Viterbo is known as the “City of the Popes” due the period in which it was the Papal seat between 1257 and 1281. It was moved from Rome by Alessandro IV to get away from the hostile climate of persecutions and riots. After Alexander IV, Urban IV lived in Viterbo (elected in Santa Maria in Gradi, the Papal seat was briefly brought back to Rome), Clement IV (who returned the Papal seat to Viterbo), Gregory X, Innocent V, Adrian V, John XXI, Nicholas III and Martin IV.
Moreover, the city was also home to more than 40 popes and their court throughout the middle Ages and Renaissance periods. To learn more and understand the history and relation of Viterbo with the popes, we need to start from the Monumental Colle del Duomo, including the Papal Palace, the Cathedral of San Lorenzo and the Colle del Duomo Museum. This is where the first nucleus of the city stood during the Lombard period and where ancient Etruscan ruins are found.
The Palace of the Popes is the most important monument of the city. During the years when the city was home to the papal see, this building was the “Vatican” of Viterbo and the Pope looked out to bless the faithful from its balcony. 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 word “conclave” was invented in Viterbo, and comes from the Latin word cum clave: because of differences among the cardinals called to elect a successor to Clement IV, the exasperated people of Viterbo, who even removed the roof and rationed supplies to the Cardinals, segregated the college inside the palace (clausi cum clave ). Eventually, Gregory X was elected and some regulations were provided, which still exist today. Still today, when the election for pope is held, the city of Viterbo is given attention by the media due to this event that dates back almost eight centuries.
If the Papal Palace was the papal seat, the Cathedral of San Lorenzo or Duomo was the “Saint Peter’s” of Viterbo: the pope’s Basilica. John XXI, the only Portuguese Pope, was buried here and remembered in a monument located in the left aisle, while the tomb of Alexander IV was never found. The building dates back to the twelfth century and still has three aisles in Romanesque style, with beautiful “peperino” stone capitals, while the façade dates back to the Renaissance and the Tuscan style bell tower was erected in the 1300s.
It houses a precious white marble baptismal dating back to 1470 and works by painters from different eras. The central apse was reconstructed after the bombing of 1944. It was designed to restore the shape of the medieval church, a double apse was crated with the baroque part that now appears invisible from the inside.
The entrance to the Museo del Colle del Duomo, which opened in 2000 is next to the Duomo, passing the ancient House of Valentino della Pagnotta. It consists of an archaeological section (with Villanovan, Etruscan, Roman and Medieval artifacts), a historical and artistic section (including a valuable Crucifixion by Michelangelo) and a religious art section (with vestments and sacred objects from between the 1200s and 1800s). There are numerous monuments from various eras linked in various ways to the popes located throughout the city.
Among others, one of the most important 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. 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 Gradi just 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.