All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page revised in August 2011.
(detail of a fresco at S. Onofrio)
Ferdinand Gregorovius, a German historian best known for his studies on medieval Rome, spent the summer of 1858 at Genazzano; from there he decided to visit the towns which are located at the foot of the Ernici Mountains: Anagni, Ferentino, Alatri and Veroli, to see their ancient walls and medieval monuments. Gregorovius described this journey in Aus den Bergen der Herniker, an account written for a German paper (you can read the English translation by Dorothea Roberts in Bill Thayer's Web Site).
Gregorovius had described Anagni in a previous account, so he just mentioned in this one that he went from there to Ferentino accompanied by a local peasant, who knew the sites they were going to visit; the itinerary from Anagni to Ferentino however was an easy one because the two towns can be seen from each other.
Ferentino is located on a small hill in a commanding position over the Sacco River valley, which is popularly known as Ciociaria (the land of those who wear ciocie, a particular type of footwear). The town was linked to Rome by Via Casilina.
In his account Gregorovius wrote that when he entered Ferentino he was impressed by the ancient walls to the right side of the gate and that he very soon arrived to the cathedral on the ancient acropolis (upper town); this description fits Porta Montana, a gate located at the north-eastern end of Ferentino and which is so-called because it faces the mountains. The gate was redesigned in the XVIIIth century.
Gregorovius went to see Porta Sanguinaria (Bloody Gate), the most interesting gate of Ferentino, which is located in the southern side of the walls; its structure is a summary of different historical periods; the big boulders which flank its lower part were thought for a long time to have been built before the foundation of Rome (753 BC); they are now dated IVth century BC; the arch which closes the gate was built by the Romans at a later time; the wall above the gate is made up of small stones and it is a medieval restoration. The origin of the name of the gate is uncertain; it could refer to fights which occurred in its proximity or to the fact that the beheading of criminals took place immediately outside the gate.
Porta Casamari was opened in the walls in the early Ist century BC when Ferentino became a relatively large town; it is an interesting example of the Scaean Gate, the gate of Troy mentioned several times by Homer, i.e. of a gate perpendicular to a long and high wall on its right; in this way the attackers offered their unprotected side to the arrows, javelins and stones of the defenders, as they held their shields with the left arm. This defensive measure was applied also at Porta Montana.
Porta S. Francesco is another example of ancient and medieval construction techniques; the walls to the left of the gate are very old, while those to its right and the tower are medieval, probably of the XIIth century.
Porta Pentagonale is the only gate which has not been modified and which still shows its original corbelled arch; actually it is not a gate but just a niche which probably housed the statue of Averruncus, an ancient Roman deity having apotropaic powers i.e. it averted harm.
The main gate of Ferentino was redesigned in the XVIIIth century; at first sight one assumes that the inscription below the erased coat of arms celebrates the construction of the new gate. It is not so because the inscription is made up of two different ancient inscriptions referring to Giulia Domna (left) and to Emperor Caracalla (right), her son; they were removed from the floor of the cathedral and placed on the new gate as a symbol of the Roman origin of Ferentino; their previous location is unknown, but probably they were in the Forum which stood on the acropolis.
Gregorovius perhaps did not notice the two inscriptions of Porta S. Agata, but he went to great lengths (he had to climb rocks and pass through brambles) to reach Il Testamento, an inscription celebrating the deeds of Aulus Quintilius Priscus, a local magistrate of the IInd century AD who held several important positions and made donations to the town.
Aulus Quintilius Priscus was a wise man and rather than having his will carved on precious marble which could be re-utilized he preferred to have it cut into the bare rock; he chose a location which made the inscription easily visible from Via Casilina.
The effectiveness of Roman construction techniques was not only based on the quality of the materials, the skills of the engineers and the use of appropriate tools, but also on a legal framework which established precise responsibilities in case of collapse or other defects of the building. Public facilities were subject to formal testing and acceptance by the officers who commissioned them.
During the Ist century BC the acropolis was enlarged by erecting imposing walls which supported a terrace; Aulus Hirtius and Marcus Lollius, the two censores (*) who commissioned the building, formally declared the construction was sound; in a long inscription they added some technical details such as the height of the walls (33 Roman ft) and the material (stone) utilized for the underground foundation. Similar inscriptions can be found in other Roman buildings, including Ponte Fabricio in Rome.
(*) magistrates in charge of the administration of the town's finances and also of public morality, hence census and censorship.
Roman Ferentino enjoyed a special status because in the IVth century BC its inhabitants did not join an alliance against the Romans; the town was allowed to elect its own Senate and magistrates; this status favoured its development and Ferentino had a theatre, baths, a covered market and other facilities. The magistrates resided in the praetorium, a building on the acropolis.
The bishops of Ferentino built a small cathedral and their own palace on the site of the ancient praetorium; when Gregorovius visited the town the fašade of the cathedral had a different aspect; in 1905-06 all additions made in the XVIIth century were demolished and today the fašade has a bare aspect which probably it did not have at the time of its construction (it was consecrated in 1108). The cathedral stands on the very edge of the acropolis; its detached bell tower was built in 1060 on top of an existing defensive tower.
The medieval artists who decorated the portals of the cathedral most likely had in mind to place two lion heads at the sides of the lintel; they did not find them among the many remains of the ancient buildings and so they decided to sculpture them; the result however was not up to the expectations as they resemble cats rather than lions; a slightly better result was achieved in portraying ram heads, another very common Roman decorative theme.
The interior of the cathedral was decorated with various examples of Cosmati works; in particular the section of the floor near the altar (dated 1116) is attributed to Magister Paulus, who is considered the first artist who employed this mosaic technique; the floor near the entrance is a later work by Jacopo Cosma (dated 1203); also the pulpit, the precinct of the choir, the bishop's throne and the support for the Paschal candle were decorated in the same way.
The terrace in front of the cathedral enjoys a commanding view over the southern part of Ferentino which since Roman time housed most of the monuments of the town because it slopes down in a less steep way than the northern part. Gregorovius' eye was immediately caught by S. Maria Maggiore, a church which was completed in 1150, only a few years after the cathedral, but in a very different style.
S. Maria Maggiore is considered the first example of Cistercian architecture in Italy, which introduced some Gothic elements to the country; in this website you can see other examples of Cistercian buildings: Abbazia di Fossanova, S. Maria del Paradiso near Viterbo, the cathedral of S. Martino al Cimino and the cathedral of Sezze.
While the sculptures which decorate the portals of the cathedral appear rather naive, those of S. Maria Maggiore show a superior quality; marbles which decorated the Roman baths were used for them. Ferentino has several other historical churches, but they have lesser importance from an artistic point of view.
In the XIIth century, similar to many other towns of Latium (including Rome), Ferentino made an attempt to develop forms of self-government during the recurring crises of the Papal State; its inhabitants built a town hall to house local institutions; the building was later on modified and its original appearance was forgotten until 1905 when, during a refurbishment of the building, a fine medieval loggia was unearthed.
Based on the number and quality of the remaining monuments it appears that during the XIIth and XIIIth centuries Ferentino was a flourishing town and its inhabitants were able to resource the construction of many palaces and churches; also the overall design of the streets was established then. Ferentino, unlike Anagni, cannot claim to be a City of the Popes, yet some of them resided in the town for a short time and a (very run down) medieval house was named after Pope Innocent III (who belonged to a family of nearby Segni).
When Gregorovius visited Ferentino he did not find much evidence of the past wealth of the town; he was hosted by a local important family, but he noted that their palace was in dire need of maintenance and that in general the inhabitants were very poorly dressed and did not have a healthy appearance. The same views were expressed by Jozef Ignacy Kraszewski, a Polish writer in Kartki z podrozy 1858-1864, an account of his Italian travels: In no other town we saw people so miserable than at Ferentino and the countryside was totally abandoned.
Introductory page on Ferdinand Gregorovius
Next page on this walk: Alatri
The Roman Campagna: Colonna and Zagarolo, Palestrina, Cave, Genazzano, Olevano, Paliano and Anagni
The Volsci Mountains: Valmontone and Montefortino, Segni, Carpineto, Norma and Cori
On the Latin shores: Anzio and Nettuno and Torre Astura
Circe's Cape: Terracina and San Felice
The Orsini Castle in Bracciano
Subiaco, the oldest Benedictine monastery
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.