Italians on Italians
Beyond Toscano

How tobacco helped a tiny town punch above its weight

Sandwiched between the provinces of Tuscany and Umbria in the Upper Tiber Valley is the small town of Cospaia...
Il Sigaro della Sera
Sandwiched between the provinces of Tuscany and Umbria in the Upper Tiber Valley is the small town of Cospaia. It’s easy to overlook. And in fact, that’s exactly what happened in 1441. Florentine’s Cosimo the Elder had loaned a large amount of money to Venetian Pope Eugene IV, accepting the town of Borgo San Sepolcro and its fertile surroundings as security. When Eugene failed to repay the loan, the town was seized by Cosimo. But due to a mix up in the names of rivers, when the boundaries of the province were redrawn by Florence, they fell short. As a result, Cospaia found itself in the unusual position of being outside both territories and promptly declared independence, to little protest.

Avoiding the rules governing other Italian provinces, the 300 acre republic of Cospaia and its 350 inhabitants prospered. With no ruler, no taxes to pay and no laws to follow, Cospaia became a desirable trading post for the wider area. But it wasn’t until 1574 that the real success story began.

One day, abbot Alfonso Tornabuoni, Bishop of neighbouring Sansepolcro, was sent a small packet of seeds from his nephew in Paris - tobacco seeds, made popular in France by Catherine de’Medici.

Dutifully, he planted them in his gardens and was surprised at how quickly they grew. Within a few years, tobacco plants had spread all the way into Cospaia, where locals embraced the introduction of this miraculous, and lucrative, new remedy that was taking Europe by storm.

When Pope Urban VIII excommunicated all smokers in 1642 and banned the cultivation of tobacco, Cospaia, outside his jurisdiction, ramped up production. Over the next few decades, Cospaia became known as the Italian capital of tobacco and its inhabitants very wealthy as a result. Some of the most important companies in the region established warehouses there to avoid taxes and the quality of life soared.

However, all good things come to an end. Finally, after 385 years of defending their independence, the 14 heads of households who ran Cospaia were forced to sign away their independence to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who had grown tired of their rebellion. It wasn’t all bad news. Cospaia was given permission to grow up to half a million plants a year, more than enough to enable the residents to continue enjoying the lifestyle they’d grown used to.