How A Small Italian Village Became The World’s Most Peculiar Principality
Tucked behind the rolling hills, this coastal hamlet packs an outlandish history featuring medieval magical legends, “internet princesses” standing as pretenders, and an unimpressed Italian state
On the surface, Seborga seems like a quintessential Italian village. Small, charming, quaint, perched on the top of a hill in the coastal region of Liguria, an area famed for its glamorous holiday resorts and picturesque scenery. I can remember visiting it with my grandparents as a young child, and being taken aback by how it seemed so stuck in the past. Walking through its tiny cobblestone streets with their matchbox houses makes you feel like you’re in a miniature set, part of some Legoland exhibit. The architecture is mostly unassuming and demure, with the exception of its parish church, a glorious Baroque masterpiece tucked away in the smallest of squares.
Yet, a slightly closer glance will reveal that Seborga isn’t by any means a regular village. Flags bearing a white-on-blue cross as coat of arms can be seen waving on almost any corner. The local currency is a “luigino”, with coins looking more like Florins (or something out of Game of Thrones) than euros. And then the most obvious clue — a street sign welcoming you, in four different languages no less, to the “ancient Principality of Seborga”.
Since the 1960s, this cosy hamlet has been proclaiming itself an independent state, led by Giorgio Carbone (“Prince Giorgio I”), a local mimosa flower grower who became convinced of the place’s claim to self-determination. The villagers agreed — in 1963, 304 out of 308 voted in favour of electing him ruler — while the nation scoffed. As of today, in spite of two elected princes, minted coins, a coat of arms, “Crown Council” and football committee, the Italian state refuses to recognise the nationhood of the Ligurian village.
The language and imagery of this so-called “Seborgan principality” veers between the believable and the bizarre, at times surpassing Disneyland in its endearingly faux-royal pomposity. The late prince Giorgio was affectionately known with the title of Sua Tremendità (“His Tremendousness”), a result of his reputation for foul language, although he would officially present himself as “His Serene Highness”, a tradition which has carried on to the current sovereign, Prince Marcello I (otherwise known to the Italian state as Marcello Menegatto).
Unlike many other microstates, Seborga does claim to have some form of historical validity for its independence. The local tale goes that in 1729, when Seborga was acquired by the Savoys, it was not included in registers, meaning that its absence from subsequent records nullifies its status as part of the Italian nation, formed in 1861. It’s not the first hilltop town in the peninsula to have resisted unification— San Marino did the same, although its republican nationhood is officially recognised by the United Nations. Under all sorts of legal parameters, Seborga is fully and unambiguously part of Italy. It lies under the administration of the Province of Imperia, and it pays taxes to the Italian state. And yet, even within the paradigm of the self-proclaimed micronation, there’s something oddly convincing about Seborga, a village which has gone so far to develop its own distinct identity that a casual passer-by may trust in its genuine independence. A sticker of the local coat-of-arms, which my grandfather bought as a souvenir and can still be found attached to my blue suitcase (an easy identifier of what would otherwise be a totally unremarkable valise), looks surprisingly credible as the would-be symbol of what is ultimately a make-believe country. Rome remains somewhat more cynical — the late Prince Giorgio is perceived as a “crank”, and the place’s claims are dismissed as fabrications concocted for touristic purposes.
In spite of scepticism from the Italian state, the village’s history packs more drama and suspense than your run-of-the-mill community. The place has a mythical reputation among its citizens, with tales ranging from a supposedly magical protection from natural disasters to claims of ancient links with the Knights Templar, which have recently attracted members of the Madonna di Alvenia sect to the Ligurian hamlet. What is more, since the principality’s establishment at the same time as the Beatles’ rise to fame, the Seborgan “crown” has come under occasional threat. In 2006, a certain Princess Yasmine von Hohenstaufen Anjou Plantagenet, dubbed the “internet princess” by Giorgio I, purported to return the principality to the Italian nation as its rightful heir, writing to the head of state with her offer. The local population rallied to “His Tremendousness’” defence — the case passed. Seborga remained under Carbone rule. The most recent crisis came exactly ten years later when a French writer, Nicolas Mutte, accused current Prince Marcello I of poor leadership, challenging him to the position of Prince of Seborga at the 2017 elections and setting up a concurrent website to assert his claims, even making visits to African nations under the title of prince. But when the elections came, Prince Marcello, facing a head-off with an English-born radio DJ and longtime Seborga resident, Mark Dezzani, won the needed majority to secure him the crown for another seven years. For now, all is calm in the principality.
And so Seborga stands, in a realm of its own, peacefully encapsulated by in its microcosmic reality. It may remain unrecognised by the officials over in Palazzo Chigi, but its own citizens firmly believe in the validity of their nationhood. “Everything is special about Seborga,” recounts Nina, the current Princess Consort, otherwise known to her disbelievers as Nina Menegatto. “It’s a magical place […] it’s paradise.” Paradise indeed — a short drive away from both the snowy Alps and the glitzy seaside resorts of the Italian Riviera, and not too far from Monaco, the Mediterranean coast’s officially-acknowledged principality. However visitors will approach Seborga, be it with hawkish suspicion or incredulous wonderment, there is something undeniably fascinating about the place. I will never forget how, as a seven-year old, I visited a true “fairytale country”, and in a sense, Seborga has turned itself into its own modern fairytale — bizarre, imaginary, detached, but eminently lovable.