The Vanished City of Monterano
Located to the west of Lake Bracciano, about one mile from the town of Canale Monterano in the Lazio region of Italy, Monterano is situated between the Tolfa and Sabatini Mountains. The area is dotted with Etruscan burial grounds, small caves covered with thick vegetation and 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, though, at present, there are not any ruins. The only evidence of this civilization is the presence of tombs scattered along the foothills and an artificial passage carved into the stone, the Cavone, allowing an easy downhill run. Like all Etruscan towns, from the second century BC, Monterano was also subject to the Romans who expanded the road network and built the aqueduct. By the fourth century AD, when the Roman Empire was gradually falling under the pressure of barbarian invasions, the territory of Monterano suffered the same fate.
The Lombard rule did nothing but impoverish even more people, at least until the Christian bishop and last inhabitants of the nearby Forum Clodii decided to abandon their lands and move to Monterano at the beginning of 500. The town was 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 Manturianum (as it was called in the sixth century) to be the most important center of the Sabatina Valley. This status lasted until the 10th century when the diocese was taken from the town of Sutri. The latest news about a bishop of Monterano dates back to 998. This event was followed by a slow and gradual decline that brought few inhabitants to the village.
Only in the 14th century did Monterano see a substantial economic, demographic and social recovery, but by then, the center of power had moved to the nearby and more powerful Bracciano. At the end of 1300 and the beginning of the next century, the village had a reputation for its mercenary captains Coluzia and Gentile: the first was sent by the Pope to quell the revolt of Corneto (now Tarquinia) and the second, co-owner of the manor, participated in the wars of succession for the Kingdom of Naples.
In 1500, 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. But the real development of the village occurred after the acquisition by the Altieri family. The distinguished Emilio Bonaventura Altieri, now an owner of Monterano, became Pope under the name of Clement X in 1670. Almost immediately, the village was enriched with significant buildings whose design was entrusted to Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Unfortunately, this new artistic vitality did not last long.
After the death of Pope Clement X, the people of Monterano saw another period of great economic and social difficulties mainly due to the confusion and instability of the Papal States. But a far more serious scourge struck in 1770: an outbreak of malaria, which decimated the population, especially the peasantry. Deprived of the temporal power of the Pope, Monterano passed under the Roman Republic, which surrendered the following year by the Bourbon army. Once the Papal States were restored, a bloody and unexpected incident put an end to the long and troubled history of Monterano.
In 1799, after a fight between local families, the French army sacked the town. This, combined with the outbreak of malaria led to Monterano being all but abandoned in a fairly short amount of time.
It is said that the cause of the exodus was extreme brutality perpetrated by the French soldiers who destroyed most of the buildings and the possessions of the villagers. It was basically cheaper and more convenient for the population to simply leave everything and start from scratch elsewhere.
The remains of the former settlement have since aged into beautiful ruins and Monterano has been the backdrop to a number films, such as “Ben-Hur” (1959), Mario Monicelli’s “Brancaleone alle Crociate” (1970), “Il Marchese del Grillo” (1981) and Marco Bellocchio’s “La visione del Sabba” (1988).