In the Dark Ages, around the seventh century, the Lombards vied with the Byzantines for more Italian territory. The strategic need to connect the Kingdom of Pavia with the southern duchies by a secure way led to the choice of a route, previously considered minor, which crossed the Apennines by the Cisa Pass, followed the Magra Valley and then turned away from the coast towards Lucca. From there, avoiding the areas in Byzantine hands, the path continued through the Elsa Valley to Sienna, and then through the valleys d 'Orcia and Arbia to reach the Val di Paglia and the Lazio region, where the way followed the ancient via Cassia to Rome. The route, which was known as the "Via di Monte Bardone", from the ancient name of the Cisa Pass -“Mons Langobardorum”, was not a real road in the Roman sense nor in the modern sense. In fact, after the fall of the empire, the ancient consular roads fell into disuse, and except for a few lucky cases ended in ruin, "rupte" giving rise to the word "route" to define the direction to take date.

The area around the route

The Roman paving stones gradually disappeared to be replaced by a network of paths and tracks trodden by passing travellers, who generally widened the area of the route to re-converge at the “mansions”(locations where there was lodging for the night), or at some obligatory points like mountain passes or river crossings. Rather than a single road it was a corridor containing paths whose route was affected by natural causes (floods, landslides), changes to the boundaries of territories with the consequent demand for tolls and through the presence of brigands. The route was paved only in towns while elsewhere the paths were of the prevailing trodden clay.
Therefore, it seems clear that the reconstruction a "real" route of the via Francigena today would be an impossible task, since this has never existed, instead we can rediscover the sense of the principal “mansions” and the main places passed by travellers along the way.

Birth of the Via Francigena

When the Lombard rule gave way to that of the Franks, the “Via di Monte Bardone” changed its name to Via Francigena, or "road from France", in addition to modern France this included the Rhine Valley and the Netherlands.
In that period traffic along the route grew and it became the main connecting route between northern and southern Europe, carrying merchants, armies and pilgrims.

 

Pilgrimage through the ages

Towards the end of the first millennium and tat he beginning of the second, pilgrimage gained increasing importance. The holy places of Christianity were Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela, and the via Francigena became the central hub of the great ways of faith. In fact, many pilgrims coming along the way from the north to Rome would continue along the via Appia towards the ports of Puglia, where they would embark for the Holy Land. Conversely Italian pilgrims to Santiago followed this road to the north, perhaps to Luni to embark for the French ports, or continue to the Mont Cenis and then take the Via Tolosana to Spain. Pilgrimage soon became a mass phenomenon, increasing the profile of the via Francigena, which became a channel of communication fundamental to achieving the cultural unity that characterized Europe in the Middle Ages.

Historic sources for the route

It is mainly due to travel diaries, and in particular the records of an illustrious pilgrim Sigeric the Serious, that we can reconstruct the ancient route of the via Francigena. In 990, after being ordained Archbishop of Canterbury by Pope John XV, the abbot returned home and on two handwritten pages noted the 80 “mansions” where he rested. The diary of Sigeric is still considered the most authoritative source for  the direction of the route, often it is called "the via Francigena according to Sigeric" to define it as a more "philological" path.

Growth and Decline of the via Francigena

The increasing use of the via Francigena as a trade route led to the unprecedented development of many towns along the way. The way became an essential route to take the goods from the east (silk, spices) to the markets of northern Europe and trade them, usually in the Champagne fairs, for cloth from Flanders and Brabant. In the thirteenth century trade grew to such an extent that several alternative routes to the via Francigena were developed, and it therefore, lost its unique character and broke into numerous different routes linking the north and Rome.

So much so that the name changed to the via Romea, no longer defining the origin, but now the destination. In addition, the growing importance of Florence and the centres of the Arno Valley diverted the paths further east, until the Bologna-Florence road relegated the Cisa Pass to a purely local role, signalling the end of the ancient route.