Recently, I spent a couple of instructive hours in Cività di Bagnoregio. This is a tiny hamlet near Viterbo, separated from the nearby town of Bagnoregio by a long bridge. It was founded by Etruscans in the 1st Century BC and was the birthplace of Saint Bonaventure in 1217. Unfortunately, the location of the Saint’s boyhood home cannot be viewed as it has since fallen off the cliff. As have many things. But more on that later.
Bonaventure was not one of your more interesting saints. By the time he was born, the colorful attainment of sainthood via martyrdom (skin-flaying! roasting to death in a brazen bull! suffocating-head chopping!) had been relegated to the dim distant past and Bonaventure appears to have earned his way by being a bureaucrat and writing lots of commentaries on the Scriptures. He was a bit of a name-dropper and spread the story around that as a sickly boy his life had been saved by Saint Francis himself who, seeing future greatness in the lad (named John at the time) gave him the name Bonaventura (Good Fortune). There’s no evidence that this ever happened. A Franciscan, Bonaventure became Minister General of the Order at the tender age of 40 and was appointed a Cardinal by Pope Gregory X in 1273. There’s an unsubstantiated rumor that he was poisoned, which I believe happened quite a lot amongst religious types back in Ye Olden Times.
Cività di Bagnoregio sits on top of a plateau of tufa (a soft volcanic stone) overlooking the Tiber River valley. Tufa erodes easily and over time bits of the plateau began to crumble and the buildings with them. Cività began to be seen as a somewhat less than salubrious spot of real estate and went into decline, eventually to be eclipsed by its former suburb, Bagnoregio. Cività was a Papal State and a seat of bishops but after a big earthquake in the late 17th century, pretty much everyone that was still around skedaddled on out of there. Further erosion deepened the valley and the town turned into a sort of island.
After that, Cività became known as il paese che muore (in Italian: “the dying town”). For centuries, the only access was a stone bridge, which collapsed in 1901. A later overpass was destroyed by the Germans during the Second World War. The current pedestrian bridge was built in the 1960s. It’s 900 feet above the valley floor and crossing into Cività from Bagnoregio is a highly dramatic and vertiginous experience. There are no motor vehicles of any kind allowed in the town, with the exception of a little tractor that totes provisions across a few times a week.
Because of its isolation, Cività has been able to avoid most modern intrusions and many of the buildings that remain date back to medival times. Of late, the city has been discovered by tourists and day trippers. The town’s population is just 13 people year round but swells to 100 in the summer, mostly Americans who have started buying up houses there. In 2006, the town was placed on the World Monument Fund’s Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites due to the threats it faces from erosion and unregulated tourism.