The Door of the dead

Have you ever seen a door of the dead?
Most likely you have, you just didn’t know it!

Where do you find it…

You must have seen it walking through the narrow streets of medieval villages.
I know that some of them are still visible, especially in Central Italy.
Here in Tuscany, there are several.

Precisely, have you ever noticed some small and narrow doors?
They are the ones that have the threshold rather high, 15,7 – 17,7 inches from the ground.

But don’t worry, it’s not easy to spot them because they are often walled up and not very visible!
You must have a trained eye 😉

In fact, many have disappeared and those that remain are not always clearly visible.
Many of them have been walled up and it’s difficult to read their structure.

You can find these small doors next to larger ones that open regularly on the street level.
Some, like this one in San Quirico d’Orcia, still have the same architectural decoration as the larger portals, the same arch, to be clear!

Lando Marzialetti’s drawings in his book “Il Centro Storico di Sarnano” (Simple Editions: 2014).

What they were used for…

Now that you know how to identify them, let’s get to the heart of the matter: what were they for?

There are many hypotheses but the most common are two:

  1. the most logical/scientific one is that these doors were designed for defense. In fact, these were nothing more than direct access to the house, while the larger door was the entrance to the workshop. The small door had a retractable ladder that in case of siege was removed. The very narrow entrance allowed to enter only one at a time and therefore enemies who wanted to enter could be knocked down more easily.
  1. The most suggestive one instead, tells that these doors were the entrance of Death. Legend has it that when someone died Death came and took him away. But if the door was always open then it could come right back and take other family members. So it was decided to create a door dedicated to her that once taken away the dead was walled up so that it could not return to take away other loved ones.

It is very likely that at some time in the Middle Ages, after the internal hostilities between families, these doors have lost their purpose, and the next generations, not understanding the ancient functionality have created this legend or even have really recycled it to get the body out of their house.

If you’d like to see some examples, there are some and well-preserved ones in Volterra as well. Click here to see where they are.

Instead, where have you seen them?

door of the dead
italian medieval village
medieval village
middle age