Saints of Montefiascone

As of the 6th century B.C., an Etruscan town flourished on the shores of Lake Bolsena, the largest volcanic lake in Europe, in present-day Montefiascone.

Many archaeologists even indicate the Montefiascone area as site of the most important Etruscan sanctuary, Fanum Voltumna, “shrine of Voltumna.” The Etruscan dodecapoli (league of 12 city-states) met annually at Fanum, in a place elected as omphalos (sacred navel), the geographical and spiritual center of Etruria, the Etruscan nation. Political and  religious leaders from the 12 cities would gather in springtime to discuss military campaigns, civic affairs and to pray to the gods they shared. Voltumna was the most important of the gods and most likely state god of the dodecapoli.

Some historians cite Orvieto as the location of Fanum Voltumnae, while other possible locations of the sacred Etruscan cite include Viterbo, Bagnoregio or Tuscania. But for the 19th century British explorer of Etruria, George Dennis, Montefiascone was the site of the Etruscan religious sanctuary. Remnants of Etruscan temples have been found in the Montefiascone area and even signs of a civilization more ancient than that of the Etruscans: the protovillanova, the culture of an Italic people of the 9th – 8th century B.C.

Montefiascone came into the orbit of Rome in the 3rd century B.C. and ruins of Roman villas, tombs and numerous inscriptions attest to the glorious Roman years of Montefiascone. With invasion by barbarians from the north in the Middle Ages, the people headed away from the lake and to a more secure position on a hill, present-day site of Montefiascone.

By the 8th century A.D., Montefiascone was under dominion of the Papal States, though a free city-state by the 12th century. The Church of San Flaviano, dedicated to its namesake, is an archaeological wonder also incorporating the Etruscan past of the area: remnants of an Etruscan aqueduct in volcanic stone have been excavated beneath the church. Archaeologists believe that the church, built in volcanic stone, was started in the 11th century on the site of an ancient sacello (sanctuary), perhaps from the 9th century and dedicated to the Virgin by Pope Leone IV to house the body of the patron saint of Montefiascone, San Flaviano.

The church underwent significant alteration in the 15th century. The balcony with loggia over the main entrance was added in the 16th century. From here, the Popes could bless the faithful.

The interior is a basilica plan of three naves with the vault supported by robust columns and the chiesa superiore above the altar. The church succeeded in combining two different stylistic trends with a unique and singular equilibrium. Composed of two churches overlapping and inversely oriented, the early 11th century lower level with three aisles is adorned with 14th–16th century frescoes. The lower church was conceived as the battistero (baptistery) or martyrium – a Byzantine church built on site of a martyrdom or to house the body of a martyr – whereas the upper level was destined to be a basilica or cattedrale.

A variety of animals are included in the church’s sculptures, most especially the lion. The lion symbolizes regality and is an animal that devours and eliminates but also transmits life-giving strength and power to its victims. The lion thus symbolizes metamorphosis during the passage through death. 

To the left of the altar, a fresco of the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist backdrops the 13th century octagonal medieval baptismal font. The bestowing of the baptismal font elevated the Church of San Flaviano to the dignity of ecclesia baptismalis. 

In a side aisle, a fresco pays tribute to Pope Urban V (1310- 1370) who resided at length in Montefiascone, in the Papal fortress, and elevated the town from the status of castrum (military camp) to citta’. The Pope, his right hand raised in blessing, holds a sunburst, the symbol of St. Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican monk very esteemed by the Pope. At Urban V’s request, St. Thomas had composed five liturgical hymns for the celebration of the first Feast of Corpus Domini in Orvieto in 1264, celebrating the Miracle of Bolsena.

On the other side of the church, also near the exit, Christ Crucified is depicted above the frescoes, recounting the life of San Nicola di Bari. Patron saint of navigators and children, San Nicola di Bari was as venerated for his generosity as St. Francis of Assisi would be. In fact, the two saints are often depicted together. Born in Licia (present-day Anatolia, Turkey) in the 3rd century, his remains were interred in Bari in the 11th century. The frescoes recount his generosity, like the image of Bishop Nicola passing three golden balls (his own inheritance) through a window as dowry for poor young women who would have turned to prostitution for the impossibility to marry without a dowry.

Right below the San Nicola di Bari fresco cycle is the 12th century tomb of Johannes Defuk, a noble German prelate who died in Montefiascone on his way to Rome for the incarnation of Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor. Legend says that this nobleman had ordered his servant, Martino, to precede him on the trip, indicating “EST” in places where he found a good wine. The legend has a tragicomic gran finale. Arriving in Montefiascone, Defuk found a triple “EST” and stopped to drink so much of the recommended wine that he died. The inscription on his tombstone is inscribed with the words, “Est est est propter nimium est hic Johannes De Fuk dominus meus mortuus est,” (“Est Est Est here lies my lord Defuk, who died for too much Est”). Travelers can try that Est!! Est!! Est!! white wine while exploring the Lake Bolsena area. I wonder if it is good enough to die for!