In the Mood for Medieval

Rome is big on Baroque. Ornate, imposing masterpieces abound, from the marble-adorned, opulent Jesuit churches with imposing facades clustered near Piazza Venezia to Bernini’s monumental fountain in Piazza Navona or Borromini’s dazzling architecture.

Also running through Rome is the artistic richness of the Renaissance. Gorgeous wall paintings by Raphael in the Vatican Museums and Michelangelo’s exquisitely frescoed ceiling and altar wall in the Sistine Chapel are just a small sampling of stellar works from that heady artistic time.

But what if you’re in the mood for medieval?

Rome does have some fine examples of medieval art and architecture, including in the quaint Monti and evocative Old Ghetto neighborhoods. But much of Rome’s medieval legacy lies buried under busy streets and bustling piazzas, since, over the centuries, the city’s urban planners often just layered over pre-Renaissance levels of history. When, a few years ago, work to extend Rome’s subway system unearthed walls and foundations of a medieval housing complex near central Piazza Venezia, archaeologists were overjoyed at the opportunity to learn more about every-day life from that long-ago period.

But, if you want to really immerse yourself in an a medieval milieu while based in Rome, an excellent option is a day trip to Viterbo, a walled city, which in entered through several ancient monumental gates known as ”porte.”

Viterbesi, as the 65,000-odd inhabitants of the town, are known, are fiercely proud of their history, with includes some of the most fascinating centuries in medieval times.

Like Rome, Viterbo, too is a “city of popes.”

Viterbo’s papal palace was a residence for five pontiffs who were elected in the town. Once ruled by Rome, Viterbo could be smug since in the 13th century, it, too, could boast being a home to popes. The papal palace is an imposing construction. But a loggia extending off it lightens the look. Come on a brilliantly sunny day, and enjoy the spectacle of blue sky showing through the arches, which resemble a string of glass-less, open windows.

Popes are elected by cardinals in a secret, closed-door session known as a conclave. Some times it takes a while for the electors to converge on their pick. One of the conclaves in Viterbo stretched on and on — from 1268 till 1271. The Viterbesi lost patience with having to tend to the cardinals’ lodging and meal needs. They reduced their rations to bread and water. And they made life for the electors even more uncomfortable by removing the roof of the palace, leaving the cardinals to shelter under a tent. Those moves considerably sped up the decision-making process and a pope was elected.

Viterbo’s medieval quarter is the San Pellegrino neighborhood. Homes are distinctive, made from peperino, a deep gray volcanic stone. Flowers on windowsills brighten the scene. The quarter, with its winding, cobblestone streets, makes for leisurely strolling.

Look out as you walk the town for lions — stone lions that is. In keeping with Viterbo’s pride, the lion is the ancient symbol of the town and a frequent motif in architecture and design.

Among the medieval highlights to see is the church of San Sisto, which is some 1,000 years old. Leading up to the altar is a staircase carved out of tufa stone. Another must-see is the cathedral of San Lorenzo, a fine example of Romanesque architecture. Still another lovely church in the medieval San Pellegrino quarter is Santa Maria Nova, with a tiny cloister.

While in Rome, it’s hard to avoid crisscrossing paths with tourists from around the world. Walking through Viterbo’s streets you might find yourself to be among a handful of out-of-town visitors. Viterbo is a quaint bedroom community for many of its residents, who commute to Rome. The city also boasts a university, so many commuters heading into the city are students.

Viterbesi like to celebrate feast days in style. St. Rosa’s feast day, on Sept. 3, is a joyfully-anticipated occasion to keep tradition. Men dressed in white outfits and caps and wearing red waistbands hoist a several stories-high sculpture known as a ”macchina” in a procession that dates back to the 13th century.

There is much to explore and enjoy in Viterbo, which also makes a good base for a night or two for excursions to Etruscan sites in the nearby countryside. Viterbo’s storied past itself hawks back to its beginnings as an Etruscan settlement.