Italy: the 'Profferli' of Viterbo- the most interesting staircases in Italy.

Staircases. No, wait! Not just any old staircase-we're talking about a unique architectural feature that's only found in Viterbo and surrounds. Read on!

Why visit? 
There are many reasons to visit Viterbo. It's got a largely intact medieval center. It's got hot springs (see our article here.) And for a while it used to be where the Popes hung out.

But while many other places in Italy have medieval houses, warm water, and Papal cribs, nowhere else in Italy has profferli, external staircases that were a must-have feature in 13th century Viterbo- but nowhere else.

Viterbo is about 100km north of Rome. Map.

VITERBO'S PROVERBIAL 15 minutes of fame where sometime in the 12th and 13th centuries, when it was a Papal power house. Well before Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, numerous Papal elections took place in Viterbo's Palazzo dei Papi, including the longest ever, the Papal election of 1268-'71 (3 years!) during which the exasperated local authorities locked up the cardinals and restricted their diet to water and bread to force them to make a decision double-plus quick (it still took them a year.)

Papal privilege meant that Viterbo was an important city and most of the old town dates back to this era, including the impressive city walls which still fully encircle the historical center.
Welcome to Viterbo!
Viterbo's historical center is one of the best preserved medieval towns of Italy, in particular the area known as San Pellegrino, with buildings dating back to the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. This alone makes Viterbo worth a (day) trip- something that can easily be achieved from Rome. 

Of course San Pellegrino is full of the usual stuff, like atmospheric churches and big-assed palaces, but what makes Viterbo unique is the simple, domestic architecture of the era. Many dwellings sport an outside (and sometimes outsized) staircase, known as a profferlo.

Bizarrely, the rest of Italy never thought much of these profferli. You will find them only in Viterbo and the nearby towns of Northern Lazio (places like Tuscania and Tarquinia) but nowhere else.

The exact advantages of having an exterior staircase remain somewhat vague. Medieval streets could be messy (underground sewer systems had disappeared with the ancient Romans) so people of means lived on the first rather than the ground floor.

Of course, the ground floor space below the profferlo could be used for storage of grain and animals.

Finally, given the medieval propensity for violence (especially after another contested Papal election) it was easier to push attackers of an external staircase, especially if you had a small fortified landing at the top.

Having a nicely decorated external staircase was also a great way to show off, and demonstrate that you had more money than Giuseppe next door. 

Still, all those reasons would have been equally valid in the rest of medieval Italy, but somehow the trend for profferli never went viral and stuck to Northern Lazio. 
A study in (grey) stone.
The best profferli sport extensive decorative carvings- typically in simple medieval style, most closely related to Romanesque, and made of the local peperino volcanic stone.

Getting there:
Viterbo is connected by train to Rome. Don't expect any high speed service- the local train covers the 100km in about 2 hours.

If you have a car, Viterbo sits on the SS2 Via Cassia, the ancient road to Tuscany which offers plenty of (Minor) Sightseeing opportunities in places like Sutri, Capranica and Vetralla.

Finally, if you're walking, the Via Francigena goes right through the heart of medieval Viterbo. Count on about 2 months if coming from Canterbury.

Useful links:
Via Francigena in Lazio with a nice little video of San Pellegrino and its profferli


  1. I lived and worked in the Viterbo area in 2010 and 2011. Each week I conducted cultural tours of the Medieval Quarter for groups of guests. There's a simple explanation as to why the stairs are on the exterior...according to my old history of architecture college professor.

    Early medieval structures used load-bearing masonry arches, buttresses, walls and vaulted ceilings to support upper floors and roofs. Put holes for staircases in vaults, they lose their structural integrity and collapse. Later houses used masonry vertical posts and columns with horizontal wood beams and flooring. Once they figured how to engineer the wood beams, larger holes could be placed in upper floors to provide penetrations through which the staircases passed.
    How I stayed awake for Saturday morning, history of architecture classes in college, I'll never know. LOL.

    1. Hi Bill! Thanks for sharing your experience. It does make a lot of sense.

      I still wonder though, how come that profferli are rarely seen outside of Viterbo province? Any ideas?

      As an expert on Viterbo's old town, any other stories or sights you could share?

  2. Thanks for sharing Fred. Beautiful drawings!


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