Perhaps not everyone knows that the historic center of Viterbo, the capital of Tuscia, is one of the largest in Europe. A vast labyrinth of streets, churches, historic residences, towers, and workshops that have witnessed the passage of centuries since the legendary birth of the city, which is said to have arisen from the union of four distinct Etruscan settlements: Fanum, Arbanum, Vetulonia, and Longula.
Over time, these four centers grew into a true city, which reached its peak expansion in the Middle Ages, transforming into a powerful fortified city and becoming a crossroads of the Via Francigena.
The heart of this village, and the ultimate expression of its medieval art, is the district of San Pellegrino, the largest and oldest in the city, founded in the 10th century to expand the urban area situated on the Colle del Duomo. This treasure waiting to be discovered is a perfect example of a perfectly preserved 13th-century district, with significant urban value that makes it a UNESCO World Heritage candidate.
THE DISTRICT ON THE VIA FRANCIGENA
Our visit can preferably start from Piazza San Carluccio, characterized by houses and buildings made of peperino and tuff, materials that today make San Pellegrino unique. Here, on one side of the square, we find the Fontana piazza San Carluccio, originally the fountain of San Salvatore, dating back to the 13th century. The distinct quadrangular basin is decorated with the head of a lion, the city’s symbol, with a spout emerging from its mouth, beneath which two coats of arms are sculpted. One of these belongs to the Gatti family, one of the most important and ancient in the city, characterized by four horizontal bands.
Although it may seem obvious, the district owes its name to the significant flow of pilgrims who once—and still do—crossed it as part of the Via Francigena pilgrimage route. This important factor also allowed the area to flourish and attract more and more artists, merchants, and nobles.
Right here, amidst arches, profferli (covered passages), streets paved with Sanpietrini (cobblestones), and magnificent examples of “bridge houses,” the workshops of ancient crafts that actively contributed to the city’s growth during the Middle Ages still exist.
Welcoming us on Via San Pellegrino, the main street that cuts through the district, is the Art Workshop of Daniela Lai. The shop, designed to maintain the historical ambiance of medieval workshops, is the ultimate expression of Viterbo’s art. Each artwork is unique, created by shaping typical local materials like peperino, ceramics, and even crystal, all decorated with Viterbo’s unmistakable green-brown hue.
A little further along, Viterbo’s history comes to life once again through Cinzia Chiulli and her Artistic Pathways. Her studio, also facing Via San Pellegrino, allows us once again to immerse ourselves in the medieval spirit that characterizes the district. This artist’s passion, expressed through ceramics and painting, comes to life through her stories about local historical figures, ready to be shared with all visitors.
The heart of the district, now enriched with numerous local eateries and taverns where we can savor local dishes like the famous “Acquacotta alla viterbese,” awaits just a few meters ahead at Piazza San Pellegrino. Characterized by its square shape, the small square is often a place of entertainment and a set for historical dramas thanks to its perfect preservation. From here, we can observe Palazzo degli Alessandri, host to itinerant exhibitions, the church of the same name (one of the oldest in the city, built around 1045), and the tall Torre degli Scacciaricci, now a private residence but perfectly preserved—a reminder of the over two hundred that once dotted and made Viterbo, today’s capital of Tuscia, unique.
THE SURROUNDINGS OF THE DISTRICT: AMONG POPES, HISTORY, AND ANCIENT CRAFTS
A few steps away, Via San Lorenzo allows us to continue our exploration of Viterbo’s heart, crossing ancient squares like Piazza della Morte and Piazza del Gesù and crossing the Ponte del Duomo, which takes us to Piazza San Lorenzo and the Papal Palace, which made Viterbo a papal residence between 1257 and 1281.
Not far away, easily reachable on foot, we encounter another square rich in history and art: Piazza Dante. Right here stands the Fountain of San Giovanni in Zoccoli, probably built in 1268 and characterized by its spindle shape. A short walk away, facing the square, is another of the historic workshops dedicated to medieval arts: the Antica Legatoria Viali.
This business, registered as an Italian historic enterprise thanks to its century-old history, is now managed by Maria Lucia Arena and Hans Kolb, who have chosen to dedicate their lives to the ancient art of bookbinding, producing magnificent and unique pieces in leather, fabric, and other materials. Within these walls, we can see how ancient books and tomes come back to life under their care, and magnificent inlays are created on tables and desks using ancient techniques.
Depending on the time of year, particularly in the spring months, we might have the opportunity to see the Sbandieratori and musicians di Santa Rosa da Viterbo (Flag Throwers and Musicians of Santa Rosa from Viterbo) group passing through the district’s streets, as well as the famous Viterbo historical parade. They are often protagonists in many events, from the transportation of Santa Rosa on September 3rd to the historical event Ludika 1243, both aimed at reviving Viterbo’s popular traditions and culture. Particularly fascinating is also the representation of “La Contesa,” devised to bring to life for the public the medieval political events that saw the interest of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the city of Viterbo.
Finally, another event ready to return after a three-year hiatus is the “San Pellegrino in Fiore” (Saint Pellegrino in Bloom) event, a floral exhibition whose comeback is scheduled for May 2024. It will once again transform the entire neighborhood into a vast open-air garden.