Italy’s most endangered hilltop town

The ancient Etruscan town of Civita di Bagnoregio in Italy is one of the most endangered cultural sites in the world.
The ancient Etruscan town of Civita di Bagnoregio in Italy is one of the most endangered cultural sites in the world.

‘Il paese che muore’, the dying town, is a tiny hilltop community in Lazio, central Italy. Known as Civita di Bagnoregio, it’s a mere one and a half hours drive north of Rome.

Astonishingly, the 2500 year old Etruscan relic clings spectacularly, if precariously, to an outcrop of crumbling Tufa rock – an island on land! A pedestrian bridge links Civita to its neighbour Bagnoregio, a life-giving artery for provisions – and tourists – from the ‘mainland’.

Originally joined at the hip on top of a hill overlooking deep valleys, a 1695 earthquake brutally disrupted the fraternal relationship between the two neighbours. The collapse of the land bridge left Civita isolated from Bagnoregio – but served to preserve its antiquity, quaint cobbled lanes, ancient stone buildings and commanding views, for the increasing number of modern visitors that brave the steep climb to the city gate.

In 2006, the World Monuments Fund highlighted Civita di Bagnoregio as one of the world’s cultural heritage sites most at risk of collapse from the forces of nature.

A glimpse of the mysterious Etruscans

The ancient and largely untouched town of Civita di Bagnoregio offers a rare glimpse of its founding fathers, the Etruscan civilization that dominated Central Italy from the 8th to the 5th century BC.

The Etruscans accumulated much of their wealth through trade and built their cities, like Civita di Bagnoregio, to facilitate this commerce. While never unified into one country, the Etruscans organised themselves into a loose coalition of colonies, primarily bonded by a strong religious belief in the afterlife.

Scholars argue whether the Etruscans were indigenous to the region or émigrés from what is today modern Turkey, fleeing their homeland to survive a devastating famine. Whatever their origin, artefacts suggest this was an advanced civilisation. They tended towards theocratic government (or government by divine rule) with monogamous families forming the core of society. Etruscan women enjoyed many freedoms unknown to, frowned upon and even misconstrued by other European cultures at the time.

In the end, despite their undoubted influence on Italian history and culture, the Etruscan civilisation fell before the Roman advance, surviving only in Italian geographic names such as Tuscany… and the untouched citadel of Civita di Bagnoregio.

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