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Page revised in July 2011.
- Norma and Ninfa
(detail of a fresco at S. Onofrio)
Ferdinand Gregorovius, a German historian best known for his studies on medieval Rome, spent the summer of 1860 at Genazzano with his friend Johannes Muller, a painter; the two decided to go on a ride across the Volsci Mountains to see the Pontine Marshes.
The journey was described in an account (Aus den Bergen der Volsker) written by Gregorovius for a
German paper (you can read the English translation by Dorothea Roberts in Bill Thayer's Web Site). Muller was a watercolourist who later on opened a studio in Piazza Barberini.
Gregorovius and his friend reached Norma from Segni after a six hour ride through the thick woods which cover the Volsci Mountains; they were helped by a local guide because there was no road between the two towns.
All of a sudden the travellers found themselves out of the woods and in sight of Norma; Gregorovius described the view: the marshy plain at the foot of the mountains with the town of Sermoneta and beyond it the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea with Torre Astura and in the far distance the island of Ponza and Monte Circeo which resembled an island.
Norma lies on a veritable precipice which today attracts hang gliders; it was founded by the inhabitants of Norba, an ancient town, the ruins of which are just a mile from Norma; they relocated to the new site because it offered greater security; the inn where Gregorovius stayed was right on the edge of the precipice to the point that he was seized by dizziness.
Norma was a fiefdom of several important families such as the Frangipane and the Caetani; it was also for a few years a possession of the Borgia, the family of Pope Alexander VI; in 1619 the town and the nearby territory were bought by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V; at Montefortino, a town on the other side of the Volsci Mountains, the cardinal and his successors built gates, palaces and churches, but they did not do so at Norma, perhaps because it was too isolated and difficult to reach.
After a good meal and a short rest, Gregorovius and his friend went to see the ruins of ancient Norba; they were impressed by its main gate and in particular by the circular tower which protected its right side; the walls of Norba were built in cyclopean (or polygonal) style, similar to those of other towns (Segni, Cori and Alatri) which Gregorovius described in his accounts.
Archaeologists are still uncertain about who founded Norba, but they know the causes of its decline; during the civil war between Marius and Silla, its inhabitants sided with the former and the town was seized and set on fire by the supporters of the latter; Norba was partially rebuilt, but its development was hampered by that event.
When Gregorovius visited Norba the layout of the ancient town could only be guessed at by viewing some remaining walls and terraces; current excavations have revealed the bases of some temples, a bath establishment and an orthogonal grid of paved streets between two small acropolises.
From the window of his room in the inn Gregorovius first saw the ivy-clad ruins of Ninfa, an abandoned medieval town which lay on the plain and was surrounded by the Pontine Marshes; he again saw Ninfa from Norba and such was his desire to visit it that he rushed down from there, rather than returning to Norma to take an easier path.
With some exaggeration Gregorovius called Ninfa the Medieval Pompei; he visited it at sunset and he was impressed by the silence of death which rested on the site; he waited for the moonlight to make him feel immersed in a fairy tale.
Only a few people dared to live in the marsh which surrounded Ninfa; Gregorovius saw a man standing in the low water of a swamp: he was offering his half naked body to the hungry leeches which lived there; the worms he captured were then sold to pharmacists, as at the time bloodletting using leeches was a common treatment for various diseases. The Pontine Marshes were reclaimed in the 1930s by digging a series of canals from the foot of the mountains to a series of coastal lakes and from these to the sea.
The territory of Ninfa acquired importance whenVia Appia, the road linking Rome to southern Italy, was no longer properly maintained. This occurred after the Greek-Gothic War which in the VIth century devastated Italy and broke its unity. The road entered the Pontine Marshes near Velletri; in 312 BC the Romans dug a canal at the side of the road to facilitate the flow of streams, such as the Ninfa River, towards the sea; when the canal was no longer maintained swamps interrupted the road; starting from the VIIIth or IXth century travellers therefore followed Via Pedemontana, an alternate route along the foot of the mountains, until they reached Terracina, at the southern end of the marshes.
In the XIIth century Ninfa was a relatively rich town and it belonged to the Frangipane, a very powerful Roman family; in 1159 the Frangipane supported the election of Cardinal Rolando Bandinelli; the cardinal became Pope Alexander III in Rome, however he had to escape from the city immediately and the coronation ceremony took place in S. Maria Maggiore, the main church of Ninfa. In 1171 Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, a great enemy of the pope, retaliated on the Frangipane by plundering Ninfa.
Towards the end of the XIIIth century Ninfa became first a possession of the Colonna and in 1297 of the Caetani, the family of Pope Boniface VIII. A rivalry between two Caetani brothers (Onorato and Benedetto) led to a war and in 1382 the inhabitants of Sermoneta, Sezze and other nearby towns, who supported Onorato, marched on Ninfa and seized and destroyed the town; Ninfa was never rebuilt, but it remained a possession of the Sermoneta branch of the Caetani.
S. Maria Maggiore was the main church of Ninfa; it was the only one which was restored by the Caetani after the destruction of the town, but in the XVIth century it was finally abandoned; it retains a Romanesque bell tower of the beginning of the XIIIth century and some frescoes of the late XIIth century.
According to records Ninfa had fourteen churches; some of them gave their name to the four gates of the town. Ninfa had a town hall, a hospital, mills, paved streets, bridges and some 150 houses, some of which of a remarkable size.
In the XVIth century Cardinal Nicoḷ Caetani made an effort to save Ninfa from its abandonment by creating a walled garden (hortus conclusus) along the river; the entrance was marked by an elegant portal. In 1765 some of the ancillary buildings near the castle were restored and a small church was built in 1771.
At the beginning of the XIXth century the Caetani started to care more about Ninfa and in 1920 Gelasio Caetani turned part of the medieval town into a countryside residence and he planted many trees. His brother Roffredo continued to add new plants and gradually the whole area became a sort of botanic garden with many exotic species; in 1972 Lelia Caetani, the last of the family, donated Ninfa and the Castle of Sermoneta to a foundation (Roffredo Caetani - external link) which takes care of the maintenance of Ninfa.
In his account Gregorovius made a long list of the flowers and shrubs he saw at Ninfa; obviously they all grew there without being tended: chamomiles and other daisies, daffodils, thistles, lilies, dog roses, clematises, carnations, bindweeds, brooms, stocks, high ferns and bushes of laurel, blackberry, caper and myrtle, and a lot of ivy everywhere. Unfortunately these species were not appreciated by the Caetani and today's Ninfa, although very nice to see, is slightly unnatural.
From Norma Gregorovius and his friend reached Cori by following a narrow path along the mountains; this time, instead of horses, they had to rent mules.
Introductory page on Ferdinand Gregorovius
Previous pages of this walk: Valmontone and Montefortino and Segni
Next page of this walk: Cori
The Roman Campagna: Colonna and Zagarolo, Palestrina, Genazzano, Paliano and Anagni
The Ernici Mountains: Ferentino and Alatri
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.
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