Text and images by Luca Panichelli of Tesori Nascosti (Hidden Treasures). Translations by EcoTourist Italy. Visit his blog: tesorinascostiagrofalisco.wordpress.com
Having been born and raised in Civita Castellana (Discover The Necropolis of “Castellaccio” in Civita Castellana), I had heard of an old rock church in the nearby zone of Celle, which had been excavated from a large volcanic boulder, yet I had never been able to locate it. In fact, I had discovered underground cavities in that area, but due to the depth of the valley, I was never able to see inside. Upon further exploration of the site, I understood that a landslide some years ago had obstructed the path of light, restricting access to the site, leaving only a narrow and steep path down the valley to arrive to the ancient religious settlement. With this information, I decided to start looking for this hidden treasure.
After parking my car in Celle, I crossed the train tracks and began my long journey on the country road. At the first junction, I decided to leave the main road, turning right on the path leading to the valley floor. I soon passed an ancient gate leading to Civita Castellana, connecting to a small trail that lead me to a large green field surrounding a grand villa. According to locals, although unsubstantiated by evidence, Benito Mussolini once spent time here.
On the opposite side of the villa, I continued trekking through the field toward the ravine ahead. At first, despite several attempts, I was not able to find the access point. Demoralized, I decided to return home when, suddenly, I saw the remains of ancient bricks hidden amongst dense vegetation.
Overwhelmed with curiosity, I analyzed the site. To my left, a vertical opening covered with bricks seemed to lead to an underground cavity. Under a thick layer of vegetation, I found a split in the ground that, like magic, revealed a staircase carved into the volcanic stone. Due to overgrowth, I was not able to see much, but with a flashlight I discovered that the cavities were nothing more than two tombs with niches for the deceased.
I continued my search by following the narrow corridor. After a few meters I was confronted with a new obstacle: the slippery path descended and curved to the left, providing little visibility as to what I might find below. I decided to follow my gut and continued down the trail. Stretching my arms out wide, I kept myself from slipping by holding onto the stone walls, proceeding carefully along the path. When I arrived at the left curve I had seen before, I was hoping that the worst was over. To my dismay, I discovered a terrifyingly steep descent of at least 30 meters, completely unprotected on one side to the plunging valley below.
I felt dizzy at the prospect of continuing down the path, unsure if I would actually find the ancient religious settlement of San Selmo below or just a dead end. Somehow, courage prevailed and I began the slippery descent, refusing to look at the emptiness to my side. Focusing on the goal, I suppressed my fear and made it to a ledge that I had seen above. Looking back, I realized how foolish I had been to take this risky route. Despite this, I am proud that I was able to push my limits and overcome my fears. A few meters later I saw a succession of interconnected underground cavities to the left of the path.
In the first and largest of the openings, I noticed a stone column. As I got closer, I was amazed to see that it was adorned with the remains of a fresco. Looking around I saw several more frescos. It was in this moment that I realized my gamble paid off: I had finally found the ancient rocky religious settlement of San Selmo!
I got closer to the frescos in attempt to determine what was once depicted on these walls, but unfortunately modern day graffiti and vandalism had all but destroyed the paintings. Nevertheless, through previous exploration of the site and written texts, I knew that the fresco on the left wall once depicted a group of three Saints, including St. Catherine of Alexandria, recognizable by the iconographic motif of a broken wheel.
As for the other frescos, continued graffiti made it impossible to see what art was once depicted. Fortunately, many years ago, scholars made drawings of the religious community that we can view today. One such drawing is from Menghini, pictured below.
I continued to explore the grounds and discovered, immediately after the column, a type of well approximately 2 meters wide and deep. I imagine that this was the ancient baptismal font belonging to the religious structure.
To my left was a small passage carved from the stone, leading to another cavity. I followed the path, which lead to a room that had no apparent purpose. On one of the walls I see “1946” carved into the stone, signifying that the religious center was used as a shelter by locals during the heavy bombings of Civita Castellana during World War II.
During that time, the entire population poured into the forests seeking shelter in ancient necropolises, caves, and religious settlements. According to the testimonies of some survivors of the war, life during this period was especially difficult without running water and electricity, as the ancient structures provided little more than a basic shelter.
Above the entrance to this cavity, I noticed the remains of another fresco.
Continuing on my journey, I entered an opening in the wall leading to another small cavity. Unlike the prior room, this area does not appear to have any artistic significance.
According to Menghini, the exact origin of the site is unknown. Most likely, however, it was founded when the Faliscan people abandoned the Roman city of Falerii Novi to return to the plateau where the ancient town of Falerii Veteres stood. The frescos are a later addition to the site, probably from the 14th century. Thanks to records by Giacomo Pulcini, we know that a fresco on the column once represented Salvatore di Sutri, from the 14th century.
Reaching this place was not simple, and even I experienced several issues. However, it is worth it. It is a magical site, perfect for reflection and tranquility. Despite feeling far removed from the stresses of everyday life, it’s just a stone’s throw from Civita Castellana’s town center.