Viterbo and Tuscia History
The origins of Viterbo date back to the elusive Etruscans who used the city as a fortified center for their civilization. In fact, the area where the Duomo and the Palazzo dei Papi are located today, was once a military fortress for the Etruscans (known as a castrum). Furthermore, Etruscan influence on the city can still be identified today in the alternative name for the province of Viterbo; Tuscia. Today Tuscia is synonymous with the province of Viterbo, but after the Roman conquest it was used to describe all territories that were once under Etruscan influence, including Tuscany and parts of Umbria and Lazio. Once the Romans conquered the Etruscans, they converted the castrum into a temple dedicated to Hercules and it was called Castrum Herculis.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Viterbo’s next important period was during the Middle Ages. In 1095 construction began for the imposing walls with eight gates that surround the city and construction officially terminated in 1268. The period of time from 1257 to 1281 was arguably the most important time period for Viterbo because this was when it became the seat of the papacy.
Once the papal seat returned to Rome, latter periods of history for the city were less lively, but still significant. The Renaissance brought many influential Roman families to Viterbo since its position made the city ideal for summer residences. Many of Viterbo’s stunning palaces were built during this time such as Palazzo Farnese, which was the childhood home of Pope Paul III. At the end of the 18th century Viterbo was occupied by the French and towards the end of the 19th century (in 1871), Viterbo became part of Italy. In the 20th century, World War II brought destruction to Viterbo similar to many other parts of Italy. Viterbo was occupied by Germany in 1943 and suffered heavy bombings in 1944 which killed hundreds of civilians and destroyed parts of the town’s historic center. Fortunately, much of the center survived thanks to the fortified medieval walls. Since the war, several important churches have undergone extensive restoration.
Today, Viterbo is characterized as a uniquely medieval town with a rich history that includes Etruscans, Romans, and many popes. Should one visit Viterbo, it is possible to stroll through the town and witness the historical changes it underwent in the San Pellegrino neighborhood. This area, located in the ancient center, contains many of Viterbo’s medieval palaces and towers and it allows visitors to witness Viterbo’s progress through history for themselves.