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Page added in February 2011.
- Palestrina: Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia
(detail of a fresco at S. Onofrio; this page is also part of Giuseppe Vasi's Environs of Rome description)
In 388 BC Praeneste, today's Palestrina, was conquered by the Romans; subsequently the town experienced a long phase of development which was interrupted in 82 BC when Silla punished its inhabitants for having sided with his enemies and confiscated their properties; he assigned them to his veterans and he founded a colony on the plain at the foot of the hill where Praeneste stood; during WWII Palestrina was bombed and this resulted in unearthing some of the structures of the town founded by Silla inside medieval buildings and some very ancient walls in the upper part of the town.
According to Cicero, Praeneste was the site of a sanctuary known for its very old oracle; archaeologists are uncertain about the date of its construction: IInd century BC or in conjunction with the foundation of the new town by Silla; during the Renaissance the Italian architect Palladio drew a reconstruction (see external link) of the ancient sanctuary in which also the lower terraces were part of it; today archaeologists tend to believe that these terraces and their buildings and monuments were part of the town, although their design was consistent with that of the sanctuary.
Praeneste is a living catalogue of the construction techniques developed by the Romans; initially they relied on the careful alignment of rectangular stones, but later on they developed an advanced technology in the use of fired bricks and mortar.
According to Cicero, Numerius Sufficius, an important man from Praeneste, was told in a dream to search for an oracle; he found some tablets which were engraved with letters of the alphabet; they were probably tossed or picked by random and the priests of the sanctuary based their oracles on the association of the letters (in essence a form of tarot reading); an artificial grotto which enlarged a small natural cave and which is located at the foot of a high wall behind the cathedral was thought to be Antro delle Sorti, the site where the oracle was announced.
Today archaeologists believe the grotto was part of a fountain which decorated the forum of Praeneste; they have reached this conclusion after they unearthed fragments of a very fine mosaic which decorated the grotto; its subjects do not seem in accordance with the site of an oracle; Romans were very fond of mosaics depicting sea subjects and they employed them for the decoration of fountains and baths.
The bombs which fell on Palestrina in 1944 damaged many houses which had been built on the three upper terraces of the sanctuary; luckily they did not damage the palace built by the Barberini on the "theatre" which crowned the sanctuary.
After WWII authorities decided to remove the debris of the bombed buildings in order to unearth the structure of the sanctuary; its upper terraces are impressive and they prove the high technical skills achieved by Roman engineers.
The width of the two ramps leading to Terrazza degli Emicicli indicate that ceremonies involved a large number of people; we can imagine the effect on watchers of processions reaching the top of the sanctuary and more so if we think of them by torchlight.
This terrace is named after two identical circular porticoes; one of them was preceded by a sacred well which might have been the place where the oracles were announced; archaeologists have found some analogies between the structure of this sanctuary and those of the Temple to Jupiter at Terracina and of the acropolis of Lindos (it was turned into a fortress by the Knights of St. John).
The walls supporting the last two terraces are marked by a series of vaulted niches which probably housed statues; their purpose was not merely a decorative one; Roman engineers were aware that curved structures such as arches and vaults were more able to support weight than traditional vertical walls.
The final terrace was much wider than the other ones and it ended with a sort of theatre having on its top a small circular temple; the majesty of the buildings was increased by their being located in a commanding position and by the perfect symmetry of the whole complex.
For the Romans Fortuna was the personification of luck; the appellation of Primigenia (first bearer) indicates that the original devotion to the goddess was part of the cult of Mother Earth; after the Roman conquest of Egypt Fortuna Primigenia took some features of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of motherhood, magic and fertility; this last aspect led to depicting the goddess holding a cornucopia, a symbol of abundance.
The sanctuary continued to be very popular until most of the IIIrd century, when the diffusion of solar beliefs and Christianity reduced the appeal of polytheism. The sanctuary was most likely closed by Emperor Theodosius, but Fortuna continues to fascinate millions of gamblers.
During the XVIth century several fragments of a large mosaic were found in Sala Absidata, a large hall with an apse near the cathedral; the fragments were in part sent to Rome, but eventually Cardinal Francesco Barberini managed to acquire them all; they were assembled with the purpose of obtaining a meaningful and "nice to see" work of art; in the process some parts of the mosaic were lost and others were added.
The mosaic portrays the river Nile from its sources to its mouth; the upper part shows hunters and wild animals while the lower one depicts the delta of the river during a periodic flood.
Archaeologists hold different views on the date of the mosaic which varies from the time of the Roman conquest of Egypt to the IIIrd century when the fashion for large coloured mosaics was at its apex.
Similar to Tivoli Praeneste was chosen for its salubrity as a location for summer residences by emperors and wealthy members of the Roman society; in a villa some two miles south of the town, a bust of Antinous was found and this has led to believe that the complex belonged to Emperor Hadrian (the bust is at Museo Pio-Clementino).
Some archaeologists have assumed that the actual presence of Hadrian in Praeneste supports the opinion that the Mosaic of the Nile was made at his time because it shows Egyptian monuments which the emperor so greatly admired that he gave their names to parts of his villa at Tivoli.
Return to Palestrina - page one
Introductory page on Ferdinand Gregorovius
Next pages (in Gregorovius' walks) Genazzano, Paliano and Anagni
Next page (in Giuseppe Vasi's Environs of Rome) Frascati
The Ernici Mountains: Ferentino; Alatri
The Volsci Mountains: Valmontone; Segni; Norma; Cori
On the Latin shores: Anzio; Nettuno and Torre Astura
Circe's Cape: Terracina; San Felice
The Orsini Castle in Bracciano
Subiaco, the oldest Benedictine monastery
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