Viterbo is a city that fascinates because walking through its center seems to walk among the pages of a history book: flowery loggias, lowered arches, pointed arches, stairs leading to the access balcony called “profferli”, alleys and buildings, everything goes back to the Middle Ages.
The capital of Roman Tuscia
And San Pellegrino district, the medieval heart of the town, is one of the best preserved in Europe despite the bombings that the capital of Roman Tuscia suffered during the Second World War. The church that gives the neighborhood its name was built in the first half of the 11th century but the facade was rebuilt at the end of the 19th century precisely because the original was destroyed by bombs.
Palazzo degli Alessandri, on the other hand, has been well preserved and was built at the beginning of the 13th century and develops as a three-storey structure in which it is possible to see a particular profferlo that does not develop outside the building, but inside the walls perimeter, decorating the parapet with a diamond star design.
But why is Viterbo called the City of the Popes? The Popes resided there for over 20 years and from here derives this definition that it shares with Rome and Avignon, the city of Provence which hosted the papal see for a limited period. The Palazzo dei Papi was built between 1255 and 1266 by the Capitano del Popolo Raniero Gatti to house the Roman popes who transformed Viterbo into a “Little Rome”. And here from 1257, when it became the new papal see until 1281, five Popes were elected.
The city retains one of the most important monumental structures in Lazio within its mighty crenellated and turreted walls in which seven doors open. A pity that to admire the aristocratic palaces, the churches, the slender towers and the elegant peperino fountains, the typical stone of Viterbo buildings, you have to carry out continuous slalom between parked and transit cars.
Of course this brings back to reality abruptly but the atmosphere returns to magic in the presence of the loggia from which Pope Gregory X appeared to bless the crowd in 1271 which is still preserved today as it was!
This elegant loggia with Gothic arches flanks the Palazzo dei Papi and offers an exceptional view over Viterbo and the surrounding valleys up to the distant Mount Amiata.
The building is accessed by climbing a wide staircase that precedes the crenellated façade, opened by mullioned windows, while a fifteenth-century fountain dominates the center of the loggia.
The cathedral dedicated to San Lorenzo, built in the twelfth century, remodeled several times and flanked by the fourteenth-century bell tower with two-tone bands and the house of Valentino della Pagnotta, a fine example of a fifteenth-century stately home stand opposite.
But Viterbo, even before being the City of the Popes, was the Etruscan capital. Near the Cathedral the remains of Etruscan walls are still visible and many ruins of sumptuous thermal buildings and villas are scattered where the first route of the Cassia ran.
The city reached great importance in the thirteenth century when, thanks to its strategic position on the consular Cassia, it was able to skillfully juggle between the Papacy and the Empire, negotiating now for one, now for the other. It freed itself from the yoke of Emperor Frederick II, opposing military power with the courage of its inhabitants and in particular with Cardinal Raniero Capocci and the extraordinary faith of the girl Rosa, current patron saint, the popular heroine who died at the age of eighteen in 1251.
The people of Viterbo retain a great devotion to their Saint, which reaches its peak on the evening of September 3 with the traditional transport of the Macchina di Santa Rosa, the huge bell tower shining with light.
In Piazza del Plebiscito stands the fifteenth-century Palazzo dei Priori with its arcade, which houses the Town Hall and the Civic Museum. If you don’t have time to visit it, enter the beautiful inner courtyard and look out from the balustrade from which you can enjoy a wide view of the Faul valley.
An arch connects the Municipality building to the Palazzo del Podestà, of medieval origin but extensively remodeled, surmounted by a 44 meter high tower. On the square, the other notable monument is the church of Sant’Angelo in Spatha, of Romanesque foundation, whose facade incorporates a copy of an Etruscan-Roman sarcophagus in white marble.
In the original, preserved in the Civic Museum, the Bella Galiana is buried, a noblewoman who lived in Viterbo in 1135. Tradition tells that she was a beautiful girl with a white and almost transparent complexion who was offered as a sacrifice to free Viterbo from the terrible obligation of blood against a sow revered in the city. When the animal was about to devour her, a lion came out and killed the beast and saved the young woman. The incident and the beauty of Galiana led a Roman nobleman to Viterbo who fell in love with the woman and asked her to be his wife.
Upon her refusal he besieged the city and at this point the story has three endings. In the first, the father, unable to resist, killed his daughter and threw her body from the tower rather than giving it to the attackers. The second tells that the nobleman asked to be able to see Galiana one last time from the tower and then return to his city, but when the request was accepted, the girl was killed by an arrow. The angry Viterbesi left the walls and put the attacking army to flight. A third version tells that the noble, having seen the girl he loved for the last time, withdrew with his troops as promised.
Fascinated by these ancient stories, we continued our tour heading towards Piazza della Morte, a triangular space where you can admire one of the five typical spindle-shaped fountains, which is unmatched in any other country of Italy. Why is this square so called? The name derives from the church that was rebuilt after being destroyed by the bombings of the last world war.
Speaking of fountains, Viterbo is also called the city of fountains. The oldest is the Fontana Grande which dates back to the early thirteenth century and is fed by the waters of a Roman aqueduct.
One of the best known is the fountain of the Herbs, known as the fountain of Santo Stefano: it dates back to the seventeenth century and, on the top, shows the lion, one of the city’s symbols also present in the coat of arms of Viterbo and in the legend of the Bella Galiana.