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A town in western Umbria, a frazione of S. Giustino: 43°34N, 12°10.4E. Altitude: 371 m.

[image ALT: A more or less rectangular pond at the foot of several small hills. It is a view of the immediate environs of the town of Cospaia, Umbria (central Italy).]

Earthen embankments provide a pond for irrigation of the tobacco crop — and a much frequented venue for recreational fishing, stocked with carp, trout, tench, and chub.

Cospaia, a frazione of the comune of S. Giustino just 2 km to the S, would not in the normal course of things get its own page on my site: it's a tiny place, all of six or eight city blocks if that, greyish stuccoed houses with nothing particular to attract the attention of the traveler — and the very small hill on which it sits has not isolated it enough from the ugly welter of commercial and industrial construction, crisscrossed by what seems like far too many roads, that stretches almost uninterruptedly from Città di Castello to Sansepolcro in Tuscany: a built‑up area into which it is now almost completely absorbed.

[image ALT: A stuccoed one-and-a‑half story building the size of a small house, with a rectangular front door flanked by two small square windows at about waist height, and above the door, a circular window maybe a meter across. It is a view of the church of Cospaia, Umbria (central Italy).]
[image ALT: Against a flat stuccoed surface, a wooden door in a brick frame, with an inscription over it, protected by tile eaves about 50 cm deep. It is the door of the church in Cospaia, Umbria (central Italy).]

The parish church of S. Lorenzo is modern, obviously.

Yet Cospaia is a famous place, and I could not resist coming here, even if the only trace of what I came to find was the inscription over the door of this church:

[image ALT: An inscription, the text of which is given on this page, over the door of the church of Cospaia, Umbria (central Italy).]

Perpetua et firma libertas:
The modern inscription,
hypercorrecting "perpetua" to two words.
The old inscription is now safe (and unphotographable)
in the museum of Anghiari.

The inscription is a very odd one for the front door of a church; we usually find a dedication to its saint (here: St. Lawrence), or a record of the builder — not "firm and perpetual liberty". Even without knowing the curious history of this hamlet, then, the visitor with open eyes will be tipped off to something, at least.

So here is the story of one of the world's smallest independent countries; fans of Peter Ustinov are excused if they think of The Mouse That Roared: fiction is never invented wholesale.

The Republic of Cospaia was a mistake. No, not in the sense that governments can be, and usually are; the whole country was a mistake.

In 1440, Pope Eugene IV, strapped for cash, and owing the Grand Duke of Florence 25,000 ducats, made over to him as a pledge the town of Borgo San Sepolcro and its district in the northern Papal States — thus by the way putting Sansepolcro, as the town is now known, in Tuscany rather than in Umbria — and the treaty set as the new boundary line between their states a creek named the Rio. Rio, however, just means "river"; Italy has hundreds of little creeks by that name, and in this area, two of them just happen to run down from Mt. Gurzole about 500 m apart: so the Grand-Duke claimed the land up to Rio #1 (near Sansepolcro), the Pope claimed the land up to Rio #2 (now called the Riascone, between Sangiustino and Cospaia), and a roughly triangular strip of land including the village of Cospaia found itself between the two, belonging to neither.

The error was soon spotted of course, but the haggling involved in going back to the negotiation table didn't seem worth it at the time, and the parties left things as they were, finding no harm either in a customs-free buffer zone of 330 hectares (in real units, that's 825 acres). The inhabitants promptly declared themselves the Republic of Cospaia, with no taxes, laws, soldiers, no parasitical government: Perpetua et firma libertas — and flourished.

Curiously, some real history now comes into the mix, in which the happy independence of the "little republic" for nearly four centuries was due in large measure to a local prelate and an exotic plant. In 1574 Nicolò Cardinal Tornabuoni brought back from Spain seeds of a novel plant — tobacco — and gave them to his nephew Alfonso, bishop of Sansepolcro, just 5 km away. Originally called Tornabuoni's plant, tobacco was elsewhere to become a heavily taxed state monopoly, or, in the Papal States, forbidden under pain of excommunication by a bull of Pope Urban VIII in 1624.​a But in independent Cospaia, neither illegality nor taxation hindered the cultivation of this lucrative crop: so before long, the little republic took advantage of this niche and devoted all its farmland to it; a striking illustration of both the pointlessness of making something that people want illegal, and the baneful economic effects of taxation.

Cospaia would have had a longer run of it, and might conceivably have come down to us a free nation, had she not become a haven for every kind of smuggler, bandit and cut-throat: on May 25, 1826, Grand-Duke Leopold II and Pope Leo XII tired of this and agreed to gobble up and partition the Republic. (Actually the Papal States wound up with the lion's share, almost all of Cospaia being attached to S. Giustino: a solemn delegation of fourteen Cospaiesi assembled to sign their submission to the temporal rule of the Pope.)

If the people of Cospaia lost their smuggling revenue, they were allowed to maintain their other source of income: a tobacco plantation, with a quota of half a million plants. The tradition is still alive: not only is "Bright Cospaia" the name of a family of tobacco cultivars, but the widespread Umbrian cultivation of the cancer weed, a problematic mainstay of the region's economy even today, can be traced to this little town.

[image ALT: A view, thru a pine tree on the left and a just budding deciduous tree of some kind on the right, of a tile rooftop capped in part by a triangular brick structure about 2 meters tall, with two arches each containing a bell, and crowned by a small metal cross. It is the belfry of the church of Cospaia, Umbria (central Italy).]

The belfry of the church,
a variation on the classic campanile a vela.


a Money is money, mind you, and even the Pope would eventually come around: in 1724 Benedict XIII revoked the excommunication of smokers.

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Page updated: 17 Jul 23