Viterbo is located on the slopes of Mount Palanzana in the Monti Cimini range and is crossed by Fosso Urcionio, today partially covered. It is the capital of the province called Tuscia.
The territory has been inhabited since the Neolithic age and had a real golden age with the Etruscans. Perhaps this was the ancient city of Surina but its name is Roman and comes from Vetus Urbs – Old Town. With the arrival of the Romans a castrum was built here and a temple that was dedicated to Hercules. The lion on the emblem of the city recalls this legend. Viterbo was effectively connected with Rome with the consular road Cassia.
In the Middle Ages the Lombards built a fortified encampment that was right on the border with the Byzantine duchy of Rome. This area was then donated to the church as evidenced by a document of 852 which records it among the properties of the church.
In the Middle Ages the municipality was formed and the construction of the first walls dates back to 1090.
As a ‘free municipality’, Viterbo became important to host Federico I Barbarossa in 1162 and it expanded to conquer many nearby castles. In 1172 it conquered and destroyed the nearby town of Ferento, and the symbol of the palm was added to the coat of arms and then in 1190 it was the turn of Tarquinia. In 1192 Viterbo became a bishop’s seat and entered a period of great splendour thanks to Pope Innocent III. In 1207 it hosted the Parliament of the Church states. The contrast between the papacy of Frederick II and the empire, that is, between the Guelph family of the Gatti and the Ghibelline family of the Tignosi, led to about 50 years of struggle. During these years Santa Rosa lived her brief life and did her miracles in Viterbo.
A year to remember for Viterbo is 1243, that of victory against the army of Frederick II, then the success of the Guelphs, and the passage of time under the wing of the Pope. To the point that in 1257 Pope Alexander IV decided to move the Papal Curia to Viterbo, which is why it is called the ‘City of the Popes’. This is the golden period of Viterbo when it was embellished and enriched with palaces. It is the period in which the magnificent abbey of San Martino al Cimino was built and all the pilgrims who traveled the Via Francigena to Rome stopped in Viterbo.
Viterbo appears in all history books in relation to the negotiations begun in 1271 after the death of Clement IV. The cardinals met for a good 20 months to elect the successor until at some point Raniero Gatti, captain of the people of Viterbo, decided to ‘lock them’ (in
Latin ‘clausi cum clave‘ from which the word Conclave comes) to force them to take a decision. They were not relegated to a single room, but were fed only on bread and water and the roof was uncovered leaving them to the elements. In 1272 Gregory X was elected at a time when he was fighting the ninth crusade in the Holy Land, and since then all the papal elections have been held in conclaves.
Viterbo was the papal seat until 1281 when Pope Martin IV, afraid of the ardour of the Viterbo people, removed the papal court from Viterbo and took it to Orvieto.
During the following centuries some popes stayed in Viterbo for more than a few months, but always on a personal basis and never moving administrative offices there. In 1454 Pope Niccolò V built an elegant thermal palace near the Bullicame springs whose waters were indicated for the treatment of kidney stones.
Viterbo remained a free municipality but the Gatti family or the prefects of Vico governed it in a stately manner always under the wing of the church.
In 1798 it was occupied by French troops who besieged and conquered the city. In 1870 it entered the Italian state and became a province. During the Second World War it was home to a German command and consequentially, heavily bombed by the Allies.
Viterbo is today famous for its art, for the university and the military schools, for the feast of the patron and the procession with the imposing carriage (machine) of Santa Rosa, at 30 meters high and weighing 52 quintals (a bit over 5 tonnes), which is inserted among the Patrimony UNESCO World Heritage.