Italian culture and history: The Via Francigena
- WTI Magazine #142 Aug 18, 2021
At the turn of the first millennium, pilgrims were crossing Europe by the masses so that they could pray at the tomb of Peter the Apostle in Rome, some of which would then move on to the Holy Land, Jerusalem. Pilgrimage held a significance so great that the walks of faith, the roads connecting the most-frequented places of worship, villages, abbeys and lodging, began to develop. One of the most important of these still today is the Via Francigena.
The name "Francigena" indicates the road or roads that, from the “Land of the Franks,” carried pilgrims across the Alpine Mountains and on towards Rome. Entry into Italy via the Alpine passes allowed the faithful to travel the Ancient Appian Way primarily, as well as the ancient Roman consulares roads, to get to Rome. Yet it was not until the diary of Sigerico – essentially an ancient guide book – was diffused that the number of travelers of the route multiplied. In this travel journal, the abbot Sigerico, named Bishop of Canterbury in 990 by Pope John XV, tells of the 80 landmarks he visited on a journey from Canterbury to Rome (where he was to be ordained); he narrated his pilgrimage with such detail and precision that this diary became an excellent point of reference for the majority of pilgrims wanting to follow in his footsteps. There is one catch: printing did not yet exist, so those that knew about this proto-Francigena Way knew about the particulars through word of mouth.
The Via Francigena eventually grew in status as a favorite itinerary and, eventually, as a communication channel that turned out to be crucial to the development of Middle European cultural unity.
Then, the Francigena progressed to being a trade route for spices, silk and other goods traveling the Silk Road to Europe. With an ever-more complex network of commercial transactions, and thus the integration of alternative routes and itineraries in subsequent centuries, the Via lost its singularity, and changed its name to Via Romea – actually more characteristic, given that its last stop was the Eternal City and St. Peter's Basilica.
The Via Francigena Today
Today the Italian tracts of the Francigena lie along several Regions in the Italian Peninsula, i.e. Lazio, Tuscany, Emilia Romagna, Liguria and Piedmont. Recently it has garnered renewed fame, attributed in part to a revived spirituality, and in part to the valorization on the part of European institutions. In 1994, the Via Francigena was declared a European Council Cultural Route.
The original pathway, from Canterbury to Rome, was 994 miles long, and the challenge it posed alone represented an act of penitence, symbolically and physically; those that finished it were “delivered into the hands of God.” Traveling it on foot, believers were exposed to dangers, wild animals, and intemperate weather. Nonetheless, without these difficulties, the first villages and cities that sprung up along the Francigena might not have existed in the same form as they do today: think Siena, San Gimignano, and all the other gorgeous towns on this axis, boasting well-known and little-known works of art.
Today no traveler along the route runs the same risks as in yesteryear, thus allowing them to focus on their natural surroundings, the history, traditions and folklore of the people along the Via and in the neighboring towns, both past and present. Originally a journey for spiritual and internal reflection, the Via Francigena has by now come to represent for today’s pilgrims and tourists alike a search for the roots of Italian and European culture. Not only, but the Via’s long, north-to-south course means it passes through a wide variety of topography, from the high pastures of Val d’Aosta and the tilled fields of Piedmont, to the waters of the Po River and the hills of Emilia, into Tuscany and, finally, the lakes just outside the ultimate destination, Rome.
The extent of the Via Francigena within Italy - running from the Great St. Bernard Pass to Rome - is approximately 587 miles long. Duration of travel can vary, depending on means of transport: if on foot, expect to be able to cover 12.4 mi per day, on average; if on bike, you're looking at an average of 37.3 mi per day. Those that intend to follow the Francigena in its entirety should dedicate approximately one month and a half if by foot, 15 days if by bike.