Not long ago, the Geo-Joint went to Meteora, Greece, where some very daring monks took up residence on top of broad, tall pinnacles of limestone and sandstone, back in the 1300s. They built some impressive structures on high, which are still there for us to marvel at, and probably will be for some time to come. The limestone they built on is stouter stuff than what the folks in Civita, Italy chose. In fairness, nobody at that location envisioned living on a freestanding, high rocky stage, but that’s how it worked out. Civita is in the Lazio region, and about 70 miles north of Rome. That spot is sort of just below the knee of Italy’s boot. The rocky heights that drew the attention of the pre-Roman Etruscans two and a half millennia ago, were made of volcanic tuff. Tuff is composed of ash, rock, dust, and magma thrown from a volcano and piled on its flanks. As it gets piled deeper and deeper, it compresses into rock. Tuff can be quite hard and resistant to wear if its materials were especially hot upon ejection, because in that state they become welded together once they have landed. More commonly, however, tuff is more loosely cemented, and more easily eroded. Such is the case in Civita. To compound the problem, the sediments that lie below Civita’s tuff are marine deposits of clay and sandstone, which erode even more easily.
Civita as we know it today was once the heart of the town of Bagnoregio. Long years after its ancient Etruscan beginnings, it grew and expanded, most markedly in the late Middle Ages. The town was originally built on a ridgline surrounded by sharp ravines, which afforded greater security. The high ground is always more defensible, when the barbarians come to call. However, due to its particular geology, the town had dangers other than human invaders. Surrounding streams cut into the softer sediments that underlie the tuff upon which Bagnoregio was built, and the tuff itself isn’t terribly, uh, tough. Given that the region is prone to earthquakes, the whole scene was pretty precarious. Occasional earthquakes set off landslides that collapsed parts of the ridgeline heights, including a section that once supported a monastery. Eventually, Civita became isolated on a promontory. People began to shift away from the danger and settle about a half-mile away, farther along the ridge. The old cathedral and the city’s surrounding walls continued to define “the city” or “Civita,” and that is what that now-separated spot became known as, while a new Bagnoregio developed at a distance. The buildings of Civita itself were built out of tuff blocks quarried from its own underlying cliffside structure. This practice only added to Civita’s instablity, and a large quake in 1695 caused the east end of town to drop off. The population of Civita, which had been dwindling for some time before that, was further convinced to move to the larger and more stable new Bagnoregio. With further earthquake activity, Civita lost forty percent of its area by 1780.
The two parts of town were joined by nothing more than a steep trail for some time, and with everything in decline, the Italian government ordered the old town evacuated in 1922. The remaining residents refused, so in 1926 a stone bridge was built to provide easier access from there to Bagnoregio. The destruction brought by World War II a few years later included that bridge, so Civita became isolated again. By 1960, the deteriorating town had only 25 permanent residents and looked to be headed toward oblivion. Concern over the loss of history sparked an effort to save Civita, and during the ‘60s, big efforts were begun to revitalize the fading town. A new footbridge was built, and engineers set about the task of stabilizing the insecure structure of Civita’s base rock. Caves and tunnels under the town dating back to Etruscan times didn’t help, but the town is on better footing than before.
While little visited for many decades, Civita’s unique charm began to be better known as the years passed. Lately the number has jumped astronomically. Compared to 2010’s 40,000 visitors, 2017 brought closer to 850,000. The place is in danger of being loved to death, and certainly the quiet grace of the old town is more difficult to have to oneself. Town administrators, seeing this explosion in tourism, decided to charge visitors a fee of a few euro each to cross the bridge, and since then, taxes are lower and services are better for Civita’s ten permanent residents, as well as the 3,500 living in Bagnoregio. More important to history, the restoration efforts for the old buildings now have a growing fund. The hordes of tourists marvel at the Etruscan, Roman, and Catholic architecture, and narrow, winding streets, which occasionally lead to sheer dropoffs where the cliffs have failed. That rock continues to fall from time to time, underscoring the urgency of stabilization operations. Efforts are being made to obtain UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for Civita, which could bring more money and expertise to the project. Civita still rests on shaky ground, but its historic and cultural value is now fully appreciated and carefully guarded for future generations.
You probably won’t need a map to wander Civita’s few streets, but Rome is so close by, you might as well see it while you’re in the neighborhood! This National Geographic map of Rome, available from Maps.com, will guide you along the city streets and is full of tourist info.
caption: Civita di Bagnoregio clings to its rocky perch high above the surrounding countryside.
source: Flickr: Graeme Maclean (CC by 2.0)
caption: The bridge to Civita admits only pedestrians, a few small scooters, and a small vehicle that brings supplies to restaurants and hotels in the old town.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Etnoy (Jonathan Fors) (CC by SA 3.0)
caption: Soft marine sediments like these underlie Civita’s volcanic tuff base, and they wear away easily.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Fedebabi (CC by SA 4.0)
caption: The old town exudes scenic charm, though there used to be more building behind those windows to the sky.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Davide Papalini (CC by SA 3.0)
caption: Some parts may be falling away, but much of the town is very well preserved.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Luca Aless (CC by SA 3.0)
caption: The interior of Civita’s cathedral, the Chiesa di Santo Donato.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Luca Aless (CC by SA 3.0)