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In every direction from Rome, there are any number of towns and cities, which by mere location, are layered with history, architecture and art. As with every other town within striking distance of Rome, they all seem to offer their own significant route to into Rome. Capture one of them, in days gone by, and a road to Rome lays open.
There are lots of roads to Rome, and each offers its own route to invasion or passive control. Right up till the nineteenth century, those who controlled, or just intimidated Rome, enhanced their power immeasurably in Europe.
As a bonus, such sites are often placed with settings of stunning natural beauty. (This doesn’t apply to the beaches directly linked to Rome—I’ve been there, so you don’t have to.)
Apart from selective damage in the Second World War, these towns are essentially intact. There is more history and human experiences stored within them than there are tourists to visit them... bliss…
Two of these towns, Bracciano and Viterbo, are on the same regional rail line north, out from Rome.
Castle from the town
Fresco in main reception room
Only 30 kms north of Rome is Bracciano, set on the rim of a volcanic lake; one of several in Central Italy. The lake is larger than the one at Castelgandolfo, in the other direction, but it may be little less dramatic; but that comparison is based on a very high standard.
The lake has been supplying drinking water to Rome since the Renaissance. Today, to ensure it remains pristine, the authorities do not allow motor boats—just sailing and canoeing….and the sewer goes elsewhere.
At the centre of the town of Bracciano is the Castello Orsini-Odescalchi. It has to be one of most perfect Renaissance era castles around... Its name reflects the two major families associated with the site.
Put away your Disney-esque recreations. This is the real thing.
The castle complex is completely intact and a fully operating venue for... well, lots of receptions and weddings… And on a sunny Saturday morning, its gearing up for three more in different parts of the complex. Even Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes chose to marry here.
On this beautiful morning for a wedding, activity around the castle suggests a set being dressed for an episode of Medici. No surprise that the producers of the series use the castle for four different sets ups. One of the courtyards converts to a set for “the streets of Florence”.
It’s hard to imagine this Renaissance castle, strategically situated for waging war and imposing its peace, is placed within a such a sublime setting. Just imagine, should its inhabitants be under siege, stricken with starvation and pestilence, there was still the views. Or maybe such appreciations came in a later age?
Entering the site, it’s easy to imagine flourishes of armed Renaissance horsemen galloping up its slopped ramps; filling the ground floor armoury as they screeched to a halt; dismounting in the process; maintaining their galloping pace, bounding up the wide, sweeping stairs; pouring into the castle’s extensive receiving rooms; before halting in front of their liege and taking a deep bow.
And while we’re imagining the Renaissance, the castle also featured in the Agony and the Ecstasy; where the battle was artistic—between Charlton Heston’s Michelangelo and Rex Harrison’s Pope Julius II. We all know how that one ends... Michelangelo gets to paint the Sistine Chapel roof. A real Sword and Sandals, for the slightly more cultural aware of 1965, including a certain eight year old, who saw it twice.
You may not have heard of Castello Orsini-Odescalchi, and you are even less likely to be able to pronounce it. However, one way or another, through different fragments of popular culture, it probably already resides in your consciousness.
Getting ready for a wedding
Sorting flowers for a wedding
From the battlements
View from the battlements
The bear representing the Orsini family
Garlands for a wedding
Duomo of Bracciano
The duomo behind the castle
A processing Virgin in C19th clothes
St Sebastian, protector of the city.
A further 50 kilometres up the same train line is Viterbo. Located on the old Roman road, the Via Cassia, and in medieval times on the Via Francagenia —the route for pilgrims and traders-ran through the area.
With 60,000 inhabitants in 1200, it was one of the major cities of Europe. At that time, its population was two to three times that of Rome or London. 800 years later it maintains the same population.
Nearly forgotten to the outside world, Viterbo was the seat of several medieval papacies, even before it disappeared to Avignon. And for several centuries afterwards, with a fully furnished Papal Palace on hand, it offered an excellent strategic option when pestilence or revolt made life uncomfortable for the Popes in Rome.
The clever citizens of Viterbo actually gave the world the “conclave”; which literally describes a lockable room (i.e. “with a key”; con la chiave in modern Italian).
The townspeople felt the cardinals were taking too long to select a new Pope. They were even more annoyed as they were the ones bearing the costs of hosting the all-consuming cardinals. With supporting counsel from St Bonaventure, the Franciscan philosopher on hand, the townspeople decided to lock the cardinals in, till they hurried up and completed their task.
At the historic medieval heart of this fully walled city is the duomo and the Papal palace, built over remains stretching back to the Etruscans.
And in a country that does excess to excess, its plain unadorned Romanesque cathedral is a welcome surprise. Its interior, almost completely devoid of decoration, is essentially a raw contemplative space of classic volumes and forms, expressed through raw textures and stonework and animated through shifting lights and shades. This is one Italian church you won’t be seeing for the art.
Across the courtyard is the Papal Palace, and site of that first famous conclave. If the whole complex wasn’t borrowed for a setting for Game of Thrones, it should have been.
It most startling feature is what looks like a late Gothic stone screen built across an elegantly elevated walkway. It’s as unusual as it is beautiful. It seems it was originally built as a two sided arcade with roof. But, as fate would have it, one side fell into the gully below, never to be retrieved or rebuilt. This left an incongruous outdoor stone screen, and it’s a very happy accident.
And it’s not the only problem with medieval masonry within the Papal Palace. Pope John XXI had a library built so he could continue his studies in medicine... Sadly the new wall collapsed on him while he was asleep in bed. It was a short papacy.
Nave of Duomo, with tessellated floor, recycled from Roman columns
Wall niche of Duomo
Piazza between the Duomo and Papal Palace
Open Gothic screen
Meanwhile, for most of the afternoon, the town had felt like one big dozing dog. But in the late afternoon, the town began to stir. First a trickle, then a flood, as townsfolk emerged from their hidden nooks and crannies. Quickly filling up the piazzas and main streets, they thronged together as one happy, familiar congestion across the main parts of the town.
In the failing light, and with all the shops open, they could have been a Christmas shopping crowd. But they were just undertaking the Italian tradition of the passeggiata—the slow leisurely social walk Italians of all ages like to take with family and friends at the end of the day... even multi-sized dogs were out yapping with each other.
The passeggiata is not something that is very evident in Rome. It’s a shame, as it seems the perfect antidote to what looks like long-term, low-grade permanent frazzlement on the stoney streets of modern Rome.