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  • Writer's picture20 Regions in 2 Years

Viterbo - Medieval Latium

Updated: Jun 5, 2019

Fresh from the beauty of Villa Lante, we turn our sights to Tuscia's capital, a medieval warren of alleys, superstition and tufo!

Palazzo dei Papi Viterbo Lazio
Papal Palace of Viterbo - © 2018 James Green

The Anglo-Saxon world today tends to most frequently associate the Papacy with its post-Baroque, post Protestant Reformation incarnation, when the Vicars of Christ held consistories in elegant palazzi frescoed by the finest painters money could buy. By this period, however, the power of the Pope to enthrone or dethrone sovereigns, to shame the mighty into humble processions of penance or to levy taxes over his temporal subjects had already been dealt a decisive blow. Yet the throne of Saint Peter did once wield something of that power, before the reawakening of Roman civilisation in the Renaissance would ironically undermine the foundations of the Roman pontiffs. This was the time of the Commune, or city-states, when the loyalties of men, as yet unburdened with theological schism, lay with the Pope, or with the Emperor. This was medieval Italy, a near four century cold war between the Germanic and Italic peoples. Viterbo is a city of that age, and perhaps because of this, it lies beyond the paths of most English speaking tourists, locked as it is in a time capsule between the Italy of imperial purple and the Italy of Michelangelo.

Viterbo makes no illusions of its identity, its strong walls and fortified palazzi ringing the old city, the Palazzo dei Papi towering over its northwestern approach. No other town or city in Europe today retains a medieval centre over such a scale as Viterbo, despite having admirably endured repeated bombardment during the last war. In the late afternoon light, hours after struggling to find our way to Bagnaia, our return was far more tranquil, and gave us time to appreciate the view beyond the bus stop. The harsh battlements and buttressed citadel high above, bathed in soft and golden light, were quite a sight, and while they may have sought to intimidate the soldiery of the First Reich centuries past, they meant refuge and the peace of evening to us.

San Pellegrino Viterbo Lazio
Into the Old Quarter - © 2018 James Green

Or it was peace, until we noticed that the piazzetta just before the gate appeared to have filled up with around twenty or so gazebos, all buzzing with life and various barbecued foodstuffs. Taken in by this apparently sudden bout of bello, we perused the hubbub with an almost sedated detachment. How the square had changed in just three hours! A troop of children were dashing hither and thither, weary parents seated around tables with an aperol spritz and small bowls of stuzzichini (nibbles). Apparently we were staying in Viterbo in the midst of the Caffeina Festival, a ten-day celebration dedicated to the liberal arts and the sharing of ideas which has annually energised the capital of the Tuscia for a little more than a decade. Given how totally it seemed to embrace the town, we could not help feeling a pang of shame for having never heard of it before. Many Italian towns would have been deserted decades past were it not for initiatives such as these. One only has to consider the Umbrian town of Spoleto, and how the Festa dei Due Mondi has lifted her dignity in the years since Menotti had the inspiration to host it there in 1958.

Viterbo had been apparently enjoying a siesta when we passed through it earlier, judging by the throngs of folk who now flooded the streets. The scent and sound of meat sizzling on grills, the occasional trumpet blast and the sight of so many people laughing and smiling as they witnessed some fabulous gadget demonstration, or studied the Festival programme which had been put up on posters at near every corner, was a wonderful thing, and a reminder that even the most apparently forgotten of towns is dear to someone. Alas our journey from Tarquinia, and adventure in Bagnaia, had sapped us of much of the energy which crackled in every direction, and thus as night fell we made our way rather sluggishly back to San Pellegrino, though not before indulging in a near obligatory Summer aperol spritz. La Tuscia has its own good and decent fare, but it felt so wrong to seek out some hidden trattoria (family-run restaurant) out near the walls, when all was so clearly happening here. There would be time to try such dishes, but that time was not now. Thus we followed the Viterbesi, queuing up for a hearty yet distinctly un-local burger, amusedly watching the various vain attempts made by many to hold conversation over the roar of the music, as the medieval warren of streets had apparently become a great stage.

After a vast number of utterances, and mouthings, of "Scusi" ("Excuse me") "Permesso" ("Sorry, can I squeeze past?"), we snaked our way through the legions and reached our lodgings. Apparently not even the Caffeina Festival was sufficient to wake our soporific host, as the lights were off and no-one was to be heard nor any presence felt as we climbed the wide stone stairs. Either that or we had misjudged the man, and he was out partying on the town. May the reader not begrudge us for succumbing to the lure of a good night's sleep over boisterous partying and semi-heard and awkward conversations.


San Pellegrino Viterbo Lazio
San Pellegrino Quarter, Viterbo - © 2018 James Green

For the third consecutive morning, we rose to blinding sunlight pouring though the windows, lighting up the dust which was gently rising from our charmingly antique room. The faint sound of ceramic scraping on a table surface roused our want of breakfast, and curiosity as to what manner this might take in our historic lodgings. Thus did we swiftly dress and bolt down the peperino staircase, turning into the splendidly welcoming room of the day before. Our softly spoken host was there, laying out an array of small cakes and cornetti. The sight was most peculiar, as the only two elements which were contemporary were his bright pink shirt, and indeed that it was the man of the house who was laying the stately table, crafted in an age when such a idea would have been entirely unthinkable outside of the poorest classes. With a warm smile and a buongiorno, he bade us be seated and enquired as to what form of coffee we would prefer, immediately endearing himself to Katrina. Thus did we take our seats in high-backed chairs on opposite sides of the table, as though it were we who were the lord and lady of the manor, and not he. The absence of any other souls could only compound the illusion.

Once sated, our conversation naturally turned to check-out, and the issue of the luggage. Our train would not be for some hours, and the prospect of wheeling them around Viterbo was distinctly unappealing. We asked our host if we might leave them here and pass by later. With a pang of dread he sorrowfully shook his head, "Purtroppo fra poco vado al mare, non so esattamente a che ora torno" ("Unfortunately I'm off to the sea in a bit, and I don't know when I'll be back"). Our hearts sank, and our arms felt tired already. After a moment, his face assumed a pensive posture, before suddenly declaring "Ma aspetta, forse possiamo fare cosí, venite venite!" ("Wait a moment, maybe we can try this, come come!"). So off we trotted, down the stairwell and out of the door. Temporarily blinded by the blazing sun, it took a moment to realise that he had crossed the narrow street and rapped his knuckles on the door opposite. It appeared to be somebody's house. "Chi è?" ("Who's there?"), came the sound of an elderly lady, with a tone which to English speaking ears would have sounded rather stand-offish, but was well meant. "Tranquilla sono io" ("Don't worry its just me"), our host replied. An leisurely shuffling sound followed, before the door creaked open, to reveal the warm and smiling face of a Viterbese matriarch, of such an age that she may have remembered the bombs of '43. "Salve" ("Greetings"), she offered to us, and we returned them. Our host explained our predicament to the Signora, and we were wondering if perhaps he was going to ask her if she knew of some luggage deposit or other professional solution. "Senti, ma possono lasciarli con lei?" ("Hey, can they leave them with you?"), he nonchalantly enquired. "Si, si, certo!" ("Yes, yes, of course!") she replied. The distinct sensation was that this was not a common request that he had made of her, but that she was simply a gracious lady responding to our hour of need. She turned to us. "Prego!", she beckoned, and we entered her porch, dragging our suitcases in. Leaving one's luggage with a total stranger would indeed be strange in much of the world, but here it did not feel so. We thanked our saviour sincerely, and our host, who broke into a broad smile. "Va bene, sono contento! Allora io vado", ("Good good, I'm happy! Right, I'm off"), he declared, and off he went, and so did we.

San Pellegrino Viterbo Lazio
San Pellegrino Quarter, Viterbo - © 2018 James Green

About a quarter of an hour later, we emerged once more onto the street, the burden of luggage blissfully raised from our shoulders. Now we could truly appreciate the setting in which we found ourselves - the San Pellegrino Quarter.

During the days of the Caesars, Viterbo was yet to exist, its land hosting perhaps no more than a sporadically manned castrum, or military outpost, guarding over the Via Cassia, which snaked its way through central Etruria before swinging west to Liguria. Since the Cassia was flanked by the already built Via Aurelia and Via Flaminia, and passed through territories pacified a century or so earlier by Rome, this patch of Tuscia likely only saw the most modest road traffic. Yet while the trauma of the collapse of the Western Empire forever destroyed the temporal power of Rome, the Eternal City shone through as a lighthouse in the Dark Ages, its housing of the Constantinian church and her apparatus channeling a profound bond between Rome and those who were once her subjects. It is this alliance of faith and melancholy which lies at the foundation of the all but omnipotent allure of Rome, today as much as at the dawn of the Middle Ages. The one and only thing which reconciled those who mourned the Empire's passing, with those who had caused it, was a common embracing of Nicene Christianity.

San Pellegrino Viterbo Lazio
Flowers by the Francigena - © 2018 James Green

When, in AD 671, Garibald of the Lombards died but three months into his reign, he died the last of the Arian kings of Europe. While Christendom would rupture at the Adriatic four centuries later, it would be near a millennium before its unity would shatter in the West, and throughout that time there were few centres of human population west of Constantinople which could match Rome for prestige. It was after all, the resting place of Simon Peter, the rock upon which Christ declared his church would be built. Thus would it be the dream of many to come to Rome, to pray and to seek God both in the journey, and at the destination - and for pilgrims from the Frankish Empire and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, it would be the Via Francigena which would lead them on. Unlike the great Roman roads, the Francigena did not originally link the major urban centres. It arced from abbey to abbey, in an impressively direct line from Canterbury to Rome, and it did so straight through the heart of what today is Viterbo, a city which largely grew up thanks to the trade of pilgrims on the Francigena, rather like Siena around seventy five miles to the northwest. We know that in the year nine hundred and ninety Anno Domini, Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury would walk the near one and a half thousand miles of the way back from Rome, where he had received his pallium from the hand of His Holiness Pope John XV himself. On the encouragement of the Holy Father, he recorded his toil in a diary, managing the mighty route in a most respectable seventy nine days. The Quartiere San Pellegrino, on the southern side of Viterbo, would have been a welcome sight for Sigeric and all those who followed him ('Pellegrino' is the Italian word for 'pilgrim'), and our view of it today is unchanged since it was built between the 11th and 13th centuries.

We turned our gaze from house to house with an irresistible sense of wonder. San Pellegrino is not dramatic in scale, nor is it home to any monuments of particular note. It is home, quite simply, to homes. That they are still homes today to very ordinary folk, who line their windows and stairwells with potted plants and blooming flowers, doorbells discreetly present alongside wooden portals, only enhanced the district's charm. Speaking of stairwells, there is a great abundance of them in San Pellegrino, and of profferli above all. Now the profferlo is a basic, yet practical architectural element, and undoubtedly the most alluringly quaint feature of the quarter. It is an external staircase, uncovered and in contact with the main structure only on one extremity of the stairs, often cleverly supported by an arch so that it appears to be floating, which leads one from the street level directly to the first floor. Its function may appear decorative today, yet in the heyday of the Via Francigena, the ground floors of many of San Pellegrino's buildings served as stables, or as the workshops of tradesmen, leaving the upper floors for habitation and comfort, salubriously keeping personal and professional lives separate, and potential sources of squalor away from the living quarters.

Much is to be said of traversing the streets of San Pellegrino, in the shadow of dwellings which make Florence appear modern, in the footsteps of men seized with that touching devotion which is wont to move men to exceptional feats. For now, the Francigena has avoided the fate of the road to Santiago, and remains almost exclusively the path of pilgrims, or at least particularly interested hikers, and thus to take the route retains its lustre and prestige.

Coming to the boundary of the quarter, we came across a towering church, most unlike the many others in Viterbo. Four centuries younger than the rest of the quarter, it was baroque, not medieval, its impressive portal bearing the coat of arms of Clement XIII, a man who dignified the spirit of Rome with his asceticism and destroyed its treasury with his naivety.

Empyrean San Giovanni Gonfalone Viterbo Lazio
The Empyrean - © 2018 James Green

Stepping over the threshold, our eyes were irresistibly drawn to the unshackled glory which is the vault of the church. Soaring far above our heads was the angelic host of the highest heaven, where burn the fires most bright, the Empyrean itself. Glory, crowned and resplendent, draws back in awe, beholding the abode of the Almighty, the fount of all light and creation, and we were but earthly observers below it all. The extravagantly rendered row of columns which ran around the vault, surmounted by a faux marble frieze, served as a mere frame to the celestial scene above. That the temporal church around us blended so seamlessly, and so dramatically, to the ethereal, is courtesy of Vincenzo Strigelli, the most noteworthy Viterbese painter of the eighteenth century. The fruits of his labour are all the more magnificent given the Herculean farce which was the church's construction.

Prior to the construction of the fine church one sees today, this land was owned by the heiress Caterina Nini di Nino, who sold it for the sum of two hundred scudi (the currency of the Papal States prior to their annexation in 1870) to private benefactors, who in turn donated it to the Confraternity of the Gonfalone, one of the most significant brotherhoods in Viterbo. The Gonfalone had thus far devoted themselves to the collecting of alms, so that ransoms might be afforded for Christian men, women and children chained in slavery under the Turkish yoke. Or else to care for the sick, or provide for the dowries of orphaned girls of upright moral character. Yet their existing Oratory had been inconveniently far from the city centre, and thus construction began on the church in 1665. With the passage of ten years, all of the interior furnishings were ready, and moved in. However, the funds abruptly ran out before the façade could be built, leaving the church in an embarrassing state of architectural nudity when pilgrims passed through for the 1675 Jubilee. Fifty one years it would take before the façade was finally built, demonstrating that public works in Italy have scarcely improved their celerity in the intervening centuries - one need only study the excruciating saga of the Roman metropolitan lines to see that this is no hyperbole. A further two decades passed, and in 1746, Nicola Salvi, who a decade earlier had submitted the ultimately successful design for the Trevi Fountain in Rome, was drafted in to make something of the now redundant interior. Working to a tight budget, Salvi made frugal use of marble, and ample use of peperino, allowing the money saved to be employed for the frescoes. Or so it was thought.

The oratory was frescoed smoothly enough, yet financial mismanagement and abject incompetence meant there was scarcely a scudo left for the church itself. For nine further years the church dragged on in limbo, its bare walls and ceiling crying out for colour, before the Confraternity issued a public call for designs for the frescoes in 1756. Three painters, Anton Angelo Falaschi, Vincenzo Strigelli and Domenico Corvi entered, presenting drafts of their intended compositions, all at a reasonable price. All three proposals were accepted by the church, which subsequently decided that it would be better if one artist were to be appointed primus inter pares to oversee the entire project, with the sound logic of ensuring some manner of coherence. On the 23rd March 1756, in a meeting it was decided that Strigelli was to be assigned this duty and honour, and thus works at last began, eighty one years after the builders had finished their work.

Almost immediately, a cloud of acrimony descended upon the entire project. Records speak of a 'forte ritardo' ('severe delay') - a phrase with which anyone acquainted with the Italian public sector will be familiar - due to bitter rows which erupted between the painters and the Confraternity, most likely due to a combination of excessive interference, indecisiveness, payment issues and consequent bad faith. This was further compounded by Strigelli's cantankerous relationship with a certain Giuseppe Merzetti, yet another artist who was charged with overseeing the interior adornment, and who inexplicably refused to adhere to the original design. After five months, scarcely any progress had been made on the frescoes, and the completion of the vault seemed as far off as ever. Thus did the Confraternity do what any bloated corporation would do - they hired an expensive consultant to state the obvious. Thus the professional arbitration of a third party artist, Stefano Parrocel, was dragged into the quagmire, who ruled in favour of Strigelli, arguing that this was on a par with the original agreement. Sanity seemed to have evacuated all who came into contact with this church, except for the Confraternity's long-suffering bookkeeper. The desperate soul, who had to record the expense of this consultation (26 scudi) in the Order's accounts, made it quite clear what he thought of it all, annotating the sum with "per spese del tutto capricciose e superflue" ("for entirely extravagant and unnecessary expenses"). At long last, then, Strigelli painted his Empyrean, whose blissful composition contrasts so magnificently with the acidic atmosphere in which it was painted. One can readily imagine the foul language which must have echoed from and to the vault, as Strigelli sought to depict Paradise.

In 1769, the Confraternity merrily chanced Fate and decided to entrust the decoration of the processional banner, too, to Strigelli. This too suffered a forte ritardo when Strigelli, likely having had enough of it all, suddenly died at 56. The agony at last came to its ignoble end in 1772, when Sebastiano Carelli valiantly completed his monochrome figures on the sides of High Altar. One hundred and seven years were needed to complete the Church of San Giovanni del Gonfalone. St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, many, many times its size, scope and complexity, was built in a hundred and twenty. Such was the folly with which the responsible persons involved in this project were possessed.

Piazza delle Morte Viterbo Lazio
Piazza delle Morte - © 2018 James Green

Arresting though the church's story inevitably was, the hours were against us, and we certainly did not have the luxury of a century of overtime to play with, so we headed west into the heart of Viterbo, under a sky almost as flawless as Strigelli's Empyrean. The city was in an impressive state of cleanliness, with few traces of the dense crowds of singing and dancing folk of the night before appeared to have left no crumpled cups nor discarded straws. On the contrary it felt much like the warm Summer's day that it theoretically was, with families occupying the many tables laid out, enjoying their ubiquitous aperol spritzes and bowls of crisps al fresco. The hub of much of the merriment was one of Viterbo's most characteristic, if unsettlingly named urban spaces, the Piazza delle Morte (Square of the Dead). The triangular piazza takes this ghoulish name from the Confraternita dell’Orazione e della Morte (Confraternity of Orison and of Death), a brotherhood which established itself in the nearby Church of St. Thomas in 1576. The brotherhood devoted its efforts to the grim yet undoubtedly noble duty of scouring the streets, fields and meadows for abandoned corpses, so as to give the forgotten a dignified burial. Far from being an allegory of death, the piazza was a celebration of life, with water flowing from the ancient fountain, flowers sprouting from vases arrayed around its basin, and laughter and chatter providing a delicate percussion. James, who had visited Viterbo twice before, remarked that he had never seen it so alive. How much of it was down to the Caffeina Festival was difficult to know, but one thing was clear. It was a sea of Italians, with almost no others of a northern complexion apparently present.

Piazza San Lorenzo Fiat 500 Viterbo Lazio
Fiat 500 in Piazza San Lorenzo, Viterbo - © 2018 James Green

Following Via San Lorenzo over a kind of viaduct, we came to the core of Viterbo's identity, the Piazza San Lorenzo, over which guards the Cattedrale dedicated to Saint Laurence, the city's joint patron saint. At about fifty yards across, it is not particularly large, especially by the standards of other Italian cities. It is however immediately distinct, flanked on all sides by peperino edifices, and of course the Palazzo dei Papi itself, joined to the piazza by a wide stairwell. The cobbled floor was mostly covered by plastic chairs, and a half-erected stage, doubtless the ingredients for a coming evening concert. Our eyes were drawn to a golden yellow Fiat 500 parked at the foot of the Papal stairwell, a bouquet of flowers artistically positioned atop the bonnet. Apparently a wedding was in flow. What a day, and place, for the photographs.

Loggia delle Benedizioni Viterbo Lazio
Loggia delle Benedizioni - © 2018 James Green

The most unusual feature of this unusual piazza is undoubtedly the great Loggia delle Benedizioni (Loggia of the Blessings), or Papal Loggia, which marks the edge of the medieval city, overlooking the valley in what must once have been a pleasing rustic scene, before the valley floor was covered over for the bus station. No other structure in the city, or perhaps even Lazio, evokes the spirit of the medieval age quite so firmly as this Loggia. Gothic arches and tracery dance their way across the stone wall, surmounted by shields bearing the coat of arms of Raniero Gatti, Captain of the People, who led the civil administration of the city which provided for its construction, in order to formally welcome the Papal court to Viterbo. What is far from obvious, but explains the loggia's somewhat surreal appearance is the fact that it was originally entirely enclosed, with a symmetrical front on the valley side. Unfortunately both the roof and valley side wall collapsed fifty eight years later, and have never been rebuilt. Viterbo was clearly in want of skilled architects in the 13th century, as a plethora of evidence testifies to the shoddiness of its construction. May the reader spare a thought for the unfortunate Pope John XXI, who retired to his apartment in the palace on the 14th May 1277 to pursue his hobby of studying the lore of medicine. While alone either in bed or at his desk, the roof suddenly collapsed. Hours later the Holy Father was dug out of the rubble, yet the grievous injuries he had suffered would consign his life to God just five days later. What remains behind of this unhappy palazzo for us today is a somewhat melancholic relic of a time as distant to us today as the days of the Caesars were to the Popes who inhabited this place.

Viterbo's cultural scene takes great pride in marketing itself as the Città dei Papi (City of Popes), and with just cause. The middling years of the thirteenth century were amongst the most unstable of any century for Germanic and Italian lands, due in no small part to the pig-headed obsession of Pope Innocent IV and his successor, Alexander IV, to sever the Sicilian and Imperial Crowns at all costs, believing the German Hohenstaufen emperors to be maliciously bent on encircling the Papal realm. When the greatest sovereign of the Germanic Middle Ages, Frederick Stupor Mundi, breathed his last in 1250, Innocent swiftly set about demolishing his legacy. Spitting in the face of Frederick's kin, the Pope promptly offered the Kingdom of Sicily to Prince Edmund, second son of King Henry III of England, on condition of his military support against the Germans, and a hefty payment. The King, eager to add Sicily, once the jewel of the Norman crown, to the English dominions, met with disaster upon attempting to levy a tax to cover the Papal bribe. The contempt of the English nobles for this 'Sicilian business', was all but the final straw for Simon de Montfort to raise the aristocracy of Albion in revolt, under a Baron's Alliance. Thus did the personal vendetta of the Vicar of Christ arrogate the dignity of one kingdom, and destroy the stability of another. The persistence of Alexander IV with this folly, including attempting to bait the Norwegians into undertaking a crusade against the Sicilian king Manfred, got him thrown out of Rome, whose people openly sympathised with the Teutons. Thus, in the year of our Lord 1257, was the successor to Saint Peter forced to seek refuge in the arms of the Viterbese, in one of the few Latin towns which would suffer him.

Alexander, with the co-operation of the pro-Papal Guelph faction, set about fortifying the palace which once was that of the bishop, now that of the Pope himself. Hence the Palazzo dei Papi resembles a citadel more than a dwelling, its merlons still protruding from the top. Intrigued by the structure, which cannot be neglected by the visitor to Viterbo, we purchased two tickets from a bubbly middle-aged woman at a desk by the Cattedrale, who handed us two audio-guides, explaining their function with a slightly comical, and endearing, over-enthusiasm. Well off the major tourist routes of today, one can lay aside any fears of having to queue at Viterbo's principal attraction.

Sala del Conclave Viterbo Lazio
Sala del Conclave - © 2018 James Green

Skirting around the Fiat 500, we scrambled up the wide stairs to the loggia, which was completed a decade after Alexander's arrival. It was just as well that we had been supplied with an audioguide, as the interiors were almost entirely devoid of artifacts, furnishings or narrative information. There was precious little to look at in the Sala del Conclave (Hall of the Conclave), which was remarkable considering this room's contribution to Western history.

When Alexander died in 1261, what followed was the first of five Papal elections which would take place in the palace of Viterbo, for it was the custom that if the Supreme Pontiff were to die outside of Rome, the election of his successor should take place in that same city. Yet it is the second of these which ensured the church would never be the same again, being the first true Papal conclave. The visitor may be interested to know that the word 'conclave' is an Anglicisation of the Latin 'cum clave' meaning 'with key', and it was from the following events that it took its form.

With Rome's constant aggression towards the Sicilian Kingdom, leading to Manfred's excommunication, and there being no attempt by the Papacy to conceal its lobbying of foreign powers to attack it, war was inevitable. The English refusal to make war on Manfred induced Pope Alexander to turn next to Charles of Anjou, the brother of King Louis IX of France. Charles, unfettered by unruly barons, took up the sham of a crusade as his brother embarked on a true one. At Benevento in 1266, Charles conquered the Hohenstaufen forces, and Manfred was killed in the rout. Two years later he crushed what remained of resistance at Tagliacozzo, executing Manfred's sixteen year old nephew Conradin in the middle of Naples. The Papacy, blinded by its feud, had failed to see that all that had been achieved was the trading of one power for another, and almost immediately the cardinals grew fearful of Charles.

When Pope Clement IV died in November 1268, the College of Cardinals met in the cathedral. There were at the time, twenty cardinals, but one - a Frenchman - was serving on the Eighth Crusade alongside his king. Both would die outside the walls of Tunis. The remaining nineteen were broadly, and perfectly, split between those who favoured Charles, and those who were appalled at the slaying of Conradin, and would sooner die than see a Frenchman on the Papal Throne.

Palazzo dei Papi Viterbo Lazio
Marks from the Cardinals' tents - © 2018 James Green

At first, it progressed like any other election. The cardinals met in San Lorenzo, and took a vote once a day, before retiring to their quarters. The votes were close, but no convincing majority presented itself, nor seemed likely to do so. Days bled into months, as a new year dawned. Seized by inspiration, the cardinals turned to an outsider, Filippo Benizi, leader of the Servite Order. A majority was found, and the cardinals rejoiced. Benizi, however, did not. Declaring himself unworthy of the burden of the Papal Tiara, he promptly fled Viterbo to live in a grotto in Val d'Orcia. Despair began to set in, as among the seven or eight pro-French cardinals, and dozen others, it emerged that deeper splits were dividing up the votes due to family bonds or personal interests. Matters took a morbid turn with the death of Cardinal Pironti, and then Cardinal Báncsa - who, incidentally, was the first Hungarian to be elevated to the cardinalate - of old age. Forte ritardi have apparently played a major role in the history of Viterbo, and Western Christendom began to grow increasingly frustrated with the cardinals for allowing it. Charles of Anjou, no less aghast, personally came to Viterbo, as did Philip III of France, son of Louis, to shame the cardinals into action.

It had precisely no effect, though the rule of law began to break down. Henry, son of the Earl of Cornwall, who was in Viterbo, was stabbed to death in the middle of Mass by his own cousins, in revenge for the crushing of the Baron's Revolt. As the dear reader may have noticed, anyone who was anyone clearly had to be in Viterbo, or needed a man on the ground there, in the late thirteenth century. Gatti, the Captain of the People, thoroughly regretting having welcomed the Papacy to Viterbo in the first place, refused to cover the expenses of the cardinals' catering any longer, locking the electors in the Palazzo dei Papi. Rationing began, and it was not long before the cardinals began to complain about their rapidly plummeting quality of life. The seventy one year old Cardinal Henry of Segusio fell seriously ill, and grew so desperate that he renounced his right to vote, before being carried out of the palace in the summer of 1270. The doors were subsequently walled up.

The sole English cardinal present, John de Tollet, appears to have remained upbeat however. Almost twenty months in confinement had not robbed him of his thoroughly British sense of humour, as he ventured a suggestion. "Gentlemen", he addressed his fellow Princes of the Church, "Let us take off this roof, for the Holy Spirit cannot possibly get through such a covering". Two magistrates outside who overheard this promptly obliged. One can but imagine by what names the other cardinals referred to Mr John de Tollet, as the hall's ceiling was torn down. Fearing the rain and snow of the coming winter, the cardinals erected tents in the Hall. Still today one can clearly see the marks left by the pegs they hammered into the flagstones!

An entire year dragged by, before a cacophony of rage sounded from outside, on the first day of September, 1271. The extraordinarily patient princes and plebeians of the West, represented by those of Viterbo, had had enough. The cardinals were forced to relinquish their authority to a committee of six, which reached a conclusion within a fortnight . They chose a relatively obscure Franciscan clergyman by the name of Teobaldo Visconti, known only for his honesty, who was not in Viterbo, nor even in Italy, since he was serving Prince Edward Plantagenet at Acre, on the Ninth Crusade. Visconti was torn at the prospect of abandoning the crusade, yet ultimately accepted, to spare Christendom further shame, and ascended the Throne of St. Peter, as Pope Gregory X. Thus ended the first, and longest, conclave in the history of the Catholic Church, at one thousand and six days. The Viterbese papacy limped on for another decade, before Pope Martin IV abandoned Viterbo immediately after his election on 22nd February 1281, bringing to an end a quarter century of Papal residence in the city.

Such were the affairs of repute, and disrepute, which took their course in the hall in which we found ourselves. There are times when the truth is wilder than the rumour, and so it was with the conclave which spanned three years. Determined that such a disgrace should never be repeated, Gregory promulgated the Ubi periculum, the papal bull which has regulated the election of the Vicar of Christ ever since, and which stipulates among many other things; that a two-thirds majority is needed to secure a successful vote, men of any order or condition of health are eligible for the Papacy, none may leave conclave once it has started, cardinals may engage in no other business but the election until it is successfully concluded and that cardinals will live in shared accommodation with no interior walls throughout the conclave. Furthermore, Gregory declared that if no candidate had been selected after three days, the cardinals will be permitted but one dish at meal times, and if after eight days there is still no victor, they will be permitted only bread, wine and water. Gregory knew well how to strike Italians where it hurts - in the diet.

Imperial Busts Viterbo Lazio
Imperial Busts - © 2018 James Green

The Palazzo dei Papi, despite possessing only the most limited aesthetic qualities, has many a story to tell. There were perhaps three or four other visitors present as we explored the handful of rooms, who each chuckled merrily at the appropriate moments in the audioguide. Bar a finely frescoed room with the arms of Clement VIII Aldobrandini, a pontiff who reigned three centuries later than the context of the Palazzo, and who had a negligible attachment to the city, there is little else to see, bar the Museo del Colle del Duomo, built for the Great Jubilee of 2000, which houses a motley smattering of archaeological finds, paintings and ecclesiastical trappings. Though certain individual pieces were striking, the lack of a coherent logic or narrative to the collection bars it from being particularly memorable.

The Palazzo adjoins the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, the sceptred head of the Viterbo ecclesiastical hierarchy. Now, an essential guidebook written for the Grand Tourists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, The Grand Tour; Or, a Journey through the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and France, written by the Irishman Mr Thomas Nugent in 1756, is most unhelpful and uncomplimentary in its commentary of this cathedral. Nugent was clearly more interested in the landscape of Tuscia, praising the chestnut and sycamore trees which grew in the area. To San Lorenzo, he devotes a single sentence, writing, "The cathedral is an old building, that contains nothing remarkable". Hardly a standing ovation.

Much of the disdain held for the cathedral is a consequence of a bungled refurbishment carried out in the 16th century, which destroyed the lion's share of its frescoes and, incredibly, the tomb of Pope Alexander IV. How fitting that the Hohenstaufens were avenged three centuries later by the serial ineptitude of Viterbese architects. To this day, the whereabouts of the Pontiff's remains are a mystery.

We were shocked to learn that the guilty party for this operation was none other than Cardinal Gambara, who is redeemed only by his creation of the idyllic Villa Lante three miles away. The local bishop in 1861 was so scathing of Gambara's ceiling that he had the whole thing covered over. Fate too, apparently had it in for San Lorenzo, when Allied bombs destroyed the apse and much of what remained that was beautiful. The postwar restoration was the coup de grâce, stripping all but the totality of the remaining Baroque ornamentation. The funeral effigy of John XXI, the highest profile casualty of Viterbese architecture, has bizarrely been raised up on an incongruent plinth.

Cattedrale di San Lorenzo Viterbo Lazio
Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, Viterbo - © 2018 James Green

Yet, in its nudity, the cathedral is oddly endearing. Robbed of any distractions, it does invite peace, and we appreciated the cool air it hosts, and strangely comforting darkness which pervades it. Seated in the pews, we could admire the handiwork of the Lombard artisans, and beautiful Cosmatesque floor, dappled with shafts of light penetrating the high windows. Contrary to Mr Nugent's assertions, the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo is worth visiting, if for nothing else other than to see an uncharacteristically austere Italian cathedral, albeit by accident rather than design.

Piazza delle Morte Viterbo Lazio
Piazza delle Morte, Viterbo - © 2018 James Green

Yet time marched on once more, and Rome beckoned. It was strange to think that the spiritual silence of San Lorenzo would soon be exchanged for the noise of Rome. Or it would have been soon, were it not for the snail's pace of the train which connects the two cities. Thus did we pass the Piazza delle Morte once more, and its beguiling, tarot card-esque ceramic wall panels, and head back to San Pellegrino. Our saviour for the day, the lovely old lady opposite our lodgings, bade us farewell with a smile and a "buon viaggio!", as she faithfully reunited us with our luggage.

When at last our iron horse chugged out of Viterbo Porta Romana station, as we braced for the hours to come, there was ample time to reflect on our adventure here. Viterbo is what those of a certain generation might call a "queer little place", defined by many dualities, from its profound historical pedigree, with beautiful residential quarters but architecturally questionable monuments. It is both so vital to the shaping of modern Italy, yet also profoundly human, its landscape the personification of the foibles of the characters who took it as their stage. It may, from many aspects, be termed un po' sfigato (a bit misfortunate), but visiting it is a pearl of an experience, and well worth the long journey from pretty much anywhere.

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