Text and images by Luca Panichelli of Tesori Nascosti (Hidden Treasures). Translations by EcoTourist Italy. Visit his blog: tesorinascostiagrofalisco.wordpress.com
The Necropolis of Terrano, located in Civita Castellana (Viterbo), is considered to be one of the best-preserved sites of the ancient area of Faleri Veteres. Even so, today many of the tombs are no longer visible due to its unfortunate use as private agricultural land over the centuries. In fact, it was noted in the diaries of British explorer and expert of Etruscan culture George Dennis that, in 1840, the site possessed several visible graves and inscriptions. Based on an archeological survey conducted between 2010-2011 by Dr. de Lucia, the majority of the sites chronicled by George Dennis are today lost, with the main exception of the tombs located on the plateau of the “Castellaccio”.
Currently, the site is located within a private property. The site is reachable by either hiking along the gorge of the Rio Purgatorio, whose walls of volcanic rock are steep to say the least, or, as I myself have decided, by entering through the private property (after seeking permission, of course). I must admit that the owner has been very courteous to me and more than accommodating during my visit to the location.
Upon arriving to the site, I could not help but notice the beautiful landscape that unfolded before my eyes; the medieval Sangallo fortress of Civita Castellana dominates the opposing side of the deep, colorful ravine of the Rio Maggiore, while the flow if its water breaks an almost idyllic silence.
After walking a narrow path carved into the rock, I found myself staring at the remains of the so-called “Castellaccio” (from between 800-1000 A.D.). Today, all that remains is a single wall, built with the same volcanic rock found in the ravine, each marked by narrow slits incrementally placed a few meters apart. It’s easy to imagine that soldiers lurked behind the stones, fighting to control the area. Upon closer look, the arrangements of the bricks, which are rough at the base and more refined near the top, suggests a restoration of the structure over the centuries. This confirms what has been said in previous articles: that many Faliscan sites were abandoned due to the arrival of Romans but, due to their strategic position and high stone walls, were later redeveloped as military fortresses during medieval times.
Leaving the wall behind, the trail continues on the plateau into a small oak forest.
On the side of the plateau overlooking Sangallo Fort, there are three burial chambers. Each tomb is spaced at approximately 5 meters apart and they are very well preserved.
Most of the graves in this cemetery have the same architectural features: all feature a short dromos, a trap door or vent (for the release of gases from decomposing corpses and as an emergency entrance for after the tomb had been sealed), and niches in the walls where the deceased were laid to rest. At the end of the process, the tombs were closed with a large boulder that interlocked perfectly with the entrance doorway. Each hypogeum has a quadrangular base and is approximately two meters high. The tombs are exceptionally well preserved, despite being reused for various purposes in recent history. According to locals, one such use was as shelter for the local population during World War II.
Other well-preserved ancient tombs, located on the interior of the plateau, are next to a historic watchtower of medieval origin.
Leaving the necropolis behind, the path continues to a small clearing in the trees. The closer the path gets to Ponte Clementino, the main bridge connecting the city’s older and modern neighborhoods, the historic center of Civita Castellana appears majestic as it dominates over the valley below.
At the edge of the plateau, just a few meters further along the path, the view is something extraordinary: the protagonist of the landscape is Ponte Clementino, which, at 40 meters high and 90 long, sits dignified above the deep, colorful valley at the exact point where the Rio Maggiore and Rio Purgatorio join into a single stream. This architectural treasure was commissioned in 1709 by Pope Clement XI, from whom it derives its name, and was designed by Roman architect Filippo Bariggioni.
At the time of construction, and admittedly also today, the bridge was of great importance as it connected residents to areas north of the city. Prior to this, the ravine created a real barrier between the two parts of the region, requiring significant time and energy for travel.
Around 1800, during the peak of the Grand Tour phenomenon, curious travelers, painters, and artists passed through Civita on their way to Rome. When they reached the ancient Faliscan city, they were amazed to observe this impressive work of road construction, which at that time measured 54 meters high (a true record for the era). They were struck by the 360-degree view of the lush, plunging valley of the Rio Maggiore, and the location served as inspiration for various important artists of the time.
The original construction had a large tower at its northern end and was lined with arches, with eight above and four at its base. Despite its beauty, the design proved to be impractical; by 1861, the lower arches had collected enough debris from high waters to lead to their eventual collapse. In the below picture of Ponte Clementino, you can see the design prior to 1861, including the two rows of ornamental arches, as well as the ancient gate leading into the city.
The bridge was reconstructed by resizing the entire structure, this time with three larger arches, accommodating for the natural flow and potential flooding of the Rio Maggiore. This period of redevelopment once again resulted in difficulty crossing the valley; in fact, even the scholar George Dennis noted that he was “forced” to cross on the only usable bridge at that time, the Ponte Terrano.
The bridge was further modified in this period with the erection of a splendid arched gateway, adorned with the ornate coat of arms of Pope Pius IX, forged from travertine marble. The gateway was demolished in 1911 to accommodate the new tramway. Pictured below is Ponte Clementino after its 1861 reconstruction. Note the single row of arches and the ancient gate of the city, which is quite different from what is seen in the picture from 1861).
The Ponte Clementino Today. The ancient city gate is no longer visible due to its destruction in 1911 to accommodate the new railway into the city. Fortunately, today the “Castellaccio” is well maintained and cared for. The site is still accessible and suitable for a variety of activities such as photography, painting, and excursions. Nearby you can also visit the valley of Rio Maggiore and the historic city of Civita Castellana, itself possessing the impressive medieval Sangallo fort and Duomo Cathedral “Cosmati”.
The View from Sangallo Fort.
The View over the Valley of Rio Maggiore.
Interior of a Tomb Overlooking Sangallo Fort.
Interior of a Tomb with Burial Niches from Volcanic Rock.
Interior of a Tomb.
The Path on the Plateau Carved out of Stone.
Interior View of the Fortified Wall.
The Path on the Plateau Carved out of Stone.
The View over Sangallo Forte.
The View of the Historic Center of Civita Castellana.
The Ponte Clementino today. The ancient gateway to the city is no longer visible due to its destruction in 1911.
Interior of a Tomb Found Next to a Medieval Tower.