Tuscania is off the beaten track, almost a forgotten city. Not too long ago we discovered it by chance when seeking a different route from Rome to Tuscany from the usual one by Lake Bolsena. The name suggested it had been founded by the Etruscans. Inhabited since the Bronze Age, it was a thriving Etruscan centre strategically placed between Tarquinia and the Lake of Bolsena, at the crossroads of important north, south, east and west roads and not far from its sea port.
It was much larger in Etruscan and Roman times and covered the deserted hill where only St. Peter’s church now stands. It is a fine Romanesque building, raised in the 8th century on a Roman temple and rebuilt in the 12th century. Spacious, cool, quiet, it has a magnificent cosmatesque floor, the stones creating a mosaic pattern that reaches out to the altar. A few frescoes remain in the lower church, a forest of columns. Outside is a tower and the remains of the Bishop’s palace. Down a lane on one side is another fine Romanesque church, Santa Maria Maggiore, also built in the 8th century and enlarged in the 12th century with a large 12th-century fresco of the Last Judgement behind the altar. Both these churches are outside Tuscania today.
Why did the town change hills? It may have been because of rivalry with Viterbo, causing it to lose its status as a bishopric, later restored, then again removed. Perhaps the question of water was important. A large public fountain was built near one of the gates of the medieval town where clothes could be washed, gossip exchanged and water jars filled. Or earthquakes? On our first visit an old lady recounted her experience of one in the Seventies that caused damage and some died. Not many, but it was frightening. We wandered through the quiet winding streets with old, often silent palazzi, to have lunch in a restaurant with local food and much goodwill. It was a feast day, the first of May, and families all seemed to be eating out! After many types of tasty crostini and at least three different sorts of pasta, followed by lamb and seasonal vegetables, all washed down by local wines, we retired to the main square and sat outside to eat ice cream and drink coffee.
Even the traffic did not mar this perfect sunny public holiday. We managed to avoid it on our return past Ferento, a Roman town built over a smaller Etruscan one. We sat in the theatre and imagined the statues in Viterbo museum standing in their original places. Our enthusiastic guide explained how the Etruscan town had become more important when the Romans destroyed Volsini (Orvieto today). It was strange to wander among the ruins and hear how the town had also prospered under the Romans and after the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, continued as an important agricultural centre under Lombard rule and when it became part of the Papal States in the 8th century. It thrived perhaps too well, for it was attacked in 1172 by the inhabitants of Viterbo who accused the citizens of Ferento of being heretics. It never rose again.
The site on the crest of a hill on a sunny evening with scudding clouds was both beautiful and haunting. On another wooded hill across a deep valley our guide pointed out a white building. There, he told us, are excavations of an Etruscan settlement where, it is said, the remains of an Etruscan house have been found. Until now, we have assumed that their houses were like their tombs, as no Etruscan town has been excavated. Most were conquered, inhabited and built over by the Romans. The few that were not, have lost all traces of human habitation and only the ruins of ceremonial buildings have been found. Many are the theories. Their dwellings may have been built of perishable materials, the theatres, temples and tombs only using stone. But new finds on the hill opposite Ferento may disprove all that.
Our day didn’t end there. Viterbo was packed with holiday crowds attracted by the flower festival. Squares and individual houses were dressed in cascades of flowers with different themes and crowds weaving in and out of the narrow streets, full of fragrant surprises.
A day indeed to remember.