Despei tugiù sciu du nostre païse 
Se ride au ventu u meme pavayun 
Despei tugiù a curù russa e gianca 
E sta r’amblema d’a nostra libertà 
Grandi e piciui r’an tugiù respetà !  
(Since the inception of our country 
The same flag flies in the wind 
Forever, red and white are our colors 
They are the symbol of our independence 
Which has always been respected by young and old!) 
(verse from the Monegasque national anthem) 

A red and white flag flies on the rocky outcrop, high above the blue sea. It is the symbol of the independence that has characterised this place for more than seven centuries. But how did that flag and that independence ever get there?
The Rock formed a natural terminus of an elongated area along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, in a crescent from Portovenere to Monaco, the territory of the independent Republic of Genoa.  

On May 30, 1191, the Republic occupied this rock with its port, Portus Monachi, and had a fort built on the rocky outcrop. It was a sought-after because strategically important place along the coast, not only because of its location but also because of its natural conditions: on a high rock and difficult to reach from the hinterland. Catalans, Provençals and French would like to take it to extend their position of power in this Mediterranean area, but the Rock remained in the hands of Genoa throughout the 13th century. 

The total balance of power in the second half of the thirteenth century was precarious. Genoa became more and more powerful as a Republic, but it also became internally divided because of a conflict between Guelphs and Ghibellines. The first group are Papists, with the Grimaldi dynasty as the main leaders and the second group are more on the side of the Emperor, on paper a German, but in this century more often an Italian, and propagate the liberal ideas of Emperor Frederick II, with the dynasties of Doria and Spinola as the main leaders.  

The Grimaldi dynasty was founded in the 12th century when the descendants of the consul Otto Canella of Genoa and his son Grimaldo Canella, an admiral at the time of the First Crusades and representative of Genoa to Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, adopted the family name Grimaldi in the thirteenth century. 

Throughout this century, both groups regularly took over power from the other. Genoa became more and more prosperous thanks to the crusades, which were lucrative for the city. With a huge fleet, Pisa is wiped out on the Tyrrhenian Sea and the islands of Corsica and Sardinia also come under the control of the Republic. The Catalans “liberate” Sicily from the Guelph yoke. Successive Popes overplay their cards in this matter, and thus the power struggle at sea becomes even more confusing, because the Church divides lands that it does not own. France tries to take Provence but the inhabitants of the lavender fields are not at all happy and so this colonisation is totally frustrated. The only place on the Mediterranean where the French king had a say is Aigues-Mortes and from there the Crusades depart, which were financed by Genoa, which also supplied most of the ships for the fleet). The maritime power struggle between Barcelona and Genoa defines this period in history. Barcelona reaches as far as Athens, Genoa to Constantinople. 

Now it was about that rock. Settlers from Genoa were the first to occupy it and by order of the Republic a fortress was built on it with four watchtowers, from where Corsica can also be seen on clear days. To defend the fort against enemy troops, walls with a height of up to nine metres were erected on the harbour side. In 1296 there was another change of power in Genoa. The consul was Corrado Doria, a Ghibelline, and he ensures that some Guelphic leaders are expelled from the city, including Lanfranco and his nephew and stepson Ranieri Grimaldi. Where should they go? They have a plan and want to take revenge on the ruler by occupying the very tip of the Republic. In retrospect, the adventure is more like a student prank. With a few accomplices, they dress up as Franciscan monks and get into a boat on a bleak evening. They become stranded in the harbour under the rock. 

It’s drizzling when two lost monks report to the gate of the castle, which gives access to the Rock. The Ghibelline night watch lets the clergy in unsuspectingly. Once past the entrance gate, the monks take out swords from under their robes and stab some soldiers to death. Then they let in their henchmen, who had stayed in the boat, and after a few fights the entire fort is taken.

At this historical moment, on the night of January 7-8, 1297, the saga of the Grimaldi dynasty in Monaco begins. Lanfranco (François) Grimaldi can call himself the first independent ruler of the rock.

His deed earned him the nickname ‘Malizia’ in the annals, the Cunning One. On the 700th anniversary of the capture in 1997, he was forever immortalised in a statue by Kees Verkade.

The Kees Verkade statue

Together with his nephew, like two monks with a drawn sword, Lanfranco also adorns the coat of arms of Monaco. To be clear, he was certainly not a pirate, as is often claimed by tourist guides, but a political exile. He decides to give Ranieri the honour of becoming ‘the first Seigneur of Monaco’.  

Since then, it is no longer the cross of Saint George that flies on the tip of the Rock but the red and white cloth with which we are familiar today.

And thanks to its strategic location, hardly anyone has dared to challenge the independence of the Rock in more than seven centuries. With every peace treaty after another war, the question of the independent Rock came up again, but no powerful country wanted the enemy to be handed this strategic place and the Rock’s independent status never changed. That is the greatest pride of the Monegasques. “Big and small have always respected our freedom.”