Around the many villages spread in Italy, especially in the area between Tuscany, Umbria, Marche and Lazio, all central regions of the country, it is common to notice in the medieval habitations two doors that head towards sloped roads: one, the entrance door, wide with a low step, and the other high and narrow, today usually walled, with a 40-60 cm (15-25 inch) raised up access compared to the street level, the “Porta del Morto” or “Door of the Dead”. This one, asymmetrical than the facade, next to the main door and recognisable for the pointed arch the round arch or for its architrave, has always intrigued architects, historians and tourists for its controversial story.
According to the popular tradition, such a door was open only when a family was in mourning.
Its function was therefore only to facilitate the exit of the coffin of the dead while during the other days of the year it was walled or bolted, sometimes even with furniture kept against it.
Below: Via Borgunto 44 ad Arezzo in Tuscany, Google Street View
Some researchers connected the habit of having a corpse passing through a specific door usually bolted to a similar custom of Etruscan origin. In the tombs of this population, in fact, beside the main entrance there was often a drawn in or sculpted fake door, probably indicating a passage, inaccessible to the living and walkable only by the spirits of the deceased, condemned to roam in the realm of the dead. The pre-Roman culture was seeing this world as a dark place, inhabited by demons and mysterious deity.
Habit that the Etruscan people probably borrowed by the Asia Minor and ancient Egypt. It is important to not forget that for the ancient cultures the symbol of the door had a dual significance: if from one side it represented the passage between life and death, on the other one it indicated the journey of the soul from its physical state to the spiritual one.
Heir of an extremely ancient tradition, the door of the dead perhaps represented even in the Middle Ages some sort of unpassable “limes”(border) between the kingdom of light and that of the darkness and was expressing its desire to keep these two worlds apart.
It was common belief that if the coffin of the dead had passed through the main door, its spirit would have remained to haunt the house.
Certainly it is not to exclude that having an exclusive passage for deadly circumstances could be for practical reasons: considering that the stairs of the entrance were rather steep, a side opening would have certainly helped the passage of the coffin.
Below: Via Giuseppe Maffei 16 in Cortona, Google Street View
Whichever the origin of such a tradition is, what is known is that crossing the door of the dead had in the Middle Ages a strong symbolical value: this in fact meant to fall into disgrace, dead in the eyes of the relatives for the betrayal of the unshared decision.
The mind goes to an anecdote of the life of Santa Chiara of Assisi: it is said that the young girl had abandoned the paternal house choosing voluntarily to pass through the door of the dead, almost as if she wanted to stress out the abandonment of her roots and the resuscitation into a new life dedicated to the Lord.
Below: door of the dead in Mercatello sul Metauro. Picture by Marco Toccacieli shared with the owner’s authorisation
The author Piero Bargellini, in the 50’s, imagined the farewell of Chiara in these way:
“Chiara remained still for a moment on the doorstep. Then, without even turning back, performed a light leap. She had passed the dead threshold. She had detached herself from her family irreparably. She would have never come back to her home. Chiara was lost. Chiara was dead. Chiara was heading towards another existence”.
If the majority of researchers believe that the tiny doors were destined, as the name suggest, to deadly events, there are however other theories lingering.
First of all the defensive hypothesis: the true access to the medieval dwelling would have been the one of the narrow and lifted door, easier to defend in case of siege. The wider door instead would have been used only to access the workshop; stables and workshops were in fact placed on the ground floor in medieval houses.
If such a theory was right though, we should explain why the materials utilised to wall up the doors appear as heterogeneous, suggesting recurring temporary closures. Furthermore the doors were generally lacking of hinges hence of shutters allowing the closure, another element which seems to suggest a non-defensive use of these doors.
Below: Via San Michele 97 Castiglion Fiorentino, Google Street View
The last one is the one that we might define as the literary hypothesis: the door of dead would be called this way in a fantastic way by the visitors from the Romanticism, as the 19th century was very sensitive to the macabre legends of the Middle Ages.
Although it is hard for the researchers to agree on just one version, what is known is that these mysterious architectural elements disappeared since 1400 when the layout of dwellings changed drastically, becoming then bigger, more comfortable and less focused of the self-defence.
Below: another door of the dead in Mercatello sul Metauro. Picture by Marco Toccacieli shared with the owner’s authorisation
Today these mysterious little doors, generally still walled yet recognisable in many ancient areas, continue to intrigue the tourists. Perhaps born as defensive elements, most likely conceived as stronghold against the death, these passages that today peep out through the Italian medieval architectures, remind of a past that, although dead does not cease to fascinate and amaze us.
All the pictures by Marco Toccacieli come from the article “Non aprite quella… porta del morto” published on the author’s website