Viterbo and its Palazzo dei Papi
By Samantha Melamed
Initially, when I decided to study in Viterbo, my family and friends had, as I presumed, never heard of the city. And then I arrived in Italy, and discovered some Italians had never even heard of the city. This only attracted me to Viterbo – I prefer travelling to obscure cities – far away from tourists. It’s like finding a hidden treasure and becoming so prideful of it as if it is mine to claim for the four months I am studying here. Though it is small, Viterbo is uniquely rich in history which deserves more attention.
It is not well known abroad that Viterbo was the papal seat for 24 years, from 1257 to 1281. Palazzo dei Papi, or Palace of the Popes, was built in 1257 specifically to host pontiffs who would bless the devoted in the palace. The bronze doors of Salone del Conclave, the first and longest conclave which lasted 33 months, were inaugurated by Pope Benedict XVI. Pope John XXI was elected and died in Viterbo; he is buried in Cattedrale San Lorenzo, close to the apse.
I saw the plaque to mark Pope John XXI’s burial when I toured Cattedrale San Lorenzo, Palazzo dei Papi, and the Museo Colle del Duomo – the highest part of the city that overlooks all of Viterbo – in Piazza San Lorenzo. During Christmas time, the piazza participates in Viterbo’s festive Christmas market. When I visited Palazzo dei Papi mid-November, the market was already being prepared and lights were strung everywhere.
The piazza is located in the heart of the city, where its historical significance places it at the metaphorical heart of the city as well. In the 11th and 12th century, the palazzo was easy to defend, situated between two cliffs. Papal Loggia, the highest accessible point in Palazzo dei Papi, was added to beautify the military character of the building. Piazza San Lorenzo is connected to San Pellegrino, the medieval quarter, by a bridge. I frequent San Pellegrino more often than San Lorenzo, so even the bridge was an unspoiled area to me. I didn’t expect the vast view on both sides of the bridge that led me to the grand piazza.
Palazzo dei Papi itself has a presence of its own, rightfully earning its credentials as biggest attraction in Viterbo. It is the largest building atop the hill, with a grand, wide staircase that leads to a road I explored, wrapping around the palace. I found Viterbo to be a romantic city when I became aware that I was standing behind a palace, looking out at a green field directly beneath me, the cluster of buildings nearby. At sunset, I watched the sun dip beneath the city I call home and my appreciation for Viterbo’s aestheticism and historicity was reaffirmed.