You may wish to see a map showing the towns covered in this section first.
As soon as one crosses the bridge (Ponte Felice) one is on volcanic terrain,
either lava or an earlier metamorphic rock. (..) The high road to Civita Castellana is built of it and worn wonderfully smooth by the carriages.
This town is built upon a volcanic tufa in which I thought I could recognize ashes, pumice stone and lava fragments.
The view from the castle is magnificent. Soracte stands out by itself in picturesque solitude. (..)
The volcanic areas lie much lower, and it is only the water tearing across them which has carved them into extremely picturesque shapes,
overhanging cliffs and other accidental features.
J. W. Goethe - Italian Journey - October 28, 1786 - Translation by W. H. Auden and E. Mayer
We proceeded on to Rignano, a little town and a post-stage. Here we rode round a high hill which stands
single, and may be seen 20 miles forward to Civita Castellana, a town standing standing on a hill and a post-stage. Not far from hence we had the prospect of Caprarola and the Duke of Parma's Palace, which seemed not
to be more than two or three miles distant in a right
line, but we were assured that as the way lay it was
ten or twelve miles thither.
John Ray - Observations (..) made in a journey through part of (..) Italy in 1663
Having satisfied my curiosity at Rome, I prepared for my departure, and as the road (Via Cassia) between Radicofani and Montefiascone is very stony and disagreeable, I asked the banker Barazzi, if there was not a better way of returning to Florence. (..) He assured me that the road by Terni (Via Flaminia) was much more safe and easy, and accommodated with exceeding good auberges. (..) Great part of this way lies over steep mountains, or along the side of precipices, which render travelling in a carriage exceeding tedious, dreadful, and dangerous. The first day, having passed Civita Castellana, a small town standing on the top of a hill, we put up at what was called an excellent inn, where cardinals, prelates, and princes, often lodged. Being meagre day, there was nothing but bread, eggs, and anchovies, in the house. I went to bed without supper.
Tobias Smollett - Travels through France and Italy - 1766
Civita Castellana lies on the edge of a plateau of volcanic origin. Two deep ravines provided the town with a natural defence and a commanding position, thus making it an important centre for the control of the Tiber River valley and of Via Flaminia.
Castello di Borghetto or Andosilla
About five miles from Otricoli and three from Civita Castellana, you come through the village of Borghetto situated on a little hill, where you pass over the Tiber upon a stately bridge.
Thomas Nugent - The Grand Tour - 1749
The passage of the Tiber was controlled by a small castle on its right bank. It was built in the XIIIth century. For a time it belonged to Spedale di S. Spirito in Sassia which had several properties in the area, including Castel Sant'Elia. In 1790 it was given to the Andosilla, a family of Spanish origin. In 1798 it was set on fire by French troops when they invaded the Papal State.
Rio Maggiore, a ravine formed by the River Treia north of the town: (left) an isolated cliff; (centre) tower on the side of the ravine opposite Civita Castellana; (right) Ponte Terrano, a medieval bridge across the ravine
On the other side of the Tiber you see a great number of holes or caverns in the rocks, which are inhabited by poor families, and form all together a very odd sort of a village. (..) About two miles from thence you take to the right again, and enter among the rocks, in a cultivated valley, watered by a little river called Treia which falls into the Tiber. After following this little river for about an hour, you ascend the hill, and enter into Civita Castellana. Nugent
Not one in five hundred who passes through it, and halts awhile to admire the superb view from the bridge, or even descends from his carriage to transfer it to his sketch-book, ever visits the tombs by the Ponte Terrano. Still fewer descend to the Ponte di Treia; and not one in a thousand makes the tour of the ravines, or thinks of this as a site abounding in Etruscan antiquities.
George Dennis - The Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria - 1848
The bridge crosses the ravine of the Rio Maggiore by a double arch; one pier is of rock, the other of Etruscan masonry. (..) Near the bridge a huge block of grey rock divides the valley and stands level at the top with the surrounding country.
Augustus J. C. Hare - Days near Rome - 1875
Falerium, the ancient name of Civita Castellana, was the main centre of the Falisci, a small Italian tribe which occupied a territory between the Etruscans to the west and the Sabines to the east. In 396 BC the Falisci joined an alliance with the Etruscans of Veii to check Roman expansion, but after a battle at Nepete (Nepi), where the Falisci were routed, and stripped of their camps (Livy - Book V), they had to accept Roman hegemony over their territories.
Porch of the Cathedral: (left) Roman altar (Ist century BC); (centre) VIIIth century AD relief portraying a boar hunt (it calls to mind Roman sarcophagi);
(right) 1403 gravestone of Niccolò Di Somma, a Neapolitan knight (the towers which decorate the armour and the shield are
the heraldic symbol of the family)
During the First Punic War, the Falisci tried to take advantage of Rome's difficulties and broke peace treaties. At the end of the war the Romans razed Falerium to the ground, massacred many inhabitants and deported the survivors to Falerii Novi, a new less defendable location. A museum inside the fortress of Civita Castellana houses many handicrafts of the Falisci, especially those associated with funerary practices.
In the VIIIth century AD, during a period of great insecurity the inhabitants of Falerii Novi returned to their ancient town where they built a castle which gave its name to the new settlement. The oldest record about Civita Castellana is dated 994. In 1033 the bishop of Falerii Novi moved his seat to Civita Castellana.
Civita Castellana is a small town of the ecclesiastic state, situated on the top of a rock in the province called the patrimony of S. Peter. It is the see of a bishop, suffragan of Rome, but has hardly any thing remarkable. Nugent
November 14, 1838. As the day wore on, I saw the Tiber for the first time. I saw Mount Soracte, and I loved the sight for Horace's sake. And so I came to Civita Castellana, where I determined to stop, though it was not much after two. I did not wish to enter Rome by night. I wanted to see the dome of St. Peter's from a distance, and to observe the city disclosing itself by degrees.
George Otto Trevelyan - The life and letters of Lord Macaulay - 1878
Scarcely one traveller in a thousand ever visits Civita Castellana, though it stands amid the noblest scenery imaginable, possesses the most delightful air and lovely views over the mountains, and is only two hours distant from Rome. (..) On the last day of April, a most lovely fresh sunny morning, we took our tickets at Rome for the Borghetto station on the Florence line of railway. (..) The Cathedral of Civita is very fascinating, and very unlike anything else. The wide portico at the west end supported by a range of pillars is encrusted with lovely mosaic work of 1210, by Lorenzo Cosmati and his sons. Hare
The medieval works of art of Civita Castellana were regarded as void of interest for many centuries; even the travellers who spent some hours in the town did not mention them. Hare was one of the first writers of travel books to dedicate some lines to them.
The great portal: at its top an inscription says it was built by Jacopo and his son Cosma
(+ Magister Iacobus Civis Romanus cum Cosma filio + suo carisimo fecit ohc opus Anno D.ni MCCX.); the image used as background for this page shows a detail of the portal
Civita Castellana became an independent township during the controversies between the German Emperors and the Popes. The wealth of the town led its inhabitants to build a large cathedral which was completed by a great portal in 1210. The portal is regarded as the masterpiece of the Cosma family of architects and mosaicists. Three generations (Lorenzo di Tebaldo, his son Jacopo di Lorenzo and his grandson Cosma di Jacopo) worked on the decoration of the church. Owing to the design of the portal they are regarded as forerunners of Renaissance architecture. Other works by the Cosma can be seen at S. Scolastica and S. Benedetto at Subiaco and at S. Maria d'Aracoeli.
Cathedral: medieval decoration which was removed from its original location after the XVIIIth century renovation of the church:
(left) lion, symbol of Jesus, Strength, the Church etc. and in this specific case most likely of Charity; (centre/right)
floor and choir screen with Cosmati decoration
The lion most likely supported a column and stood at the side of the entrance with another one, similar to what can be seen in other medieval churches in Rome e.g. at SS. Apostoli and S. Lorenzo in Lucina.
(left/centre) Bell tower of S. Maria del Carmine or S. Maria dell'Arco; (right) portal of S. Chiara
S. Maria del Carmine is believed to have been the first cathedral of Civita Castellana. Its elegant Romanesque bell tower (XIIth century) was placed above a previous construction made up of ancient stones and marbles. Following the return of the popes from Avignon, Civita Castellana lost its self-government and in 1377 it became a fiefdom of the Savelli. In 1426 Pope Martin V imposed his direct rule.
The portal of S. Chiara was added in 1529 to a medieval church located at the entrance to the town from Ponte Felice.
Civita Castellana stands upon a high rock
and must formerly have been a place of
great strength, but is now in no very flourishing condition.
John Moore - A View of Society and Manners in Italy - 1781
The high-road continues along the ridge, approaching the town by level ground, and enters it beneath the walls of the octagonal fortress - the masterpiece of Sangallo, and the political Bastille of Rome in the nineteenth century. Dennis
Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia was one of the most influential cardinals of the papal court in the second half of the XVth century and in 1492 he was elected Pope Alexander VI. His name is associated with the construction of several fortresses and the strengthening of Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome. He was governor of Civita Castellana in 1482-1492 and after he became pope he promoted the construction of a state-of-the-art fortress to replace the medieval castle. The fortress was designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Elder. Other images can be seen in a page on the Fortresses of the Popes and a gate of the walls of the town which celebrates Cardinal Borgia can be seen in a page on the Gates of the Popes.
(left) Coat of arms of Pope Alexander VI and the inscription "A Domino factum est istud et est mirabile in oculis nostris" Psalms 118 and Mark 12:11
(This is the Lord's doing: and it is marvellous in our eyes). These words were said by Queen Elizabeth I when she heard the news of her succession to
the throne; (right) coat of arms of Pope Julius II (Cardinal Giuliano Della Rovere)
The fortress was completed by Pope Julius II and by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, nephew of the Elder, who later on extensively worked to strengthen the fortifications of the Papal State, e.g. at Ancona, and Rome. The fortress was meant to be a visible symbol of the military power of the Papal State, which both Alexander and Julius tried to enlarge for the benefit of their families.
(left) First drawbridge across a wide moat; (right) entrance to the fortress on the side of a round bastion
The fortress had an overall pentagonal shape, one side of which overlooked the ravine of Rio Maggiore and did not require additional protection. The other four sides were surrounded by a deep moat and by a counterscarp wall with galleries which were connected to the main body of the fortress by a tunnel under the moat. Only a small section of this wall remains. The entrance was opened on the side of a large round bastion so that the assailants were under the fire of the musketry of the defenders. These features became typical of Italian fortifications, including those built by the Venetians in their Greek islands, e.g. at Candia.
(left) First courtyard; (right) door leading to the keep
The assailants who had managed to enter the round bastion could only exit from it by a door leading to a long courtyard flanked by high walls and commanded by the keep. Loopholes in the walls and the keep were used by the defenders to fire on the enemy who had no shelter. A door led to a circular low staircase which was accessible to pack animals which carried guns to the keep and to the other bastions.
The military aspect of the building vanishes in the Great Courtyard because the two popes wanted the fortress to be also a papal residence, not an emergency one, but a veritable palace. It shows the influence of the design of Colosseo on Renaissance architecture because the pilasters of the ground floor are in Doric order and those of the first floor in the Ionic one. Pope Julius II and after him in a more important manner Pope Paul III turned a part of Castel Sant'Angelo into a papal residence.
Well head with coats of arms and an inscription saying that Pope Julius II belonged to the Della Rovere family and was the nephew of Pope Sixtus IV and that they both came from Liguria
Pope Julius II was appointed cardinal by his uncle in 1471. In his capacity of cardinal he built fortresses, e.g. at Ostia and palaces, e.g. a villa adjoining S. Pietro in Vincoli. The well head of the latter celebrates the two Della Rovere popes, but its design is much more intriguing.
Coats of arms of: (left) Pope Clement VIII; (right) a governor of the fortress
The fortress was regarded of such importance that Emperor Charles V obtained its temporary control to agree a truce with Pope Clement VII after the Sack of Rome. In 1529 the Pope stopped at Civita Castellana on his journey to Bologna where the Emperor was crowned. Pope Paul III and Pope Clement VIII were other popes who stayed in the fortress and improved its facilities.
(left) One of the porticoes of the Great Courtyard; (right) its ceiling with a coat of arms of Pope Alexander VI, perhaps by Piermatteo d'Amelia
From the second half of the XVIIIth century and until the 1960s Forte Sangallo was used as a prison. The change led to a series of additions and modifications and the decorations of the papal residence were whitewashed. A lengthy restoration which began at the end of the 1960s brought back parts of the porticoes to their original splendour. The ceilings were decorated with monochrome paintings, similar to those which could be seen on some Renaissance palaces of Rome, e.g. Palazzi di Via della Maschera d'Oro and in Sala Paolina at Castel Sant'Angelo.
Some years ago we went thither to visit the famous robber chieftain Gasparoni, imprisoned for twenty years under the papacy.
Many of his band were with him, and there was certainly an unpleasant sensation when the door of the large room
they inhabited was closed, and from the numerous little
beds where they were lying, gaunt and with matted hair,
the many figures rose up of men who were so long the terror
of the Campagna, and whose murders under circumstances
of the most detailed barbarity still are told by Castelli grandmothers to terrify the village circles. Hare
In 1977 the Archaeological Museum of Agro Falisco was inaugurated in some rooms of the papal apartment. Its collections were subsequently increased and today they provide the visitor with a good understanding of the culture of the Falisci, as shown in a separate page.
In 1574 Cardinal Filippo Boncompagni was appointed governor of Civita Castellana by his uncle Pope Gregory XIII. He built an aqueduct and a fountain in the main square of the town. Because the heraldic symbol of the Boncompagni was a dragon, the spouts had the shape of dragons. Similar fountains were built in Rome at Piazza Navona and at Piazza della Rotonda by Giacomo Della Porta and later on at Villa d'Este (Tivoli) and at Villa Mondragone (Frascati).
(left) Palazzo Montalto Belei; (centre-above) coat of arms of Pope Sixtus V
when he was a cardinal (Francesco Peretti di Montalto); (centre-below) coat of arms of the Trocchi, a local noble family; (right)
portal of a palace in Via Garibaldi 35 in the centre of the town which resembles that of Palazzo Gentili Del Drago in Rome
In 1606, following the opening of Ponte Felice, Via Flaminia was slightly changed to make it cross Civita Castellana, thus helping the development of the town. The palaces built between the XVIth and the XVIIIth century indicate the presence of several wealthy families. The economy of Civita Castellana relied in part on faience-type pottery manufacturing, as the rocks around the town were rich in kaolin.
Cathedral: (left) XVIIIth century interior; (centre) baptismal font; the bronze statue is a modern work by Piero Sbarluzzi; (right)
Cappella del Crocifisso with a crucifix on a painted background (see similar works of art at Lanuvio and
Except the opus alexandrinum pavement and the crypt, the interior of the church has been modernized, but the arrangement is remarkable, as the nave ends in a broad semi-circular staircase leading to the tribune, like a picture of Paul Veronese. Hare
In 1740 a thorough renovation of the interior of the Cathedral was completed. It was promoted by Blessed Francesco Tenderini, Bishop of Civita Castellana, who wrote that the renovation was achieved through preces, pecunia, sudoribus (prayers, money and sweat) of all the inhabitants of the town. The new interior was designed by Gaetano Fabrizi.
(left) 1730 fountain built by the municipality of Civita Castellana; (right) 1787 inscription celebrating the opening of a new road
linking Civita Castellana to Via Cassia through Nepi
Wherever you turn around Civita Castellana, the
ravine seems to pursue you, as if the earth were opening
under your feet; so does it twist around the town. Each turn
is a picture more beautiful than the last, and ever and
again beyond the rocky avenues, Soracte, steeped in violet
shadows, appears rising out of the tender green of the plain. The gorge has been compared to the famous Tajo of Ronda;
it has no waterfalls and the cliffs are not as high, but it is
quite as full of colour and beauty. Hare
Pope Pius VI increased the importance of Civita Castellana by opening a new road which shortened the route to Rome.
Move to the Museum of Agro Falisco inside Forte Sangallo.
From Civitavecchia to Civita Castellana - other pages:
Civitavecchia, Allumiere and Tolfa
Archaeological Museum of Civitavecchia
Oriolo Romano and Capranica
Bassano, Monterosi and Campagnano
Nepi and Castel Sant'Elia