By: Jim Alexander
Dave and I stood dumbfounded when we gazed across the Tiber Valley at the ancient city of Civita. The abandoned medieval buildings that clustered atop steep cliff looked surreal and the distant plateau might have been an apparition. Only the long shadow cast by the warm Italian Sun proved the city was not imaginary.
Neither of us had ever heard of Civita until two minutes before, when our guide, Michale, casually suggested there was one more sight to see before leaving Bagnoregio. We finished lunch, and he led our group from the restaurant to the edge of town and this spectacular overlook of the Tiber Valley.
Michale pointed across the wide deep gap to Civita, and recounted the city’s history to our little group of a dozen cyclists. In ancient times, Civita was integral to this part of Italy. More than two thousand years ago, Etruscans first built a thriving community that grew to be a Roman capital. Then, in the Christian era, Civita became an important Bishopric for the Catholic Church. By the Renaissance, Civita was crowded, important and famous but it had grown too much for the little plateau in the middle of the Tiber Valley. Gradually, people and power began to move to Bagnoregio, the gateway village where we now stood. Civita’s population declined steadily through the 1700s, and by the twentieth century, the ancient capital was nearly abandoned.
A kilometer long ribbon of asphalt connects Banoregio to Civita. Half road, and half bridge, the carefully engineered catwalk follows a rock spine that links the two cities. The first part of the catwalk is somewhat level, but bends upward as it approaches Civita’s cliffs. Almost as if it bent when someone lifted the city into the air. A dozen or so people between the two cities, those near Civita’s entrance looked the size of ants. I leaned over the viewpoint’s fence to see the little gatehouse one level below, where the catwalk began. A visit to Civita would be the highlight of the entire tour of Tuscany.
Yet, other than Dave, none of my fellow travelers showed more than a casual interest in the spectacular site. They were lethargic from the magnificent lunch and anxious to ride on to Orvieto and finish the long day of cycling. Michale finished the lecture and he turned, ready to leave Bagnoregio.
Dave and I looked at each other with something akin to horror. Michale and all the others were ready to leave.
“Wait, we’re not going to Civita?” Dave burst out incredulously. “There’s nothing else like this in the world …”
Words failed Dave as Michale shook his head. “No time. We have an hour of riding to the hotel, dinner…”
“Screw dinner,” I blurted out, surprising even myself.
Dave and I had to go to Civita!
“Maybe you guys should go yourselves,” my wife suggested. She knows me well, I was set on going as was Dave. My wife and Dave’s both told Michale he would have to let us visit the city.
Dave and I had long before proved we were compulsive in our need to visit quirky and historic places. More obsessed than all the other travelers with us. On this Italian cycling tour, we were the ones who would wander the crypts of cathedrals, grottos near the hotels or abandoned Tuscan farmhouses along the roadside. Civita was the biggest temptation yet. It was almost as impossible to keep us from Civita, as it would be to change the weather.
Our wives convinced Michale of the inevitable, and he reluctantly drew a rough map to Orvieto in pencil on a brown paper bag so we could finish the ride by ourselves. He helped us chain our bikes to a nearby fence, and then showed us the stairway that led down to the start of the long catwalk.
We clomped down stone the stairs from the overlook, to a ticket booth were we paid two Euro to cross the valley. In exchange we were given souvenir tickets that assured us the funds were used to preserve the UNESCO site. The government has a long-term plan to stabilize and preserve the city’s long decay, to preserve a valuable historic asset.
As Dave and I started across the span, the gate of the city seemed more than a kilometer away. Much more. The crooked catwalk angled slightly left and right in places, but generally led to the stone gateway at the top of Civita’s steep cliffs. A long walk.
The views were magnificent, and as we crossed the valley we stopped occasionally at the side rails to gaze over the Tiber valley. At the beginning, the walkway sat atop a spine of rock that reaches into the valley, but where the rock had collapsed the walkway became a bridge arching up towards the high cliffs.
We passed several other tourists on their way down. One lively group of high-school girls from China, came towards us laughing and scampering about like high-schoolers everywhere. They were dressed in the most current teen fashions. One girl, in black shorts with suspenders and a white shirt, asked me to take a picture of her and her friends with Civita framed off their left shoulders.
After those pictures, the girl insisted, to her friends’ great delight, that we join the group for a picture. Why she would want a picture of two aging North American men wearing spandex cycling shorts was beyond me, but we agreed and soon were clutched between five or six Chinese girls.
On up, at the steepest part of the pathway, we passed a mechanical donkey hauling a pile of luggage. As it lumbered down from Civita, an aging porter walked in front, leading it back to Bagnoregio with an electronic tether. The beast had a noisy little engine that did all the work carrying tourist’s luggage across the span.
“I doubt that is historical,” Dave said dryly. We were at the end of the walkway, near the top. The left shoulder of the walkway here was firmly attached to Civita’s cliffs but the right dropped off precipitously to the valley. We stopped to survey the full height of Civita’s walls and cliffs. Looking back we could even see the underside of the modern walkway. There didn’t seem to be any other way to get to Civita.
“This must have been quite a hike in the middle ages, before they built this walkway.” I speculated as we leaned against the railing and looked down the broken spine that originally led to the city. It was impossible to tell how people got across the valley to this entrance before the walkway was built. Long slides of rock and rubble created paths down to the valley floor far below. Presumably, the broken spine of rock beneath the modern walkway once led all the way to the gated arch before us. It may have had ramps or stairs. The approach would certainly have stopped invading enemies or marauders but would have created a daily struggle for residents. They had only manpower and animal power to transport goods back and forth in the commerce of everyday life.
“Ancient and mideaval civilizations paid a high price for security.” Dave observed as we took the final couple switchbacks to the city’s gatehouse. “Now someone built a walkway just to make it easy for us to get here. Must have cost millions.
“Tourism pays,” I said cynically as we reached the arched gateway into Civita. A cobblestone street led the way beneath a great arch on into the heart of Civita. This entrance lay at the base of a strong square tower, several stories high. The tower’s tawny stone blocks blended seamlessly with the high cliffs and walls on either side. All the same stone.
Civita dominated the region for thousands of years because of the commanding security of those cliffs and walls. No one knows exactly when Civita was settled, but people lived there for over three millennia. In early Etruscan times, people had settled atop the steep tufa cliffs. The cliffs themselves are an impressive deterrent to invasion, yet the early residents buttressed their safety with strong tufa walls.
Tufa is a soft volcanic rock formed by ash that once settled over the region. Eons of geological force gradually compacted the ash into a rock that is perfect for building a city. It is easy to shape into blocks that can be used for walls and buildings. Etruscans first settled the lovely hilltop Tuscan and Umbrian cities because of their Tufa cliffs: Orvieto, Pienza, Montepulciano, Sorano and Civita.
Since Tufa Rock is so easy to cut and shape, people used it for everything. They began by cutting caves into the mountainside, and used the rubble to build walls and buildings. They turned the caves into cellars. Cut by cut, brick by brick, they used tufa to build the entire city. The pale cream colors of Tufa turns dark with exposure. That is what gives Italian hilltop cities their distinctive colors
Civita’s tufa cliffs have a weakness that is the downfall of this once great city. A layer of clay supports Civita’s cliffs. Water from rains continually erodes the clay. Bit by bit, the tufa cliffs collapse when their support wears away. Collapse by collapse Civita disappears.
Because of the collapsing cliffsides, the city began to decline in the 16th century. Then major destruction by a great earthquake in the 17th century forced the government and bishopric to relocate to Bagnoregio. Civita’s cliffs continued to fall way, and its population fell away as well. Today the city has maybe a hundred summer residents, only a dozen live there year round.
I was a touch disappointed that the arched gateway at the bottom was opened and unguarded. We entered Civita, and walked the narrow road between tall stone buildings.
Dave is an engineer, a petrological engineer, but an engineer nevertheless. So our progress through the village was slow. He had to study every architectural feature along the way beginning with the keystone of the arched gateway. Then he began a running commentary about each of the two story houses and buildings along Civita’s main street. He examined the construction of stoops and windows. He even squatted down to examine the cobblestone street itself, marveling at the varied patterns of square and straight cobbles.
Unlike Dave, my interest is culture and history, I took a broader view of the city. I looked at traces of life in past ages. While Dave studied the architectures, I noted signs of humanity. Flower boxes with red gardenias. Windows and doors open to let a breeze in on the hot days, curtains blowing slightly outside. A couple small restaurants had tables set on the street. Signboards displayed the day’s menus, written with red, green and white chalk – the colors of the Italian Flagr.
Civita is not big, only two hundred and fifty meters long, and it is narrow, maybe 100 meters across. Regardless, we didn’t have the luxury to go at Dave’s slow pace. I poked my curious friend, “Dave, a bit faster. Please?”
The street we walked was the Via Madonna della Maestà, the main thoroughfare through the heart of the city. Several short side streets branch off to the left and right, each ending at the cliff edge of town.
At this time of day most tourists were on the catwalk, heading back to Bagnoregio, done for the day. So the Via Madonna was nearly empty. Yet, Civita didn’t feel dead, somehow energy echoed from the past. Because of Civita’s near abandonment over the past four centuries, it hasn’t taken on the modern touches living cities have. There are no cars, or streetlights, no new structures. The place feels as if it were plucked out of the seventeenth century.
I could turn my mind’s eye to the past, to mediaeval lifestyles. I imagined the street full of everyday life. Merchants entering the city with mules who carried all sorts of goods. The mules breying, angry from the difficult journey across the expanse from Bagnoregio. Children in worn clothing playing with balls and sticks in the street, while their mothers in drab dresses watch over them from the stoops of the houses. Carpenters repairing doorfames and walls of the buildings, buildings that were already ancient.
As I looked up and down the simple streets, I wondered if anyone can see through our modern comforts and really put ourselves in the context of another culture, or another time. My romantic, Hollywood inspired, image of the past was lovely but probably incorrect.. I imagined the people as simple and poor but happy. Yet, no doubt they were not always content. Through the ages, Civita’s residents survived both prosperity and poverty – times of comfort, times of terror. For example, in the late 1800’s Teddy Roosevelt visited Italy when he was a child. He later recounted that poor Italians begged food from his group of American tourists who dined on a balcony. The elder Americans in his group made fun of the desperate peasants. They made the Italians perform tricks, throwing table scraps to them as a reward.
Life may have been hard for some but it was also filled with medieval privilege and comforts for others, the city was lovely. Dave and I walked the Via Madonna della Maestà to the main piazza. There we were drawn to Civita’s prized building Chiesa di San Donato, a beautiful pink church. Other public buildings surround the white pebbled square – government buildings, a bell tower, a hotel, and several cafes. All are strong, simple architectures built with roughhewn tufa blocks. The Chiesa eclipses the other dark tan buildings with elegant beauty.
The façade of the beautiful little church is a smooth pink stone, it is topped with a lighthearted entablature. The top ridge looks as if a scroll was opened and placed over the eves. The stone scroll covers the peak of the church, the remaining rolled scrolls sit securely at the left and right extent of the roof. The church’s pink façade has three great arches each with an enormous brown wooden door with grey trim of polished granite. The smaller two side doors are topped by small rosette windows.
“I guess abandoning the town didn’t mean abandoning the church. No matter how rich or poor, the church always gets the best of everything,” Dave commented with an air of Protestant cynicism. I sympathized, but as we stepped inside the church we both succumbed to Catholic splendor.
“Magnificent. Surprising.” I said doffing my own cynicism. Dave seemed to agree, he nodded yes with a touch of heart felt reverence, or at least respect.
The surprisingly high nave was a striking white. Great white pillars line the nave, leading the eye to a barrel vaulted ceiling over the high altar and crucifix. The rounded walls of the apse behind the altar are soft white marble. In the center of the nave, dozens of stark wooden pews face the altar. There were many more people in the church than we had expected. A dozen of the faithful sat or kneeled in the pews, heads tilted in prayer.
At the sides of the church, more people milled around, admiring Chesia’s holy treasures that surrounding nave. A huge painting of angels looking down upon Christ’s agony on the cross. Tapestries showing scenes from the bible. A wooden statue of Mary, holding her child. Mary wears a pale blue skirt, with a pastel pink bodice.
One of two wooden confessionals was in use on the right side of the church. The supplicant kneeled inside a private niche, speaking through delicate wooden latticework to a hidden priest. An elaborately carved door closed off the priest’s closet.
This cathedral was not huge but it was well equipped for hundreds of the faithful.
“Now this is creepy,” Dave proclaimed when he found a glass sarcophagus with a gilded frame. A bearded Saint, ageless and perfectly preserved, lay with his hands clasped at his waist, eyes closed. He wore golden robes, and a pointed hat – his bishop’s mitre. Somehow, Dave had found a brochure in Italian, he tried to read it, “Oh, this represents … or maybe is … Saint Bonaventure.”
“Bonaventure?” I asked. “Like the car?”
“No the car you’re thinking of is a Pontiac Bonneville.” Dave laughed, adding, “St. Bonaventure’s is the college in New York.”
“Oh right. A friend of mine went there to college. The name always seemed odd. Why would you name a college after this guy?”
“He was an important Franciscan, who grew up in Civita. Apparently,” Dave said absently as he continued reading, his eyes buried in the pamphlet as he followed me around the church and out into the bright sunlight of the square.
“We just missed the event of the year,” Dave said, putting the pamphlet in his back pocket. “Bonaventure’s day is on the anniversary of his death, July 15. There’s a big festival. It’s a big deal! They bring out his vestments and march them around the square.”
“And where would all the people come from?” I asked doubtfully, looking around at the near empty piazza. Dave shrugged.
“Do you suppose he was one of those ‘philosophers’ in the dark ages who tried to count the number of Saints that could fit on the head of a pin?” Dave asked derisively, as we resumed our exploration towards the far end of the city.
“You might be surprised at how modern philosophy was in those days,” I answered, with my vague memories of college philosophy. “They were reopening the book on science.”
“Still society then was pretty clueless. Medicine was a joke. Engineering was primitive.” Dave said as he slowly walked the streets. “They believed in magic.”
“Who are we to judge? In a thousand years we may look foolish to our progeny.” I countered. I read up on it later and it is true, many of the beliefs from Bonaventure’s time are laughable today. But Bonaventure lived at a particularly influential time in the history of thought. An elite smattering of intellectuals, like the young pre-saint, were busy exploring reason. One of his peers was Francis Bacon, who invented the scientific method. These budding modernists took a single step past blind faith in God. They were the first Christians to believe that reason could prove the existence of God and the immortality of our souls.
Bonaventure was born in the 13th century, and little his known about his time in Civita. He went to college in Paris at the same time as Thomas Aquinas, another influential philosopher. Today, Aquinas’ philosophy is relevant and Bonaventure’s is not. Both men argued that reason is an important component of religion, a necessary addition to pure faith. However, they disagreed on whether reason alone would suffice. Aquinas believed he could prove Christian principles with just reason; Bonaventure didn’t agree. He argued that there must always be a mystical component in faith. Reason could set a foundation for belief but not without the light of faith. Only by mixing reason with prayer, meditation and virtue can mortal beings discover the love that makes the final connection to God.
Maybe this is why in our ‘rational’ modern world; Bonaventure is nearly forgotten. Yet, in his day, St. Bonaventure had a huge impact on the Catholic faith. He rose to be a key figure in the Vatican and engineered the election of a Pope – Gregory X. Bonaventure also lead efforts to reconcile Roman Catholicism with Eastern Orthodox Catholicism.
As we walked the pretty streets of Civita, in the warm Italian sun, Bonaventure’s belief in faith felt appropriate. I felt that maybe the local Saint put his finger on something modern people should consider.
My engineer friend and I reached a warren of close packed residences at the far end of Civita. The area is crowded with narrow alleys, stairs to doorways (both up and down) and blocky buildings. In this remote part of town, the only living beings seemed to be cats. If only a hundred people reside in Civita, each must have half a dozen or more cats. Cats of every color lounged here and there on walls, or in warm sunny corners. Spotted tabby cats, pure white cats, orange, black and white calico cats and a smoke grey cat.
Most of the cats ignored us as they preened or dozed in the warm summer sunlight, but a black tuxedo cat sat upright, looking at us as we approached. He stared at us and lifted his white chin, as if he was deciding if and why he should let us pass. I leaned over to pet him, but Dave stopped me.
“Don’t touch a feral cat. Who knows what diseases he has?” My companion warned. I argued the cat was harmless but Dave tilted his head skeptically. In deference, I moved my hand away and just spoke my hello to the cat. The insulted fellow ran away in a huff.
“See, now we offended him,” I complained as I watched the arrogant fellow scamper away.
“He just wanted food,” Dave answered, as he turned away. His attention was pulled towards an alley in the shadows that ramped down and away from the main street. A hand painted wooden sign pointed the way. Dave read the Italian, which had an obvious translation, “Etruscan workshop.”
This alley descended a couple feet, then it got steeper and became a short staircase leading to the entrance of a heavy brick building set on the very edge of the cliff.
“Is that a little museum?”
“Let’s see,” Dave said as he took the stairs downward, towards a heavy building poised on the very edge of the cliff.
I followed, but with a trace of reluctance. The cliffside buildings of Civita have fallen away over the ages. Even Saint Bonaventure’s boyhood home slipped off the edge centuries ago. “I don’t like being on the edge of the cliff. Buildings fall away unexpectedly here.”
“I’m sure we’re doomed.” Dave joked, and went on. The stairway took us to a doorway at the side of the building.
The doorway opened to another time. The building’s outside was brown, the bricks had been darkened from exposure to the elements. Inside, though, the basement walls were pale white. The entire room was carved into Civita’s Tufa foundation. The floor had been cut perfectly level and the walls straight, but the corners were rounded and soft. Sunlight filled the workroom through oval windows cut through the rock.
Displays of tools filled the workshop, tools ranging from merely old to ancient. Hammers, chisels, saws, planes and other implements unrecognizable to modern eyes were displayed on tables hewn from long slabs of wood, rickety shelves and niches cut in to the walls themselves. Index cards sat by each, with handwritten descriptions in brownish ink. Unfortunately they were all Italian, we couldn’t make out much more than “Etrusco. Romano. Medievale.”
“Are you sure this place is open?” Dave asked as he made a quick circuit of the room and stopped to study a massive stone pedestal that dominated the room center. The pedestal’s grey stone surface had a deep two-foot wide circular groove cut into the top, and a heavy stone wheel sat in that groove. The wheel, about two feet in diameter, had a wooden axle connected to a wooden post at the center of the pedestal. Dave read one of the handwritten cards taped to the wheel, “Frantoio di oliva … Shouldn’t there be a guide here? I mean, what is this thing?”
The room was eerily empty, and his voice echoed. I ran my hand on the bottom of the smooth trough cut in the rock and touched the heavy wheel. “I believe this is an olive crusher. For making Olive Oil. Put olives in the trough and use the wheel to crush them.”
Dave pushed the wheel’s axle to test how hard it would be to move the wheel in its trough. It didn’t budge. He tried again with the same result, lost interest and walked to the front wall, he gazed through one of the openings overlooking the valley. The carved windows might have been chiseled into the rock with the very tools on display. “This little space could be a thousand years old.”
“Two thousand.” I joined Dave and scanned the sun-bathed valley in search of an olive grove. But saw none. “If they made olive oil here, where did the olives come from? ”They must have carried the olives a long way!”
Olive oil production was already an ancient skill by the time the Etruscans came along, eight centuries before Christ. There is evidence that olive oil has been integral to Mediterranean life for 8000 years. Over all those years, artisans tuned, refined and perfected the process to create the cherished oil.
The olive press is the first step of that process. Olives are thrown into the trough where the pulp and pits are crushed by the heavy wheel as it is pushed around and around the circle. Crushing releases the fruit’s water and oils. Then the mash is then slowly churned so the oils amalgamate, and then the mash is pressed to separate the oil from the water and the pulp. Finally, the oil is poured through filter’s to remove any remaining particles, and to make it especially pure.
Olive oil was an economic force for early Mediterraneans. For most of history, commerce was built on trade of three major commodities: Wine, Cheese, and Olive oil. Olive oil had a vast variety of uses: lamp oil, lubricant, skin softener, and – its prized use – food.
Olive oil brings food to life, with a variety of subtle flavors. For millennia, chefs have exploited its flavors. It can have overtones of grass, nuts or spices. It can be used over salad, for frying, in sauces and soups. Pliney the elder, the Roman naturalist and encyclopedist who lived in the first century (AD) Rome, bragged that Roman Olive oil was excellent and cheap – and the best in the world.
“I wonder if Pliney’s olive oil came from here?” Dave wondered as I told him the story. We made one more circuit of the grotto, trying to discern the uses of the various Etruscan, Roman or Medieval tools. But it was time to go, and near the doorway we found a dish filled with Euros. Presumably, the coins were donations to the unseen museum curator. Dave scoffed when I dropped a 2-euro coin into the dish. “You should take Euros! You provided all the commentary.”
With a picture of the working life of ancient Etruscans in our heads, we walked on through the rest of Civita. We tried to imagine how the little town grew into a city and the center of local government. We tried to imagine the daily life that would produce someone like Saint Bonaventure. How his experience in these stone buildings, and cobbled streets led him to a life of learning, philosophy and religion. First in Paris. Then to Rome, to influence the entire Catholic faith.
We came to the very end of Civita, where the street ended suddenly, at an iron fence. A narrow footpath went down to the right across the face of the cliff. The overgrown path seemed rarely used, grasses covered all but a trail the width of a foot. Dave and I looked at each other and in silent agreement took the trail, it went down then curved around an outcropping of Tufa where we found a closed gate.
“It’s not locked,” Dave said when he tested the latch. We looked through the gate’s bars . The path, even less worn went on around another huge Tufa outcropping and out of sight. Dave speculated, “Maybe this was a workman’s route in and out of the city. The way to the olives. Or fields.”
I could tell my friend’s speculation was really a suggestion to continue on. To explore more. To find where the path went. To delve further into the obscurity of this ancient city. The possibility tugged at both of us. Who knew if this trail was even passable? Yet this felt private, reserved for locals.
We looked at each other and knew our voyeur’s journey to the past was finished. Shadows were getting long and a 25-kilometer bike ride to Orvieto, where our wives and friends waited, still was ahead of us. Reluctantly we turned and left the gate, unopened. We walked back through Civita, past the cats, the workshops, restaurants and saint’s relics to the ribbon of pavement that led back to our bikes and to our own time.