The small city, in business since about the 8th century BC was founded by the Etruscans is interesting with its medieval and Renaissance buildings, although our visit would be focused on two churches now located about a mile from the walled old city. In the Etruscan era an earlier version of these walls enclosed a much larger city extending to include the site where the most distant church now stands. Over the centuries sieges and the Black Death so reduced the population that the city shrunk to a shadow of its former importance.
In present times, instead of defending against marauders, portions of the “new” city wall support stone sarcophagi, their lids carved with the likeness of the deceased. Some visages are still so crisp they appear as though they were chiseled the previous day. Others look melted as if time unhurriedly softened them. There are so many sarcophagi that the city may once have been a center for the coffin industry, all ready to go except for the heads which you or your descendants could have made in your likeness.
How the ancient Roman sculptors would have laughed at her and the rest of the façade with such a jumble that along with Christian symbols there is an eroded marble panel below St. Peter suggesting a very pagan Green Man, emblematic of the earth’s renewal in spring long before the concept of Easter, along with another one on a side door.
The solemn interior has another selection of marble reminders of the past – from a primitive bishop’s throne and a pulpit assembled from carvings made in many eras, to a beautiful Renaissance-era baptismal font. Taken together, the ensemble shows evidence of labor interrupted and taken up anew. The work continues: a technician, intent on restoring the octagonal font, didn’t look up as we watched his painstaking work to reverse the destructive passage of time and neglect, and scaffolding-lined walls. A few faded frescoes are still visible including an enormous Last Judgment with graphic depictions of tortures so loved by Church fathers for those they consigned to Hell. Too depressing to contemplate on a sunny day when it was nearly lunch time.
Last and best on the day’s agenda was the Basilica of San Pietro, set on top of the ancient Etruscan acropolis, its foundations resting on the remains of a temple that preceded it by a thousand years. Specialists in the last century believed it was from the 700s but now the consensus has moved the date forward some three hundred years, still not exactly new by my standards. Whatever the date it remains monumental, solitary and enduring as it dominates the surrounding countryside graced with Etruscan tombs, vines and groves.
The disused bishop’s palace was the place to pay the small entry fee. A crone in black nodded and smiled as she took our euros. She was so ancient that she might have been resting on a sarcophagus just a few minutes earlier, only coming to life when we showed up. Like most other churches, it was empty of worshipers but in this case full of interest. Franco Zeffirelli found it so evocative that he used it to film a number of scenes in Romeo and Juliet. Sarcophagi line one side wall to complement those resting on the grounds and the city wall.
Stone benches fitted between the squat pillars face each other across the nave. They were used for meetings, no doubt frequently concerned with how to ward off invaders. Faded but still lovely Cosmati floors curl along the center of the nave. A few faint frescoes remaining after disastrous earthquakes lacerated the walls over the centuries – the latest in 1971 – are illuminated by dusty light as the sun gently moves from scene to scene.
Worn steps led us down to the frescoed crypt. The space is supported by a forest of pillars, none matching another in height, shape or style. The layout reminded me of the rows of columns found in the great mosque in Cordoba.
Here too are frescoes, one still brilliantly depicting local patron saints, Secondianus, Marcellianus and Veranius. Whoever they might have been, they are still stylish with red caps rimmed with white and white earmuffs with a red ball hanging below their ears. It was damp and cold in the crypt, then and now.
The exterior displays a conglomerate of styles more harmonious to me than that of Santa Maria Maggiore although it also includes pre-Christian carvings. Along with a typical large rose window and the four Evangelists, a plaque showing either an Atlas holding up the world or an Etruscan priest in a worship posture complements the décor. Surrounding one of the two pillared windows sculpted lush vines spring from the mouth of another Green Man.
Gazing at the deserted church, I found it was easy to imagine the industrious builders scouring the countryside for whatever bits and pieces from a long forgotten pagan past that they could drag to the hilltop to embellish their homage to a Medieval God. Perhaps at some point it will become a center of worship again to continue the endless cycle of time.