THE CHURCH OF ST. SISTO
After the barbaric invasions, the village of Vico Quinzano formed in the area where the church now stands (nowadays known as Porta Romana). Around the IX century it boasted a church which had probably been built on the ruins of a previous shrine. However, the first mention of the church of St. Sisto dates back to 1068 when Bishop Gisilberto (whose diocese included Viterbo, which still had not been set up as a Bishop’s see) confirmed various privileges which had already been conceded to the church in 1037. In the XII century the church of St. Sisto represented a central point both religiously and economically and was of fundamental importance in the panorama of the city of Viterbo. It became a parish church under the pontificate of Pasquale II. In 1133 Pope Innocence II conceded various privileges to it, among which there was the faculty of appealing directly to the Apostolic See against any imposed encumbrance. Eugene III and Adrian IV conceded further benefits, so much so that the prestige and wealth of the foundation had no match in Viterbo. It is invested, along with the main church of St. Lorenzo, with the jus fontis baptisimalis and owns a considerable amount of land even outside the Viterbian territory. It boasts at least two pre-eminencies. One is of being one of the oldest churches in the city and the other is of having been submitted to so many poor alterations over the centuries that it is difficult, even roughly, to understand its complex architectural history. The last restoration, in terms of time, was in the 1950s following the devastating allied bombings of May, 1944. The post-war reconstruction restored the primitive linearity to the interior, eliminating the work it had been undergoing since the fourteenth century, the period when the giving of large donations was widespread and many family altars were built for celebrating masses for the repose of souls. We remember those dedicated to the Virgin, the Crucifix, the Sacrament and to St. Gregory and St. Paul. Apart from the work carried our after the damage caused by the war, which radically changed the appearance and size of the building (photographs from before the last war still show us the articulation of the ancient façade and the severe façade of the “fourth aisle”, which, moreover, was only used for storage in the nineteenth century), documents exist which tell us of numerous and significant restoration and renovation work on the ancient collegiate between the sixteenth century and 1836. Corbels which can still be seen on the northern wall of the church decorated with the heraldic lily of The Farnese family are proof of the cross-vault roof commissioned by Alessandro Farnese, the future Pope Paul III, who was the archpriest of the sought-after collegiate.
Most of the façade which can be admired today was rebuilt after the last war in the simple tripartite form with a central oculus directly in line with the portal. A plaque in remembrance of the victims of the bombings of 1944 can be seen on the right-hand side of the portal. The Romanesque bell-tower, whose height has diminished and which ends abruptly in a sloped floor, belongs to the original structure dated to the XI century. The tower is divided horizontally by three cornices forming four sections, the third of which is open on all four sides by triple lancet windows. The arches of these windows are held up by crutch capitals held by one small pillar on each side. One of these on the ‘S’ side is anthropomorphic in shape. The taller bell-tower stands at the end of the raised presbytery and is part of the city walls. This is the result of the raising a of a tower of the city wall during the enlargement works of the church (XII-XIII century). The enclosure on the right side, where a fourth aisle used to be, has a round pillar and a capital in it (with a small human figure instead of the traditional ornamental rosette) which had already been used in previous renovations. The semi-circular apse is built into the city wall forming part of the defence. It is embellished by a crown of mall dead arches on delicate semi-circular pilasters. There used to be a window, traces of which are still visible.
The ancient church of St. Sisto was restored after the severe damage caused by the bombings carried our during the last world war. Despite these interventions, the numerous and detailed sequences of its historical background required for the local community are still evident. The original church, dated to the XI century, was divided into a central nave and two side aisles by two rows of four columns characterised by an emphasized entasis. The bases of the columns are remarkably different, while the capitals have a coupled placing. Between the end of the 12th century and the beginning of the 13th, the ‘E’ wall of the building with its central apse was knocked down so that the spectacular raised presbytery with its large staircase could be built. The monumental enlargement of the choir brought about the projection into the city walls, along with the main apse, which stands on a tall semi-circular tambour with small suspended arches and semi-circular pilasters. The solid base of the apse was built using the original conches of the structures from the first part of the city walls, dating to the end of the XI century. The webbed ceiling and the supports, which are two strong cylindrical pillars with crowned capitals and two sheaf pillars of which the left-hand one is spiralled, similar to the French and Spanish examples, show how up-to-date the workmanship of the new Gothic style was. It had been imported by the Cistercian monks and was remarkably early and fertile in the Viterbian Tuscia. Underneath the presbytery we find a crypt preceded from another room which were used until the end of the nineteenth century as a burial place and were rehabilitated only in recent restorations. This latest enlargement works of the church were completed with the building of a second sturdy bell-tower. After the foundation of the presbytery, further work was necessary almost immediately in order to make the church more spacious. Therefore the south wall was knocked down in the oldest part of the church allowing the creation of another aisle of a trapezoidal shape. This was sub-divided into two smaller aisles by two large archways held aloft by a large pillar. Two semi-circular pilasters also contributed to sustaining the archways and were similar to the central pillar. One of these can still be seen outside the church while the other was used as the base for the altar in the crypt. The reconstruction work carried out after the bombings did not include the restoration of this last aisle and the iconographic plan of the church went back to having the central nave and two side aisles that the original building once had. Next to the entrance on the right we can see a Roman Altar (1) decorated in bas-relief with sprays and maenads and which is now a baptismal font. The first Romanesque bell-tower is inserted in the right –hand aisle. The innovative Gothic culture regarding the Cistercian koinè is also apparent in the ambos (XII-XIII century), (2) (one in marble and the other in peperino stone) which flank the main staircase and are held up by corbels decorated with a crochet pattern. The main altar is made up of fragments of sculptures from the IV-V century (3). The prestige of the ancient building can also be verified by the only remaining painted altar-piece in the church depicting the Madonna enthroned with Child among the Saints Lawrence, Felicissima, Sisto, John the Baptist, Nicholas and Gregory (4) by the Florentine Maestro Neri di Bicci, the heir to his successful paternal workshop that traditionally worked for the refined and pretentious Medici and Corsini families. This work was commissioned in 1457 by the archpriest of St. Sisto, Francesco Gennai. Pope Eugene IV was very grateful to him for the lucrative profits of the collegiate. The Florentine Maestro wrote about this in his Ricordanze in which he also tells of the works of art created for the Viterbian Church among which was a Crucifixion of 1459 nowadays lost. An ostensory datable at XIV century is located on left to the apse (5). A plaque next to the Sacristy door (to be replaced) commemorates the church’s tenants. First were the canon regulars who were under the Rule of St Augustine (until the XV century) followed by the secular canons of the collegiate up until the beginning of this century. On the opposite side, to the left of the altar, we can see an organ with electric transmission (two keyboards, 16 organ stops) built by the Irzoli firm of Crema in 1964. At the end of the left-hand aisle an exquisite tabernacle of the Extreme Unction of the fifteenth century is set in the wall(6). The ancient crypt (7) is a rectangular apsed space, divided into two rooms by a line of six pillars, without capitals, with a quadrangular section, supporting segmental arches. The first two rooms are covered by barrel vaults, while in the presbytery area we can see a caned barrel vault united with the tholos cover of the apse. There is an ancient tradition whereby the St. Rose “porters” come to this church to receive the articolo mortis blessing on the 3rd of September every year before they begin the transport of the “Macchina” which starts off from Porta Romana, next to the church, at nine p.m.
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