Guarcino rises out of the forests and tumbles down from a ridge of the Ernici Mountains at 625 meters above sea level, in an area characterized by numerous springs including Capo Cosa at an altitude of 1,185 m and Caporelle at 934 m. Hence the Cosa River arises, a small tributary of the river Sacco.
It is an ancient area where the first Ernici settlements date back to the eighth century BC, and Guarcino is most probably derived from the ancient city of Varcenum. During the Roman period Guarcino retained its strategic position of guarding two major valleys rich in water, the Aniene Valley and the Cosa / Sacco valley. The springs were known to the Romans in 400 BC and they were dedicated to Venus. Betilieno Varo, a Roman magistrate who lived around the second century BC in this territory, built an important aqueduct that carried water to nearby towns.
The current village was founded during the Middle Ages when the Barbarian invasions forced the population to seek refuge in the castles built on hills. The town was fortified by building lookout towers, bastion houses and round towers for protection in the ‘castrum’, the castle, and there is still evidence of those fortifications.
One famous episode linked to the long struggle between the Papacy and the Empire took place right beneath the walls of Guarcino in 1186, involving a soldier of the army of Henry VI Hohenstaufen (son of Federico Barbarossa) who had besieged Guarcino and a local knight named Malpensa.
A duel to save the country from destruction and looting took place between the two and surprisingly, Malpensa won. This duel, and its result, is still remembered in a statue in the main square and in a historical re-enactment that takes place every summer in August.
Thanks to the bull (Magna Mater) of Pope Boniface VIII, Guarcino became a free town, governed by two consuls, that could never be passed to a lord. In fact Guarcino has never had a lord, and this fact enabled it to become wealthy. The town is characterised by several 14th century palaces but with few churches. It was enriched with architectural and decorative elements that are best experienced by a stroll around the old town following the numbered signs.
It had a great importance for its political ties with Rome during the pontificates of Innocent III and Boniface VIII, (that of the famous ‘Slap of Anagni’). Here was born the noble lady Emilia Conti, mother of Papa Bonifacio VIII.
The isolation and wild beauty of the area have attracted hermits like St. Benedict of Norcia, who founded four monasteries and Sant’Agnello Abate from Naples, who became the patron saint of Guarcino after settling in a hermitage, built into a rock above the town, that has gothic era frescos. Benedict is also remembered through a crypt uncovered in 1980 near the Benedictine Gate and graciously restored by the Floridi family.
We can summarize the story and tour of Guarcino in three golden ages: in the Late Middle Ages (1000-1300) for the closeness of the family ties with the Popes of the time and the foundation of the town with its palaces.
In the late 1700s during the first industrial revolution with the development of the paper mills, thanks to the driving force from the abundance of water; and finally, the third prosperous period in 1900s, particularly after WW2, with commercialisation of the water source, tourism of the old town and in the scenic mountains around, and the ski resort of Campocatino, the first ski centre in southern Italy.