In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Civita looked much the same as it does today. A saddle of land connected present-day Civita to Bagnoregio (known then as Rota) with the Convento di S Francisco occupying the middle ground before it was lost to an earthquake. The monastery can be seen in the drawing (below) sent back to Rome by a visiting monk. Together, the population numbered close to 1,800 citizens.

The Medieval city was divided into four contrade, or neighborhoods: Mercatello (the Merchant quarter); Ponte (the Bridge); Civita (the Town); and Carcere (the Prison). The area boundaries, interestingly, roughly correspond to the ancient Etruscan ideal city plan with most of the upper class Renaissance families building in the most favorable southeast sector and the communal prison located in the northeast. Still today, Civita displays its contrade banners during festas and other important ceremonies.

Most of the beautiful golden warren of buildings you see in Civita were built during this time, including the Palazzo Alemanni, the largest, most imposing house in Civita facing the main piazza. A walk around the town today can give you a real sense of what the city might have looked like in the 16th century—that is, at least from the buildings that are still standing.

Starting in 1695 and continuing for over 100 years, the city endured a series of devastating earthquakes, not to mention landslides, locust infestations, and malaria. By 1800, more than 40% of Civita’s land mass had been lost. Although the rate at which the city continues to crumble is glacial, the process continues through to today. “The clay soil here falls away like fresh ricotta,” says Erino Pompei, the mayor of Bagnoregio until 2009, whose name bears an eerie resemblance to another lost Italian town.

The twentieth century brought WWII bombings and isolation for well over a year in the mid-60s when the old bridge was demolished and a new one being built. In 2004, engineers began a cliff stabilization project, funded by the Province of Viterbo and the EU, that will cost more than $15 million when it is scheduled to be completed in 2014. The project involves planting concrete shafts in the dirt below the rocks on which Civita sits and reinforcing them with thousands of iron rods. The blocks are meant to act as dams to keep the claylike soil from getting too wet and unstable. Last year, a fascinating and extensive exhibit detailing Civita’s geological past and the stabilization project opened at the Museo geologico e delle frane located in the Palazzo Alemanni.

The hope is that for the next few centuries at least, Civita will be safe. After that? “Niente può fermare la natura,” says Signore Pompei. “Nothing can stop nature.”

Ciao from Civita!

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