The Via Romea of the Alpe di Serra

Among the various roads to Rome that crossed the Apennines south of the Via Francigena, the so-called Via di Bagno was already known at the beginning of the 13th century when Gerald of Wales, on a pilgrimage from England to Rome in the winter of 1204, gave a brief but meaningful description of it.

Fifty years later, this road was formally laid out and described as the best way to reach Rome from Bologna in two important “guide books” for pilgrims travelling to the capital of Christianity from the northern and eastern regions of Europe: the “Annales Stadense auctore Alberto” and “Iter de Londinio in Terram Sanctam” by Matthew Paris. Once having reached Bologna, both guides recommended continuing on the Via Emilia to Forlì and then taking a road that led to the Apennine ridge from the plains of Romagna and from there to Arezzo and Rome.

This is still possible today from Arezzo, following the mule track lined with paving stones that rises from Borgo di Romagna to the Serra Pass.

Looking at a topographic map of the Casentino, a trained eye will note that on the northern slopes of the narrow, deep valley of the Corsalone river, directly south-east of Bibbiena, there are two winding roads running almost parallel to one another and leading to the Valle Santa along the river from the Bibbiena fork. The higher road is an ancient way connecting a long series of towns that were originally medieval fortifications; it led from the valley floor along the Arno to the Alpe di Serra Pass and to Bagno di Romagna, whereas the lower road is recent and at least partly takes the place of the older one, linking Corsalone and Bibbiena to Rimbocchi and Corezzo or La Verna and the Valtiberina.

The higher and older road leaves the “Della Verna” state road SS 208 at the fork above Bibbiena, running through Banzena, Moscaio, and Giona, after which it is no longer practicable for vehicles. It continues as a path from Giona to Pezza and then to Frassineta where it dives into the Corezzo gorge; it then leads up to the town and further to the village of Serra and the ancient pass of the same name, in almost two hours of very difficult climbing. Beyond the pass the road, which by then is a precarious mule-track, leads swiftly to Bagno di Romagna.

As you may notice, Banzena, Giona, Pezza, Frassineta, Corezzo, Serra all have more or less intact towers, inns, palaces and churches from the early Middle Ages which are extremely interesting from an archeological and architectural point of view; this would be significant enough in itself, but there are also documents and maps dating back to the 13th century that describe this road as one of the most important communication arteries of the time between Northern Europe, Rome and Jerusalem.

A Latin history from around 1230, the “Annales stadenses”, written by an abbot named Albert and preserved in the city of Hannover in Germany, and an Anglo-Norman map from roughly the same decade drawn by Matthew Paris and kept in the British Library in London illustrate the road in detail, placing it among other more or less important medieval itineraries connecting the North Sea with Rome and the Holy Land.

The road, known as the “Römerstrasse” in Bavaria, as the “Via Romea” in the Po valley, “Via Major” in medieval documents from Arezzo and Camaldoli and “Via Romea of the Alpe di Serra” by scholars, might also be known as the “Way of Armies” or the “Swabian Way”, since it certainly witnessed the passage of numerous Germanic emperors, kings and armies who were even more numerous than pilgrims along the way from Germany to Rome.

The road on our map, with all its variants, sidepaths and alternatives, is certainly one of the most important historic routes in Italy. This road is second only to the much praised Via Francigena, though it is in no way a lesser itinerary, and its exact route, as given here, is not well known even to scholars.

Topographic maps from the grand-duchies, made prior to the great engineering works of the mid 18th and 19th centuries which led to the building of the great roads in Tuscany that were a prelude to today’s highways and motorways, show that the stretch of road we observed in the Casentino area is an ancient road from Bibbiena to Sarsina and from there to Bagno di Romagna and San Piero in Bagno.

Bibbiena is considered, by many scholars, the center of an ancient hub in which travellers from the south can reach Romagna along the Corsalone valley to the Alpe di Serra or through the Archiano valley and the pass the once existed near Camaldoli. The present-day road that has taken the place of these two ancient ways is the Casentinese-Romagnola dei Mandrioli state road SS 71. From Bibbiena, along the Arno river, you can reach both the Val di Sieve through the Croce ai Mori pass and Florence through the Consuma pass. Bibbiena’s importance as a landmark when travelling from Arezzo to the Po river plains probably dates back to Etruscan times.

Up to the 14th century, any traveller coming from the central or eastern Alpine passes and aiming from Central Italy or Rome knew that the shortest and easiest way was over the Alpe di Serra. Such was the Via Romea over the Alpe di Serra: the most important and the easiest way into Central Italy and to Rome from the north and the north-east, all through the Middle Ages.