While travel outside of Italy remains a fraught enterprise, we continue to enjoy travel to lesser known parts of Italy. Last week we visited northern Lazio, a region on Italy’s west coast, about 3 hours drive from our home in Ascoli Piceno. This region is sometimes called Tuscia after its ancient inhabitants, the Etruscans.
Viterbo, a city dating back to the 8th C, is located about 50 miles north of Rome, and its history has long been tied up with that of the Roman Catholic Pope. In the 12th and 13th C, when the city of Rome was at a low ebb, Viterbo was the actual seat of the Papacy for a few decades.
In 1270, Viterbo became the inadvertent site of the first Papal conclave. The enraged citizens, angry that the assembled cardinals who were being fed and housed at the town’s expense had failed to elect a new Pope after two years of not very energetic negotiations, locked the cardinals into their meeting room and fed them on bread and water until a new Pope was chosen. The custom of keeping the cardinals under lock and key while they are electing a new Pope continues to this day (the word “conclave” comes from the Latin “clavus,” or “key”), although these days the cardinals aren’t fed on bread and water.
Viterbo’s other more dubious claim to fame is as the site of a murder: in 1271, two sons of the English knight Simon de Montfort, Guy and Simon the Younger, killed their cousin, Henry of Cornwall, in the church of San Silvestro (today the church of San Gesù) in revenge for the execution of their father. This murder became infamous all over Europe because it occurred not just in church, but during the celebration of the Mass, and the perpetrators were quickly excommunicated. One young murderer died in Tuscany of illness later that year, while the other died some years later in a Sicilian prison. Dante banished the two of them to the river of boiling blood in the 7th circle of Hell, perhaps a more lasting punishment.
I knew about this event from my study of English history. But I had forgotten it had occurred in Viterbo, and certainly wasn’t expecting to find the church next door to my B&B. The church seems rather small for the heinousness of the crime.
After the papacy left Viterbo, in the latter half of the 13th C, the city became part of the Papal states and faded from historical importance. Today, Viterbo is a charming small city whose design and principal buildings are more medieval than Renaissance.
Like other cities in the Roman orbit, Viterbo flourished again in the Baroque era, when artists were particularly interested in creating optical effects. We saw a particularly interesting example of this the church of San Giovanni Batista. The artist, working with a mathematician, painted columns as part of a ceiling fresco that looked straight when observed from the center aisle, but seemed to move to the left or right when observed from the side aisles.
This fresco and its optical illusion was not listed in any of our guidebooks. When we entered the church, a caretaker greeted us an offered to show us points of interest. This kind of impromptu guided tour is a dying tradition in Italy, these days found only in smaller, less-visited churches. If you’re visiting Italy and happen to find one of these volunteer guides, be sure to take advantage of their knowledge.
The town of Montefiascone, not far from Viterbo, is known today primarily for its beautiful views, particularly those of nearby Lake Bolsena.
But during the Papal period, it was one of the places where those traveling to and from the Papal court would often stop for refreshment or lodging. One papal legate, something of a wine connoisseur, sent his steward on ahead to scout out the local offerings, asking him to note the Latin word Est (essentially, “here it is”) indicating the place with the best wine. The steward decided the white wine of Montefiascone was so good he had to emphasize it, and the name he used to indicate the wine: Est! Est! Est! – is used to this day, complete with exclamation points!
Unfortunately, the Papal legate died only two years later. Apparently, he was a bit too fond of the wine. He is buried in the oldest church in town beneath beautiful frescoes ranging from the 12th to 16th centuries.
Civita di Bagnoregio
The town of Civita di Bagnoregio was founded by Etruscans more than 2500 years ago, and was prosperous through the medieval period. It was the birthplace of St. Bonaventure, a noted early Franciscan.
The town’s site, on a steep hill surrounded by ravines, had always been hard to access. But by the 17th century, landslides and erosion had caused many of the town’s buildings (including the birthplace of St. Bonaventure) to fall off the edge of the cliff, and most of the town moved to more stable ground in its former suburb of Bagnoregio. Today, Civita is like a land island marooned in a sea of canyons. No vehicles are allowed, and it can be reached by tourists today only by a modern pedestrian bridge connecting it to the “mainland”.
The last stop on our little tour was the town of Bomarzo, where in the 17th century a Roman nobleman with perhaps more money than sense built a sculpture garden. And what sculptures they were! Here were no classical depictions of gods, water nymphs and forest sprites, but giant heads with ferocious teeth, giant turtles, homicidal dragons, and a tuskless elephant trampling an already decapitated Roman soldier. And while there was a fountain guarded by mermaids, the creatures were so large as to be almost feral. The official name of the sculpture park is the Sacro Bosco, the Sacred Wood. But it is much more commonly known as the Parco dei Mostri – Monster Park.
The creator of the garden left no documents explaining his intentions for the park. But he did leave an inscription near the entrance, whose meaning, freely translated, is: “Is this art or a giant joke? You decide.”
The guy was a 16th C troll. Some things never change.