Viva Viterbo! City of the Popes!
A vast hand stretches out from the ground below the Papal Palace of Viterbo. A bearded head gapes nearby. Feet emerge, or are they disappearing? Is this the risen Christ? Or is He being buried?
The city of Viterbo is not well known to tourists. It straddles the Via Cassia, some eighty kilometres north of Rome, clinging to the foothills of the volcanic Monti Cimini. Traces of Etruscans walls can be seen, though the medieval walls are almost entirely intact, pierced by seven gates, and the San Pellegrino Quarter is virtually unchanged since the thirteenth century, the best preserved such contrada in Lazio..
Today, Viterbo is a busy place, seat of the Università Statale degli Studi della Tuscia, with approximately 9,000 students, which grew out of the Libera Universita della Tuscia in 1979. It is also home to the Italian Air Force, which has a school there, with an airport, founded in 1936, which was until recently going to be developed as Rome's third commercial hub.
Apart from that, this is a busy city, with metal and stone industries and plenty of agricultural activity.
In the past it was great and glorious. It became a free commune in the eleventh century and in 1164 Emperor Frederick I (aka Barbarossa) gave it the title of City. Having a powerful position on the Via Cassia, the main road north from Rome, gave it influence, and before long it was noticed by the papacy. In 1261, Pope Alexander IV died there, having taken refuge in the Prior's Palace, and it became the place for papal elections, with Urban IV being the first of several to make it his home.
The Cathedral, dedicated to San Lorenzo, is a plain but elegant building just next to the great Papal Palace. It was erected in the 12th century, with Romanesque columns and a fine cosmatesque floor and the Palace, in Gothic style, was constructed a century later. It was here in 1271, prior to the election of Pope Gregory X, that, due to long and inconsequential deliberations, the townspeople locked the cardinals in and deprived them of food, to force them to come to a decision. Thus started the tradition of the papal conclave (which comes from the Italian, con chiave - with the keys).
The cobbled streets and squares of Viterbo bustle with life, but are stained with blood. It was here, on March 13th, 1271, after mass in the Church of San Silvestro, that two sons of Simon de Montfort, Simon the Younger and Guy, discovered and murdered Henry Almain, or Henry of Cornwall, crowned King of the Romans. This was an act of revenge for the death of their father, recorded by Dante Alighieri in Canto VII of his Inferno.
Nowadays, though, under the watchful eyes of the local police, Viterbo is tranquil. Old men take the shade in the courtyard of the Palazzo Communale,
And citizens meet or relax in the Gran Caffè Schenardi. This wonderful building started life as one of the Chigi family's banks, in the fifteenth century. It then became a private residence until being transformed into the Albergo Reale (Royal Hotel) for travellers on the Grand Tour. Then, in 1818, Raffaele Schenardi had the bright idea of creating a Café, right here, on the ground floor of the Hotel. It was an idea that caught on.
With its elegant décor, and refined menus, this has been a favourite place of Popes (especially Gregory XVI) and Kings (Vittorio Emanuele III dined here), adventurers (Giuseppe Garibaldi) and Film Stars (Orson Welles was here to make his film of Othello), not to mention the grand and the great of Italy (such as Fellini, who filmed I VItelloni with Alberto Sordi in Viterbo). It is such an iconic part of Italy, that in 1980 the Ministero dei Beni Culturali e Ambientali declared it a place of especial cultural and historic interest. And it is still a great place for an ice cream.
And not many doors away, a famous jeweller and goldsmith's shop sold wedding rings, or so it did in 1984!
Viterbo is a fascinating place. With the exception of Rome, Lazio, unlike Tuscany and Umbria, is not so well known for its medieval towns, nor for its spas, nor for its religious festivals. But Viterbo has it all. You can stroll in the shade of the thirteenth century here, or swim in sulphurous hot water here all year round, or, on September 3rd every year you can join in the celebrations of Santa Rosa, a local girl who died at the age of 18 in 1251. She is venerated for her stoicism and for her mystical gifts, and on the eve of her Feast Day, La Macchina di Santa Rosa, a vast tower, illuminated with 3,000 tiny electric lights and 880 candles, and with a statue of her on the top, is carried by a hundred men for almost a mile round the medieval streets of the city.
And life, Italian life, goes on in its inimitable way, with its celebrations of the sausage,
And its feasts of longhorn beef,
And its celebration of Football,
And, at the end of the road, its celebration of life, in death..... As paper death notices advertise the passing of a generation, colour coded as the rosettes that announce the birth of a baby.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.