Viterbo – City of Popes


Four hills, not seven like Rome. Four settlements, some from more than 700 BC years ago, divided by gorges, rivers and streams. Water, the essential element for survival, sunshine, good volcanic soil – all were here. Fertility, and the settlements expanded into a civic unit from about 650 AD. Two of the main themes we will be following were outlined by Sarah Morgan, who devised this study tour of lesser known Italy: water, and the unravelling of layers of civilisation that form this unique country. Viterbo may lack three of Rome’s hills, but has its own unique fascination and complexity.

Daniella, our guide born and bred in Viterbo, spoke in Italian; Sarah interpreted and added from her own wide knowledge of the area. In the main square with the civic buildings, we met two of our historic companions for the week: Pope Sixtus IV, of Sistine Chapel fame, and his nephew (we’ll meet a lot of papal nephews!) Julius II, the founder of the Vatican sculpture collection, had been welcomed to the building. We followed them under the arches, up the monumental stairs into the frescoed piano nobile and the city’s past, part legend, part enshrined in the medieval heart of the city. Daniella guided us through the history of the town depicted in the 16th-century frescoes. Viterbo lies at the crossing point of the Roman north-south Via Cassia and the Etruscan west-east road from the coast through Tuscania, over the Cassia at Viterbo to Spoleto in Umbria. It assumed religious importance becoming part of the Papal States, a municipality and the seat of a bishopric in 1192, its growing importance evident in its destruction in 1172 of nearby Ferento, a Roman municipality since the second century BC.

I rather liked the odd-bod 15th-century cleric Annio who invented legends about his native city, and even manufactured evidence to prove his theories! The museum with them, and much else of interest, is closed for renovation, reopening when funds are available. Soon, I hope.

Viterbo is a city of fountains and was famed for its water and its thermal baths. Innocent III resided there for three months in the summer of 1207, following many 12th-century popes fleeing political and social unrest in Rome. Popes left Rome in the hot summer months, usually choosing towns south of Rome such as Anagni and Tivoli. From 1210 the Bishop’s Palace in Viterbo came to be called the ‘Papal Palace’ in documents. The city walls were completed by 1268 and the cathedral rebuilt. The city prospered under successive popes and is one of the finest Italian medieval cities. Five popes were elected in the vast room of the Conclave, when the term was invented. From 1268 to 1271 the cardinals met, discussed, wrangled and failed to elect a pope. They were finally locked in – con clave, with a key – until they finally elected Gregory X. John XXI, who followed him, unfortunately died when a floor in the Papal Palace collapsed in 1276. (The picture above is of the Papal Palace)

The Papal Palace is on the edge of one of the four hills with wide views over part of the city and the hilly countryside. On the town side it is attached to the Cathedral that was bombed by the Allies in 1944. It is spacious, with huge columns and exuberant capitals, all different, and the special mosaic floor produced by the Cosmati family in the 1200s. There are so many alleys and churches to explore, all from the 12th and 13th centuries. It was nearly midday, so we were fortunate to see a frescoed church and its outside pulpit where the corpulent St. Thomas Aquinas is said to have preached to a crowd. That is, if he was able to squeeze into it!

It was Monday. The Etruscan Museum was closed, so we went instead to the extraordinary garden of Bomarzo which I had visited when it was unknown. John was photographed in the monster’s mouth; we were giddy in the leaning house, loved the shade of the open square with pine cones and river gods and numerous sculptures carved out of the rocks. Now many more have been freed from brambles, so numerous that one wonders how the prince from the ancient Orsini family could find enough skilled sculptors between 1552 and 1580 to create so many stone creatures. They were not roughly carved out to the coarse volcanic rock, but hewn with skill. No one knows exactly what the secret meaning is, but Vicino Orsini and his circle of friends certainly did. Imagine them wandering round, probably seeking the shade as well as inspiration in the hot summer months, while still more of these monsters – or wonders – were being blocked out by a team of masons before the master sculptors got to work on the directions and sketches from the Orsini prince and his circle of humanist friends. The jokes, surprises, the theatrical masks and range of fountains in this park of wonders, expanding haphazardly was lost beneath undergrowth until after World War II and the revival of interest in Italian gardens. Unforgettable!



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