The Republic of Cospaia, the tiny independent state that arose from a mistake and lasted four centuries thanks to tobacco

Earlier we talked here about Goust, a French town in the Pyrenees that legend claims to be an independent republic since the 17th century. Despite the attractiveness of the situation, in reality the story is false and the result of a misinterpretation in an informal conversation.

However, there are very similar examples, this time completely true and contrasted, and no less surprising: the Galician Mixed Preserve, which lasted nine centuries, and whose history we have already told a long time ago; or the Republic of Cospaia in Italy, which remained independent for almost four centuries.

This one is especially curious because its birth was the result of an error, its extension did not reach 3 square kilometers, and it prospered thanks to more or less questionable activities and the cultivation of tobacco.

It all started with the Council of Basel, convened in the Swiss city on February 1, 1431 by Pope Martin V, who died 19 days later. His successor, Eugene IV, seeing that the conciliar theses begin to prevail against the authority of the Pope, decides to dissolve it on December 18. However, the participants refuse and hold the council meetings.

Given this Eugenio IV orders the transfer of the council to Ferrara in 1437. However, many remain in Basel and declare the pope deposed. Two years later the council moved again, this time to Florence, where the pope had established his residence. For their part, in Basel they elect a new pope (antipope), Felix V.

Before all this, already in 1430 Eugene IV had run out of funds and turned to the Medici, from whom he asked for a loan of 25,000 gold florins, a considerable sum for the time. So much so that as a guarantee the pontiff offers a small portion of territory of the Papal States in Umbria, the town of Borgo Sansepolcro (today Sansepolcro in Tuscany) and its surroundings together with its inhabitants.

Ten years later, in 1440, when the loan expired, the pope was unable to make the payment to the Medici bank and handed over the territory offered as collateral. And this is where the problem comes.

The agreement between the two parties established a small tributary river of the Tiber as a new border between Florence and the Papal States. But those sent by both parties to carry out the relevant measurements erroneously chose a different river each, both near and tributaries of the Tiber in the area. The Florentines the westernmost river, and the papal envoys the easternmost.

Cospaia situation between the two rivers / public domain photo

Between both rivers there was a strip of land with the village of Cospaia. As soon as the inhabitants of the place found out about the misunderstanding, they did not take long to proclaim themselves as an independent republic, with its own flag and council of elders. The Republic of Cospaia had been born while both Cosimo de’ Medici and Eugenio IV ignored the matter. They probably had more important things to worry about or it would benefit them to have a hinge state between the two of them.

The fact is that the Republic of Cospaia prospered for almost 4 centuries, with barely a hundred houses and around 300 inhabitants, as a free trade zone without taxes. They continued to use the services of milling wheat and the doctor of their neighbors in San Giustino to the south and Borgo Sansepolcro to the north, and in religious matters they continued to depend on the bishop of the latter town.

It would be precisely to the bishop that his uncle, Cardinal Niccolo Tornabuoni, apostolic nuncio in Paris, would send the seeds of a medicinal plant brought from America: tobacco. With the advent of tobacco, Cospaia became the first place in Italy where the new plant was cultivated. And he did it in such large numbers that the trade (and smuggling) soon became a monopoly, since it was prohibited in the surrounding states (the use of tobacco was abolished by Pope Benedict XIII in 1724 and smokers excommunicated).

Merchants from Genoa, Venice, Naples and other cities came to Cospaia to carry out exchanges and business, the Jewish merchants, marginalized in many places, welcome in the small republic, which on the other hand did not have an army or police, not even prisons or judicial system. The only written law was the sentence on the door of the church: Perpetua and Libertas Firm (Firm and eternal freedom), now kept in the Anghiari museum.

But in 1826, barely 50 years before the start of Italian unification, the people of Cospai saw how Pope Leo XII and the Duke of Tuscany forced them to sign the Act of Subjugation, by which they submitted to voluntarily and sacrificed 385 years of independence. The territory was divided between the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and the Papal States. In exchange, each of the 14 signatory representatives of the territory (the heads of the 14 families that still lived in Cospaia) received a silver coin and permission to grow half a million tobacco plants a year.

Today the town celebrates the Cospaia Banquet every year, to remember the freedoms they once enjoyed.

As for the Council whose expenses indirectly led to the independence of Cospaia, it ended with the unification of the Orthodox and Catholic churches (in addition to the Armenian, Coptic, Syrian, Chaldean and Maronite churches of Cyprus) in 1445. All a success for Eugene IV who managed to see his authority recognized by all of Christianity. Those from Basel continued to meet until 1449 when, probably out of boredom, the antipope Felix abdicated and they went to his houses.

The union, which had been more theoretical than practical, lasted until the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks, when the Orthodox and Catholics separated again definitively in 1472.


The Tobacco Fields of Freedom: Cospaia / Bill Thayer’s Web Site / Umbria Touring / The Two Councils / Ex Repubblica di Cospaia / Wikipedia.