The Lost City of Monterano

The ancient village of Monterano, Italy once stood in the Lazio region atop a massive volcanic rock whose sides drop about 300 feet on two underlying gorges formed by the Mignone River to the north and the stream Bicione to the south and east. Located to the west of Lake Bracciano, about one mile from the town of Canale Monterano, the village was situated between the Tolfa and Sabatini Mountains in the heart of the Natural Reserve of Monterano. The hill is crossed by the two gorges and is dotted with Etruscan burial grounds, small caves covered with thick vegetation and some pools of boiling water representing the ancient volcanic activity in the area.

The starting point of the history of Monterano is found in the Etruscan period, although ruins from this era have yet to be found. The only evidence that this civilization lived in the area are the presence of tombs scattered along the foothills of the mountain and an artificial passage carved into the stone called the Cavone, which allowed for an easy downhill run.

Like all Etruscan towns from the 2nd century BC, Monterano was subject to the authority of the Romans who expanded the town’s road network and built the aqueduct. By the 4th century AD when the Roman Empire was gradually falling under the pressure of barbarian invasions, the territory of Monterano suffered the same fate.

After the fall of the Rome, Monterano came under Lombard rule which did nothing but further impoverish the people of the city. This went on until the beginning of the year 500AD, when the Christian bishop and last inhabitants of the nearby Forum Clodii, exasperated and frightened by the continuous raids of the Germanic people, decided to abandon their lands and move to Monterano. The town was thus enlarged and fortified and new roads and solid walls were built. This repopulation, together with the fact that it became a bishop’s seat brought the town again to be the most important center of the Sabatini area, a status that lasted until the 10th century when the diocese was moved to the town of Sutri. This event was followed by a slow and gradual decline that left the village of Monterano with very few inhabitants.

Only in the 14th century did Monterano see a substantial economic, demographic and social recovery. But at this time the center of power had moved to the nearby and more powerful Bracciano. Towards the end of the 1300s and the beginning of the next century, the village had earned a reputation for its mercenary captains, Coluzia and Gentile. Coluzia was sent by the Pope to quell the revolt of Corneto (now Tarquinia) and Gentile, co-owner of the manor, participated in the wars of succession for the Kingdom of Naples.

In the early 1500s the manor was bought by the Orsini family who took advantage of the period of economic crisis and the simultaneous weakening of the Papal States. However, the real flowering of Monterano occurred after the village was acquired by the Altieri family, whose distinguished member, Emilio Bonaventura Altieri, became Pope under the name of Clement X in 1670.

With its new ownership, Monterano was enriched with significant buildings whose design was entrusted to Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The Church and Convent of St. Bonaventure, overlooking the octagonal fountain, were restored. Unfortunately, this new artistic vitality did not last long.

After the death of Pope Clement X, the people of Monterano underwent another period of great economic and social difficulty mainly due to the confusion and instability of the Papal States. But a far more serious scourge struck in 1770 – malaria, which decimated the population, especially the peasantry. Deprived of the temporal power of the Pope, Monterano passed under the Roman Republic which was overthrown by the Bourbon army the following year. Once the Papal States were restored, a bloody and unexpected incident put an end to the long and troubled history of Monterano. The town was completely destroyed and burned by the French army.

Today, the ruins of the once great city of Monterano can still be found in the area where the village once stood. The Roman aqueduct, the remnants of churches and the ruins of castles are all testament to a city that once was.

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