In the “kingdom” of Seborga, a Game of Thrones on the Italian Riviera
According to local legend, the Templars hid the Holy Grail there. A millennium later, the self-proclaimed “kingdom” of Seborga, a pretty village overlooking the Italian Riviera, arouses all kinds of envy, between medieval folklore, claims to the “throne” and suspicion of fraud.
“It’s like a fairy tale”, told AFP, before the coronavirus epidemic, Nina Menegatto, elected in November the first “princess” in the long history of the village.
This 41-year-old German businesswoman, blue eyes and hair pulled back – in the manner of Caroline of Monaco -, visits her subjects, baby to her chest, strolling through the cobbled alleys of this mountain hamlet of 300 souls.
“I could never have imagined becoming a princess one day”, confides this manager of a real estate company in Monaco, whose ex-husband Marcello was nine years “prince” holder of Seborga.
Marcello abdicated last year and quite naturally Nina presented herself to his succession, elected by a handful of Séborgiens facing a single challenger.
For locals or passing tourists, her glittering crown is on display at the tourist office, which doubles as a shop for kitschy souvenirs and other royal trinkets.
Never proven sale
And yet, apparently we don’t mess with the monarchy in Seborga.
The “monarchs” of this territory of a few km2, clinging to the mountain in the heart of Italian Liguria near Ventimiglia and the French border, claim the status of micronation and argue for documents from the 18th century attesting according to them that the place does not has never been legally incorporated into Italy.
Their fight is also economic: to stimulate tourism, to attract new inhabitants and to avoid the depopulation which emptied the historic centers of many transalpine localities.
The “princess” Nina thus wishes to reintroduce a local currency, the Luigino, to build a luxury hotel on a neighboring hill which would offer a view of four “countries”: France, Monaco, Italy and … the “Principality of Seborga “, or a cable car to connect the village to the coast.
Seborga is not the only unrecognized micronation in the world: from the “Principality of Hutt River” in Western Australia, to the “Republic of Saugeais” in eastern France, several self-proclaimed “sovereign countries” are minting and making money. float in the wind their own colors.
But the Séborgians say it: the special status of their “principality” is based on facts, not wind, and they are determined that the government of Rome recognizes it.
King of mimosa
In 954, the village became the property of Benedictine monks and its inhabitants say that in 1079, their abbot was made prince of the Holy Roman Empire. The powerful royal dynasty of Savoy then bought it in 1697 but the transaction was never officially recorded.
For the Séborgians, this error rendered the sale obsolete and would even indicate that it never took place, while historians agree that the original deed was never found. Years of negotiations with the Duke of Savoy Victor-Amédée II, future King of Sardinia, to have the sale ratified were never successful.
For the inhabitants, this therefore means that the “principality” was excluded from the act of unifying Italy in 1861 and from the formation of the Italian Republic in 1946.
Is there therefore reason to consider this picturesque hamlet of retirees, which has only one main street, as an independent state?
Matthew Vester, professor of history at the American University of West Virginia, believes not, on the basis of “documents showing that agents of the King of Sardinia did in fact take possession of Seborga in 1729, with the consent and support of the inhabitants local”.
The Italian government ignores what it considers to be rambling. Contacted by AFP, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rome did not respond.
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has already rejected a request from the villagers. But Nina Menegatto remains determined to continue her fight for her enchanted “kingdom”, with a new team of lawyers.
For Paolo Calcagno, associate professor of history at the University of Genoa, the idea is actually based on a myth because the abbots who ran Seborga “were not princes, the title never appearing in medieval documents” , he explains to AFP.
This did not prevent a mimosa grower, Giorgio Carbone, from relaunching in the 1960s the idea of the “Principality of Seborga”.
And, having become a “prince”, to write a Constitution, create a hymn, a royal coat of arms and even a motto “Sub umbra sede” (Sit in the shade), as Gustavo Ottolenghi, an 88-year-old native retiree, recounts.
“Prince” Giorgio also raised an “army”, which today has only one man, Secondo Messali, 64, who was also “Minister” of the Interior, Finance and former “Prime Minister”. ..
In the village bar, locals explain that Nina Menegatto won in the elections (by 122 votes to 69), because she had an ambitious program to promote tourism in a region that lives mainly on agriculture and of the floral industry.
His unfortunate rival is the daughter of Giorgio Carbone. “My father gave everything for Seborga and I would have done the same”, regrets Laura Di Bisceglie, who runs the souvenir shop near a “Ministry of Foreign Affairs” at the pediment of which flaps the blue striped flag in the wind and white Seborga.
But many today are the disappointments of Giorgio Carbone who, after having rallied him on the idea of a principality, reproach him with his inability to “repair a road or a simple street lamp”, estimates Mr. Ottolenghi.
– Holy Grail –
If in winter, only a few handfuls of French hikers come to wander the quiet alleys of the village, the population rises to 2,000 people in summer, when buses full of tourists come for day trips.
They are generally greeted by the only soldier of the “principality”, blue beret and impeccable uniform, who is standing at attention in a sentry box in the central square.
Mr. Messali says he feels “both Italian and Séborgien”. Like all the inhabitants of the village, he pays his taxes in Rome, votes in the Italian elections. But he assures us that Seborga is “his adopted land”.
In addition to his daily guard tour, he jealously watches over the keys to the tiny prison, a stone room with a straw-covered floor that has not been used for centuries.
Persuaded to hold the “great secret” of the Holy Grail, the village did not hesitate to publicize it by decorating its old stone houses with images of Knights of the Temple or directing tourists to a small picturesque place where the paving stones form the cross of the order.
Even if the theory that the Grail is hidden there is a “modern myth”, according to Elena Bellomo, an expert on Templar orders at Cardiff University. There is even “no evidence of the presence of the Templars in the Seborga region in the Middle Ages,” she says.
– LuiginoCoin –
To add to this ubiquitous borderline folklore, here is a Frenchman who has landed from nowhere claiming the crown since 2016, proclaiming himself “prince of Seborga” with the title “Serene Highness” Nicolas Ier.
Surrounded by “advisers” in dark suits and dark glasses, “SAS” Nicolas Mutte settled in a residence in the village. He set up his website on his “nation-state”, proclaiming his faith in “universal and fundamental values” or “the protection of the environment”.
There he markets a “civil status register at the e-residence”, as well as a digital currency – the LuiginoCoin – allowing “mining with a very low carbon footprint”.
– Holy Sepulcher, VOSS and VEOSPSS –
Mr. Mutte is indicted in France as part of an investigation still ongoing for fraud and forging false passports and currency, charges he denies.
He explained to AFP that he had taken steps to have his title of “prince” recognized abroad, starting with Brazil which, he said, would have granted him diplomatic recognition. Contacted by AFP, the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brasilia denies it.
The man and his acolytes left the scene in March, shortly before the confinement imposed to contain the coronavirus.
“No one can stop anyone” from proclaiming themselves king, duke or princess of the area, says retired Gustavo Ottolenghi, author of a book on the history of Seborga.
Because there are other contenders for the title. A woman calling herself “Princess” Yasmine von Hohenstaufen Anjou Plantagenet, would not only have declared to be the legitimate “sovereign” in 2006 but would have also proposed to return the principality to the Italian state.
There is also the “Grand Master” of a mysterious “sovereign order” of Seborga, “Venerabilis Ordo Sancti Sepulchri”, alleged heirs of the “Templars” – with facebook account – who claim to “defend the Christian center” of Seborga and feel that their great master should wear the crown.
Or their rivals VEOSPSS (Venerabilis Equester Ordo Sacri Principatus Sancti Sepulchri) or VOSS (Venerabilis Ordo Sancti Sepulchri), locally active but not recognized by the “Principality”.
In the middle of this mess, a man remains determined to uphold legality in the village, the mayor Enrico Ilariuzzi, who assures to be in permanent contact with the Italian police: “Whoever it is, the false princes or the crooks are not welcome to Seborga. “