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  • Writer's pictureRoma Experience

Civitavecchia: The City & Port

Updated: Mar 13

With its modern port where the major cruise ships of the Mediterranean land, Civitavecchia sees millions of hurried tourists who run and embark or disembark on the fly to go and visit the attractions of nearby Rome unknowingly neglecting a town that has a lot to offer.

Thanks to Roma Experience it will be easy to relive the ancient glories of its ancient Roman story and discover the many curiosities of the modern city.

Its past emerges from the numerous remains scattered around the city. Civitavecchia is known as the port of Rome since ancient times. The port was created for emperor Trajan in 106-108 AD, in the city of Centumcellae, by Apollodorus of Damascus, his trusted architect, to facilitate the food supplies of Rome.

The port had a typical structure for the time, with a circular basin, two large piers and an artificial island to protect the basin, probably the lighthouse was located on an advanced dam into the open sea. The structure was completed by two opposing towers.

The latter was rebuilt by Sangallo and is still partially preserved, one took the name of Lazzaretto, following the terrible plague of 1656 when it became a shelter for infectious patients and remained so until 1800.

In recent times the tower has even obtained the attention of Hollywood, becoming one of the sets of the movie Zoolander 2.

But the true symbol of the port is undoubtedly the Giulia Fortress, more commonly called Forte Michelangelo, one of the most important military architectural structures of the Lazio coast.

Built at the behest of Pope Julius II and designed by Donato Bramante, it had to defend the port from the continuous pirate raids that had infested the coast since the 15th century, with looting, fires and massacres. The first stone was laid by the Pope himself.

The works continued after the death of Pope Julius II, thanks to the intervention of Antonio da Sangallo for Pope Paul III Farnese, a great patron. Only the upper part of the so-called Maschio, the highest tower, was missing, and according to various sources, the work was entrusted to Michelangelo, from whom the fortress then took its name, although his intervention is not demonstrable.

The fortress has some peculiarities: in the San Sebastiano tower, there is an underground tunnel, a secret exit of the fortress towards the ground while in the Santa Ferma tower it is possible to visit the chapel of Santa Fermina, patron saint of the city.

The statue "The Kiss of the Memory of a Port", the work of Ivana Puleo, was recently placed a few steps from the Michelangelo Fort, inaugurated on September 16, 2020, on the occasion of the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the Port Authority. The work was created to remember all those who left the port of Civitavecchia, mainly for the war, without returning and also not to lose the memory of the devastating bombing of May 14th 1943 which destroyed much of the town and erased centuries of history.

Suddenly the city was practically razed to the ground by 48 deadly American bombers (B-17s) in eight violent waves. Not far from here is also the famous fountain built in 1743 by the architect Luigi Vanvitelli, along the defensive wall built by Pope Urban VIII, which represents the head of an old faun which, if you like it, could make you wink, watch out!

Like many towns on this stretch of coast, Civitavecchia also boasted the presence of a castle, built in the fifteenth century under the pontificate of Pope Callixtus III to complete the protective walls of the seaside village of the ancient Centumcellae. The Rocca, which stood sheer above the Roman dock, was transformed several times, becoming a papal residence in the 16th century. Unconquerable and the very first nucleus of the medieval city, the Rocca was almost razed to the ground in the bombing of 1943, only the base remains.

If you love Roman ships, do not miss the reconstruction, inside the Roman Dock of the Port, of a section of Liburna, an ancient warship of the Roman fleet. The life-size ship was reproduced with the construction techniques and technologies of the time. The work aims to remember and celebrate the naval power of Rome, which has always played a hegemonic role in the Mediterranean.

The Liburna was a light bireme, equipped with a rostrum and used in ancient times by a Dalmatian people dedicated to piracy, the Liburnians in fact. The reconstruction is inspired by the boat carved in one of the scenes of Trajan's Column in Rome.

To complete the walk on the port it is worth stopping at the Roman dock, the oldest part of the port, a small rectangular port, in the past protected by the walls of the fortress and today communicating with the rest of the port thanks to a passage dug into the rock. In ancient times the Darsena was mainly used for stopping and supplying the Roman ships of the imperial fleet.

Trajan had identified a secure and strategic base here, as evidenced by the numerous epigraphs of the classiari, the sailors of the Roman fleet who between the second and third centuries used this port as a station for the armies of Rome. The epigraphs were found in 1864, but they are not the only discovery!

In fact, in the waters of the Darsena, a bronze arm with a trident of a colossal statue of Neptune was found in 1834, and now it is in the Vatican Museums. According to the most accredited hypothesis, the statue should come from a Roman temple on the Darsena, or from the ancient Church of Santa Maria or, according to the most recent, it could be a fragment of a colossal statue that was in the final part of the aqueduct built in 1589 by Sixtus V as it appears in the frescoes by Paul Brill, Cesare Nebbia and Giovanni Guerra commissioned by the Pope himself, in the Sistine Hall of the Vatican Library, to celebrate his public undertakings.

The dock, which survived throughout the Middle Ages, passed under the control of the Popes who used it as a strategic base for their fleet, and a safe harbour for the alum trade. This place was also terribly damaged by the bombing and therefore its current appearance is due to recent renovations. According to a local history scholar, Roberta Galletta, the port fortification project would be attributable to the great Leonardo Da Vinci, who with his drawings would have provided the inspiration for Bramante. His passage to Civitavecchia and his studies are found on two sheets of the Codex Atlanticus.

The last curiosity concerns a particular building in Piazza Leandra, where in 1972 frescoes covered with layers of lime, paints and wallpaper were found, they are a replica of Raphael's frescoes made for the Room of Heliodorus, in the Vatican. But why they are there is still a mystery.

Certainly Pope Julius II, one of Raphael’s patrons, often passed through Civitavecchia, given that Bramante was building the Giulia Fortress for him, and some speculate that these may be preparatory sketches made by a collaborator of Raphael, perhaps Ugo da Carpi.

A tour of the beautiful city of Civitavecchia can only end up with a restaurant overlooking the sea to taste local specialities with typical fish-based dishes, such as the tasty Civitavecchia fish soup, stuffed squid or snails with sauce also called Rigatelle. And those who, instead of sitting at the table, prefer the joys of street food, will find bread for their teeth with the famous Civitavecchia pizza, filled with tomato, mozzarella, anchovies, parsley, garlic and lots of chillies. There is also no shortage of desserts, especially linked to religious holidays, such as the fritters of San Giuseppe or the Easter pizza, a sweet-scented with anise.

What do you think, are you ready to discover Civitavecchia, its secrets and its flavours?


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