Founded in pre-Roman times by the Ernici, one of the mountain tribes then living in central Italy, Veroli has evolved over more than 3,000 years into a town of 20,000 people whose ways and customs are more related to tradition than to the ephemera of the modern world.
In early times, the town became a cornerstone of the Hernician League, a confederation of neighbouring communities which sought to unite against the growing influence of Rome and its troublesome neighbours, such as the Sanniti, the Simbruini and the Volschi tribes, However, Verulae, as it was then known, eventually took a more independent stance and at the end of the 4th Century BC became independent and an ally of Rome. As a reward for its faithfulness, the town was accorded the status of municipium in 90 BC, its citizens being allowed similar privileges as those of Rome.
During the following centuries, Veroli endured deprivation at the hands of Saracen plunderers, incursions from the Normans who then controlled the south, a conquering Spanish army and, from within, a revolt by the local republican bourgeousie against the Church. None of these events, however, stemmed its development as a religious and commercial centre.
A reputation was created for piety – the town has 15 churches – for craftsmanship (particularly wood and ironwork) and for its gastronomy, particularly the quality of the olive oil from the plantations on the nearby slopes. Public celebrations of significant religious dates and festivals of art and crafts, form part of a social fabric which is steeped in the town’s folklore.
Once lying close to the imperial routes to the south, Veroli is now about an hour’s drive from Ciampino Airport, southwards along the A1-E45. Visitors leave the autostrada at the Frosinone exit, pay their dues at the pedaggio and, after a brief tussle with the traffic on the provincial capital’s ring road, head eastwards towards the Ernici Mountains.
Drawn along an ascending ridge, the town, appearing piscatorially from the sky like a glissading fish, can be seen as being formed in three parts:
The upper San Leucio area is dominated by a 9th Century watchtower, and here exists evidence of the original limestone wall, in polygonal form, built by the early Ernici inhabitants whose name is translated as “the people of stone». At 750 metres above sea level, the tower occupied a strategic position, commanding views across the Sacco Valley towards the Lepini Mountains on one side and, on the other, over the undulating landscape of the Liri Valley and towards the Apennine massif beyond.
Also here is one of Europe’s oldest churches, the unadorned Romanesque structure of the church of San Leucio. On an internal wall is an inscription in Latin indicating its apostolic consecration in the year 1079.
Heading downhill along the cobbled and red-bricked streets, the visitor reaches the central area, testament to the town’s thriving commercial and social life in medieval times and afterwards. Here, the main piazza and its environs, with the cathedral of Sant’Andrea as a focal point, shows off the grand palaces built for the nobility, for wealthy merchants and for the trade guilds. These buildings reflect an earlier commercial, social and political grandeur and provide a backdrop today, as they always have, for the groups of townspeople who meet to discuss the world and its ways, and for the visitor, seated at a pavement café with a glass of prosecco in hand and a bowl of olives on the table, who may be content just to observe and listen.
Pre-eminent among these majestic facades is that of the cathedral, rebuilt in 1706 and incorporating the rose window of the original church which was destroyed by an earthquake in 1350. The baroque interior is richly adorned with frescoes and contains a keenly-protected chapel of treasures. Behind steel bars, the Cappella dei Tresori houses a collection of precious liturgical relics including a large silver cross, dated 1291, venerated as a reliquary in which is embedded a fragment of the Holy Wood of the Cross.
From there, it is only a short walk to the piazza and basilica of Santa Maria Salome. Built 800 years ago to honour the town’s patron saint, the church, as in the case of the cathedral, was restored in the early 1700s to repair earthquake damage. Within are two of the most revered sites of the Catholic Church: the Santa Scala (the Holy Stairway) and the sepulchre containing the remains of Saint Salome. The Holy Stairway comprises 12 marble steps, under which is buried (under the 11th) a piece of the Cross of Calvary. The Santa Scala has had conferred on it the same papal privileges as the more renowned Holy stairways in Jerusalem and that of St John Lateran in Rome.
Leaving aside these heady religious intensities, the visitor’s interest would be aroused by other attractions in the area of the central piazza, particularly the Museo delle Erbe and the Museo della Civilita Rurale. The former is an exhibition of dried plants, some examples having been collected from the nearby hills a century ago. The display includes plants used in medicinal treatments by the monks at the nearby abbeys of Trisulti and Casamari, and photographs of mushrooms, a much-prized harvest in the autumn woodlands of the Ernici Mountains, indicating those safe to collect and those bringing illness and death.
The Museo della Civilta Rurale, in the basement of the municipal building, is an exhibition of the implements used in on the farm and of the utensils used in the kitchens in bygone years. They include perhaps two of the most enduring and endearing symbols of country life in Ciociaria, the historical area in which Veroli is a principal centre. They are the Conca, a waisted vessel of copper used for carrying water, and the cute-cute, a drumlike musical instrument played by squeezing a wetted cloth along a wooden pole stemming from a drum. Entry to both museums is by arrangement with Pro Loco, the nearby tourism office, which will provide a guide.
When the visitor arrives at the third, and lowest, part of the town he should leave his car in front of the gate that is the Porta di Santa Croce, and proceed by foot into an enchanting district which has lost little of its medieval character. Its sinuous streets, no more than a few feet wide, are, as elsewhere in the town, of cobble with a vein of thin red bricks (ammatonato) running along the centre of the passageways. The district is almost exclusively residential, with its principal features being the imposing edifice of the 16th century Palazzo Quinones, named after the Spanish cardinal who was the local prefect, and the stone-built Porta Santa Croce, no longer in its original state as a tower and gated entrance but still a principal means of entering the town.
In this locality reside some of the oldest families in the town. Elderly descendents of these families sit and talk outside their homes and do not shy from calling out to the stranger and asking where he is heading.
‘Esplorare la citta,’ one might reply. To which there would be a resounding cry: ‘Bravo, bravo.’
To see Veroli … Well done, well done.
Tekst: Peter Hodgson