Civita di Bagnoregio, the dying town

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Tablinum: In Italy there is a town perched on top of a tuff spur and accessible only by a bridge, where cars do not circulate and inhabited by twelve people. Its unreal fairytale charm has attracted the interest of many film directors and many tourists from US to PRC. We are talking about Civita di Bagnoregio, near Viterbo, known also as “the town that is dying” because of its geological nature. It is situated on the top of a hill between the valleys formed by the streams Chiaro and Torbido, and its isolated position is due to the gradual erosion of the hill and the surrounding valley, which gave rise to the typical forms of calanchi, small gullies delimited by ridges and pinnacles created by the water washing away clay stone.

The city was founded 2500 years ago by the Etruscans, who – as the Romans later – had to cope with the problems of instability and seismicity of the area through impressive works of sewage of rainwater and containment of the streams. Evidence of Etruscan presence are the urban structure of the entire village, a necropolis found in the rock below the lookout in the area of San Francesco Vecchio; the “Bucaione”, a deep tunnel dug in the lower part of the town, which allows access directly from the settlement, to the calanchi valley; and the cave of St. Bonaventure also, in which they say that St. Francis healed the small Giovanni Fidanza, who later became St. Bonaventure, and it is actually an Etruscan chamber tomb.

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From the few documents found that Civita di Bagnoregio and Bagnoregio were two districts of a city that until the eleventh century was called Balneum Regis. A legend says that it was Desiderius king of the Lombards (756-774 AD), recovered from a serious illness thanks to its hot springs who gave the town this name. In 774 Carlo Magno ended the Lombard phase, returning the land to the Pope. From this date Balneum Regis becomes part of the domain of the Church even if during the feudal period the city, with its strong and rebellious attitude, became a serious problem for the papacy. The mid-twelfth century Bagnoregio is a free town, but will see its independence threatened by the ambitions of the Empire. The city was occupied in 1186 by the son of Frederick Barbarossa, Henry IV, pointing against Orvieto. The hostile relations with Orvieto characterize the entire history of medieval Bagnoregio; especially the family of the Monaldeschi attempted to establish control over the city in order to preserve it as a Guelph garrison as part of the fighting against the Ghibellines of Viterbo. The continuous exploitation tax to the detriment of the inhabitants of Bagnoregio eventually provoked a violent rebellion that led to the destruction of the castle of Cervara, from which the Monaldeschi had exercised their power for more than a century. In memory of these events, above the area of the port of Santa Maria were walled two lions in basalt stone that hold human heads between their legs to commemorate the victory of the people of Civita.

In the last decade of the fifteenth century the Church’s control over the city strengthens: it begins the “Government of the cardinals” who exercised power in the middle of lieutenants, thus limiting the municipal freedom, who saw its end in 1592 when it was founded the Congregation of the Good Government with the aim to exercise a strict supervision of all activities of the municipalities.

The decline of the town of Civita begins after the earthquake of 1695, which caused serious damage to roads and buildings, forcing many residents to leave the city. The succession of other earthquakes and landslides that risked to remain completely isolated Civita, contributed to increase the population transfer elsewhere, up to a near-total abandonment. Only in 1965 was built the concrete bridge that now allows you to reach the city.

In addition to the Port of Santa Maria, the only access to the city, within the village are several medieval houses, the church of San Donato, overlooking the main square and where inside houses the SS Wooden crucifix, the Bishop’s Palace, a mill of the sixteenth century and the birthplace of St. Bonaventure.

The old town is a member of the most beautiful towns in Italy. Because of its stunning geographical position and its charming medieval buildings, it has been used several times as a set of many films, including The Two Colonels (1962) by Steno, with Totò protagonist.

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Francesca Corsi

Translation by Agostino Sargenti

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