It is impossible, and possibly inauspicious, to evade ecclesiastical interactions while in Italy. Despite the presence of the Vatican city-state in Rome, Italy has one of the least religious Catholic populations in the world. Yet even the smallest Italian city displays a rich layering of religious iconography, placemaking, and storytelling. Civita and its neighboring hamlet Bagnoregio are no exceptions.

One of the most fascinating religious discoveries I have made here concerns saints known as i incorruttibili misteriose or “the mysterious incorruptibles”—devout individuals whose remains do not decompose after death. The phenomenon of incorruptibility is taken as a powerful sign of saintliness in the Catholic Church and most of these individuals have already been canonized. Visitors to certain Italian churches, myself included, are shocked by the display of a corpse, dressed in religious vestments and encased in a glass coffin at the high altar or in the crypt.

Officially Civita has two Patron saints, Santa Vittoria (St. Victoria) and Sant’ Ildebrando (St. Hildebrand), both of whom have separate altars dedicated to them in the city’s main church Chiesa S. Donato.

Santa Vittoria, martyred in 251 AD is remembered for persevering through abuse and her remains are kept in an urn under the left altar. Sant’ Ildebrando was born in Bagnoregio and was its Bishop from 856 to 873. His body rests under the right altar. An interesting miracle attributed to him is that when he was old and bedridden, his servants brought him a cooked partridge, but as it was a fast day, he was unable to eat the bird. So instead, he prayed over it and it came to life and flew away. Here in Bagnoregio, the people are very zealous in honoring Sant’ Ildebrando and regularly make the trip up the hill to Civita since it is said that he has a reputation for dealing severely with those who do not give him due respect.

But Civita’s most famous son is S. Bonaventura (St. Bonaventure). Chapels and statues to him seem to be present on every corner in these two towns. Bonaventura was born Giovanni Fidanza around 1221 AD in a house no more than 50 meters from where I am writing this now.

As a young child, he fell seriously ill and his mother took him to the nearby Convento de San Francisco, which used to occupy the ground between Civita and Bagnoregio before it was lost in a 17th century to an earthquake.

In the grotto that now marks the spot of the old monastery, it is said that St. Francis prayed and healed Giovanni, then blessed him with the name “O Buona Ventura,” seeing much good fortune in his future. Bonaventura went on to join the Franciscan order and became a scholar and teacher and a primary biographer of St. Francis. He traveled widely but often came back to Italy and his home in Bagnoregio. After his death, his right arm was placed in a reliquery made from silver and gold donated by the people of Bagnoregio, an event that is celebrated every year on March 14.

A church, the Chiesa di S. Bonaventura, was built on the site of his childhood home but after the structure was damaged in another earthquake, a chapel built with some of the salvaged tufo bricks was dedicated in a new church in Bagnoregio.

The most endearing story I have heard about S. Bonaventura came from the sacristan in the church here, also named, interestingly, Bonaventura. Apparently, when Pope Gregory X made Bonaventura a cardinal, he sent several messengers to him with the symbolic red cardinal’s hat. When they arrived, they found Bonaventura washing dishes and he asked them to hang the red hat on a nearby tree since his hands were wet and dirty.