Any adventurer and photographer interested in abandoned places will have a trip to Italy on their bucket list. The Mediterranean country is home to many forgotten places, from churches and estates to whole villages. The country experienced a massive urbanization spike in the post-war era, leading people to leave their small towns behind to chase fortune, opportunity, and prosperity in the larger cities. As people left the countryside, their infrastructure stayed behind, like the remnants of their community. Italy is historically a Catholic denomination country. Churches were important pillars of their community, and however small a town might have been, it would have had its own church or chapel. This is one of the reasons why many abandoned church buildings exist in the country.
Chiesa di San Vittorino is one of the many decaying former churches scattered across Italy. However, the story of this particular site is fascinating. Its roots date back to Roman times when the location was home to a temple. The former pagan temple somehow became a place of worship for early Christians in the area. In the first half of 300 AD, Christians were heavily persecuted by Diocletian, the Roman emperor at the time. Many were killed, and some are still recognized as martyrs and worshipped to this day. San Vittorino himself, according to an old legend, was beaten and left to die hanging over a stream of sulfuric water, which poisoned him after three days. He was the founder of the first Christian community in the area. For this reason, he was captured and killed by the Romans.
After well over a decade of bloody persecutions, the following Roman emperor, Constantine, accepted Christianity in 313, putting an end to a period of gruesome Christian martyrdom. All of a sudden, early Christians went from outlaws to members of the community. This meant that they could practice their faith openly and profess their beliefs freely. This led to the first wave of churches built in Italy. The Chiesa di San Vittorino was indeed one of the earliest examples of an Italian Christian church.
The relics of San Vittorino were held in a crypt, which eventually became the basis for the actual church. The building, pretty much as we know it, was constructed in 350 DC, just 37 years after Constantine accepted Christianity by issuing the famous edict of Milan.
What makes this abandoned church one-of-a-kind is the fact that it was eventually swallowed by water. “Terme di Cotilia,” a well-known thermal spring, is close enough that the water eventually made its way into the church through a subterranean stream that broke out into a sinkhole. Eventually, water made its way to the surface from the flow, flooding the entire church from the inside and flowing outside through the front door.
Because of its proximity to a thermal spring, the area has long been associated with water and its spiritual power. Water is synonymous with prosperity and fertility, and it is an important resource for any community. For this reason, the spring remains sacred for hundreds of years. Its spiritual area survived paganism, and a Christina church was established on the premises. To this day, even as the church stands abandoned, locals still worship a small sanctuary that’s located on the other perimeter of the church walls. Local thermal water is rumored to have prodigious qualities, including the ability to heal and strengthen people.
Located just a little ways from the city of Rieti, the church is currently in a decayed state. The building is so run down that it hardly even looks like a former church at this point, especially due to all the weathering and water damage that have distorted the appearance of the once lavish building. Ironically, the very same water that made this place iconic and relevant for centuries is also the reason why it fell into oblivion. At some point in the 1800s, the ground upon which the church was laid started to sink as the water pressed toward the surface from an underground stream.
There was nothing left to do but simply abandon the building due to this sinkhole, which made the land unfit for any building purposes. The flooding was most likely triggered by a series of previous earthquakes, including a pretty significant event in 1703. The earthquake is still widely considered one of the most devastating natural disasters in Italian history. The church stayed abandoned for over a century, as another earthquake, this time in 1979, further destroyed what was left of the building. The roof collapsed, and the remaining parts of the church continued to drop deeper into the sinkhole.
The government has floated ideas and plans for possible restoration and recovery of the church. However, nothing has been done for several decades now. Because of its unique circumstances, the abandoned Chiesa di San Vittorino has a rather mystique aura. The arches, walls, and columns are overgrown with vegetation. Ancient inscriptions in Latin are still readable, denoting important events, such as some restoration works done on the building in the early 1600s. “The Sinking Church” remains one of the most fascinating examples of beautiful lost churches in Italy.
The atmosphere has attracted many creatives with their endeavors. Writers and poets have talked about it. Songwriters have referenced it in various works. However, many directors and television professionals used it as a setting for several iconic scenes. Most notably, Russian filmmaker Andrej Tarkovskij decided to use the abandoned church as a setting for one of the key moments of his celebrated movie “D’Essai Nostalgia.”
Recently, the church was featured on “Guida Romantica a posti perduti,” a 2020 Italian movie with a focus on exploring abandoned sites throughout the country!
There are many interesting open questions concerning Chiesa di San Vittorino. How is it possible that a place rooted in such lore and in such proximity to a quasi-sacred spring is currently run-down and nearly forgotten?