Giorgio Carbone, the “Principality” of Seborga, and sovereigntyDecember 4, 2009 # 4:01 pm # Foreign Policy, International Law # No Comment
I received a call yesterday from my former student, Washington Post writer Emily Langer, bringing to my attention the passing of a very colorful character, Giorgio Carbone, who styled himself the “Prince” of the Italian village of Seborga. As you can see, I had the occasion to express my views on Seborga’s claims of sovereignty. In her excellent obituary in today’s Post, Emily writes:
Known to his subjects as “His Tremendousness,” Giorgio Carbone, a flower merchant turned prince, died Nov. 25 at his home in Seborga, the medieval town near the Italian Riviera that he and 300-odd followers declared a sovereign state. He was 73 and had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Mr. Carbone — Prince Giorgio I to his townspeople and ministers — attracted international media attention in 1995 when he led Seborga in a vote for independence from Italy. Those in favor won, 304 to 4, and Mr. Carbone became prince for life. He was the obvious candidate for the job, having dedicated much of the past three decades to the cause of autonomy.
The vote was a turning point for the village in northwestern Italy. In 1997, The Washington Post reported that Seborga attracted as many as 100,000 new tourists a year. Those visitors lined the pockets of shopkeepers peddling Seborgan stamps, T-shirts and other souvenirs; some purchased the Seborgan currency, called the luigino, simply to keep it.
Other trappings of the principality include a constitution, a generic military march for a national anthem and an official motto: Sub umbra sede, or “Sit in the shade.”
Today Seborga draws about 2,000 visitors a month, said Mayor Franco Fogliarini, who is also Mr. Carbone’s second cousin — a far cry from the glory days of a decade ago but not bad for a town that, until independence, subsisted largely on its exports of mimosa flowers and broom.
The Italian government continues to provide public services to the town and looked at Mr. Carbone with bored resignation, as if independence were little more than a publicity stunt. To Mr. Carbone, the cause was real. He long had an interest in Seborgan history, Fogliarini said, and in the 1960s, the two began publicly advocating for independence. Mr. Carbone was first named prince in 1963; the title would acquire significantly greater cachet three decades later with the official vote.
Mr. Carbone was in his 50s when he took his cause to the next level, rigorously researching the treaties and historical documents that he thought supported the town’s claim to sovereignty. Fogliarini said his cousin mined state and church archives, not only in Seborga but also in Torino and in Nice, to bolster his case. He was not only Seborga’s prince but also its resident scholar and overall most-determined paladin.
Mr. Carbone said that Seborga was overlooked in the 1800s when the small states on the Italian peninsula were unified to form Italy and that the town therefore should be a sovereign nation.
“We’ve slipped through the cracks of history,” he told The Post.
Few legal scholars agree with that argument.
“Fascinating, but completely preposterous,” said Anthony Clark Arend, a Georgetown University professor who teaches international law. “Irrespective of what would have been put on the books hundreds of years ago, it’s clear that the international community had acquiesced in the town being part of Italy, which is a sovereign state.”
But for Seborgans, Mr. Carbone was their prince. He appeared to be the sort who preferred to be loved rather than feared. Under Mr. Carbone’s reign, Seborga had an army of one, who had the rank of lieutenant.
Mr. Carbone had the beard and build of a lumberjack and smoked as many as 80 cigarettes a day. He traveled in a black Mercedes with a Seborgan-issued license plate — number 0001.
Judging from the response to Mr. Carbone’s death, Seborga’s affection for its prince was nothing if not genuine. Before his cremation, he lay not in state but at home, in his trademark white Nehru jacket and official-looking blue sash.
“When the [prince] died, the townspeople walked out of their houses into the narrow stone streets of Seborga and sang the songs, music and words written by Giorgio I in honor of this strange town that didn’t want to wake up from the dream,” reported the Milan-based Corriere della Sera.
Giorgio Carbone was born in Seborga on June 14, 1936. After graduating from high school, he became a florist, growing junipers and mimosas. For several decades, he made his livelihood exporting flowers from nearby Sanremo to France and Germany.
An only child who lived with his mother well into adulthood, he knew he might be the first and last in the Carbone line. “I don’t expect to marry and produce an heir,” Mr. Carbone told People magazine in 1993, “although I love all my female subjects equally.”
He never had children, which leaves the principality’s future somewhat in doubt.
“It was a story,” the mayor told local media after his prince’s death, “that was born and ended with him.”