Egerton R. (Egerton Ryerson) Williams.

Hill towns of Italy; online

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towers frowning down, and views into arcaded
courts with splashing fountains. There were no
special grand palaces here and there, but each
house, insignificant as a whole, had some details
which seemed relics of former grandeur. And
the Romanesque, the Gothic, and the Renais-
sance ran confusedly together. It was not as a
whole the harmony of beauty ; but it was cer-
tainly the diversity of the picturesque.

When I stepped off the main streets into the


still older side quarters of the city, I was instantly
taken back a thousand years. Here was the Vi-
terbo of the ninth and tenth centuries, un-
touched, unchanged. The little streets wound in
and out, and up and down, between high, dark
stone walls, half the time through tunnels.
The alternation of light and shade was bewilder-
ing. Here a well, as it were, where the sun shone
in and the dark houses looked down menacingly j
there the street plunged into gloom beneath an
archway. Thus the dwellings and towers were
built over the way, as well as on the way. In the
open, arches continually ran across from one side
to the other, at all heights, evidently for the
walls to lean upon each other.

Here were the fortified dwellings built by the
nobles of Viterbo in those dark ages when neigh-
bor fought neighbor, here as at Rome and Flor-
ence, and a man's house had to be his castle.
The crumbling apartments are occupied to-day
by the poor, living in the best preserved corners
of the ancient palaces; but the towers still stand,
too strong to fall, perhaps broken away at the
top where the parapet was, whence they used to
pour down arrows and stones and boiling water.
These towers seem countless. Evidently a man's
family was not safe in those days unless it had a
donjon to retreat to.

But all these scenes of antiquity and ruin were
not desolated by silence. Sounds of a busy life


came from every doorway, open to the street.
Within, where the retainers of a noble family used
to stand in pride, now worked the carpenter at
his trade, or the shoemaker, or the smith. The
sounds of wheels turning, saws rasping, iron ring-
ing, showed the present population of Viterbo to
be industrious. The families gathered about in
the street, before the doors and on the open stair-
ways. Children ran everywhere. All were com-
fortably dressed and seemed quite happy in
these extraordinary surroundings. No beggar
approached to solicit me as I passed along ; which
was quite different from other places. I ascribed
the difference in temperament and industry of
these people from those further south to the dif-
ference in climates. Viterbo's high altitude of
about thirteen hundred feet gives it a truly north-
ern temperature. In this month of April the trees
had just come out, which are of our northern
varieties, and it was quite cool, sometimes cold.
The winters are fairly severe. One could not ex-
pect to find here the sloth and carelessness of
the south.

Several days were spent by me at Viterbo, very
pleasantly. The first visits to special objects of
interest took me to the piazza, and the cathedral,
and the Church of Santa Maria della Verita.
The piazza lies just in the centre of the town, at
the southern end of the Corso, which runs thence
towards the northern gate. Encircling the piazza


on three sides lies the Palazzo Municipale, with
a large graceful arcade on the first story of the
western fagade. This portico with its round
arches and good proportions bears the mark of
the Renaissance j and I found that it was erected
in the fifteenth century. At the angles of the
wings of the palazzo stand detached columns,
bearing stone lions ; and on the corners hang
huge papal coats of arms. Passing through the
arcade I found a courtyard in the rear facing
out to the west over a valley below, through
which runs the little river of the town. Beyond
the vale lay vacant fields once filled with houses,
and beyond the view ranged out to the green
undulating country far away. To the south rose
the domed cathedral on its hill sheer from the
river bank. In the courtyard were fountains, and
a number of Etruscan sarcophagi with mutilated
stone figures resting upon them. It was star-
tling, just for a moment, to see these ancient
personages reclining about upon their bent arms
and regarding me ; it was the touch needed to
remind one that all this city came from these
Etruscans, twenty-five centuries ago.

Within the palace is a little municipal museum,
in which there is nothing of special interest except
a pieta by Sebastiano del Piombo, a most ad-
mirable work, with a skillful moonlight effect.
This painting is also interesting because the
drawing is ascribed to Michael Angelo.


I went on to the Duomo upon its hill in the
southwest corner of the city. The little piazza
before it was sunlit and deserted. On one side
was the plain fagade of the cathedral, with a
handsome high campanile having several tiers of
Gothic arches in its upper part, and constructed
there also in layers of white and dark stone.
There is so very little Gothic anywhere in Italy
that it is always interesting to find. Facing the
piazza on each side of the cathedral were ruined
palaces. That on the right I knew to be the
former habitation of the popes while residing
here; the main section of it, stretching along
parallel with the nave of the Duomo, was recently
whitewashed, and showed but a broad flight of
stairs leading to the arched entrance at the east
end. Adjoining this, and resting upon an arch-
way supported by a single great column, was a
roofless chamber, with a colonnade of Gothic
arches on its fagade. This was the room in which
Pope John XXI was killed by the fall of the
ceiling in 1277. A strange fate for a Pope,
and he had been elected only the year previous.
That was six hundred years ago and the ceil-
ing is still unroofed ; it made the tragedy very
real to me. The chamber has since then had its
beautiful Gothic windows filled in with bricks
and stone ; but some of these have tumbled out

The fate of John XXI reminded me of the


other historical incident for which this little piazza
so out-of-the-way, so quiet, and so deserted
is famous. It is the spot where the centuries of
struggle between popes and emperors for the
mastery first resulted in a decisive victory for
the papacy, where a Holy Roman Emperor
made submission to a Pope as a vassal to an over-
lord. This Pope was Hadrian IV, the only
Englishman who ever wore the tiara ; he forced
the Emperor, Frederick I, to hold his stirrup
while dismounting. I could fairly see the crowd
filling the piazza, men-at-arms holding it back
with pole-axes, the gay cavalcade which followed
the monarchs pushing in with champing bits and
flashing cuirasses, the waving of pennons, the
glittering of the sunlight on helmet and sword
and shield, and could fairly feel the astonished,
awe-struck hush which fell upon the multitude
when the mighty emperor suddenly stepped for-
ward and held the stirrup of the mailed and
haughty Pope. The same walls which saw that
scene still looked down upon the piazza, but the
actors had been dead eight hundred years.

I entered the old papal palace, and found a
great hall, of imposing breadth and height, the
ancient timbered ceiling still over it. This was
where the cardinals held their conclaves in the
thirteenth century, and where three popes, in-
cluding John XXI, were elected. The hall was
now quite bare, even of furniture ; but I could


easily imagine the excitement, and whispering,
and electioneering, and suspense of those red-
robed gatherings.

The interior of the cathedral was noticeable for
its Romanesque arches separating aisles from
nave, which were erected in the twelfth century.
The capitals of the columns were of the usual
Romanesque carving, queer diversions of the
Ionic and Corinthian orders, with images of
distorted beasts.

From the Duomo I walked up through the
old byways of the town to its eastern gate.
Passing between dark heavy walls, and huge
arched doorways gloomy within where chil-
dren played, women sewed and men worked, and
under arches and tunnels, I emerged at length
from the gate upon an open space without where
stands the church of Santa Maria della Verita.
From here I had a good view of the old Longo-
bard walls of Viterbo. They curved away on each
hand for a long distance, high and grim, with
battlements and towers still bare and menacing,
uncovered by any growth of vegetation. In these
days, when nearly every city has razed its ancient
walls in order to make room for streets and park-
ways, it was a great pleasure to gaze upon these
fortifications of the Middle Ages so perfectly
preserved. One of the towers was afterwards
pointed out to me as the identical one on which
the beautiful Galliana was killed. She was so fair


that she was the cause of a war between Rome
and Viterbo in the twelfth century. While the
Romans were besieging Viterbo they finally tired
of the attempt to scale its high walls, and offered
to depart if given one sight of Galliana. The
maiden, regardless of the risk to her lif e, insisted
upon exposing herself in order to end the strife ;
she appeared upon the tower which still bears her
name, and was instantly pierced by an arrow from
the enemy. Her tomb I saw in the fagade of the
church of St. Angelo, fronting the main piazza.

In the church of S. Maria della Verita, now
used as a hall, I found some remarkable frescoes
by an artist of the fifteenth century, who is little
known, Lorenzo da Viterbo. They covered the
walls and ceiling of a chapel, representing inci-
dents in the life of the Virgin, with saints and
prophets. Considering the year of their compo-
sition, 1469, they are extraordinary, for their
perspective, action, expression of thought and in-
dividuality, and execution. They place this Lo-
renzo in the front rank of the masters of that
period. His lack of fame is probably due to the
absence of other works from his hand.

The other important churches of Viterbo are
few in number. In S. Francesco are to be found
but the tombs of two of the popes who died here ;
S. Giovanni in Zoccoli is a picturesque eleventh-
century edifice of real Romanesque, in columns,
arches, capitals, doorways, and general plan. It is


rare to find such a building, for times were so dis-
turbed and people so poor in Romanesque days,
that churches usually ran into the Gothic before
they were completed.

I went to S. Rosa to visit the tomb of this saint,
the patroness of the city. In the thirteenth cen-
tury she raised the citizens of Viterbo against the
Emperor Frederick II, who subsequently sent her
into exile, where she died. Her body is reverently
preserved in the church, although blackened by
a fire some few hundred years ago which de-
stroyed the building where it then lay, but could
not burn Santa Rosa. While wandering about
the nave one of those tottering old men ap-
proached me who are found nowhere but in and
about Italian churches, ragged, toothless, and de-
cayed, living upon the soldi which they pick up
from the traveler or alms-giver. In quavering
voice he asked if I wished to see the body of
Santa Rosa, and upon receiving an affirmative
reply led me to a side chapel behind the altar of
which was a high grille set in the wall, and be-
hind the grille some closed wooden doors. The
old man pulled a cord which hung at one corner;
a bell sounded afar ; and in a minute the wooden
doors folded back and a room appeared, with a
large gilt sarcophagus in the centre, illuminated
by a dozen candles placed about. The front of
the sarcophagus was of glass, displaying within
the body of the saint peacefully resting, the hands


and face somewhat shrunken and quite black. It
was most richly clothed, and all of the fingers
were covered with precious stones. The face,
dead now for nearly seven hundred years, still
showed signs of beauty. A nun who stood be-
side the sarcophagus passed out to me through
the bars a piece of small white rope, which, I
knew from the custom, had been laid upon the
sarcophagus and was therefore supposed to pos-
sess remarkable healing powers. Many instances
are related of wonderful cures effected by one of
these strands. Faith will do anything.

Without the northern gate of Viterbo the citi-
zens have recently constructed upon a limited
plateau a park, with graveled walks, fountains,
basins, flower-beds, and thickly set trees. Here I
found, to my pleasure, our northern horse-chest-
nut tree, just in full bloom, and our locust, and
quite a variety of maples. It was a glimpse of
home. The people came out here in great num-
bers on warm afternoons. The perfect beauty of
the parkways made me think what a beautiful
city could be built to-day in this region, with its
luxuriance of verdure. But the inhabitants cling
tenaciously to their ancient towns and dwellings,
crumbling and black with the filth of centuries.

The people of Viterbo cling also to their ancient
customs. To-day, just as in the time of the popes
six hundred years ago, they all close their shops
at midday, and remain with doors and windows


barred and shuttered until three or four in the
afternoon. They stay themselves within doors
during these hours. The weather has nothing to
do with it. During my stay it was quite cool at
Viterbo ; but a walk through the streets at noon
hours was like a walk through a city of the dead.
Even the post office closed from noon till four.
They make up a little for lost time by keeping
the shops open in the evening till 8.30, and for
an hour or two after dusk the Corso is thronged
with people strolling up and down, or making
purchases, and the gaslights of the stores shine
out brilliantly upon the narrow way.

Here, as practically everywhere in Italy to-day,
the people have adopted modern clothes. In the
country south of the Cimminian Hills, at Sutri
and Nepi, I found many peasants clad in breeches
of sheepskin or dyed pigskin, with the hair out-
side. And everywhere, including Viterbo, the
ancient storm cloak remains in use, long, sleeve-
less, of many folds, with one end thrown over
the left shoulder. They are made and worn to-day
just as in Roman times. On a cool day at Viterbo
the streets are full of them, topped by wide-
brimmed black felt hats drawn picturesquely
over one eye. The old peasants slouch along with
cloaks at least a hundred years old, doubtless
handed down from father to son as the chief
possession. These peasants live in their dirty
little hill-top towns, and walk long distances from


home to till their fields. Nowhere in this region
of Etruria proper did I find farmhouses in the
fields, with very rare exceptions. The chief rea-
son for this is that until within ten years the
country has been infested with handits, making
life outside the towns still as unsafe as in the
Middle Ages. And yet the people did not want
the railroad put through, bringing civilization.
Three times the inhabitants of Viterbo voted
against the bringing of the railroad there ; the
national government finally had to force it. This
resistance to change, to advancement, to the pres-
ence of strangers, is felt more strongly in the
smaller towns, and those off the railroad. But
gradually, inevitably, the old gives way to the

They have not, however, yet adopted the mod-
ern broom nor changed their ancient food. At
the smaller towns my whisk broom excited
amazed interest. The people could not conceive
of its use until I operated it. Likewise the land-
ladies had never heard of a tooth wash, and
thought mine something to drink. The only
form of broom, large or small, in use anywhere,
is made of green twigs bound together. As for
the food, it is mainly heavy brown bread, maca-
roni, and wine. This bread has a crust like a
board, and an interior like rubber. Soup is com-
mon, poorly made. The spring vegetables are
artichokes, which when fried are delicious ; large


peas, with a pod eight inches in length and an
inch and a half thick ; spinach, and occasionally
wild asparagus. The peasants eat few vegeta-
bles. Potatoes are rare, and poor. For meat they
kill an ox which has become in some way unfit
for the plough, or a goat which has ceased to give
milk ; and therefore you may imagine how tough
it is.

These oxen are most interesting. I saw them
everywhere in the fields, ploughing or hauling, of
a creamy white color, with great upward-curving
horns from two to three feet in length. The cow
is used but little for milk ; for this purpose the
goat is universal. And as I drove from town to
town, the lonely herder who occasionally ap-
peared on a knoll was as often guarding a flock
of goats as of sheep.

But the wine ! Ah, there is the touchstone of
the life of these people. After drinking of it I
ceased to wonder that they could live on such
food as they do. The wine of this region pos-
sesses a most extraordinary charm ; nowhere have
I found any to equal that of Viterbo, and Monte-
fiascone and Orvieto. That of Viterbo is grown
upon the hillsides about, is both red and white
in color, and is drunk fresh, within the year, like
nearly all Italian wines. It is fragrant and
sweet, and age sharpens it. Yet it is not of sugary
sweetness, nor too light ; and it is made in such
quantities as to be cheap as water. The wine


which the peasants themselves make, and upon
which they live, is everywhere similarly delicious,
and abundant. I inquired at Viterbo as to how
they cooled it, when wanted, in summer ; and
found that the Viterbians never have any ice,
but bring down snow from the hills, just as the
Romans used to. The snow is carried muleback
in bags, in the springtime, from Mt. Cimino, with
large green leaves about it to ward off the sun,
and deposited in deep wells at Viterbo, which
when filled are hermetically sealed. In these wells
the snow keeps perfectly. This was the identical
method of the Romans.

From Viterbo one day I took a carriage to
the little old town of Bagnaja, not many miles
away to the northeast, to see the villa of the Duca
di Lante, celebrated for its ideal Italian beauty.
We traveled on a road as smooth as asphalt and
hard as stone, macadamized, but the result of
many years of macadamizing. Not once in all
the drives which have been mentioned did I find
the road different, not even in the distant unfre-
quented country between Sutri and Civita Castel-
lana. This is the work of the national government,
and shows what a paternal system, with high
taxation, can do. The government management
and supervision of the work everywhere is truly
remarkable. Upon the discovery of the slightest
disrepair, a force of men are instantly set to
work upon it ; it is an ideal country for cyclists.


We climbed an ascent towards Bagnaja, and I
obtained an excellent view of Viterbo and the
plain in which it lies. The city lay with a hundred
towers inside its bristling walls, dark and formi-
dable. The plain stretched out to the west for a
vast distance, fair and green, with dim moun-
tains on its rim. To the south rose majestically
the Cimminian Hills, wooded on their swelling
crests. They threw out two outlying mounts to
the east of the city, huge and pyramidal in shape ;
the farther was Mt. Cimino. I saw Bagnaja
ahead, lying upon the northern slope of the
nearer mountain. Looking northward, at a dis-
tance of about ten miles rose from the plain an-
other great hill, stretching indefinitely from east
to west, and forging up to a peak at the centre,
upon which sat a little gray city surmounted by
a mighty cathedral dome. The hill was the south-
ern boundary of the great lake of Bolsena, and
the town was Montefiascone.

On arriving at Bagnaja we entered immedi-
ately through a gateway a large piazza, to the
north and east of which lay the village, piled up
dark and dirty, with ancient Etruscan stonework
and with very narrow streets. The mediaeval castle
which once guarded the place still reared its
great machicolated tower above a mass of thick
and crumbling walls. Some way to the south of
the piazza lay the Villa Lante, rising up the hill-
side in terraces and gardens whose ordered beauty



sustained its reputation of being thoroughly kept
up to-day, as so few villas are. We drove to
the side entrance, where I was admitted upon
depositing a visiting card. A servant then accom-
panied me, through paths winding up the hill
under beautiful large ilexes, to the garden behind
and above the villa. Unlocking a gate in the
wall, he admitted me to these evidently secluded
precincts.. It was truly a very lovely sight. From
above came a considerable streamlet, soaring first
into the air in a fountain a hundred paces higher,
and from the basin of the fountain falling into an
ornamental stone trough, down which it splashed
and gurgled under spreading boughs to the plat-
form on which I stood; from this it fell in a
series of semi-circular cascades to the level of
the villa grounds, and was there conducted under-
ground to another beautiful fountain where it
rose into air for the last time. Great soft ilexes
and willows arched the stream on its downward
path, and stretched away on each side into a
wood. Before me lay the villa, in the shape of
two square Renaissance pavilions, between which
sloped a grass plot adorned with clean-cut hedges
and shrubs shaped into figures. Beyond the pavil-
ions and towards the town lay the garden proper,
even and rectangular, with flowers and shrubs
cut into patterns beside the gravel walks ; there
were no trees, but there were many potted orange
plants. The marble work was all grouped in the


centre, where lay a square basin, surrounding
the fountain before mentioned. A marble balus-
trade banked the basin, beautiful balustraded
bridges crossed it from each bank to the centre,
and there were other balustrades rising circularly
tier on tier to the bronze figures of the fountain.
The soft green of the shrubs and plants, the
varied hues of the flowers, the brilliant white of
the marble, and the wonderful blue of the sky,

/ / f

made an enchanting picture, a picture of the
days of Boccaccio and the Renaissance.

From there I wandered off through the park
surrounding the garden, traversing well kept
walks under great trees, mostly ilexes, and mount-
ing slowly to where far vistas were obtained of the
plain and the town below. Here and there was
a basin of water, or a bit of sculpture. Art was
hand in hand with Nature, as she seems to be
only in Italy.

Upon another occasion I made an excursion
from Viterbo to find the ruins of the once great
Etruscan city of Ferentinum. On talking with
the proprietor of my hotel of this projected trip,
and of my inability to find any one who knew
the location of the ruins, he stated that he knew
the location and would accompany me, and fur-
ther that he would take me to a recently discov-
ered Etruscan bridge. This is a man to whom
the modern Viterbians owe a great deal. He had
the courage to go there from Rome when the




railroad was opened two years ago and endeavor
to install a modern hotel ; which, in spite of many
obstacles, he has succeeded in doing. He is
teaching the people to eat modern white bread,
which as yet they regard as a sweetmeat, and is
struggling to overthrow the midday closing habit
and many other patriarchal customs.

Proceeding by carriage northwestward from
the city along a road lined by hedges ten feet in
height, in an hour we were fairly in the midst
of the plain. There we left the vehicle, and with
the aid of a peasant boy who was herding some
cows made our way through a wood to a deep
ravine. Descending with difficulty to the bottom
of this, we proceeded slowly for some distance
through the underbrush beside the stream. I
noticed frequent holes and niches in the rock
walls of the glen, sepulchres of the Etruscans,
from their size evidently depositories of cinerary
urns. These tombs were very evenly cut from
the cliff, of excellent workmanship. I ob-
served to my companion that there must have
been an Etruscan city of some size on one side

Online LibraryEgerton R. (Egerton Ryerson) WilliamsHill towns of Italy; → online text (page 3 of 24)