The Middle Ages is considered the golden age of the city of Viterbo, which experienced a period of great splendour, thanks to its favourable position along the Via Francigena, the historic route of pilgrimage to Rome, and especially thanks to the fact that it was the Papal seat and, therefore, the seat of the entire Papal court. During the Middle Ages, the city was structured from a urban point of view, and the same structure is still preserved today.
Viterbo was also one of the first Italian municipalities, established in 1095, and the noble families of the time contributed to the creation of austere towers and sumptuous palaces. It was also a period of great struggles between the Papacy and the Empire and between families. Even today, the historic center of Viterbo boasts a number of monuments that bear witness to that period.
The medieval structures of Viterbo
The Palace of the Popes, on Colle del Duomo, is a building symbolising the Middle Ages of Viterbo. Colle del Duomo is also the first nucleus of the city during the Lombard period. The building, commissioned by the captain of the people, Raniero Gatti, widened the former home of the Bishop and was finished in 1267. Its elegant loggia is a Gothic architectural gem made of “Peperino” stone. Despite alterations made in later periods, the Palace of the Popes still maintains its medieval austerity, and looks like a veritable fortress when seen from the underlying Faul Valley.
The most historic environment is the Hall of the Conclave, where the longest election of a pope in history was carried out. The elections lasted a total of 1,006 days between 1268 and 1271. The majority of the interior of the San Lorenzo Cathedral also date back to the medieval period. Its three “Peperino” stone Romanesque style columns feature beautiful “Peperino” stone capitals. Also, dating back to the medieval are the fourteenth-century Tuscan style bell tower and the adjacent House of Valentino della Pagnotta.
The other main place of Viterbo during the Middle Ages is the district of San Pellegrino. This is a perfectly preserved example of a XIII-XIV centuries quarter with its narrow streets, squares, arches (the characteristics outdoor stairs), courtyards, towers and ancient buildings, all made of the typical “Peperino” stone, which create a truly unique atmosphere. The spine of this quarter is Via San Pellegrino, whose downhill crosses towards the Paradosso Valley are called “shores”. The spectacular Piazza San Pellegrino is found in the centre and is overlooked by the church with the same name and the Alessandri Palazzo. The imposing Scacciaricci tower is found behind the piazza.
The Church of Santa Maria Nuova, one of the oldest and most beautiful churches of the city, is not far from the district of San Pellegrino. It is a well-preserved Romanesque building, dating to the eleventh century, with three naves divided by columns with beautiful “peperino” stone capitals. The walls boat precious frescoes painted by Viterbo painters between the 1200s and 1500s. The crypt and Lombard cloister are worth visiting. Other Viterbo Romanesque buildings are the churches of San Sistoat Porta Romana, and San Giovanni Evangelista, found in Via Mazzini.
The Church of San Silvestro, located in Piazza del Gesù in Santa Maria Nuova is from the same era. It went down in history for having been the theater of Henry of Cornwall’s assassination, killed in 1271 by Guido de Montfort, during the famous 1,006-day conclave held in the Palace of the Popes. The episode is remembered in Dante’s Inferno.
Among the other monuments in Viterbo dating back to the Middle Ages is the remarkable Basilica of St. Francis, in Piazza della Rocca, which preserves the tombs of Clement IV and Adriano V, the latter attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio and is testimony to the fine marble works of the 1200s. The church, built in the XIII century, has been restored to its original form after being bombed in 1944.
Do not miss the historic spindle fountains (Fountain of Death, Pianoscarano Fountain, San Faustino Fountain, Crocetta Fountain and San Giovanni Fountain) and the majestic Fontana Grande. Another place to visit, only opened during the week since it is the home to the University of Tuscia, is the Complex of Santa Maria in Gradijust outside Porta Romana, a former convent which housed popes, and where Urban IV was elected. It was attended by leading intellectuals of the time, like Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas, and it owns two outstanding cloisters, one being medieval and the other from the Renaissance.