One day Martha and I decided to have lunch outside the Lunigiana. I needed an overview picture of Anghiari for a project. We found a very nice osteria in the countryside with the old, traditional cuisine we can’t get enough of.
After lunch we drove around. There were surprises around every bend in the road. A church here, a tower there.
For example, we screeched to a stop for Pieve di Santa Maria alla Sovara. It has roots back to about the year 1000. It turns out the little country church is a favorite place for marriages and baptisms. Folks claim you can easily walk from Anghiari to see it if you don’t have a car.
The inside is sparse, but there is some art on the wall.
A Pieve is a country church, just stuck out there with the nightingales and racoons. It’s almost always worth a short stop.
But then we turned to go.
“What’s that? What kind of greens are they harvesting?” Martha asked as if I were the gardener of our coupleship.
“It’s not greens. No. I’m pretty certain that’s…tobacco.”
And so we went over to bother the working woman, who could hardly contain her giddiness at the idea of the idiot tourist who wanted to photograph her at work.
Enter the Toscano
It was evidently harvest time for tobacco. The woman ties them to the drying rack—to be used in Tuscany’s famous cigar, the Toscano.
But here’s the thing. I’ve seen Tuscan tobacco “sheds” turned into fine tourist housing. I’ve read the lit that tells me that at one time Italian farmers raised small amounts of tobacco for a crash crop. But it all seems to have ended. Yes, the church discouraged the practice of smoking some time ago.
But here it was. Why here?
Like many explorers, you don’t know what you’ve found until you’ve returned home. No, we hadn’t actually been to the east indies, Cap’n Christopher. A little excursion on the Internet told us that we were quite near a piece of history. That history includes tobacco and other smuggling as well as—are you ready?— anarchy.
Enter the Republic of Cospaia
We were near the western edge of the valley called Valtiberina, on the Tuscany side of the border with Umbria, within which you’ll find the site of the now-defunct Republic of Cospaia. The republic came about by an accident in surveying.
In drawing new boundaries between the territory of Florence and that of the Papal States, Piero della Francesca on the Tuscan side and his understudy Fra Luca Pacioli on the Papal side worked independently. The boundary was to be determined by the Rio, a nearby tributary of the Tiber. But there were actually two tributaries, and each was set as the boundary by their respective mappers.
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. — The incredible story of Cospaia
The Florentines and the Papal State had created a buffer zone. The folks inside created an anarchist republic. No government. No taxes or soldiers. No need for laws, prisons, armies, police, codes, statutes and courts. The single creed, “Perpetua et firma liberta”, “Eternal and Firm Liberty” can still be read on the wall of the little church.
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 incredible story of Cospaia
Through a series of gifts of seeds, tobacco began to find its way into Cospaia around 1574. Then, in 1642 Pope Urban VIII excommunicated all smokers and in Cospaia, where everything was allowed, tobacco became a very 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 and for gazing into at night. You can see it on the map. You can see it from the Bar Ristorante Il Covo Del Contrabbanediere.
Tobacco was the thing that put Cospaia on the map, they were first in Italy to grow the Kentucky plant, but tobacco wasn’t the only big draw in town. Goods flew into every available space, duty free. It was quite a heyday.
The republic which stood for 385 years was absorbed into the Papal States in 1826, but the tobacco trade lived on.
The famous Tuscan cigar is still made in Lucca (and in Cava de Terreni), but the Valtiberina supplies much of the raw materials.
Manifatture Sigaro Toscano maintains a very nice website in English, which includes an interesting section on the women who roll the cigars. They were among the first women to be included with the same rights as men in the work market, and by the start of the first world war there were 16,000 of them! It is said you can use the contact form on the website to arrange a tour of the facility.
If You Go
We had a very pleasant Stay in a well-furnished apartment at Agriturismo Val della Pieve. It’s located just a few minutes walk from the center of Anghiari.
At the end of June you can celebrate the Cospaia Republic 1441-1826 – Historical commemoration (Cospaia, San Giustino)
Interesting read: Pinocchio in the ancient Republic of Cospaia.