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All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to romapip@quipo.it. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page revised in December 2011.



- Castelgandolfo

But Juno, gazed at the plain, looking from the top of a hill
(called Alban now, then without name, honour or glory)
at the twin ranks of Laurentum and Troy, and Latinusĺs city.
Virgil - The Aeneid - Book XII. Translation by A. S. Kline

Lake Albano and Mount Albano seen from Castelgandolfo

Lake Albano and Mount Albano were at the centre of the territory controlled by the Latins, the Italic tribe to whom Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome, belonged.
The volcanic origin of the lake caused sudden variations of its water level which puzzled the Romans:
In the long and bitter war against Veii, the Romans (..) were unable to capture the city. (..) By a remarkable prodigy the immortal gods showed the Romans a path to victory they longed for. All of a sudden, the Alban Lake rose beyond its normal water level, although its volume had not been increased by rain from heaven nor added to by the flooding of any river. Envoys were sent to the Delphic oracle to find an explanation for this mystery, and they brought back the instruction of the oracle; the Romans should release the water of that lake and flood the fields. By this means, Veii would come under the power of the Roman people. Valerius Maximus: Memorable Deeds and Sayings - Book I.6.2. Translation by Henry John Walker - Hackett Publishing Company.
The Romans excavated an underground outlet to carry off the water of the lake when it exceeded a certain level; the tunnel has a length of almost a mile and it is regarded as one of the first examples of the engineering skills of the ancient Romans.
Notwithstanding its closeness to Rome, the lake is still surrounded by woods on most of its southern half, owing to landscape protection regulations which have included the area in a regional natural park - external link.

(above) Lake Albano seen from Albano: Castelgandolfo is in the upper left corner; (below) Castelgandolfo and in the lower right corner the Rome-Albano suburban train

Castel Gandolfo owes its name to a castle built by the Gandolfi, a family of Genoese origin, in the XIIth century; in the XIIIth century the castle was acquired by the Savelli, a very powerful Roman family to whom two popes of that century belonged (Honorius III and Honorius IV). The Savelli owned several other fiefdoms in the area, but the wealth of the family gradually declined and in 1596 they had so many debts that Castelgandolfo was confiscated by the Camera Apostolica; the town became a direct possession of the Papal State.

Main gate and bastion built by Pope Urban VIII

Castelgandolfo is located on the top of the ridge surrounding Lake Albano; while the side towards the lake is precipitous, that towards Rome has a gentle slope and it was chosen by Emperor Domitian to build a large villa there. In the late XVIth century several important Roman families followed the example of the emperor and built villas in the area and in particular at Frascati. Cardinal Maffeo Barberini chose Castelgandolfo for his summer holidays; in 1623 he became Pope Urban VIII and he commissioned the construction of a palace suitable for the needs and rank of a pope; he ordered its entrance to be protected by a round tower projecting from its external walls (he did the same at Palazzo del Quirinale).

Main square

The design of the palace was commissioned to Carlo Maderno, to whom Pope Urban VIII had also requested the design of Palazzo Barberini in Rome. The palace was completed during the pontificate of Pope Alexander VII by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

(left) Palazzo Pontificio; (right) detail showing the clock with the "Italian hour"

In the inscription Pope Alexander VII placed below his coat of arms he celebrated the positive effects of the pleasantness and salubrity of Castelgandolfo on body and soul. The small balcony is currently utilized for papal blessings. The clock is still split into six sections following the time counting system which was in place in Italy until Napoleon imposed the move to the European system: it was reinstated briefly in the Papal State from 1815-46.

S. Tommaso di Villanova: (left) fašade; (right) dome

In 1658 Pope Alexander VII commissioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini the erection of a church dedicated to St. Thomas of Villanova, a XVIth century Spanish Augustinian friar, in the main square of Castelgandolfo. The choice of this saint was due to the fact that he was canonized by Pope Alexander VII in that same year.
Perhaps due to space limitations Bernini chose a Greek cross layout, but it must be said that in his last years he designed other churches which did not follow the traditional Latin cross pattern: S. Maria dell'Assunzione at Ariccia which is round and S. Andrea al Quirinale which is elliptical.

S. Tommaso di Villanova: (left) interior of the dome; (right) relief portraying St. Luke, the patron saint of artists

For the decoration of S. Tommaso di Villanova Bernini relied on a skilled team of assistants and in particular on Antonio Raggi, a sculptor extremely talented in designing aerial stucco statues (you can see other works by Raggi in the ceiling of il Ges¨).
The golden six mountains having on top a star, positioned at the top of the pillars supporting the dome are the heraldic symbol of Pope Alexander VII.

S. Tommaso di Villanova: (left) interior of the fašade: coat of arms and inscription of Pope Alexander VII; (right) coat of arms of Pope Benedict XVI and in the small image another of his coats of arms on a modern gate near Porta Angelica

The oldest and finest coat of arms inside the church is that of Pope Alexander VII. Many of his successors placed their coat of arms above an inscription explaining what they had done for the maintenance and embellishment of the church and in 2011 Pope Benedict XVI followed the tradition. For the occasion he authorized an exception to his decision to innovate papal coats of arms by replacing the triple crown with a mitre; the inscription makes reference to the sixtieth anniversary of his ordainment and to improvements he made by having the church repainted in its original light colour (something which has occurred in many other churches and palaces of Rome).

Inscriptions celebrating works done by Pope Clement XI (below) and by Pope Clement XIV (above) to improve the access to the main street

The popes did not limit themselves to building the palace and the church, but they also redesigned the urban layout of Castelgandolfo which is based on two parallel straight streets. The two inscriptions by Pope Clement XI (1712) and Pope Clement XIV (1773) are interesting because they show the change in style which took place in the second half of the XVIIIth century. The first inscription follows the pattern of a cartouche, a tablet representing a scroll with rolled-up ends, while the second inscription adopts a much sober ancient Roman format, which was adopted in 1743 for marking the boundaries of the Roman Rioni.

(left) Coat of arms of Pope John XXIII in a modern meeting hall; (centre) Cappella di Faenza (a gift from Faenza, a town known for its earthenware) with a coat of arms of Pope John Paul II; (right) bronze relief portraying Pope Benedict XVI on a new door in S. Tommaso di Villanova

In 1929 the Kingdom of Italy and the Holy See reached an agreement to settle the quarrel about the 1870 annexation of the Papal State to Italy. The Papal Palace at Castelgandolfo and a series of other adjoining properties became extraterritorial appendages of the Vatican City State.
Pope Pius XI, the ruling pope at the time of the agreement, made several improvements to the papal properties and in 1934 he relocated the Vatican Astronomical Observatory - external link to Castelgandolfo.
Each summer the popes of the XXth century left Rome for Castelgandolfo, but Pope John Paul II often chose to spend a few weeks on the Alps instead. In 2011 Pope Benedict XVI spent almost three months at Castelgandolfo, probably influenced by his fellow countryman J. W. Goethe who was enthusiastic about the days he spent there in 1787.

Galleria di Sopra

There are two roads linking Castelgandolfo with Albano and they are both called Galleria because the trees which flank them cover the view of the sky. While Galleria di Sotto (lower gallery) has lost its beauty because of the traffic, Galleria di Sopra (upper gallery) is still a very attractive promenade with views over the lake; it ends at Convento dei Cappuccini in Albano.

(left) Villa Barberini; (centre) coat of arms of the Barberini Colonna; (right) statue of a bear, a symbol of the Orsini, at the entrance of a property along Galleria di Sopra

The privilege of extraterritoriality applies also to a villa which belonged to the Barberini who decorated it with bees, their heraldic symbol (which is shown in the image used as background for this page). The villa was owned by Taddeo Barberini, nephew of Pope Urban VIII. In 1627 he married Anna Colonna and two years later he bought the fiefdom of Palestrina from his wife's family.

(left) Chiesa del Convento dei Riformati; (right) Stations of the Cross near the church

Pope Urban VIII founded Collegio di Propaganda Fide to coordinate the missionary efforts of the Roman Catholic Church in the world. The institution had a detached college at Castelgandolfo in a former Franciscan monastery with a small church along Galleria di Sopra. In January 1944 Allied forces landed at Anzio with the objective of accelerating the seizure of Rome. The Germans moved two Krupp K5, heavy railway guns, to the railway linking Rome to Albano and were able to shell the Anzio beachhead; the guns were hidden inside a tunnel between Castelgandolfo and Albano when they were not utilized. This led to repeated Allied bombings of Albano; many inhabitants fled to the college at Castelgandolfo which enjoyed extraterritorial status, but on February 10 the building was bombed causing more than 500 victims.

Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:


Castel Gandolfo, e monte Albano
Per due amenissime strade da Albano si passa a quel nobile castello, una sopra il colle, e l'altra di sotto, ricoperte ambedue di altissimi e folti alberi, onde ne' calori estivi vi si gode lo spasseggio con un ombrosa frescura.
Da Gandolfo Savelli allora Principe di Albano fu eretto un castello in quell'amenissimo sito, di cui compiaciutosi poi Paolo V. e insieme della delizia del suddetto lago, vi edific˛ un palazzo per suo diporto, cd essendo poi da Urb. VIII. accresciuto di comodi, e compito da Alessandro VII. con deliziose fontane e comodissime strade, principi˛ a popolarsi, talmente che il medesimo Pontefice, per fare le sagre funzioni, e dare a quelli abitatori maggior comodo, vi fece una nuova chiesa col disegno del Cav. Bernini, ed anche altri personaggi vi fecero nobilissimi casini con giardini e ville.


Next step in your tour of the Environs of Rome: Ariccia



Latium was enlarged in the 1920s with territories from the neighbouring regions: the map on the left shows the current borders of Latium; the map on the right has links to pages covering towns of historical Latium: in order to see them you must hover and click on the dots.