Known as the dying city, Civita di Bagnoregio in the province of Viterbo, Lazio, is among the most beautiful medieval villages in Italy.
Isolated on a hill, Civita di Bagnoregio can only be reached via a reinforced concrete pedestrian bridge which was built in 1965. That is the case for tourists at least, with locals able to cross it by motorcycle at certain times of the day.
The cause of its isolation is the progressive erosion of the hill and the surrounding valley, which gave life to the typical forms of the badlands and which still continues in the twenty-first century. This risk of disappearing is why it become known as the dying city.
A place of poignant beauty, unique in its kind, the town rises like a tufa islet in the middle of the sea of the badlands, offering visitors a scenario of unusual enchantment, almost surreal.
Etruscan testimonies, Roman remains, medieval portals and Renaissance friezes mark the ancient face of Balneum Regis (King’s Bath) – from the legend that the spa in the area was used by the Lombard king Desiderio to treat a serious illness – which later became Bagnorea, and finally Bagnoregio.
Inside the semi-uninhabited village, you can take in a peaceful and relaxed atmosphere. Walking through its surviving streets, you find yourself surrounded by typical medieval houses with external stairways (profferli) and flowered balconies, often occupied by artisan shops, and by some beautiful noble palaces, which emerge from a prestigious past, when Civita di Bagnoregio was a free municipality, as well as an important bishopric.
The Romanesque bell tower of the church of San Donato stands out on what remains of the ancient town, in the landscape shaped by the forces of nature.
Let’s begin our visit in timeless Civita di Bagnoregio, full of hidden treasures!
Porta Santa Maria
To enter the city you must first cross the long bridge that connects Civita di Bagnoregio to Bagnoregio. The main gate of Etruscan origin is called Porta Santa Maria. Also known as Porta Cava, it was carved in the tuff in Etruscan times and later called Porta Santa Maria, because it is close to a church built in honor of the Madonna.
The door underwent architectural changes in medieval times such as the insertion of the Gothic arch. Some argue that there were once five access doors. However Porta Santa Maria – the only one of two left – is especially significant because it is enriched by a series of friezes with a strong symbolic and historical value. According to legend, it led to the thermal source located in the underlying Valle dei Calanchi which was occupied by Lombards between 756 and 774. It is said that the king Desiderio, afflicted by a serious illness, used to take thermal baths in the spa below the city.
Crosses are engraved on the walls, which presumably are attributed to the Templars returning from their trip to the Holy Land. These are reminiscent of the crosses of Golgotha in Jerusalem. On the sides of the door some stone bas-reliefs are visible. And a lion blocking a human head in its claws celebrates the victory of the people of Civita di Bagnoregio against the dominance of the powerful Orvieto family of the Monaldeschi in 1457.
The Monaldeschi, of Guelph faith, had in fact taken control of the city to remove it from the Ghibellines of Viterbo. When their control became too much to bare, the people rose up against it; destroying the Cervara castle, home of the Monaldeschi.
To commemorate this story, two imposing basaltic lions were erected with human heads under their claws as a symbol of triumph. When visitors pass through this famous door, they reach what can only be described as a real-life open-air museum: Civita di Bagnoregio.
The Renaissance Palaces of Bagnoregio
As you enter the town, you will be struck by its timeless appearance, with its medieval structures embraced by the narrow alleys that climb up the hill like a labyrinth. The historic center is an attraction in itself.
The streets are lined with typical houses of medieval Viterbo architecture with balconies and external stairs, known as ‘civitesi’. Among them are the noble palaces of the Colesanti, Bocca and Alemanni built by the important families of Viterbo during the Renaissance.
For knowledge seekers, there is a Geological and Landslides Museum inside Palazzo degli Alemanni which combines a variety of disciplines; geology, seismology, and archeology. It highlights the relationship between Civita and its territory, with a focus on hydrogeological instability.
After soaking up this extra knowledge, why not wander through the arched alleyways and picturesque courtyards. While you are there, lose yourself in the artisenal craft shops of ancient times.
Christmas in Bagnoregio – Nativity Scene
The ancient village of Civita di Bagnoregio offers a unique setting and uncommon landscape where time has stood still.
The atmosphere still represents the tradition of Christian families all over the world: Christmas with its Nativity scene. It is certainly one of the most suggestive events in Italy that is renewed every year in Civita di Bagnoregio to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
A group of spice and cloth merchants present visitors with an environment similar to a Middle Eastern souk. A sensory display depicts the settlement of Roman soldiers on foot and horseback. The population of the time is perfectly captured with flocks of sheep, carpenters, rope makers, blacksmiths, bakers, weavers and stonemasons. Visitors are also transported to Bethlahem 2000 years ago where baby Jesus lay in a mainger.
A real postcard, external lighting tinges the cliff of the dying city and makes it seem even more secluded and suspended in the void of an enchanting and surreal landscape. The sounds and scents that accompany the tourist’s journey inside the Living Nativity are designed to stimulate the senses of visitor who suddenly find themselves walking in a habitat and in a time still a few centuries ago.
The Nativity scene and its intricate reconstruction of that time – in the backdrop of the captivating Civita di Bagnoregio – is a truly unique event of its kind.
Ancient Race “Palio della Tonna”
“Palio della Tonna” is an ancient race that is repeated every year on the first Sunday of June and the first Sunday of September.
Palio della Tonna takes place during the Celebrations of the Madonna Liberatrice and the Santissimo Crocefisso and is an iconic race in the square of San Donato.
The race seeks to illustrate the importance donkeys had in the past, being the only means of transport in the village. Amazingly, donkeys were even able to cross dirt paths up to the top of the cliff.
Jockeys from different “Contrade” compete by completing three circular laps around Piazza San Donato. In fact “tonna” means round in their original dialect, which explains the origins of the race’s name.
“Palio della Tonna” gives the town of Civita di Bagnoregio a touch of excitement in an otherwise tranquil place. As per medieval traditions, the winner receives “the Palio” or a cloth painted by a local artist.
Church of San Donato
Dating back to the fifth century, the church of San Donato is the center of the town’s urban layout. As an ancient cathedral of the diocese of Bagnoregio from the year 600, the church retains the traces of a first Romanesque structure despite undergoing renovations and transformations over time.
One such renovation took place in 1511. The eastern wall, two choirs, the crypt and the high altar were replaced by the current presbytery and the new choir, designed by the architect Nicola Matteucci of Caprarola. At the same time the facade was remodeled to take on a Renaissance look which was further enriched in 1524 and again in 1547.
In 1695 an earthquake caused serious damage to the cathedral. Therefore, by virtue of Pope Innocent XII’s brief Super Universas of 20 February 1699, the seat of the diocese was transferred to the nearby town of Bagnoregio, where the collegiate church of San Nicola was erected as a new cathedral diocesan.
The church, originally Romanesque, has a three-nave plan with a Renaissance facade. At the base of the bell tower lie two Etruscan basalt stone coffins (called sarcophagi).
Grotta di San Bonaventura
One of the most revered places in Bagnoregio is arguably the Grotta di San Bonaventura; an ancient chamber tomb dug overhanging the tuff wall and reused in the Middle Ages as a hermitage.
The Grotta takes its name from San Bonaventura (1217 – 1274) from Bagnoregio, biographer of San Francesco di Assisi who was born here.
It is an ancient Etruscan chamber tomb, placed on a balcony over Civita and overlooking the valley, which was used in the Middle Ages as a hermitage. According to the legend, little Giovanni di Fidanza, future San Bonaventura, was healed from a terminal illness by San Francesco, during his stay in Bagnoregio.
In fact, near the cave there was a Franciscan convent. Following its destruction in 1764, only partial elements remain. John’s mother, moved by the miracle, promised the Poverello of Assisi that she would dedicate her sons life to the service of God.
Hence, San Bonaventura (name given to him by St. Francis himself) chose the Franciscan garment and he began to spread among Christians the charitable message of his teacher and healer. Finally forced to a rigid asceticism, the Doctor seraphicus died at only 53 years.
Ponticelli (Bridges) of Civita di Bagnoregio
In Civita di Bagnoregio and in the surrounding “Valle dei Calanchi”, the modeling processes of the earth’s surface are among the most fascinating in Italy. The sheer intensity and speed of its transformation makes it somewhat of a “living landscape” of extraordinary beauty and character.
The slopes are made up of silty-sandy clays of marine origin, covered by volcanic deposits of the “Vulsino Volcanic District” of the Middle Pleistocene. The marine sediments were deposited in the “Graben del Paglia-Tevere”, an extensional basin which developed starting from the late Zancleano in the east. They extend to to the intrapennine basins of Rieti and Tiberino and to the Roman basin in the south. The coast was about fifteen kilometers to the east, at the slopes of the Amerini-Monte Peglia ridge, along which coarse coastal deposits are found in a wide range of altitudes (between Orvieto Scalo, Colonnette di Prodo, Corbara, Baschi, Guardea). While the area of Civita di Bagnoregio was represented by a seabed presumably one hundred meters deep, on which the finer sediments carried to the sea by the streams that furrowed the high structural areas accumulated.
After the emergence, the marine deposits were covered by the products of the Vulsino Volcanic District, active in the time interval between approximately 590 thousand and 125 thousand years. They consist of five volcanic complexes: “Paleo-Vulsini” (about 590 -490 thousand years ago), “Campi Vulsini” (approximately 490-125 thousand years ago), “Bolsena-Orvieto” (approximately 350-250 thousand years ago), “Montefiascone” and “Latera” (approximately 280-140 thousand years ago).
Climbing the bridge that leads to Civita, the volcanic products are clearly visible. The marine deposits which form the base of the cliff are represented by densely layered deposits mainly of relapse referable to the “Paleo-Vulsini” Complex, alternating with paleosuoli, a testament to the different eruptive phases over time. The lithoid tuff of the “Orvieto-Bagnoregio ignimbrite”, was formed about 333 thousand years ago by the “Bolsena-Orvieto” complex.
The particular geological structure and the deepening of the valleys occurred in particular during the last low station of the sea level about 18 thousand years ago.This led to a rapid evolution of the slopes linked to complex phenomena interacting with each other. These phenomena of instability are manifested through multiple types of landslides, with respect to the movement mechanisms, and the speed and materials involved.
The evolution of the landscape assumes in some places a unique rapidity and spectacularity, such as in the area of the “bridges”, a thin clay ridge near the village of Civita, characterized by vertical walls several tens of meters high, on which the locals passed through the fields.
Incorporate Viterbo and its surrounds in an itnerary of the Lazio region when you visit Rome and its many wonders. Or take a private guided tour with an expert in the history and geology of the village,