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In and About Viterbo Tuscania: the churches outside the walls

The Etruscan town was located on a fortified hill and later on Tuscania was expanded northwards to include another hill. The initial settlement was called Civita (city) to point out the town was founded there. In the XIVth century the inhabitants, greatly reduced by the Black Death, abandoned this site and the walls were redesigned excluding it. In this way two large medieval churches, founded in the VIIIth century, but renovated to a large extent in the early XIIIth century ended up by being abandoned and the area around them became a grazing land for sheep.

S. Maria Maggiore
S. Maria Maggiore

Both churches have Romanic and Gothic elements and they depart from the structure of the early Christian churches based on the design of the Roman basilicas. The fašade of S. Maria Maggiore is decorated with the symbols of the Evangelists. The use of marble and of stones of different colours gives added emphasis to its large rose-window.

S. Maria Maggiore: detail of the gallery
S. Maria Maggiore: detail of the gallery

The gallery of S. Maria Maggiore is a match to the rose-window, as the same columns and stones were used.

Lateral portal and relief showing Isaak's sacrifice
Lateral portal and relief showing Isaac's sacrifice

The lateral portals are decorated with symbolic reliefs while the central portal shows a sort of modern strip: two scenes portray the sacrifice of Isaac. A capital shows the Flight to Egypt (click here to see it in a page showing other unusual capitals).

Bell tower of S. Maria Maggiore and S. Pietro
Bell tower of S. Maria Maggiore and S. Pietro

Facing S. Maria Maggiore is an imposing bell tower which most likely was built for a different purpose. It can best be seen from the top of the hill where the church of S. Pietro is located.
S. Pietro is flanked by huge towers (one of which is leaning) and by the bishop's palace, but its isolation from modern buildings adds a touch of magic to the site. In spring this part of Latium with so many things to see at a short distance from each other is often visited by tourists who travel by bicycle.

S. Pietro: detail of the fašade
S. Pietro: detail of the fašade

While the rose-window of S. Maria Maggiore conveys the impression of a wheel, the rose-window of S. Pietro conveys that of a lace-work. The symbols of the Evangelists are skillfully located at the angles of the square which frames the rose-window.

S. Pietro: reliefs showing Good and Evil; the portal
S. Pietro: reliefs showing the Church and Evil; the portal

The decoration of the fašade includes also a representation of the Church: the medieval artist made use of an ancient relief which he thought represented Atlas and he positioned it below the symbols of the Church (two angels, the Lamb of God, four saints) as if Atlas was supporting the Church, rather than Earth. As a matter of fact the relief portrays a rather profane dancing satyr.
The representation of Evil is both less complicated and more original with its scaring faces of devils.
While these reliefs are typically medieval, the Cosmati portal with its classic proportions and design is already an anticipation of a new age: the Renaissance.

In and about Viterbo - other pages:
Orte and Vasanello
S. Maria della Querce
S. Martino al Cimino

Walks with Ferdinand Gregorovius in the Roman countryside

some other walks:
A walk to Porta Furba
Via Appia Antica from Cecilia Metella to Torre in Selci
Via Appia Antica from Torre in Selci to Frattocchie

See my Home Page on Baroque Rome or my Home Page on Rome in the footsteps of an XVIIIth century traveller

All images © 1999 - 2004 by Roberto Piperno. Write to