally. Almost a twist of fate.

One Rio too many. It happened in 1441. Ten years earlier, the Venetian Pope Eugene IV had requested a loan of 25,000 gold florins from Cosimo the Elder, judicious creator of the Medici dynasty. It was a lot of money. A mountain of money that the “servant of Peter” used to finish an expensive and exhausting struggle with the Council of Basel. The forward-looking Cosimo demanded a guarantee. Eugene IV gave him a mortgage on the town of Borgo San Sepolcro and its surroundings. But at the expiration of the agreement, the pontiff, was no longer able to repay the astronomical sum. The fertile crescent of land then passed from the pope to the Republic of Florence. New boundaries were immediately set and the maps were updated.

Under the agreement, the boundary between the two states was supposed to pass at the height of the Rio torrent, a tributary of the nearby Tiber. But there were two parallel rivers running down from Mount Gurzole. The locals called both by the same name: Rio. Although, just to be precise, the northern one was called Gorgaggia and the southern one Riascone.

The fact is that, as often happens, the special commissions appointed to redraw the boundaries didn’t talk to each other and each worked on its own. The Florentines drew the new boundary at the first stream, near Sansepolcro, and the emissaries of the pope took as their starting point the second river, near San Giustino. Thus, by an error in calculation and geography, Cospaia and its countryside were claimed by neither Rome nor Florence. That little piece of land between two tributaries of the Tiber was left off the maps of both states: a thin strip, just over 300 hectares, with the village of Cospaia and its 350 inhabitants in the middle on a little hill. A small people forgotten by all. A no man’s land. The cospaiesi, illiterate, but quick-witted, didn’t make a fuss. In fact, they were quick to proclaim the “Republic of Cospaia”. When the Pope and Florence realized the error, they thought it best to leave well enough alone: it would be too difficult to call into question a complicated treaty in an area that, from a strategic point of view, appeared insignificant.

A “buffer” state. The two states had been allies and, especially in that time of tumultuous historical events, were occupied elsewhere. Perhaps Cosimo and Eugene IV, both lovers of the classics, laughed over the error, thinking of the maximum of Pliny the Elder: “In reality, there’s nothing bad that doesn’t have something good.” A “buffer state” was convenient for all. Especially in a period of permanent wars. To exchange goods without paying duty. To turn a blind eye when it was really the case to do so. In short, Cospaia was not a problem. And if it was, it did not appear insurmountable. The solution could be postponed. The error of measurement became law. The new map was sanctioned in a bull, dated 1441, preserved in the Annali Camaldolesi (Annals of Camaldoli).

The cospaiesi soon realized that being forgotten was not a disaster but an advantage: their land, free from heavy taxes, was more profitable. Trade was growing. The unknown freedom was intoxicating: no tyrant, no master, no despot to account to. Sitting, then as now, in front of their houses, watching the beautiful plain below at sunset, between one chat and another, day after day, they became aware of the fact that, if living in hiding didn’t bring happiness, it at least brought good fortune.

The anarchist republic. That village on the hill soon became a “free port”. Its inhabitants created an anarchist republic. In a literal sense. No government. No taxes or soldiers. There was no need for laws, prisons, armies, police, codes, statutes and courts. Settling questions needed only a council of elders and the group of heads of families. For the services of milling grain and medical care, the cospaiesi continued to rely on the residents of San Giustino. The priest was, in fact, the ‘”ambassador” to the nearby bishop of Città di Castello and the Pope himself. He was probably the only resident of the Lilliputian republic that even knew how to read and write. Moreover, the cospaiesi knew how to do arithmetic. Although anchored to the ancient custom of bartering, their economy was growing, even at the expense of their neighbours, oppressed by endless taxes. For all the neighbouring towns, the little republic became “the land of plenty”. It even had a flag: half white and half black, divided diagonally, with four “teeth” on the right side. It was proudly displayed on the roofs of the village, displayed at festivals, hoisted on the edges of the fields cultivated by neighbouring papal and Florentine farmers who were forced to mark their land with less noble scarecrows. The republic forgotten Cospaia went forward, to the satisfaction of its inhabitants. But 133 years later, one morning in 1574, a new fact changed the history of the small state yet again.

That unexpected gift. It happened that the abbot Alfonso Tornabuoni, Bishop of Sansepolcro, received a valuable gift from his nephew, Cardinal Niccolò Tornabuoni, then papal nuncio and ambassador of the Medici in Paris. The package sent by the high prelate contained seeds of a then little-known medicinal plant: tobacco. It reached Europe from South America in the early sixteenth century. As early as 1518, Cortes, the Spanish conqueror of Cuba, sent some seeds to Charles V. The first cultivation took place, for ornamental purposes, in the royal garden of Lisbon. On his return to Paris, Jean Nicot, French ambassador to Portugal, thought to make a gift of it to his queen, Catherine de’Medici. He earned her gratitude and also undying fame: the active ingredient of tobacco, nicotine, still bears his name today. At the court of Catherine the plant, first crushed and then cooked with pork fat, cured the terrible ulcers of Francis II, the sickly son of the great queen, who thrilled by the miraculous medicine, then also spread the fashion of smoking. But tobacco, named for Tobago, one of the distant islands of America where it was grown, was considered a remedy for many other things: it cured fevers and syphilis, alleviated toothaches and cleared the voice. All this, the bishop of Sansepolcro recipient of the gift, did not yet know. He certainly could not have foreseen that, in the future, the Church would consider those seeds to be the “devil’s plant”.

“Tornabuona grass”. But then, in 1574, the bishop appreciated his nephew’s gift. As an act of indulgence towards his brother’s son, he lovingly planted the seeds in the garden of the bishop’s palace. From the prelate’s garden to Cospaia there were fewer than four kilometres. That mysterious plant, known as “Tornabuona grass” in honour of Niccolò, quickly reached there and began to be grown in the small republic and, for the first time in history, in Italian territory. Snuff and smoking tobacco. When, nearly a century later in 1642, Pope Urban VIII excommunicated all smokers, in Cospaia, where even the forbidden was allowed, the cultivation of tobacco became the most profitable business. To irrigate the fields during drought, a pond was created at the foot of the village that is still used for fishing for carp and sturgeon.

The Italian capital of tobacco. The tiny republic was transformed into the Italian capital of tobacco. It remained so even when another Pope, Benedict XIII, eager to feed the meagre income of the Vatican, imposed a duty on its cultivation in 1724. In Cospaia, the taxes were not paid. The prohibitions had never come into effect. Tobacco became contraband. Cospaia returned under the magnifying glasses of the powerful neighbouring states. The Pope and the Grand Duke of Tuscany discussed at length how to eliminate the anomaly of the small republic. But more pressing problems intervened. The small state in the Upper Tiber Valley even survived the Napoleonic era and the new political order which followed the Congress of Vienna. Only four republics in the world survived the reunification of the “throne and altar”: the United States, Switzerland, San Marino and Cospaia.

Remembering those times, Filippo Natali wrote: “In 1815,Cospaia had become an emporium of commerce. Trading houses, the most important companies, especially of the sect of the Israelites, from Genoa, Livorno, Civitavecchia, Naples, Ancona, etc., established their warehouses there, and even the most modest room of the villa, up until then used as agricultural offices, was changed into the depot of merchants, who kept their goods there, especially textiles and groceries, that entered free of any customs duty.” This was too much for Pope Leo XII, who had already prohibited the waltz, branded as “obscene dance”, and closed the taverns. After the Jubilee, he introduced strict measures against the Carbonari and the Jews, even prohibiting any “economic transaction between Christians and Jews” and also trade and opening stores and warehouses managed by the Israelites outside of the ghetto.

A “papetto” to forget. Cospaia’s days of smuggling prohibited goods were now numbered. The Pope starved its inhabitants and, in agreement with the Grand Duke of Tuscany, forced the remaining fourteen heads of household to sign “the act of subjugation”. The community was still granted the opportunity to continue to grow tobacco “up to a maximum of half a million plants”. The compensation for their lost freedom was a silver coin, with the severe profile of the pontiff on one side. The cospaiesi, using irony, for centuries the only weapon they had learned to wield, called it “papetto” – the Italian word papa for pope suffixed with –etto to indicate smallness – to remind themselves how little they were paid for an independence they had tenaciously defended for 385 long years.

Thus ended the incredible history of the Republic of Cospaia. Almost a fairy tale that is still told to the children of the town during the festival that is celebrated every year among the little houses of the village at the end of June. Beautiful, like a nursery rhyme to remember. It is, perhaps, for this reason that the modern elementary school was named after Gianni Rodari. Just past the beautiful English lawn in front of the school, right next to the Italian flag, there still waves the white and black flag divided by a diagonal of the ancient and miniscule republic, proclaimed by a topographic error in 1441, after the Battle of Anghiari, and declared dissolved in 1826 on the eve of the tempestuous Unification.

A year later, a few hundred meters from the glorious village, Buitoni was founded, which later would become Perugina.

But that’s another story.

Federico Fioravanti

Directions by car

From the South: A1 motorway; Orte exit; E45 highway; direction Cesena; exit San Giustino.

From the North: A1 motorway; Arezzo exit; direction Città di Castello; E45 highway; direction Cesena; exit San Giustino.

From the East: A14 motorway; Cesena Nord exit; E45 highway; direction Rome; exit San Giustino.


19 August 2015 Federico Fioravanti

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