A guide to the enchanting fairy-tale medieval village, Civita di Bagnoregio

Civita di Bagnoregio is a fraction of 11 inhabitants in the municipality of Bagnoregio, in the province of Viterbo, in Lazio, part of the most beautiful medieval villages in Italy, famous for being called “the city that dies”.

Located in an isolated position, Civita di Bagnoregio can only be reached via a reinforced concrete pedestrian bridge built in 1965. The bridge can only be traveled on foot but the municipality of Bagnoregio, meeting the needs of those who live or work in this place, has issued a circular stating that, at certain times, residents and authorized people can cross the bridge on board of cycles and motorcycles.

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, risking to make the village disappear, for this reason also called “the city that dies” or, more rarely, “the country that dies”.

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 breathe 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 on the square of the same name stands out on what remains of the ancient town, which stands out, slender and slender, 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

The entrance to the dying city involves crossing the long bridge that connects Civita di Bagnoregio to Bagnoregio, and the large gate of Etruscan origin: Porta Santa Maria. The door, also known as Porta Cava, 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.

In medieval times, the door underwent architectural changes such as the insertion of the Gothic arch. Originally there were two doors: Porta della Maestà, from which a road branched which according to legend led to the thermal source located in the underlying Valle dei Calanchi and which, moreover, would explain the derivation of the name Balnoregium (literal translation of “Bagno del Re” Civita di Bagnoregio, between 756 and 774, was dominated by the Lombards, and the king Desiderio afflicted by a serious illness used to take thermal baths in the alleged spa below the city); and the door that can still be seen today, Porta Santa Maria, the only one of the two left (some argue that in reality, the access doors to Civita were five), is very particular because it is enriched by a series of friezes with a strong symbolic value as well as historical.

In fact, crosses are engraved on the walls, which presumably are attributed to the Templars returning from their trip to the Holy Land; these, inserted inside triangles, recall the crosses of Golgotha ​​in Jerusalem. On the sides of the door some stone bas-reliefs appear; here a lion blocking a human head in its claws wants to celebrate the victory that the inhabitants of Civita di Bagnoregio obtained in 1457, when they managed to rebel against the dominance of the powerful Orvieto family of the Monaldeschi.

The Monaldeschi, of Guelph faith, had in fact taken control of the city to remove it from the aims of the Ghibellines of Viterbo. Their control turned into real domain, to which the inhabitants of Civita, tired and exasperated, rebelled in a very impetuous way, destroying the Cervara castle, home of the Monaldeschi.

In memory of this story, the two threatening basaltic lions over the Porta area were walled up, represented in a victorious way, that is, they have human heads under their claws; this therefore symbolizes triumph. Go through the famous door and enter an open-air museum: Civita di Bagnoregio.


The Renaissance Palaces of Civita di Bagnoregio

As soon as you enter the town, you will be enchanted 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.

Among the civitesi houses – typical examples of medieval Viterbo architecture with balconies and external stairs – you can see the noble palaces of the Colesanti, Bocca and Alemanni built by the important families of Viterbo during the Renaissance.

In particular, inside Palazzo degli Alemanni you can visit the Geological and Landslides Museum, an interesting museum institution that, bringing together a wide range of disciplines, from geology to seismology to archeology, illustrates the particular relationship between Civita and the its territory, with great attention to the theme of hydrogeological instability.

Wonderful alleys, with their arches, small squares and courtyards where the buildings adorned with mullioned windows, proffer them and peperino portals.

Often, within them, there are suggestive craft shops in which to enter to browse to observe the crafts of ancient time.


The Living Nativity Scene

The ancient village of Civita di Bagnoregio offers a unique setting that reproduces an uncommon landscape where the hands of time seem to have stopped: a bridge that can only be traveled on foot is the only way.

The atmosphere you breathe is entirely similar to that which Saint Francis wanted to reproduce for the first time about eight centuries ago and which 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 introduces visitors to an environment similar to a Middle Eastern souk, the censor, inside a military settlement of Roman soldiers on foot and on horseback, records the population of the time, shepherds with flocks of sheep, carpenters, rope makers, blacksmiths, bakers, weavers and stonemasons form the very particular furniture of a country that ideally transports visitors to that village which over 2000 years ago gave birth to the baby Jesus and which still bears the name of Bethlehem. In the central square of Civita there are the traditional characters of the Nativity scene.

A surprising external lighting tinges the cliff of the dying city and makes the village seem even more lonely and suspended in the void of an enchanting and unreal landscape. The sounds and scents that accompany the tourist’s journey inside the Living Nativity are designed to stimulate the senses of the visitor who suddenly finds himself walking in a habitat and in a time still a few centuries ago.

The images of the Nativity scene and the wise scenic reconstruction of that time, dropped into an incomparable and unrepeatable reality such as that of Civita di Bagnoregio, create an indispensable opportunity to experience an extraordinary and absolutely unique event of its kind.


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 it is a characteristic race in the square of San Donato.

This race, riding the donkey, wants to remind everyone of the importance that this animal had in the past, as the only means of transport used to get to the village. The donkey, in fact, was able to cross dirt paths that here are many in Civita di Bagnoregio, up to the top of the cliff.

The race will feature jockeys who will compete from different Contrade and consists of three circular laps to be done around Piazza San Donato.

Piazza San Donato in Civita di Bagnoregio is a round square, and this would also explain the origins of the name of this competition, or “tonna” as the inhabitants call it in their dialect.

Obviously, it is not as simple as you may think, above all because the donkey will do its part, often putting in difficulty the poor jockeys who will have to try to achieve victory.

“Palio della Tonna” gives the town of Civita di Bagnoregio that touch of liveliness in its natural daily quiet. The classic discussions between the various jockeys, to which is soon added the incitement of the audience present at the Palio della Tonna and who cheers for one or the other jockey.

At the end of the event the winner receives “the Palio” or a cloth painted by a local artist.


Church of San Donato

The church of San Donato is a cult building in Civita, a hamlet in the municipality of Bagnoregio, in Lazio, located in front of the ancient municipal building Civita, in Piazza San Donato, historically the center of the town’s urban layout.

The church of San Donato according to tradition dates back to the fifth century. Ancient cathedral of the diocese of Bagnoregio from the year 600, the church retains the traces of a first Romanesque structure despite the renovations and transformations undergone over time.

In 1511, the eastern wall, the 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, which took on a Renaissance aspect, then enriched in 1524 by the central portal and in 1547 by the two side ones.

In 1695 an earthquake caused serious damage to the cathedral and, 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. The bell tower is a tower and at its base there are two Etruscan basalt stone sarcophagi. Inside there is a fresco from the Perugino school and a fifteenth-century wooden crucifix from the Donatello school.


Grotta di San Bonaventura

One of the most revered places in Bagnoregio is certainly Grotta di San Bonaventura, an ancient chamber tomb dug overhanging the tuff wall and reused in the Middle Ages as a hermitage.

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. The legend is linked to the place according to which here the little Giovanni di Fidanza, future San Bonaventura, was healed from a fatal disease by San Francesco, during his stay in Bagnoregio.

In fact, near the cave there was a Franciscan convent, of which today, after the collapses of 1764, only a few remains remain. John’s mother, moved by the miracle, promised the Poverello of Assisi that he would consecrate the life of his son in the service of God.

And so it was, so much so that 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” (corresponding to the valleys of the Rio Torbido and its left tributary Fosso di Bagnoregio) the modeling processes of the earth’s surface are characterized by an intensity and speed such as to translate into a “living landscape” of extraordinary beauty and particularity, among the most fascinating of the national territory.

The slopes are made up of silty-sandy clays and clay-sandy silts of marine origin, referable to the Gelasiano-Santerniano, 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 partial contiguity in the east 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, and consisting of 5 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 does).

Climbing the bridge that leads to Civita, the volcanic products are clearly visible which, covering the marine deposits, form the base of the cliff: these volcanic products are represented by densely layered deposits mainly of relapse referable to the “Paleo-Vulsini” Complex, alternating with paleosuoli testifying to long intervals between one eruptive phase and the next, and from the lithoid tuff of the “Orvieto-Bagnoregio ignimbrite”, issued 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 during the last glacial peak) 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, both as regards the movement mechanisms, and for the speeds 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.

One Reply to “A guide to the enchanting fairy-tale medieval village, Civita di Bagnoregio”

April 5, 2020
I need to to thank you for this wonderful read!! I absolutely enjoyed every little bit of it. I have got you book marked to look at new things you post…

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