Renaissance Italy was a stage for many improvisations and experiments and a plethora of achievements in the arts and in sciences. Comprised of dozens city states, Italy has also been a theater for numerous military and political conflicts of the time. Many different forms of governments developed - duchies, kingdoms and republics. Monarchs and families were constantly embroiled in conflicts as well mutual trade. But no state was similar to the Republic of Cospaia.
In 1431 the newly elected Pope, Eugene IV, took a loan of 25.000 gold florins from the Medici family, who ruled neighboring Florence. As a collateral against the loan, the Pope gave them the town of Borgo San Sepolcro and its districts, located in the northern Papal States. Nine years later, in 1440, the Holy See defaulted on its loan. Ambassadors from both Rome and Florence agreed on the new borders, across the river of the upper Tiber. But the ambassadors, missed out a part on which the river flow split in two, thus creating a horn, upon which the village of Cospaia was situated. This location covered approximately 825 acres.
When the people of Cospaia realized what had happened, they soon declared Cospaia independent. So, Republic of Cospaia was born. Both the Papal States and Florence dismissed the claims to independence and remained dormant. After the long talks about the precise borders between the ambassadors had been concluded, the two kingdoms were reluctant to reopen the negotiations. After all, a small state that posed no actual threat seemed an idea worth supporting, since its place between the two kingdoms formed a buffer zone.
Cospaia was a city state, the only one of its peculiar kind. It was a self-governed state, with no actual government. There were no executive, legislative and judicial branches of an imposed government. It is safe to use an anachronistic term to describe Cospaia as an anarchist republic. Since there was no government, there were no taxes in this land relating to any economic activity. Subsequently, there was no standing army or prisons. With no army or ruler to compel the city to war, Cospaians focused on their personal matters and their personal economic activity. Everyday executive matters were administered by the Council of Elders and Heads of the Family, who met in the Church of the Annunziata.
It was on the architrave of this church that the people of Cospaia engraved the motto of the state and indeed the motto of the life they led: “Perpetua et firma libertas”, translating as “Perpetual and firm liberty”. Cospaia never took part in any territorial conflict. Even if the Republic wanted to do so, its neighbors would annihilate it with great ease. So, in order to expand their wealth, the citizens of Cospaia turned to trade.
In 1574 Cospaia devoted its limited farmland to the cultivation of tobacco which had only recently made its appearance in Europe. Tobacco was a heavily taxed state monopoly almost everywhere else. Worse still, in the Papal States it was forbidden under penalty of excommunication. Only after two centuries, in 1724, did Pope Benedict XIII revoke the excommunication of smokers.
In a brief period of time, the untaxed production of tobacco made the Republic a wealthy trading hub. The regulations against tobacco seemed to only bolster the Cospaian economy. Decrease in supply all over Italy and Europe thanks to their overregulation and the absence of any regulations and tariffs in Cospaia were the main, important reasons that Cospaia became a prosperous hub of the tobacco trade. Cospainas conducted business with Jews, among others, in Genoa, Livorno, Civitavecchia, Naples, and Ancona. The reason for that was, that the Jews were not subjected to Papal banns and did not consider excommunication a threat. Being people of a different faith, they did not acknowledge any spiritual authority of the Pope.
Napoleon occupied the Republic of Cospaia for a short period, after which it was revived. But the Republic of Cospaia would never again return to its prime. After centuries, the free state of Cospaia began to move towards its downfall. The small strip of land became a refuge for many outlaws and criminals from all over Italy. The concept of liberty had been corrupted and economic freedom was abused for smuggling and other activities of criminal parties.
On May 25th 1826 the Holy See and the Grand-Duke of Florence decided to put an end to the Cospaian experiment. Not only had it become a haven of outlaws but the two rulers realized they were missing a great opportunity from the taxation over the economic activity. The heads of the fourteen remaining households singed the “Act of Subjugation”, to the Papal State. The residents were given a silver coin with the Pope’s image, and license to continue to grow tobacco for the Papal State. To this day the people of Cospaia hold an annual festival to celebrate the freedoms they once enjoyed.
Cospaia offers an important lesson to our societies and inspires our endeavors to create new, alternative forms of societies. Cospaia proves that there are always opportunities to change the status quo, even under authoritarian regimes. Cospaians took advantage of inter-state politics and acquired their much valued independence at an opportune time. Shortly afterwards, in order to survive the antagonism of large states in an agricultural society, the let the free market guide them to their salvation. The cultivation of tobacco gave to the Republic the opportunity to survive for centuries and flourish.
Yet, Cospaia offers another great political lesson to be learned. Self-government and self-determination can be the basis of a stateless system that needs no laws and no violence to enforce them. Even amid turbulent relationships between large states with complex institutions, hubs of political and economic freedom can be established and thrive. As long as people have the courage to act at the right time and adapt rapidly to new situations.