Carolina: Cruising Past 70: Our Lifestyle Adventures: Visiting Viterbo in Italy's Lazio Region

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Our Lifestyle Adventures: Visiting Viterbo in Italy's Lazio Region

Civita di Bagnoregio, the Dying Town
the bridge that connects Civita to Bagnoregio
Viterbo is in central Italy in the region of Lazio where Rome is also located. Our base, Palazzo Catalani in Soriano Nel Cimino, is also in this region. Thus, it was easy for us (Bill and me and Suzanne, Bill's daughter, and her family) to visit three small towns and its capital from this base. The  visits gave us a quick flavor of Italy, including the deep influence of the Roman Catholic Church on Italian life throughout history. 

the church in Civita
Civita di Bagnoregio is a town in the province of Viterbo, about 75 miles north of Rome, noted for its striking position atop a plateau of volcanic tuff, overlooking the Tiber river valley. It is in constant danger of destruction as its edges fall off, leaving buildings to crumble. Founded by Etruscans more than 2,500 years ago, its population has dwindled to just 12 during winter and about 100 during summer. At the end of the 17th century, a major earthquake precipitated its decline and in the 19th century, it started to turn into an island as the pace of erosion quickened.

Bagnoregio used to be a part of Civita until the bishop, and the municipal government had to move there after the earthquake.  Today Bagnoregio continues to be a prosperous town while Civita has become known as “the town that is dying." But Civita has experienced a revival of tourism recently. The city is admired for its architecture, spanning several hundred years, left unaltered due to its relative isolation. It was placed on the World Monuments Fund's 2006 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites due to erosion and unregulated tourism.

Lake Bolsena
The second town we visited in Viterbo is Montefiascone, 59 miles north of Rome. It lies around Lake Bolsena which began following the formation of a caldera in the Vulsini volcanic complex, the most recent activity occurring in 104 BC. The complex has been dormant since then. In addition to the historic sites of all periods, Lake Bolsena is surrounded by numerous tourist establishments, largely for camping, agrotourism and bed and breakfasts.

the large dome of the Montefiascone Cathedral
The Montefiascone Cathedral, or the Basilica of Santa Margherita, towers on a hill surrounding this lake. The dome, one of the largest in Italy at 27 meters in diameter, is visible from most of the towns of the province. Only the Pantheon, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Duomo in Florence have larger domes at 46, 42, and 42 meters respectively. It looked like the whole church was under the dome!

Villa Farnese
One day, we all braved the rains and drove to Caprarola, another town in the province, approximately 31 miles northwest of Rome, in a range of volcanic hills known as the Cimini Mounts. The city's chief claim to fame is the large villa or mansion called Villa Farnese (or Villa Caprarola), not to be confused with the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. It was Initially built as a fortress, because of the ongoing feud in the House of Farnese, by the Cardinal Alessandro Farnese  in 1530. The project, however, came to a halt when the Cardinal was elected Pope in 1534 as Paul III.

Philippina in the Room of World Maps
Villa Farnese is situated directly above the town of Caprarola and dominates the countryside. As a matter of fact, the whole town was rearranged so that the main road leads directly to it. It is a massive Renaissance construction, pentagonal in shape, built in reddish Goldstone with buttresses supporting the upper floors. Large, beautiful murals fill all the rooms. The one I liked the most was the Room of World Maps where a map of Asia depicts the Philippines as Philipina!

Viterbo is the capital of the province of Viterbo, approximately 50 miles north of Rome, surrounded by the Monti Cimini and Monti Volsini. The historic center of the city is surrounded by medieval walls, still intact, built during the 11th and 12th centuries. Entrance to the walled center of the city is through ancient gates. When the popes switched to the Frankish support, Viterbo became part of the Papal States and the Papal Seat, but this status was highly contested in the following centuries.

what remains of the Papal Palace in Viterbo
Popes elected in Viterbo were Gregory X (1271) and John XXI (1276), Nicholas III, and the French Martin IV. The Viterbese did not agree with the election of a foreigner who could be directed by the King of Naples, Charles I of Anjou, as Pope. They invaded the Papal Palace where the longest conclave in history was being held. They arrested two of the Cardinals. After this incident, Popes avoided Viterbo in the next 86 years, and the city fell to secondary importance.

cathedral beside the Papal Palace

This story shows how much the history of the Roman Catholic Church is closely intertwined with the history of Italy. From our base in Viterbo, we got a quick flavor of Italy:  a stunning dying town, the largest dome in a small town in Italy, a powerful Italian family’s Villa, and a former Papal Seat. And it was all in a week.

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