Civita di Bagnoregio: The ‘dying’ village that thrives

MARIELLA RADAELLI

The pristine medieval village Civita di Bagnoregio has paradoxically found a boom in tourism due to its slow, steady collapse down a jagged cliff of volcanic rock. Its nickname is Il Paese che Muore (Dying Land) because it has actually been collapsing for centuries down wooded hills and canyons.

Though seriously threatened by erosion, Civita has been revived by flocks of visitors intrigued by its fragile beauty. “Last year 640,000 tourists visited, up from 42,000 six years ago, and 20 percent of them were Japanese,” says Francesco Bigiotti, mayor of the municipality of Bagnoregio, which officially includes and governs the hamlet of Civita. “We won’t let it die because we must save this marvel,” he says.

A long footbridge connects Bagnoregio with ancient Civita as a sort of umbilical cord. Crossing it feels like going to another dimension.
Civita Bagnoregio
A footbridge connects Bagnoregio with ancient Civita.

“Tourists come because it’s a very beautiful landscape, a unique and poetic sight, so suggestive,” says Giovanni Maria Di Buduo, geologist at the Museo Geologico e delle Frane, which has been active in research at the site since 2012. A leader in efforts to save Civita, Di Buduo invites people to support the museum through a donation at ilovecivita.org.

“The village is also called ‘the living landscape’ because it transforms its appearance not only every year due to land-slides, but also during the same day, changed by the different shadows at various hours,” he says.

The permanent population is fewer than seven souls, but Civita “is a dynamic locale for tourists, artists, students, professionals and academics, as shown by the many cultural and scientific events that take place every year”, Di Buduo says.

The mayor notes that Csome American industrialists bought houses here, as well as film director Giuseppe Tornatore and the creative director of Gucci, Alessandro Michele”.

Dialects meet and mingle in Civita: The Laziale, the Umbro and the Tuscan since the village in the province of Viterbo was founded by the Etruscans, and is only 20 kilometers from Orvieto, Umbria and 90 minutes by car from Rome.

Civita’s most famous native was St. Bonaventure. His relics and Holy Bible are kept in the Cathedral of St. Nicholas. On Good Friday, the cathedral’s large crucifix is carried in a pro-cession into Bagnoregio – but always returned since legend holds that Civita will collapse if the crucifix is not back by mid-night before Easter.

The geologist Di Buduo explains that slopes around the Civita are made of marine clays covered by volcanic rock on which the village was built. “Erosion is very fast and the cliff is bordered by vertical scarps. The slopes are subject to instability with different kinds of movements and different rates of velocity,” he says. “Some buildings are dangerously near the edge and every year many land-slides reactivate and a few new ones occur. Work has been done in the last 30 years but often only after a landslide. Other urgent work will soon start in the west-ern side of Civita, the area with the highest risk due to the bridge.”
Hotel Tyrol in Val Gardena
The medieval village is thriving today due to its remarkable geology and efforts at conservation.

Is Civita doomed to disappear?

“We don’t have to think about the time when the dismantling is complete (probably some thousand years from now) but preserve all the area in the only existing access to the town, and then the perimeter of the cliff to avoid the expansion of instability,” says the geologist.

The more you talk to Di Buduo, the more stories from Civita’s long history he tells: Of the Etruscan days when “Civita was a single conurbation at the site of the acropolis with temples and a forum, an ideal center of civil and religious life for the entire village”. Or when it was conquered by the Romans in the third century B.C. and “after the fall of the Roman Empire when it was variously dominated by the Goths, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Lombards and Franks”.

Civita’s old name was Balneum Regis, which refers to the particular therapeutic properties of thermal water “no longer existing in the area, which healed a king, perhaps Desire, King of the Lombards from 756 to 774”, tells Di Buduo.

After the death of Charlemagne in 814, the territory was under the control of the Monaldeschi counts from Orvieto. Around 1140, Bagnoregio became a free municipality under the supremacy of the Pope. In 1235 the town sided with the Monaldeschi in the fight against the Filippeschi for the control of Orvieto. Di Buduo tells that the battle is mentioned by Dante Alighieri in the Divine Comedy, in the sixth canto of Purgatorio.

Also taking advantage of the forced relocation of the Pope in Avignon between 1309 and 1377, the municipalities of Viterbo and Orvieto turned the Teverina territory into a field of bloody battles for supremacy in Tuscia – the area stretching from Rome to Tuscany – between the 13th and 14th centuries.

A plague in 1348 took many victims, while in 1695 a strong earthquake struck the territory, causing extensive damage and leaving 32 people dead and 40 injured.

For centuries the town remained under the Pope’s temporal control until the battle of Garibaldi’s army in 1867. In the 20th century, Il Paese che Muore outlasted occupation by the Nazis.