The Praeneste Countryside and its divine mysteries
In the Archaic period, the Via Prenestina connected Rome to Praeneste, the current Palestrina. The road started from the Esquiline gate, passed the Aurelian walls from Porta Maggiore to cross, roughly like the modern path, the undulating Roman Countryside and the hills of the Monti Prenestini.
Ancient ruins and towers, such as the Villa dei Gordiani dated 2nd century A.D., tell the story of that magnificent past, the imposing Ponte di Nona, with its seven arches construction, the necropolis of the Iron Age at Osteria dell’Osa and again the remains of the ancient city of Gabii.
Where the present Gallicano nel Lazio rises, probably once stood the ancient Latin city of Pedum. The town, built on a tufa ridge, preserves its medieval structure with narrow roads and alleys, the baronial palace and the church of Saint Andrew the Apostle.
The road quickly reaches Zagarolo, a town standing on a spur stretched over two rivers. Here the Colonna had their castle, the scene, during the Middle Ages, of long struggles between the Papacy and the Colonna themselves, who were heading the Ghibelline army in Lazio. At the end of the 12th century, it was razed to the ground at the behest of Boniface VIII: Dante describes its atrocious destruction in the XXVII canto of the Inferno. Interesting remains can be founded in the Colonna Rospigliosi palace that, with its double wings advanced towards the village, influenced the urban layout of the ancient village. The castle also houses the headquarters of the first Toy Museum which aims at offering a social reconstruction of the game, with antique wooden toys displayed alongside recent electronic games.
The Via Praenestina then reaches Palestrina, the powerful Praeneste, which still retains a fascination of archaic suggestions, made even more evident by its modern history. In fact, coincidentally, the bombings that struck Palestrina during World War II have given back to the city the Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia, buried for a great part by the buildings that had overlapped it over the centuries. In pre-Roman and Roman times, it was one of the most revered places of worship by the Italic populations: they flocked from afar to consult the “sorti” (fate) that were extracted from a child, as Cicero narrates in a famous passage from De Divinitate. The sacred complex stretched along the slopes of Mount Ginestro, now occupied by the urban agglomeration, and culminated in three overlapping terraces, on the last one of which stood a circular building surrounded by a hemicycle. In the Middle Ages, the site was a feud of the Colonna; in 1498 Francesco Colonna, a cultist of esotericism and alchemy, as well as a lover of antiquity, commissioned one of the greatest Renaissance architects, Donato Bramante, to erect a new building inside the hemicycle now known as Colonna Barberini Palace. The palace houses the National Archaeological Museum, where, among several remains, it is possible to admire the marvelous mosaic depicting the flooding of the Nile, an Alexandrian work of the 2nd century B.C., and the extraordinary sculptural group of the Capitoline Triad.
A bit further, Castel San Pietro Romano deserves a visit just to go in search of its narrow streets, which made for a scenic backdrop to one of the most famous Italian movies, “Bread, Love and Fantasy”, starring Vittorio De Sica and Gina Lollobrigida.
The cultural heritage in the Praenestine territory is not only archaeological. An extraordinary series of initiatives aims at giving continuity to the memories from the past. An example, the new museums housed in famous noble residences, given back to the citizens.
Significant is the case of Genazzano. Here, as in the surrounding territory, the main buildings of the city were built by the Colonna, starting from the enormous castle. The first nucleus of the building dates back to the 11th century, when it was built as a medieval fortress, but the current appearance is the result of the 15th and 16th century interventions due to Pope Martin V Colonna and Marcantonio Colonna, who turned it into an elegant residence.
Inside, the Renaissance frescoes exalt the Colonna family and its origins: in a beautiful chapel, there are 16th century frescoes attributed to the school of Cavalier d’Arpino. Not far from the castle, there are the ruins of a nymphaeum, used for theatrical performances and festivals that Bramante built between 1501 and 1503 on the model of an ancient nymphaeum, so much so that for a long time it was considered to date back to the Romans.
The immense spaces of this beautiful building, purchased in 1979 by the Municipality, have become the headquarters of the International Museum of Contemporary Art, which has begun its exhibition activity in over twenty rooms, covering a total of 3,000 square meters.
Not far away, Olevano Romano, a popular destination for German painters, such as Joseph Koch, is now home to the Museum of Studies on European Landscape Painting of Lazio, a center of attraction for those interested in the relationship between art and landscape.