Old papal haunts get a facelift

December 1, 1995

The University of Viterbo, one of Italy's youngest state universities, is taking over and restoring some of the most interesting medieval and renaissance buildings in the old Papal stronghold of Viterbo, 40 miles north of Rome.

An 11th-century convent is already in use and a 17th-century hospice is now being restored. A third complex, including an 11th-century monastery, cloisters, a church and a park, will be restored and adapted as the university's headquarters on a project led by the Prince of Wales's Urban Design Task Force, which has its summer home in the nearby Villa Lante.

Adolfo Gusman, who teaches rural engineering in the agriculture department, has masterminded the project. "We are taking some of the largest and most important architectural white elephants of the city of Viterbo. With help from the local authorities and the ministry of culture we are restoring, conserving and putting to good use buildings which otherwise might have continued to languish, uncared-for and unused."

Viterbo is the centre of a thriving area of agriculture and minor industry. In between the 11th and 13th century, it was a second home for a succession of popes before becoming part of the Vico family fief. From the 15th to the 19th century it belonged to the Church.

The university, opened in 1979, is a prime example of the new, small, provincial universities offered as an alternative to the vast behemoths in the major cities. It has about 7,000 students and specialises in agriculture, corporate economics, sciences, languages and, unique in Italy, has a faculty of "cultural heritage".

"The most ambitious plan," Professor Gusman says, "is for the area of Santa Maria in Gradi, just outside the walls of Viterbo. It was originally a 13th-century Dominican monastery which in 1873 was transformed into a prison, which it remained until 1993. There is a vast main building, 15,000 square metres ground plan on two or three floors with incredibly high ceilings. There are two cloisters, one medieval and one renaissance, and the church, which was designed by the same Nicola Salvi who designed the Trevi Fountain."

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