Apud oppidum Ariciam, haud longe ab urbe Roma, nemus erat sacrum Dianae, ibique specus olim fuit et fons aquae frigidae.
Illuc Numa nocturno tempore adibat atque, omnibus remotis, in specu ingrediebatur atque tempus de industria terebat, cum omnes interim, qui
regem exspectabant, essent metu ac veneratione perfusi. Illinc egrediens Numa de rei publicae statu simulabat se tractavisse cum Nympha Egeria Camenisque.
Virgil - The Aeneid - Book VII. Translation by John Dryden.
Translation: "Near the castle of Ariccia there was a wood sacred to Diana and near it a small lake and a spring of cold water. Numa used to go alone there at night and spend some time bathing in the lake, while those who accompanied him waited outside the wood with feelings of fear and veneration. When eventually Numa returned he explained he had sought the advice of Egeria and the Camenae nymphs on public affairs."
This text, perhaps by Aulus Gellius a IInd century AD author, indicates a third location for the night meetings of Numa, the second king of Rome, with Egeria, the others being Valle delle Camene and Ninfeo di Egeria.
Lake Nemi (above) and Nemi (below) seen from Genzano
The Latin word nemus means grove, wood so Lake Nemi was given its current name because of the thick woods which still surround it and the name was also used to indicate a very small town on the eastern side of the ridge which surrounds the lake. The medieval town was limited to the section to the left of the tall round tower (which you can see in the image used as background for this page).
Roman historians make references to the existence of several small lakes in the Albani Hills, including a relatively large one near Ariccia; the lakes located between the hills and the plain were emptied by the ancient Romans or later on to reclaim the land. This was not done for Lake Albano and Lake Nemi which are located in the central part of the ancient volcanic area and are surrounded by high ridges.
(left) Modern statue of Diana by Luciano Mastrolorenzi at the entrance to Nemi; (right) Nemi and in the background "Giardino di Diana",
the low area by the lake where the temple to the goddess stood
Today's visitors to Nemi are met by a modern statue portraying Diana as Greek Artemis, the virgin huntress who was the sister of Apollo.
But the Diana to whom the Latins, an ancient Italic tribe, consecrated the lake and dedicated a temple, was rather a
Mother Earth goddess, a symbol of fertility, and they prayed to her to have good harvests.
Because the water level of Lake Nemi was subject to sudden changes, an underground outlet was excavated to carry the water from the lake when it exceeded a certain level in order to avoid the temple to Diana being flooded.
Giardino di Diana and in the inset foundations of an ancient building
The original temple built by the Latins was replaced by the Romans by a sanctuary consisting of several buildings spread over a vast area; the worship of Egyptian Isis was added to that of Diana.
Archaeologists have found only the foundations of some buildings. They have linked the absence of walls and columns to the presence in the same area of calcararia, medieval kilns where marbles and other calcareous parts of the temples were turned into lime mortar.
Today Giardino di Diana is known for Fragoline di Nemi, very small strawberries which in May all Roman restaurants include in their menus.
Museo Nazionale Romano: bronze relief portraying Medusa found on one of the two ships
In the XVth century rumours about the existence of something under the water of the lake led to the first attempts to understand its nature. In 1842 the mystery of Lake Nemi was not yet solved as J. Donovan wrote in Rome Ancient and Modern and its environs: "In this lake lie deeply imbedded the remains of what some call the galley of Tiberius, others of Trajan, but what in reality seems to have been the substructions of an edifice built on the borders of the lake. It was visited in a diving bell by the Architect Marchi (Francesco De Marchi, a military engineer) in the XVIth century, and again recently by others; and was found to consist of a wooden frame united by bronze nails, and floored with large tiles, resting on iron grating."
In 1928-32 a major effort was undertaken to almost empty the lake; two ships were found in the mud and they were moved to a specially built sort of hangar; unfortunately in May 1944, in the very last days of Operation Shingle, the Allied landing at Anzio which led to the liberation of Rome, the ships were burnt by a fire. Their bronze decoration can be seen at Museo Nazionale Romano.
Museo Nazionale Romano: other bronze objects found on the ships
The elaborate decoration was not consistent with the initial hypothesis that the two ships were utilized for a naumachia, the re-enactment of a naval combat. In 1950 the name of Emperor Caligula was found on fistulae (lead conduits) of the ships. Suetonius and Cassius Dio, two Roman historians, say that Caligula enjoyed banqueting on a ship. The discovery of the remains of a Roman villa on the lake shore opposite the temple has led archaeologists to believe that the ships were a sort of annex to the villa. One of the ships in particular had cabins and halls, whereas the other one was probably used for ceremonies which were a re-enactment of those which occurred at the Temple of Isis at Philae, an island in the Nile River.
(left) Palazzo Ruspoli and Torre Colonna (or Saracena); (right) coat of arms of the Ruspoli, Princes of
Vignanello, (above) and heraldic symbol of the Orsini (below)
Nemi is the smallest of the fourteen towns on the Albani Hills which are known as Castelli Romani. Its location upon a precipice ensured Nemi was easily defendable, but it limited its development. Palazzo Ruspoli is the main monument of Nemi; it is named after the family who bought it in 1901. The Ruspoli gave a Renaissance appearance to the palace by building a new façade. Prior to this change J. Donovan defined Nemi as a wretched village beautifully situated over the lake and in 1873 Henry James wrote: I should like to spare a word for mouldy little Nemi, perched upon a cliff high above the lake; but after all, when I had climbed up into it from the water-side, passing beneath a great arch which I suppose once topped a gateway, and counted its twenty or thirty apparent inhabitants peeping at me from black doorways, and looked at the old round tower at whose base the village clusters, and declared that it was all queer, queer, desperately queer I had said all that is worth saying about it (from Italian Hours).
(left) Parish church; (right) Town Hall adjoining the church
In 1572 Nemi was acquired by Muzio Frangipane, who belonged to a Roman family very important in the XIIth century, but
rather a minor one in the XVIth century. Muzio and his two sons Roberto and Lello are buried in S. Marcello and their busts
are a fine work by Alessandro Algardi.
In 1639 the Frangipane enlarged their palace to the detriment of the existing parish church and of some houses. They decided therefore to develop Nemi southwards by building a new parish church and some small palaces.
Chiesa del Crocifisso: the miraculous crucifix
Immediately outside Nemi there is a sanctuary founded in 1645, but which became famous in 1669, when a miracle occurred. A Franciscan monk had sculptured a Crucifix on a piece of wood he had brought from Palestine, but he felt unable to give shape to the face of Christ and after praying for help, he fell asleep. At dawn, when he woke up, he discovered that the Crucifix had a face.
Chiesa del Crocifisso: (left-above) inscription celebrating the construction of the church by Mario Frangipane;
(left-below) inscription indicating that Pope Pius VI granted indulgence on some days (his nephew was given the fiefdom of Nemi in 1786);
(right) mosaic outside the church celebrating a visit by Pope Paul VI in 1969, one of the first travels by a pope outside the Vatican in the XXth century
References to Pope Alexander VII and his heraldic symbols (six mountains and a star) were placed by Bernini at many points inside the church and also in the fountains between the church and the palace. The Chigi preferred to be buried in their family chapel at S. Maria del Popolo in Rome (which was redesigned by Bernini too), rather than in S. Maria dell'Assunzione.
Sun reflections on the lake and on the Tyrrhenian Sea
Next step in your tour of the Environs of Rome: Genzano
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to Ariccia: