Civita di Bagnoregio - Italy’s Most Enchanting and Surreal Ancient Town Is Dying
Civita di Bagnoregio is a small town located in Viterbo, a province in the central Italian region of Lazio. The town is situated about 120 kilometers (75 miles) to the north of Rome. Due to its location on top of a volcanic tower, the town is also known as ‘The City in the Sky’. Another of Civita di Bagnoregio’s nicknames is La città che muore , which translates as ‘The Dying Town’. This is a reference to the decline in the number of its inhabitants.
According to a report published in 2015, the permanent population of Civita di Bagnoregio, was either six or eight, while another report, written in 2017, states that the town is home to just ten people. The depopulation of Civita di Bagnoregio occurred as early as the 17 th century, though it has been given a new lease of life in recent years as a result of tourism. At the same time, however, the uncontrolled tourism is also a threat to the very existence of the site.
The Establishment of Civita di Bagnoregio
Civita di Bagnoregio is reputed to have been founded by the Etruscans about 2500 years ago. The Etruscans were an ancient Italic people that were based in central region of Italy. The heartland of their civilization is known as Etruria and covers the areas of modern Tuscany, Lazio, and Umbria.
The Etruscans organized themselves into a league of city states and their civilization flourished from the 7 th century BC onwards. At the height of their power, there were even Etruscan leagues in northern Italy and in Campania in the south.
Civita di Bagnoregio was an important settlement of the Etruscans as it was located along an ancient road that was connected to a network of trade routes. Therefore, the control of this site allowed the Etruscans to control the movement of trade in that region. Moreover, positioned on the top of a hill, Civita di Bagnoregio could be defended easily and was protected from floods and outbreaks of malaria that affected settlements built along the marshy river.
Etruscan territories and major spread pathways of Etruscan trade routes. (0 Noctis 0 / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
At the main entrance of Civita di Bagnoregio is a huge stone passageway cut by the Etruscans. Other traces of the settlement’s Etruscan founders may be seen in the necropolis that they made in the rock beneath Civita di Bagnoregio. These Etruscan tombs are located today beneath the Belvedere of San Francesco Vecchio. One of the Etruscan chamber tombs was transformed into a Christian chapel during the Middle Ages and is now known as the Cave of Saint Bonaventure.
Cave of Saint Bonaventure beneath the historic town of Civita di Bagnoregio. ( Art Media Factory / Adobe Stock)
The Etruscans were gradually replaced by the Romans as the dominant power on the Italian Peninsula. Etruria was conquered by the Romans during the 3 rd century BC following the Roman-Etruscan Wars, and by around 100 BC, the last Etruscan cities were absorbed by Rome. Civita di Bagnoregio seems to have been an insignificant settlement during Roman times, as we know practically nothing about it during that particular period of its history.
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Civita di Bagnoregio was captured by Rome during the Roman-Etruscan Wars. (Frans Vandewalle / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Instead, Civita di Bagnoregio is recorded to have flourished during the subsequent Medieval period. During the Early Middle Ages, much of the Italian Peninsula came under the rule of the Lombards, who were a Germanic tribe. It was a Lombard king, Desiderius, who named the ancient Etruscan settlement ‘Balneum Regio’, meaning ‘The Bath of the King’. This was in recognition of the therapeutic properties of a hot spring in the area, as the king’s wounds were healed while bathing in it.
Desiderius was also the last Lombard ruler before the Kingdom of Lombardy was conquered by the Franks under Charlemagne in 774 AD. The region of Lombardy was later handed over to the Papacy and Civita di Bagnoregio became part of the Papal States. After being ruled by a series of feudal lords, the settlement became a free commune in 1140.
Saint Bonaventure (born Giovanni di Fidanza) is arguably the most famous person to have hailed from Civita di Bagnoregio. He was born there in around 1217 and became one of the foremost theologians of his day. The saint also served as the 7 th Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor (known also as the Franciscan Order) and was appointed as the cardinal bishop of Albano. In 1482, he was canonized as a saint by Pope Sixtus IV, while in 1588, he was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Sixtus V.
As a theologian, Saint Bonaventure produced many works during his lifetime, including numerous commentaries on the Bible, Breviloquium (meaning ‘Summary’), which is a summary of his theology, as well as Journey of the Mind to God , a work on the spiritual life according to Franciscan ideals. As Minister General, Saint Bonaventure had to deal with two opposing groups within the Franciscan Order.
On one end of the spectrum were the Spirituals, who promoted a rigorous view of poverty, while on the opposite end were the Relaxati, who were in favor of the relaxation of Saint Francis of Assisi’s rule of poverty. Saint Bonaventure succeeded in reconciling the two groups, thus preserving the unity of his order. Other notable contributions made by Saint Bonaventure to the Franciscan Order include its reformation in the spirit of Saint Francis and the re-codification of its constitution.
Saint Bonaventure is the most famous person from Civita di Bagnoregio. (Tetraktys / Public Domain )
The Decline of Civita di Bagnoregio
During the 14 th century, the population of Civita di Bagnoregio was decimated by a plague. In the following century, however, it was rejuvenated following a strong social and economic recovery. Soon, the inhabitants of the city desired independence and laid siege to the castle of the Monaldeschi family, a powerful noble family from Orvieto who dominated the Civita di Bagnoregio.
To commemorate their victory, the citizens set up a pair of sculptures over the Porta Santa Maria. The sculptures depict a pair of lions, each holding a decapitated human head. The heads were meant to symbolize the defeated Monaldeschi family. The citizens of Civita di Bagnoregio, however, were not able to maintain their independence for long.
In 1494, Italy was invaded by Charles VIII of France, who marched his army all the way south to Naples. In the following year, a league of Italian states led by Pope Alexander VI was formed to oppose the French. After Charles VIII was expelled from Italy, Civita di Bagnoregio became part of the Papal States once more.
The year 1695 is a turning point in the history of Civita di Bagnoregio, as it marks the beginning of the city’s decline. Nevertheless, as early as the 15 th century, the inhabitants of Civita di Bagnoregio have been relocating to the city’s suburban area of Bagnoregio. In fact, Bagnoregio had replaced Civita as the main town towards the end of the 16 th century. In 1589, the Porta Albano was erected by the Governor of Bagnoregio, Cardinal Gian Girolamo Albani. This was an unofficial declaration that Bagnoregio was no longer a suburban area of Civita but had taken over its status as an urban center.
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Inhabitants of Civita di Bagnoregio have been relocating to the city’s suburban area of Bagnoregio. ( bygimmy / Adobe Stock)
One reason for the relocation from Civita to Bagnoregio was the fact that the former was affected by seismic activity. Therefore, its inhabitants felt that it was safer to live in the suburbs. In spite of these migrations, the city still maintained a sizeable population, and perhaps, more importantly, the see of the bishop. In 1695, however, Civita di Bagnoregio was struck by a devastating earthquake. Apart from seriously damaging buildings in the city, the earthquake also caused the whole eastern section of Civita di Bagnoregio (known as ‘Contrada Carcere’ due to the presence of the prison there) to collapse.
The earthquake of 1695 compelled many of the remaining inhabitants of Civita di Bagnoregio to move to the suburbs. In 1699, the see of the bishop was also moved to Bagnoregio, where a new cathedral, dedicated to San Nicola , was built. Nevertheless, the former cathedral, which is dedicated to San Donato of Arezzo, was maintained as a church as it contained the relics of Saint Victoria, a 3 rd century AD martyr who is very popular in the region.
San Donato was built during the 5 th century AD in the Romanesque architectural style. During the 16 th century, San Donato was remodeled according to the design of the architect Nicola Matteucci di Caprarol, which gave it a more Renaissance look . Apart from the relics of Saint Victoria, the church is also known for its 15 th century wooden crucifix, which was made by the school of Donatello, and a fresco by the school of Perugino.
San Donato Church in Civita di Bagnoregio . ( Croberto68 / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Tourism Comes to Civita di Bagnoregio
In the centuries that followed, Civita di Bagnoregio continued to decay and is today home to only a handful of residents. In recent years, however, the dying town has been given a new lease of life thanks to tourism. Only two decades ago the town was not known by many. Today, however, tourists arrive in Civita di Bagnoregio in droves.
In 2010, the town recorded a total of 40,000 visitors. In 2017, however, this figure rose to more than 850,000. The influx of tourists has helped to revive the dying town. In a report from 2017, the local mayor, Francesco Bigiotti, boasted a zero-unemployment rate, thanks to the “400 jobs created via the 200 or so tourism-linked businesses that have sprung up in the past few years”.
The popularity of the site is also seen in the fact that tourists do not mind paying an entrance fee to the town. In 2013, a toll of €1.50 ($1.70) was charged and has since been raised to €3.00 ($3.39) during weekdays and €5.00 ($5.66) during weekends. The proceeds of the tickets have also enabled the mayor to abolish communal taxes in both Civita and Bagnoregio.
Tourism may have benefited the people of Civita di Bagnoregio, but it is also a potential threat to the town’s very existence. The town is fragile as it is sitting on weak foundations. Since the time of the Etruscans, blocks of tuff have been quarried from the sides of the hill on which Civita di Bagnoregio was built. As a consequence, the foundations of the city have been weakened. The most obvious sign of the town’s weak foundation is the collapse of its eastern section during the earthquake of 1695.
Today, erosions and landslides are the primary threats faced by Civita di Bagnoregio. It is due to these phenomena that the town became an isolated ‘city in the sky’ in the first place. Erosion over time caused the town to be cut off from the rest of the area, with only a land bridge connecting it to its suburbs, Bagnoregio.
This land bridge has also collapsed and has been replaced by a steel-and-concrete footbridge, which continues to be used today. Erosions and landslides have also resulted in the steady shrinkage of Civita di Bagnoregio. Over the years, buildings have collapsed or just slid off the cliff. Incidentally, the area of Saint Bonaventure’s childhood home has also slipped of the cliff into the valley below.
The land bridge of Civita di Bagnoregio collapsed and was replaced by a steel-and-concrete footbridge. ( lullone / Pixabay)
The problem of erosion and landslides has become more alarming and has been getting worse in recent years. Each year, dozens of landslides are reported, and geologists predict that this will increase in the future. One factor exacerbating the problem is the occurrence of heavy rains, for instance, in 2018 heavy rains caused more flooding and landslides.
Uncontrolled tourism has also made the situation worse as the surge of visitors to Civita di Bagnoregio has placed much pressure on the environment. The town’s fragility has drawn many tourists to the site, motivated by the idea that the town may one day disappear. It is perhaps somewhat ironic then that by visiting the site in such large numbers, the idea motivating these tourists, i.e. the town sliding off the cliff, may become a reality.
At present, there are no restrictions imposed on the number of tourists to the site. Nevertheless, Luca Costantini, a geologist from the Geological and Landslides Museum, states that eventually such restrictions will have to be imposed so as to ensure the town’s survival. Another move to save Civita di Bagnoregio is to have it inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This effort is supported by such big names as Giorgio Napolitano, a former President of Italy, Bernardo Bertolucci, an Academy award-winning film director, and the author Andrea Camilleri. Costantini notes that acquiring such a prestigious status would give Civita di Bagnoregio “more visibility and access to dedicated funding”, which may be used for the preservation of the town for future generations.
Top image: Civita di Bagnoregio an ancient, dying city atop a crumbling rock. Source: JethroT / Adobe Stock.
By Wu Mingren
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