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To be seen

Via Francigena

The Via Francigena in the municipality of Castelfranco di Sotto between Altopascio and Fucecchio

The historical and religious value of pilgrimages

In view of the dreaded year one thousand, flocks of Christian faithful began to move from all over Europe to reach Rome or to embark, in the ports of southern Italy (primarily Brindisi), on the ships that brought to the Holy Land. The fear that the end of the millennium would bring with it the frightening universal epilogue of the Apocalypses and the need, even in this perspective, to seek a more direct relationship with the severe but merciful God of the medieval religious imagination pushed many citizens of the Old Continent to leave their homes to visit the sacred areas of the Christian faith. Thus, the Catholic practice of pilgrimage was born amid the anxieties and passions of a genuine popular religiosity.

In the Middle Ages, going to Rome and the other Holy Places meant facing a more or less long journey, but always demanding and very dangerous, to the point that, as is well known, pilgrims often made their will before leaving. However, the pilgrimage represented above all a very important journey of faith - personal and collective at the same time - to get in touch with the Absolute. A "contact" that began on the concrete goals of the earthly journey (the relics, the basilicas of the Apostles, the burials of the Saints and the Martyrs) and which it was hoped could end with the ineffable vision of God in the Hereafter. It was that "desire for God", which animated and supported the pilgrim's journey, admirably sung by Petrarch in one of his famous sonnets:

"... and he comes to Rome, following his desire,

to look at the likeness of Him

that still up there in the sky to see hopes. " (Canzoniere, XVI)

The tradition of travels to Christianity's places of worship was then consolidated in the years following 1000 AD. European Christians continued to set out to go to pray in the centers of the Faith, driven by the desire to thank the Lord for not " of the times ”and the desire to strengthen a renewed feeling of devotion and spirituality.

The faithful headed to Rome mainly followed the routes already traced by migrants and frequented by small itinerant merchants. In this way, the pilgrimages valued communication routes that were often alternative to the great roads used by the armies and caravans of the lords and carried out daily, in the concrete experience of a "journey of prayer" which accompanied the small movements of indigenous workers, that intertwining between the spiritual-religious dimension and the material-earthly dimension which was one of the characterizing traits of the entire medieval age.

The development of a fundamental road axis

Between the 10th and 11th centuries, therefore, central-northern Italy became a very important crossroads for "travelers of faith" from all over the European continent. In particular, for pilgrims who came from North-Western Europe (England, Flanders, France), it soon became a precise route that started from the English city of Canterbury and crossed the vast French territory and then entered our Country crossing the Alps near the Gran San Bernardo or the Moncenisio pass. From here the route continued towards the south, through the open but treacherous spaces of the fertile Po valley.

After the Pavia junction, descending towards the Apennines, the route followed by the pilgrims overlapped the itineraries traced by the Lombards in the 6th century and consolidated, in the following years, by the Franks. The former had created an innovative road channel to reach their southern duchies (Spoleto and Benevento) with greater safety, avoiding the ancient Roman roads of Romagna and Liguria, more comfortable but controlled by Byzantine enemies, as well as threatened by the abundant presence of criminals; the latter had enlarged and strengthened it to make it a fundamental internal link between central Italy and France.

The Apennine ridge was thus overcome thanks to the Mons Longobardorum pass, that is Monte Bardone, between Berceto and Pontremoli: a passage that corresponded, in practice, to that of the current Cisa and which carried travelers from northern Italy between the valleys of Lunigiana and in the Sarzanese area. Reached the port of Luni, at the mouth of the Magra, always following the Longobard route, the road returned inland towards Lucca and from here continued to Val d'Elsa and San Giminiano. After Siena, the pilgrims' journey continued through Umbria and northern Lazio, exploiting here, for the most part, the ancient and consolidated road routes dating back to Roman times.

More precisely, in crossing the hills of the Umbrian and Viterbo area (as was already the case for short stretches in Lucca) the route of this road corresponded to the historical one of the Via Cassia: also for this reason, as well as for the final destination represented right from the Eternal City, the Lombards called this route "Via Romana", the name later changed to "Romea" from the name of the pilgrims heading to Rome, called, in fact, "Romei" (while the "iacopei" were the faithful who marched towards Santiago de Compostela). However, in the maps of the time we find this road indicated above all with the name of "Via Francigena", a term that emphasized its origin from France and which, undoubtedly, remained more impressed in popular tradition. So much so that, at the end of its long journey at the gates of Rome, the city street that crossed the town of Rome bringing pilgrims to the Vatican was also called "ruga francisca", that is "road of the French".

Outlined by the Lombards, taken up by the Franks and enhanced by the massive movements of pilgrims starting from the 10th century AD. C., the Francigena soon became a very important communication route on the north-south axis: above all it will have the task of connecting the Italian peninsula with the politically and culturally most vital centers of the European continent throughout the medieval period.

It should be noted, however, that it was not really a "one" road, a unique and defined road itinerary as we understand it today. The Francigena was, rather, a “road area”, that is a set of routes used at different times and sometimes with different functions, depending on the types of traffic and the political, topographical and climatic events of the various areas. Therefore we could speak of "many" Francigene, to indicate the complex nature of a communication route that was formed by several road passages, but located along a precise line of travel and confluent with each other at some nodal points.

The streets - as we know - are like "ideal embroidery" of the world, a connective tissue that makes it possible for people to meet and relate. The road has always been an extraordinary metaphor for the life of man, considered as a pilgrim in the space of this earth and in the time of his life. Homo viator was the term with which the Middle Ages generically indicated the status of the individual in history.

The streets therefore - as a concrete physical place and as an existential metaphor - belong to what man has the most usual and at the same time most necessary and essential.

In Europe, with the socio-economic and demographic upswing that occurred around the year 1000, an entire road network, which had been crumbling with the fall of the Roman Empire, was slowly restored. Certainly there was no return to that vast and complex network of paved stone which at the end of the third century embraced all the Roman lands (372 roads, for a total of 78,000 km at the time of Diocletian), yet a large quantity of short and medium distance routes was restored thanks to the work of a plurality of subjects and institutions such as abbeys, civic communities, feudal lords etc ...

Among the many roads that returned to innervate the ancient districts of Europe - and which allowed pilgrims, merchants and adventurers in general to reach everywhere - the much celebrated Via Francigena, a real international artery of the epoch.

This road - which a collective perception not always correct made us imagine as a sort of medieval highway - was actually a bundle of many small and slender tracks that starting from England and connecting with each other led to Rome, then a landing place of one of the most popular pilgrimage routes, together with places like Tours and Vezèlay in France, Santiago de Compostela in Spain and Jerusalem in the Holy Land.

The years around 990-994 saw the passage on the Via Francigena of a bishop - Sigeric of Canterbury - who, moving from his episcopal see to England, traveled on that ancient road to Rome, recording his journey step by step in a diary which is today very valuable for identifying and reconstructing the path (or paths) of this ancient artery.

Meanwhile, a clarification: the road was called Francigena by those who traveled it in the north direction towards France, and was conversely called Romea by those who followed it in the opposite direction moving towards Rome.

This route, after having crossed the Alps and made its entry into the Italian peninsula, also advanced into Tuscany. And precisely in Tuscany, between Lucca and Siena, it had one of its most important features due to the relief of the villages it crossed and the importance of the welfare facilities encountered.

After Lucca and after Altopascio, pilgrims and wayfarers, following the ancient route, headed towards Fucecchio, entering the woods of the Cerbaie, a territory that was then very infamous due to the presence of bands of "marauders" and robbers. Territory that the public authorities of the time, no matter how hard they tried, never managed to successfully garrison. The attacks on travelers were repeated and continuous, so much so that from a certain period onwards the pilgrims to cross "the Cerbaie woods" were provided with regular armed escort by the monks-knights of the Tau, who had their main residence in Altopascio.

Continuing along its route, before reaching Ponte a Cappiano, the Via Francigena touched the small village of Galleno, then called "Gallena" or "Grassa Gallina".

In the latter locality, near the parish church of San Pietro, just west of today's Roman-Lucchese route, a pavement that archaeologists identify with the ancient route of "our" road is still visible and practicable for a few hundred meters.

And precisely in Galleno there was a hospital dedicated to San Martino in Greppio in the Middle Ages, where even the king of France Philip Augustus stopped in 1190 on his return from the third crusade. In fact, the hospital was originally a place of welcome and shelter for pilgrims and wayfarers ("hospitable").

Further south, continuing along the wooded path, we reached the place known as Santa Trinita di Cerbaia, more commonly known as "Ospedaletto", of which unfortunately only a toponym in the maps remains today. So still a place of shelter for wayfarers ... this notation is not marginal, consider in fact that in this stretch (only 15 km between Altopascio and the Arno) the Francigena was dotted around its edges by 10 welcoming places, a fact that underlines the absolute importance of this portion of the road in its Tuscan segment.

Further down the medieval route roughly followed the current border between the provinces of Florence and Pisa, reaching the locality of Poggio Adorno (formerly known as Rosaiolo), near which yet another hospital was located, the one known as the "malatia" hospital. of Querce. Then we descended towards Ponte a Cappiano, where already around the year 1000 there was a bridge that allowed pilgrims to cross the Esciana (which Sigeric, in clear consideration of the state of its waters, remembers as aqua nigra).

Once reached Fucecchio, the ancient Francigena passed along the roads of the upper part of the castrum to then descend towards the Arno. And also for the Arno, the English prelate is produced in an interesting adjective: "Arne blanca", or "white Arno" in evident and deliberate contrast to the black water of the Esciana ... truly other times!

Finally, having passed the Arno and reached the important settlement of San Ginesio, the Via Francigena then wound its way through the Val d’Elsa to Siena and down to its destination: the seat of the apostles ... Rome.

From the Eternal City the horizons were opened for new and more distant overseas landings: Constantinople, the Holy Land, Jerusalem ...

But these are other stories and they tell of other roads and other ways.