The History

Tarquinia through time

The History of Tarquinia

from the 12th-14th Centuries BC to the present day

One of the largest in Italy, Tarquinia’s territory extends from the shaded woods of the Viterbo hinterland to the sunny beaches of the Tyrrhenian coast. Exploring Tarquinia is a year-round experience; there’s no need to wait for summer to enjoy the relaxation of the sea, countryside, and woods. At any time of year, the town welcomes visitors with its countless events and ever-changing natural beauty.

The town of Tarquinia (in Latin Tarquinii), previously known as Tarkna, was located about ten kilometres from Gravisca, the main port on the coast and also a powerful Mediterranean emporium. The Etruscan settlement was established and developed in a favourable geographic position from which it dominated the valley of the river Marta, an emissary of Lake Bolsena. The waterway, which was then a navigable river flowing from the sea to the city, ensured easy communication with the hinterland for centuries and greatly contributed to the city’s political and economic flourishing and prosperity.

Pian di Civita is the name of the plateau from which, for centuries, the powerful Etruscan city was the protagonist of political events in the Mediterranean area. It is divided from the coast by the long, parallel Monterozzi hill, the site of the historic necropolis. The oldest archaeological remains of the urban site date back to the Final Bronze Age (12th century BC). However, it was only from the 8th century BC onwards, through increasing contact with the Greek world and the transmission of new technologies and cultural models, that the process of urban formation that gave Tarquinia its reputation as ‘great and flourishing’ (Dionysius of Halicarnassus) and ‘the richest in Etruria’ (Cicero) was accentuated.

In the 6th and early decades of the 5th century BC, Tarquinia was at its highest urban development and this period was also marked by an expansion that will bring the city to dominate a territory extending as far as Lake Bolsena. This was the city’s highest moment of power and these decades of great economic and political splendour were clearly demonstrated by the development of the necropolis. Between the end of the 5th and the beginning of the 4th century BC, the imposing fortified walls, some 8 km long and covering an area of 135 hectares, were built to defend the city from the Celts coming down from the North and from Rome, which was beginning its expansion from the South. The hostilities between Tarquinia, at the head of the Etruscan League, and Rome resulted in a conflict between 358 and 351 BC that ended with a 40-year truce. In 308 BC, after a new armed clash, the truce was renewed for a further 40-year period.

During the first half of the 3rd century BC, the city was heavily defeated by Rome, which occupied the coastal area. Despite this, the two cities maintained good relations; in fact, the Latin historian Livy recorded that in 205 BC Tarquinia supplied Scipio with linen for the sails of the ships for the African expedition during the Second Punic War. In 181 BC, on the site of the ancient port, Rome founded Gravisca, a maritime colony. After the year 90 BC, Tarquinia also received Roman town status and became a municipality ruled by a council of four magistrates. In the late imperial period, the decline became unstoppable and in the early Middle Ages people gradually began to leave the city until, in the 8th century AD, the episcopal see was moved to nearby Corneto and the Civita was eventually abandoned.

From its formation until the last century, today’s Tarquinia was called Corneto, later becoming Corneto-Tarquinia in 1872, and then Tarquinia in 1922. The town’s name is thought to have originated from the presence of dogwood plants (in Italian ‘corniolo’), and it was mentioned in an 8th-century document from the Abbey of Farfa. According to another tradition, the name is believed to have come from Corito, a mythical king who founded the town and was an ancestor of Aeneas. Despite these explanations, the origins of the town remain uncertain. For Corneto, the urban development was neither the consequence nor the cause of a drastic or traumatic abandonment of the old Tarquinia: indeed, historical sources document that at least until the 14th century, the two centres coexisted, even though in terms of importance, Tarquinia, which had been an Episcopal seat since the 4th century, was gradually giving way to Corneto. The first settlement developed on the castle spur (6th-7th centuries), probably on the site of a pre-existing Roman settlement.

It is said that here, around a pre-existing tower, a fortified palace was aggregated, in which, in 1080, Countess Matilda of Canossa held a placitum with pontifical powers; this would be the place where the church of Santa Maria, called, in fact, ‘in Castello’ (with reference to the castle), stands today and which, it seems, replaced an earlier ‘S. Maria ad rupes’, probably a palatine chapel. This initial castrum was soon joined by a suburb that intensified to such an extent that it became necessary (9th-10th centuries) to build walls to protect it. The fortification system, still preserved in parts, in its original perimeter excluded the eastern part of the present suburb (Castro Novo), which developed between the 13th and 14th centuries. After passing the castle, it followed the current route as far as Piazza Cavour, bending to Corso Vittorio Emanuele II and continuing along Alberata Dante Alighieri, as far as the slope of the belvedere. After becoming a civitas in the 11th century (bull of Pope Sergius IV), the town had already been under the influence of the Patrimony of St. Peter since 787. During the 12th century, Corneto experienced a political and economic surge through commercial treaties with Pisa, Genoa, and Venice. The town’s proximity to the sea and the navigable Marta and Mignone rivers, which had important landings at their mouths, contributed to its growth.

By the mid-12th century, Corneto had become a free municipality, and thus a competitor to Tuscania and Viterbo, which were disadvantaged due to their inland location. In the 13th century, Corneto consolidated its legal status, becoming increasingly linked to Rome. Rome was the best buyer of Corneto’s rich wheat production, and the town became known as horreum urbis – a Latin term that can be translated as ‘town’s granary’ or ‘storehouse of the town’ and, in the case of Corneto, it refers to the town’s reputation for producing high-quality wheat that was in demand in Rome, which was a major consumer of grain at the time. However, between the 14th and 15th centuries, the town was embroiled in struggles between the papacy and the empire.

In 1328, M. Vitelleschi attempted to establish a Signoria but was overthrown by a popular uprising within two years. The 15th and 16th centuries marked a period of constant decline for Corneto, coinciding with the consolidation of the Vitelleschi family’s power and the progressive interference of the Church. In 1355, papal troops led by E. Albornoz and G. Orsini laid siege to the town and sacked it. In 1435, Eugene IV elevated Corneto to an episcopal see, giving the title to the Holy See. Bishop B. Vitelleschi carried out a complete restoration of the churches of Santa Maria and Santa Margherita, which were converted into a family chapel. In 1439, the fortified bayonet gate was built with the restoration of Matilde’s keep, which excluded the castle from the urban area, leading to its rapid degradation. Two serious plagues, occurring between the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century, reduced the population by two-thirds, and this marked the beginning of a period of decadence that also affected the built heritage. In the 18th century, there were a few attempts to restore the economy of Corneto. Notable interventions to revive Corneto’s economy in the 18th century included improvements to the port under Pope Clement XII (1738-1748) and the construction of salt extraction facilities overseen by Pope Pius VII in 1802. However, between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, the town was occupied twice by French troops, first by revolutionary troops and then by Napoleon’s forces. In 1815, Corneto returned to the Papal State until 1870, when it was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy. Subsequent events are closely linked to the development of the Italian state.

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The month of May is dedicated to the Madonna Santissima di Valverde, the Patron Saint of Tarquinia, to whom an ancient sanctuary in the town is dedicated.

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MUNICIPALITY OF TARQUINIA

Department of Tourism
Tax Code and VAT No. 00129650560

Education, Sport, Tourism, Cultural Activities

Piazza Matteotti, 6 – 01016 Tarquinia (VT)
Telephone: (+39) 0766 849224
Email: comune.tarquinia@comune.tarquinia.vt.it
https://www.comune.tarquinia.vt.it/it-it/home

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Barriera San Giusto – 01016 Tarquinia (VT)
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Email: info.turismo@tarquinia.net

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Photography by: César Vásquez Altamirano, Tiziano Crescia, Roberto Romano, Sailko Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported, Paolo Monti

Translations by Ylenia Marcucci e Alessandro Rotatori