Gallese is a village perched on a tufaceous hill, not far from Viterbo and holds some mysteries such as an ancient church and rock settlement still being investigated.
The village was elevated to the rank of ‘civitas’ as early as the ninth century and is a place full of ancient monuments that tell the story of noble families and even hermits. In fact, it was the destination of the pilgrimage of pious people like San Famiano, patron saint of the city, who died here in the twelfth century.
All around, the countryside holds traces of ancient history, more or less known. Hermitic and prehistoric caves (cavernette), fountains, aqueducts, tunnels and Faliscan tombs are only a part of the treasures preserved in the territory.
I had heard of a group of caves in the confines of the municipal area, towards the Tiber and seeing that I had already begun the explorations and surveys in that area full of archaeological and speleological evidence, I could identify the precise location of the source.
Going along the ancient Via Flaminia, then skirting beside the Tiber and passing the ancient port of Torricella with its settlement, a high tufa wall limits the view towards the west.
Halfway up the wall you can see a wide terrace, so making my way with difficulty among smilax aspera and a luxuriant growth, I reached the plateau. In front of me there was a small artificial cavity whose entrance is a couple of meters from the ground.
Can it be all here?
The high tufaceous wall that you could see from a distance, from a close analysis has been carved and this gives me a sign that the area, somewhere, hides other surprises.
I began to walk along the terrace to the north and the wall maintained its appearance of having been smoothed. I came across another small opening, in small niches as seen by light of the lamp but I continued the exploration until, shortly after, my eyes were directed to a smooth and well preserved arcosolio, that is, a sepulchre with an arch that was used in the catacombs.
Next to this I saw, another as well as strange openings on the wall that I’m sure hid a cavity inside. After a few meters, through a rough entrance, I entered into an environment that has all the characters of being sacred.
In front of me there is a large apse, on the left two columns /pillars and beyond this still another part of rather dark cavity. Here too there is a small apse with a basin that extends up to the ceiling of the cavity.
There are no frescoes, but the small niches on the sides of the apse of the main nave certainly had a sacred function. A rock church in the brambles!
I go out reluctantly from the cavity and continue my exploration that is not slow to give up other fruits: other cavities open up on the tufaceous wall, high up and polished by the hand of man, which leads me finally to a rock staircase.
I go up them, the steps are worn by wear. I reach the level of the cavities above, passing a short corridor with a curious zig-zag pattern, a first room with shelves cut in high relief and passing through a small and rough hole made on the lower part of the wall. A vast space with two pillars appears, with a long trough on the western side and numerous holes on the walls.
Surely, I had found the group of caves that had been reported to me by the locals!
The site is known as “Saint Valentine”, a name given to the whole area. On the ancient Flaminia, the documents testify to the presence of a church with the same name, of which today all traces have apparently been lost.
So, I asked myself, could the church found among the brambles and that of the documents be the same thing?! Studies and research have begun and the recent discovery of an archive document sheds light on the question: the two buildings are different because the rock church is dedicated to Santa Maria delle Grotte.
It is not just a church but also something more. The document, in fact, also names the other “caves” that, through an analysis of the excavation marks, the comparison with other sites and with the support of the other sciences, it was possible to conclude it to be a monastic settlement.
A small cavity at the southernmost point of the site can be identified as the first hermit cell, i.e. the first cavity I saw during the exploration.
Subsequently, other monks probably came from the East, and arrived here after a long journey, which gave rise to a semi-cenobitic phase: the so-called laura.
Over time, the community adopted a fully cenobitic model, implementing major structural changes to the site. The few monks, therefore, worked, prayed and ate in common places. The church served as a gathering place to discuss the organization of the small community and allowed common prayer.
To visit the caves of the ancient church of Santa Maria delle Grotte and the settlement of San Valentino is to dive into history and is an unmissable opportunity to get fascinated by the town and this area that hides many other secrets.
For more information you can read the book by Barbara Bottacchiari entitled “Santa Maria delle Grotte and the San Valentino settlement,” or you can write to the author on her facebook page…