Via Nomentana, one of the historical roads of Ancient Rome is today (in its urban section outside Porta Pia) a large alley flanked by imposing buildings and large villas. Unlike other historical roads which linked Rome to its remote eastern (Via Appia) or western (Via Aurelia) provinces, Via Nomentana had a much closer target: the small town of Nomentum, near today's Mentana.
1924 Map: 1) Ponte Nomentano; 2) Mentana; 3) Monterotondo; 4) Palombara; 5) S. Angelo Romano; 6) Montecelio; 7) Marcellina; 8) S. Polo dei Cavalieri; (blue dot) Tivoli which is covered in another section
Mentana and Monterotondo - This is a delightful day's excursion from Rome, and comprises much of
interest. (..) The modern road nearly follows the Roman
Way. It was on this side that the Italian troops approached
Rome in 1870, on the day which so many patriotic spirits regarded
as the dawn of freedom for Rome. (..) We cross the Anio by the picturesque Ponte Nomentano occupying the site of the ancient bridge, but in itself mediaeval. (..) The road
divides. The turn to the right passes under the Montes
Corniculani, of which the nearest height is occupied by S.
Angelo Romano (..). It finally leads to Palombara, a town of the
Sabina, once a fortress of the Savelli, but now belonging to the Borghese, most beautifully situated at the foot of Monte
Augustus J. C. Hare - Days near Rome - 1875
When the road first comes in sight of the village of Mentana, it reaches the
height which was the site of the battle, in which, Oct. 1867,
the Papal troops, assisted by the French, entirely defeated
the Italians under Garibaldi. (..)
It is two miles from Mentana to Monte Rotondo, also the
site of a battle between the Papal troops and the Garibaldians. Hare
In October 1867 Giuseppe Garibaldi made an attempt to unite Rome to the Kingdom of Italy. He hoped on an insurrection of the Romans, but the papal police discovered the location where the leaders of the planned revolt had placed their firearms and ammunition and after a short fight arrested them. In the meantime Garibaldi and some 3,000 volunteers wearing a red uniform crossed the border at Nerola and moved towards Rome; they had to seize Monterotondo to reach their objective; they set fire to the main gate of the town and the local garrison surrendered after a short resistance. A few days later the papal army, with the help of French troops sent by Emperor Napoleon III, defeated Garibaldi at Mentana. Pope Pius IX celebrated this victory by erecting a large monument to the fallen papal soldiers in Rome.
The ancient town of Nomentum was abandoned after it was sacked by Liutprand, King of the Longobards in ca 728; its inhabitants moved to a nearby site which was more easily defensible. In the Xth century Mentana became a possession of the Crescenzi, a powerful Roman family and later on of Abbazia di San Paolo fuori le Mura, similar to Civitella, another small town in the valley of the River Tiber. In 1278 Pope Nicholas III managed to assign it to Orso Orsini, his nephew, similar to what he did at Soriano. During this period Mentana was fortified with walls and towers which still partially surround it.
Mentana was built with materials taken from Nomentum. During the course of the centuries a number of fragments of statues and reliefs were discovered when demolishing old buildings. The finest ones are now in museums, but many can still be seen by having a stroll in the historical part of the town. The funerary relief is very similar to those which can be seen along Via Appia Antica and it portrays L. Apuleius, a military commander, between his parents, a couple of freedmen.
The palace of the feudal lords of the Mentana is still named after the Crescenzi, although it was largely redesigned by the Orsini and after them by the Peretti. In 1594 Camilla Peretti, sister of Pope Sixtus V, bought the fiefdom of Mentana from the Orsini and she donated it to Michele Peretti, her grandson. The façade of the building was redesigned by Domenico Fontana, the preferred architect of the Pope. In 1655 the Peretti sold Mentana to the Borghese. Today the building houses the Town Hall of the town.
Palazzo Crescenzio; (left) portal; (right) coat of arms and heraldic
symbols of Cardinal Francesco Peretti, son of Michele, and a detail of the balcony
(above) Mount Terminillo seen from Monterotondo; (below-left) Porta Garibaldi and S. Rocco; (below-right) detail of the monument to Giordano Orsini (d. 1484) in S. Maria delle Grazie; another detail with the coat of arms of the Orsini can be seen in the image used as background for this page; the monument was part of a lost funerary chapel (see the Orsini chapel at Vicovaro, a fiefdom of another branch of the Orsini)
Monterotondo means round mountain and the name refers to the shape of a hill adjoining the town. Monterotondo is visible from
Rome and Giuseppe Vasi showed it in his Grand View of Rome.
The Orsini acquired the town at the same time as Mentana, but eventually the two fiefdoms belonged to different branches of that family who occasionally fought each other.
Palazzo Orsini Barberini - details: (left) well with the coats of arms of Cardinal Franciotto Orsini and of Pope Leo X, his cousin; (right) pilasters with the heraldic symbols of the Orsini (above) and of the Barberini (below); (right-below) inscription mentioning Carlo Barberini, brother of Pope Urban VIII; (centre) painted coat of arms of the Orsini showing its red rose (at Bracciano, a fiefdom of another branch of the family)
In 1627 the Orsini sold Monterotondo to the Barberini; the new landlords made some changes to the palace, but they did not delete many references to the previous owners. In particular they did not change the frescoes of a hall which illustrated the myth of Adonis. The Orsini claimed that the red rose in their coat of arms had that colour because the blood of Adonis dropped on it, a variant of Ovid's account.
Palazzo Orsini Barberini: Hall of Venus and Adonis: frescoes attributed to Girolamo Siciolante da Sermoneta (ca 1555): (left) Myrrha and Cinyras, her father; (right) Metamorphosis of Myrrha (which brings to mind that of Daphne) and birth of Adonis
Cinyras was the son of Paphos, and he might have been counted amongst the fortunate, if he, in turn, had been childless. I speak of terrible things. Fathers and daughters, keep away: or if your mind takes pleasure in my song, put no faith in this story of mine, and imagine it did not happen. (..) Cupid denies that his arrows hurt you, Myrrha, and clears his fires of blame for your crime. One of the three sisters, the Furies, with her swollen snakes, and firebrand from the Styx, breathed on you. It is wrong to hate your father, but that love was a greater wrong than hatred. The pick of the princes, from everywhere, desire you: young men, from the whole of the East, come to win you in marriage. Out of the many, choose one, for your husband, Myrrha, but let one man not be amongst the many.
Indeed, she knows it, and fights against her disgraceful passion, and says, to herself: "Where is my thought leading? What am I creating? You gods, I pray, and the duty and sacred laws respecting parents, prevent this wickedness, and oppose my sin, indeed, if sin it is. (..)
He is worth loving, but only as a father. - I could lie with Cinyras, if I were not Cinyras's already. (..) He is a good man, and mindful of the moral law - but, O, how I wish the same passion were in him!" (..) Now she reaches the threshold of the room, now she opens the door, now is led inside. But her trembling knees give way, her colour flees with her blood, and thought vanishes as she goes forward. The closer she is to her sin, the more she shudders at it, repents of her audacity, and wants to be able to turn back, unrecognised. (..) The father admitted his own child into the incestuous bed, calmed her virgin fears, and encouraged her timidity. Perhaps he also said the name, "daughter", in accordance with her age, and she said, "father", so that their names were not absent from their sin. She left the room impregnated by her father, bearing impious seed in her fatal womb, carrying the guilt she had conceived. The next night the crime was repeated: nor did it finish there. Eventually, Cinyras, eager to discover his lover after so many couplings, fetching a light, saw his daughter and his guilt, and speechless from grief, he snatched his bright sword out of the sheath it hung in. Myrrha ran, escaping death, by the gift of darkness and secret night. (..) Now she could scarcely bear the weight of her womb. Tired of living, and scared of dying, not knowing what to pray for, she composed these words of entreaty: "O, if there are any gods who hear my prayer, I do not plead against my well deserved punishment, but lest, by being, I offend the living, or, by dying, offend the dead, banish me from both realms, and change me, and deny me life and death!" Some god listened to her prayer: certainly the last request found its path to the heavens. While she was still speaking, the soil covered her shins; roots, breaking from her toes, spread sideways, supporting a tall trunk; her bones strengthened, and in the midst of the remaining marrow, the blood became sap; her arms became long branches; her fingers, twigs; her skin, solid bark. And now the growing tree had drawn together over her ponderous belly, buried her breasts, and was beginning to encase her neck: she could not bear the wait, and she sank down against the wood, to meet it, and plunged her face into the bark. Though she has lost her former senses with her body, she still weeps, and the warm drops trickle down from the tree. There is merit, also, in the tears: and the myrrh that drips from the bark keeps its mistress's name, and, about it, no age will be silent. The child, conceived in sin, had grown within the tree, and was now searching for a way to leave its mother, and reveal itself. The pregnant womb swells within the tree trunk, the burden stretching the mother. The pain cannot form words, nor can Lucina (goddess of childbirth) be called on, in the voice of a woman in labour. Nevertheless the tree bends, like one straining, and groans constantly, and is wet with falling tears. Gentle Lucina stood by the suffering branches, and laid her hands on them, speaking words that aid childbirth. At this the tree split open, and, from the torn bark, gave up its living burden, and the child cried. The naiads laid him on the soft grass, and anointed him with his mother's tears. Even Envy would praise his beauty, being so like one of the torsos of naked Amor painted on boards.
That son of his grandfather, sister, now hid in a tree, and now born, then a most beautiful child, then a boy, now a man, now more beautiful than he was before, now interests Venus herself, and avenges his mother's desire. "You must avoid lions, my love, and with them all the species of wild creature, that do not turn and run, but offer their breasts to the fight, lest your courage be the ruin of us both!" She warned him, and made her way through the air, drawn by harnessed swans, but his courage defied the warning. By chance, his dogs, following a well-marked trail, roused a wild boar from its lair, and as it prepared to rush from the trees, Cinyras's grandson caught it a glancing blow. Immediately the fierce boar dislodged the blood-stained spear, with its crooked snout, and chased the youth, who was scared and running hard. It sank its tusk into his groin, and flung him, dying, on the yellow sand. Cytherea, carried in her light chariot through the midst of the heavens, by her swans' swiftness, had not yet reached Cyprus: she heard from afar the groans of the dying boy, and turned the white birds towards him. When, from the heights, she saw the lifeless body, lying in its own blood, she leapt down, tearing her clothes, and tearing at her hair, as well, and beat at her breasts with fierce hands, complaining to the fates. "And yet not everything is in your power" she said. "Adonis, there shall be an everlasting token of my grief, and every year an imitation of your death will complete a re-enactment of my mourning. But your blood will be changed into a flower." (..) So saying, she sprinkled the blood with odorous nectar: and, at the touch, it swelled up, as bubbles emerge in yellow mud. In less than an hour, a flower, of the colour of blood, was created such as pomegranates carry, that hide their seeds under a tough rind. But enjoyment of it is brief; for, lightly clinging, and too easily fallen, the winds deflower it, which are likewise responsible for its name, windflower: anemone. Ovid
Paul Bril (1554-1626) was a Flemish painter who spent most of his life in Rome where he joined his older brother Matthijs in ca 1580. He was a talented landscape painter and the frescoes at Monterotondo were one of his first Italian works. He signed them with a pair of glasses because in Dutch bril meant glasses. He became a very respected member of Accademia di San Luca, the guild of the Roman artists, and in 1621 he was elected Prince of the Academy, the first foreigner to hold this position. You may wish to see a painting he made for the Mattei family.
Palazzo Orsini Barberini: Hall of the Landscapes with frescoes of the late XVIth century
The painter who decorated this hall is not known, but art historians suggest he was a member of Bril's workshop. The landscapes were separated by coats of arms of the Orsini, but the Barberini replaced many of them with those of their family. The landscapes of this room are not real ones, but rather the archetypes of "Landscape with Ancient Ruins", a genre of painting which became very popular in the following centuries, in particular as background for portraits of Grand Tour travellers.
Palazzo Orsini Barberini, now the Town Hall
The Barberini commissioned Domenico Castelli with the redesign of the Orsini residence which, notwithstanding its finely painted halls, had the aspect of a fortress when seen from the outside. Castelli gave the features of a Roman palace (e.g. Palazzo Ferrajoli) to the side towards the countryside.
Palazzo Orsini Barberini: Hall of the Landscapes: a later addition to its decoration
In 1701 the Barberini sold Monterotondo to the Del Grillo family who in 1693 had already bought Trevignano and Anguillara from the Orsini. In 1814 the palace was sold to the Boncompagni Ludovisi aka Princes of Piombino and in 1890 it was turned into the Town Hall.
(left) S. Maria Maddalena, the main church; (right) gravestone of Cornelio Vanicelli (d. 1494)
The Barberini commissioned Castelli also with the design of a new main church to replace the existing one which was too small. The building has a very plain façade because Taddeo Barberini, the heir of Carlo, was more interested in his fiefdom of Palestrina than in Monterotondo and he was not prepared to spend too much on this church. In 1639 it was consecrated and in 1641 it was visited by Pope Urban VIII.
An interesting 1494 gravestone which stood on the floor of the previous church was placed on the wall of the new one. Cornelio Vanicelli died nine-month-old and his father Antonio wrote a short poem in Latin in which the child says (..) pater Antoni lacrimis urgere sepultum parce (..) rapuit mors invida vite accedant annis tempora fausta tuis (father do not cry on my grave - the years that envious death stole me may be added to yours). Antonio Vanicelli was a scriptor apostolicus et comes palatinus, i.e. a member of the papal court at the time of Alexander VI; his short poem shows a good knowledge of Latin metrics and has points in common with elegies written by Propertius, a poet of the Augustan age.
Archaeological Museum in Palazzo Orsini Barberini: funerary urns (Xth-IXth century BC): (left) lid of the urn of a warrior resembling a helmet; (right) urn of a woman
The valley of the River Tiber housed settlements during the final phase of the Bronze Age and the initial phase of the Iron Age, before the people who inhabited the region were identified as Etruscans, Capenates and Sabines. During the first half of the XIXth century the study of human prehistory achieved importance and the search for ancient statues and reliefs was expanded to include pottery and tools of that period. Farmers who came across prehistoric tombs by chance or tombaroli (grave robbers) tried to sell their findings to antiquarians. The Archaeological Museum of Monterotondo houses a number of exhibits which were found in the environs of the town, were sold to unscrupulous collectors and eventually were recovered by Italian authorities (also abroad). The nearby Museum of Lucus Feroniae houses reliefs of a Roman mausoleum which were similarly recovered.
Archaeological Museum in Palazzo Orsini Barberini: funerary pottery, probably from Crustumerium; the black jar shows Etruscan influence
At about nine miles from Monterotondo, we pass (on the left) beneath the extensive farm-buildings called Marcigliana Vecchia, which are usually believed to occupy the site of the city of Crustumerium, though some place it at Sette Bagni, the next large farm on the left of the road to Rome, where there are traces of ancient buildings; while others refer it to Monterotondo. Dionysius speaks of Crustumerium as an Alban colony sent out long before the building of Rome. Hare
Palombara seen from S. Angelo Romano
Palombara is another town which can be seen from Rome, due to its position at the top of a hill. Giuseppe Vasi showed it in his Grand View of Rome between S. Angelo Romano (left) and Montecelio (right). In the morning, especially in winter, the inhabitants of Palombara are able to see the landmarks of Rome (obviously only those on high ground).
The construction of the castle of Palombara most likely began in the XIth century when the town was under the control of the Ottaviani, a branch of the Crescenzi. The castle was repeatedly modified and enlarged.
Views of Castello Savelli
The Savelli acquired Palombara during the pontificate of Pope Honorius III, a member of their family. In the XVth century the family split into three branches, one of which was named after Palombara. This branch had a large villa near S. Eusebio. In 1637 the fiefdom was sold to the Borghese. In 1893 the castle was sold to the Torlonia and in 1971 it was acquired by the City of Palombara.
(left/centre) Streets with gates leading to Castello Savelli; (right) protected passage also leading to it
Palombara retains almost entirely its medieval fortifications; they included a protected passage which allowed the defenders to easily move between the castle and the walls surrounding the town.
(left) Inscriptions in S. Biagio; (right) S. Maria del Gonfalone, the church of a brotherhood (XVIth century with a Baroque bell tower)
S. Biagio, the main church of the town, was entirely redesigned in the XIXth century and its orientation was reversed. A pity because it was a very old building which was founded in 1101 by Count Ottaviano. An analysis of the long inscription celebrating the event has shown that it consists of eight hexameters, the quantitative meter of the great Greek and Latin poems. It was most likely written by John, the presbyter who is mentioned at the end of the inscription. The way he indicated the year 1101 millenocentenoprimo is not typical of Latin inscriptions, but rather of volgare, the early form of the Italian language.
The Grand View of Rome shows a mountain behind Palombara: Vasi did not depict a generic mountain, but he actually drew the profile of Monte Gennaro, the first mountain (4,000 ft high) near Rome to be capped with snow in winter.
View over Monte Soratte and S. Oreste from Palombara