The small city, in business since about the 8th century BC was founded by the Etruscans is interesting with its medieval and Renaissance buildings, although our visit would be focused on two churches now located about a mile from the walled old city. In the Etruscan era an earlier version of these walls enclosed a much larger city extending to include the site where the most distant church now stands. Over the centuries sieges and the Black Death so reduced the population that the city shrunk to a shadow of its former importance.
In present times, instead of defending against marauders, portions of the “new” city wall support stone sarcophagi, their lids carved with the likeness of the deceased. Some visages are still so crisp they appear as though they were chiseled the previous day. Others look melted as if time unhurriedly softened them. There are so many sarcophagi that the city may once have been a center for the coffin industry, all ready to go except for the heads which you or your descendants could have made in your likeness.
How the ancient Roman sculptors would have laughed at her and the rest of the façade with such a jumble that along with Christian symbols there is an eroded marble panel below St. Peter suggesting a very pagan Green Man, emblematic of the earth’s renewal in spring long before the concept of Easter, along with another one on a side door.
The solemn interior has another selection of marble reminders of the past – from a primitive bishop’s throne and a pulpit assembled from carvings made in many eras, to a beautiful Renaissance-era baptismal font. Taken together, the ensemble shows evidence of labor interrupted and taken up anew. The work continues: a technician, intent on restoring the octagonal font, didn’t look up as we watched his painstaking work to reverse the destructive passage of time and neglect, and scaffolding-lined walls. A few faded frescoes are still visible including an enormous Last Judgment with graphic depictions of tortures so loved by Church fathers for those they consigned to Hell. Too depressing to contemplate on a sunny day when it was nearly lunch time.
Last and best on the day’s agenda was the Basilica of San Pietro, set on top of the ancient Etruscan acropolis, its foundations resting on the remains of a temple that preceded it by a thousand years. Specialists in the last century believed it was from the 700s but now the consensus has moved the date forward some three hundred years, still not exactly new by my standards. Whatever the date it remains monumental, solitary and enduring as it dominates the surrounding countryside graced with Etruscan tombs, vines and groves.
The disused bishop’s palace was the place to pay the small entry fee. A crone in black nodded and smiled as she took our euros. She was so ancient that she might have been resting on a sarcophagus just a few minutes earlier, only coming to life when we showed up. Like most other churches, it was empty of worshipers but in this case full of interest. Franco Zeffirelli found it so evocative that he used it to film a number of scenes in Romeo and Juliet. Sarcophagi line one side wall to complement those resting on the grounds and the city wall.
Stone benches fitted between the squat pillars face each other across the nave. They were used for meetings, no doubt frequently concerned with how to ward off invaders. Faded but still lovely Cosmati floors curl along the center of the nave. A few faint frescoes remaining after disastrous earthquakes lacerated the walls over the centuries – the latest in 1971 – are illuminated by dusty light as the sun gently moves from scene to scene.
Worn steps led us down to the frescoed crypt. The space is supported by a forest of pillars, none matching another in height, shape or style. The layout reminded me of the rows of columns found in the great mosque in Cordoba.
Here too are frescoes, one still brilliantly depicting local patron saints, Secondianus, Marcellianus and Veranius. Whoever they might have been, they are still stylish with red caps rimmed with white and white earmuffs with a red ball hanging below their ears. It was damp and cold in the crypt, then and now.
The exterior displays a conglomerate of styles more harmonious to me than that of Santa Maria Maggiore although it also includes pre-Christian carvings. Along with a typical large rose window and the four Evangelists, a plaque showing either an Atlas holding up the world or an Etruscan priest in a worship posture complements the décor. Surrounding one of the two pillared windows sculpted lush vines spring from the mouth of another Green Man.
Gazing at the deserted church, I found it was easy to imagine the industrious builders scouring the countryside for whatever bits and pieces from a long forgotten pagan past that they could drag to the hilltop to embellish their homage to a Medieval God. Perhaps at some point it will become a center of worship again to continue the endless cycle of time.
Civitella d’Agliano, where there is little to see, spills down a hill with narrow twisting streets and ancient dwellings. The street is so narrow it took fifteen minutes of to-and-fro to get out of a dead end. When the car was finally positioned to leave the town we were pointed steeply downhill on a road taking us to a fallow field with no way to make a turn back up to the main road. Down we went hoping for some way to return. At the bottom there was a treat: a medieval washhouse, the clear waters pouring out of a spout to bathe the ferns. No washer-women in sight – they were all standing on their tiny balconies or front steps above us watching with amusement as we tried to maneuver.
The treasure filled interior hosts the Chapel of San Brizio decorated by Renaissance masters. The frescoes by Luca Signorelli depicting the Preaching of the Antichrist, End of the World, Resurrection of the Flesh, and the Damned Taken to Hell are enough to scare viewers out of their wits (and to stop sinning). Most alarming was the Devil shooting death rays on an ill-fated town. The rays looked too much like missiles so common in our own age.
The Damned Taken to Hell has the famous winged devil carrying a naked woman to her fate. All that death and misery was soon too much to contemplate on a lovely day – it was lunch time. Sitting with other diners on a restaurant terrace we soon forgot about Signorelli’s world and our own in favor of concentrating on the local Orvieto white wine and pasta at Vinosus Wine Bar near the Duomo.
One room had romantic depictions of the towns and castles owned by the family;
another was called the Room of Farnese Deeds. Deeds, and there were a lot of them, were interesting but the Room of the World Map was the prize. The entire known world as it was in 1574 was depicted, some accurate and some wildly wrong.
She was correct but how she remembered me I could not fathom. We chatted a few minutes before she turned back to her companions. Her parting words were, “How strange – this is the first time I have ever been to this villa.” Strange indeed.
We crossed the drawbridge into the warm sunshine, a pleasure after the cold and damp interior where the fireplaces seemed too few and only hooks at the top of the walls remained to hang the long-gone tapestries used to help warm the enormous high-ceilinged rooms.
The casino has terraces for al fresco dining which reminded us that it was lunch time. When our tour was complete we asked about restaurants and were directed to Tratorria del Cimino. The menu was posted outside: carpaccio with funghi porcini, fried artichokes, homemade pastas and gnocchi, grilled and oven-roasted meats.
Ah – the never-ending delights of Italy.
Note: A version of this article appeared earlier on the site Sharing Travel Experiences, www.sharingtravelexperiences.com.
Late in the evening when there are only glowing embers in the fireplace flickering on the ancient oak beams and the art work resting in niches, and the red wine bottle is emptied to the dregs, the silence is as complete as it must have been when my friend’s home was new.
A few lights shine over empty streets, through the arches and the closed shutters of my bedroom. I sleep, dreamless. But early in the morning I awake to the sound of Vespa engines. It’s time for workers to get going and for me to open the shutters and let in the day. Instead I drowsily think about all the people who might have lived in this home in times past.
Like all small towns in Italy life goes on for the remaining residents. I can peek through open windows and doors to see remodeled kitchens, new televisions and other indications of renewal. By mid-morning a delectable smell of pasta sauce comes from kitchen windows and from unpretentious shops where fresh lasagna is prepared for those who don’t have time or inclination to cook. Shoppers are eyeing flowers, vegetables and fruit carefully arranged in the minuscule shops sandwiched between offices of the various political parties or those of the pompe funebri, undertakers. Artisans are busy making picture frames, mending shoes or painting ceramics. Butcher shops and tintorias, dry cleaners, bustle with business. Women buy knitting supplies in the merceria where thread, hosiery and shoulder pads for the home seamstress are displayed behind the counter.
But despite the liveliness, the unstoppable passage of time is always evident. Large death notices are pasted on walls between fading and tattered posters for the small circuses that had come to town in past years. When summer is over old men, wearing heavy sweaters under their jackets along with scarves and caps, will follow the sun as it passes around the piazza. They are living sundials as they move like dozing cats, smoking and discussing how the hometown soccer team is faring.