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.
The sun had not climbed up above the mountains when I rode away from Ferentino in search of Alatri, filled with new expectations. After traversing many vineyards we emerged upon a wild and rocky district, shaded by giant chestnut-trees and watered by refreshing springs of water. The farther we rode, the wilder grew the country. At length we found ourselves at the foot of a high hill, on which rose up a dark, sad-looking town, its shattered towers and crumbling walls stretching to the skies. This Fortress stirred my imagination in no small degree. I had gazed at it from Anagni and longed to visit it, not guessing that the road to Alatri led me past it. This, then, was Fumone, the prison of Celestine V, and here he died after being incarcerated here, at the age of eighty-one, for ten months, on the 19th of May 1296.
Gazing at Fumone, I could imagine that it would be hard to find elsewhere so sad a place of exile. Solitude, however, might have but few terrors for a hermit whose life had been spent in caves and wildernesses; the prisoner, after all, may not have suffered much from it.
Gregorovius - translation by Dorothea Roberts
Gregorovius left Ferentino early in the morning to reach Alatri; he soon noticed Fumone, a small group of grey buildings at the top of an isolated mountain to the left of the road. The apparently negligible village excited the imagination of the German writer who had in-depth knowledge of a tragic event which had taken place there.
This event was related to two popes whom Dante mentioned in The Divine Comedy: Pope Celestine V and his successor Pope Boniface VIII. The former was placed by Dante in the "Vestibule" of Hell among the Uncommitted (those who took no stand) for having renounced the papal throne (Che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto - Who by his cowardice made the great refusal). Pope Boniface VIII was placed in Hell among the simoniacs, those who sell pardons and indulgences for their own profit, but he was also charged with having exerted unfair pressure on Celestine. In his act of abdication signed at Naples Celestine, a former Benedictine monk, explained that the decision was due to his desire to return to a simple life of penance, but Boniface, wary that his predecessor could change his mind, ordered his arrest and confined him at Fumone where Celestine died a few months later.
Today the location has a brighter appearance than it had in 1858 and some inhabitants of the towns in the valley have built their second homes there.
As we proceeded on our way, a great mountain hemming us in on either side, a third rose up suddenly, barring our progress in front. This we climbed, and from its summit beheld a panorama of rare beauty. Magnificent mountains, hill and dale, and distant peaks unfolded before our eyes. (..) Then we descended to the rich plain of Alatri, which now became visible for the first time. As I rode in beneath its dark walls the sun shone brightly, the town with all its stately houses and palaces seemed full of life and stir, and its festive look rejoiced me no little. I had not previously seen so important a town in the Latian mountains, nor yet one which was so markedly characterised by its Romano-Gothic architecture. Gregorovius
Similar to Ferentino, Segni and other towns of the region, ancient Alatri was surrounded by walls built by placing big boulders one next to the other; sections of these walls can still be seen in the western and south-eastern sides of the town.
Alatri, like Ferentino, has once been entirely surrounded by these Cyclopean structures, and here also the tower structures, encircling the town, have been well-nigh destroyed. Only the walls round the Citadel are still standing, and these are without a parallel the most astounding monuments of the past in Latium. Gregorovius
The main objective of Gregorovius' visit to Alatri was to see the Acropolis (upper town) which he knew had been restored and freed of later additions prior to a visit made by Pope Gregory XVI in 1843.
The Acropolis of Alatri is not just the part of the town built on higher ground, but a veritable monument by itself because it is mainly man-made with huge walls supporting a large artificial terrace.
Gregorovius was highly impressed by the size of the boulders which made up the walls and he admired the preciseness by which they were arranged which resulted in a perfectly smooth surface. These walls are called cyclopean because it was thought that only giants could have lifted their boulders; according to tradition Alatri was founded by Saturn, the god the Romans associated with a mythical Golden Age; this element led to the popular belief that the walls of the Acropolis were built at a very ancient time. Archaeologists have come to very different conclusions and nowadays the walls are dated IVth century BC and possibly later.
Acropolis: Porta Civita or Maggiore: (left) exterior; (right) interior
The sight of this marvellous masonry, which equals in size any existing Egyptian building, would amply repay the visitor for the longest and most fatiguing day's journey. The ancient Citadel, or civita - the town par excellence - is set on the highest hill, and the cathedral, here as at Ferentino, has been built up out of its ruins. A wide platform of rock is supported, set round, and concealed, by these Cyclopean walls, which rise up to from 80 to 100 feet. When I walked round these black, Titanic, piled-up masses of stone, just in as good preservation now as if years, instead of thousands of years, had passed over them, I was filled with amazement greater than when I first beheld the Colosseum at Rome. Gregorovius
According to some sources the positioning of the Acropolis and of the ancient gates of Alatri was established on the basis of astronomical measurements; today this opinion receives a lot of attention owing to a general revival of interest for occultism and mysteries.
The Acropolis however was basically a fortress and a holy site and because of this it was accessed only through two gates, of which only one was large enough to allow the passage of carriages.
The lintel of the second gate was decorated with three converging phalli (which were more visible before a recent cleaning of the walls); these symbols had an apotropaic function i.e. they averted bad luck and they did not have any sexual connotation (for phalli which maybe had this connotation see a page on Delos).
(left) Niche in the southern walls of the Acropolis; (right) walls of a shrine at the centre of the Acropolis
Near the entrance-way are three niches facing the south, which we conjecture to have once held statues of the gods. Some enormous remains in the centre of the arx are supposed to have supported the municipal altar, on which sacrifices were offered up on festal days. Gregorovius
The phalli on the small gate are not the only remaining sign of the ancient beliefs; three niches near the main gate probably housed statues of local deities which, similar to the phalli, had an apotropaic power.
The terrace of the Acropolis has a roughly rectangular shape (pentagonal for the supporters of astronomical theories); an ancient building, probably an altar dedicated to Saturn, stood at its centre; it was covered by the construction of the town's cathedral, but some of its walls have been made visible.
The platform of the acropolis commands a splendid view of the mountains, a view of such enchanting beauty and extent that I cannot attempt to describe it, or even to trace the ranges of summits standing all around it, wrapped in the blue and sunny air, paradisiacal meadows stretching out at their feet. The sense of sublimity it inspires is enhanced by the utter silence - that of the desert itself - which pervades this strange and enigmatic spot, with its relics of so remote a civilisation. Gregorovius
The Hernici were an ancient people who lived in a mountainous region between the valleys of the Sacco and Liri rivers; the mountains named after the Hernici have peaks of more than 6,000 ft and they constitute a barrier with no routes through it; at the time of Gregorovius' visit to Alatri the Ernici Mountains marked the border between the Papal State and the Kingdom of Naples; even today one can detect differences in the costumes and in the spoken language of the inhabitants of the two valleys.
The streets are dark and narrow, the houses being built of brown tufa, a few are whitewashed. I was surprised to find so many palatial edifices amongst them. A palace in the Roman provinces only means a house with a portal, however, one especially that has belonged to a patrician family. (..) Many such families must have lived in Alatri. (..) Such houses give the town an imposing aspect; they reminded me of those in old Tuscan towns of the republican period, of some, especially, in Siena. Gregorovius
Gregorovius found Alatri a very rich town when compared to Ferentino. The wealth of Alatri came from wool and felt-hat factories. The 1863 map which illustrates the itineraries of this section in the introductory page clearly indicates that Alatri was at that time the most important town in the area (today Frosinone is more important).
Views of Palazzo Gottifredo
Cardinal Gottifredo da Alatri played a major role during the confrontation between the Roman Church and the German Emperors of the House of Swabia. He was appointed podestÓ (a sort of governor) of Alatri and he resided in a palace which he built by joining together two existing towers; the building shows how Cardinal Gottifredo gave more importance to security than to aesthetic aspects; although he belonged to a local powerful family he feared being attacked by his own fellow citizens. He knew he lived in a ruthless and treacherous time and he took precautions; as a matter of fact, although his precise year of birth is not known, Cardinal Gottifredo probably managed to reach the age of ninety and he succumbed only to the plague which struck Alatri in 1287.
S. Maria Maggiore: (left) fašade; (right) rose window (also in the image used as background for this page)
When I inquired about the ancient monuments of the town my attention was especially called to the church of Sta. Maria Maggiore, and to the Cyclopean walls, for which alone the journey is well worth undertaking. The church is small. It stands on a square surrounded by mediaeval buildings. Two towers had been projected, but only one exists; its fellow had either not ever been finished, or has been destroyed. Its pretty double windows remain, giving it a resemblance to many of the Gothic bell-towers attached to Romanesque churches. The fašade of the church is irregular with three portals, a rose window above them which is foreign to the rest of the building, and is filled with painted glass. Gregorovius
S. Maria Maggiore is definitely the most interesting church of Alatri; it was built in the XIIth century and it was enlarged in the following one; in the XIVth century its plain Romanesque fašade was embellished by a Gothic rose window which has a very unusual design, because the central wheel spokes which characterize most rose windows here are inscribed within a square. There are local experts who suggest the square has a symbolic meaning.
S. Maria Maggiore: (left/centre) bell tower; (right) inscription with the coat of arms of Pope Boniface IX
(the keys of St. Peter, the papal symbol, are separate from the pope's family coat of arms which is repeated twice)
According to an inscription the bell tower was built in 1394; it was taller than it is today and it was topped by a pyramidal spire; in 1654 an earthquake caused the partial collapse of the building.
Those who built S. Maria Maggiore probably had a penchant for original designs because the bell tower has a very rare rectangular layout.
S. Stefano: (left) medieval portal; (right) 1285 inscription in verses celebrating Cardinal Gottifredo da Alatri
S. Stefano was built in the XIIIth century, but the portal is the only remaining part of the original church; it retains a Latin inscription in Leonine verses, a type of poetry based on rhymes which was unknown to the ancient Romans and which was developed during the Middle Ages by a monk called Leonius.
(left) S. Maria dei Padri Scolopi; (right) Cathedral
Similar to other towns of the region Alatri was damaged during Guerra di Campagna the war which Pope Paul IV waged on Spain; Don Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, 3rd Duke of Alba, governor of the Spanish possessions in Italy invaded the Papal State in 1556 and conquered several towns including Alatri.
During the XVIIIth century the development of textile industries in the district of Alatri brought some wealth to the town; S. Maria dei Padri Scolopi and the new cathedral are evidence of this positive economic phase; the former vaguely resembles Oratorio dei Filippini in the design of the upper part of the fašade, the latter recalls S. Giovanni in Laterano.
(left) Fontana Antonini; (right) Fontana Pia
In his account Gregorovius described how he spent some time watching women pulling up buckets of water from wells; a dreary and tiresome activity which he would not have seen had he visited Alatri just a few years later, because in 1869 an aqueduct and several fountains were built in the town; the main fountain was dedicated to Pope Pius IX, the ruling pope and a lengthy inscription on another fountain celebrated his munificence; it is among the last of this kind because in the following year the Papal State came to an end and Alatri was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy.
Gregorovius ended his account by describing a visit he made to Certosa di Trisulti, a Carthusian monastery where he spent a night and to Veroli, a town which is covered in another section of this website.
Introductory page on Ferdinand Gregorovius
Previous page in this walk: Ferentino; next pages in this walk: Anticoli/Fiuggi and Piglio and Acuto.
Other walks: The Roman Campagna: Colonna and Zagarolo, Palestrina, Genazzano, Paliano and Anagni
The Volsci Mountains: Valmontone and Montefortino, Segni, 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
Small towns near Subiaco: Cervara, Rocca Canterano, Trevi and Filettino.