Viterbo, less than an hours drive north of Rome, is still a bit of a mystery to most Romans. The city is famous for its perfectly preserved mediaeval quarter and for the unique Santa Rosa festival that has been celebrated every year on 3 September for the past 700 years. A walk through the historic centre reveals another of the citys landmarks: the numerous fountains that have earned Viterbo the title city of beautiful fountains.
Ninety-nine fountains enliven squares or lie hidden inside monastery and convent courtyards, and the sound of the running water is soothing during summer nights. Twenty or so public wash houses, or lavatoi, still exist too, although most are no longer used on a regular basis.
Viterbos historic centre, encircled by mediaeval walls, is reached through Porta Romana. During the assault by French troops under Major Kellerman in 1799 the besieged city invoked patron Santa Rosa, and in thanks for her protection a statue of the saint now tops the entrance way.
From Porta Romana, Via Cavour slopes down to Fontana Grande, the largest of the citys spindle, or fuso, fountains. Built during the 13th century, it is considered the most beautiful of its kind in Viterbo, with its numerous moss-covered lion heads spouting water. Until a few decades ago the weekly market was held here and vendors set their wares on the fountains steps.
Newer lions added in 1877 adorn the 16th-century fountain in Piazza delle Erbe, the salotto of Viterbo where the evening passeggiata takes place. Over the centuries the fountain has been called Flajana, S. Stefano, Alessandrina and Vittorio Emanuele, and was once enclosed by iron railings. The fountain in the courtyard of Viterbos city hall, dating from 1624, is a perfect photo opportunity with its two rampant bronze lions holding a palm tree the citys symbols.
Following Via S. Leonardo towards the mediaeval quarter, you enter Piazza del Ges. Here the spindle fountain is a reconstruction (dated 1915) that incorporates parts of an older fountain from a nearby monastery. The restored Chiesa del Ges was the site of the murder mentioned in Dantes Inferno of Henry of Cornwall by Simon de Montfort in 1271.
A few more steps bring you to leafy Piazza della Morte with its fountain dating from the mid-13th century. Funeral processions arranged by the Compagnia della Morte, a fraternity that buried the abandoned dead, began here.
The fountain in the loggia of the papal palace, fons papalis, is made from pieces of an earlier fountain that was probably connected to an underground cistern to provide the palace with water.
Porta della Verit brings you to another lively neighbourhood. Nearby one can see the ruins of Emperor Federico Barbarossas palace (1242), buy a great ice cream at the gelateria or watch the children playing in the public gardens. Up the street is Piazza Dante and another fuso fountain in peperino stone, its lion-faced spouts furnishing drinking water to the neighbourhood since 1254.
The fountain in Piazza della Crocetta has sculpted human heads instead of the usual lions holding the water jets. The tiny fountain is connected with Santa Rosa, whose preserved, leathery body is venerated in the sanctuary around the corner.
One of Viterbos oldest areas, Pianoscarano, has an artistic fuso fountain that flows with wine during the neighbourhoods feast each year, but in 1376 it was the scene of a bloody revolt. The servants of the French Cardinal Carcassona washed a dog in the fountain: a sacrilegious act since the fountain was the source of the neighbourhoods drinking water. The full-scale revolt that followed left several dead, houses and towers demolished, and ended only when the pope himself intervened.
History has been unkind to the fountain in Piazza della Rocca in front of the archaeological museum. Many artists worked on it, including Vignola in 1575, but it was unstable and had to be modified several times. In 1944 it was completely destroyed by Anglo-American bombing, but it was later reconstructed.
Viterbos newest fountain is the dramatic wings and water monument located in Piazza del Sacrario where the market is held on Saturdays. Inaugurated in October 1966, the fountain consists of two giant sculpted wings showered by a jet of water. The names of battles in which paratroopers demonstrated their valour are inscribed around the peperino stone basin.
Viterbo is also known as the city of beautiful women, a saying that probably goes back to the legend of a beautiful local girl, La Bella Galiana. It seems that a Roman noble, so besotted with her beauty, laid siege to the city to try to win her. When she refused his hand for the final time, he asked that she show herself from a tower along the city walls. Here a sharpshooters arrow ended her life and began her legend.
Two contrasting buildings connected with other women in Viterbos history can be seen in Piazza della Morte. The modern church is the burial place of a Ruspoli princess, S. Giacinta Marescotti, who grew up as a turbulent teenager in the family castle of Vignanello to become a saint and founder of a religious order. The imposing Gothic palazzo now housing hospital administrative offices once belonged to Giulia Farnese, known as Giulia la Bella, sister of Pope Paul III and lover of another pope, Alexander Borgia.
Viterbos museums: Museo Civico, Piazza Crispi (tel. 0761348276) and Museo Nazionale, Piazza della Rocca (tel. 0761325929), open all day. Museo del Colle del Duomo, Piazza S. Lorenzo, (tel. 0761325462), next to the papal palace and duomo, is open until 12.30. All museums are closed on Mon.
Receive a free monthly newsletter with more information about the Viterbo area on www.elegantetruria.com.