In summer 1856 Ferdinand Gregorovius spent three months in the small town of Genazzano; he described his stay there and in other nearby towns in Aus der Campagna von Rom (About the Roman Campagna) (you can read the English translation by Dorothea Roberts in Bill Thayer's Web Site); he started his account by describing the itinerary he followed to reach Genazzano; he left Rome at Porta Maggiore and took Via Labicana (today usually referred to as Via Casilina) along which he saw the newly built railroad which linked Rome to Naples and the arches of ancient Roman aqueducts; he then reached Tor Pignattara (the name given to the mausoleum of St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine) and San Cesareo on the slopes of the Alban hills, a location notorious for the brigands' assaults on the stagecoaches which used this route. He then passed near Colonna and Zagarolo, two small towns which were fiefdoms of the Colonna before being sold to other families.
View of Palestrina (below) and Castel S. Pietro (above)
At Colonna Gregorovius started to see Palestrina, the ancient Praeneste, a town which was conquered by the Romans in 338 BC; it was composed of an acropolis at the top of a hill and of a lower town at its foot; the two were protected by massive walls; the lower town housed the sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia, a famous oracle; during the Middle Ages Praeneste split into two separate small towns: the acropolis became Castel S. Pietro, while the site of the sanctuary was turned into a walled town which retained the old name, although it was modified into Palestrina (a separate page covers the history and the monuments of the ancient town). Gregorovius could have reached Palestrina also following Via Prenestina.
In the XIIth century Palestrina became a fiefdom of the Colonna; their power was challenged by the Caetani of nearby Anagni; both families exerted great influence on the Roman Church; at the conclave of 1294 two Colonna cardinals were unable to prevent the election of Cardinal Benedetto Caetani who became Pope Boniface VIII; in the following years the rivalry between the two families led to almost open warfare and in 1298 Palestrina was conquered by the troops of the pope who destroyed completely the town which at that time was mainly located above the ruins of the Roman sanctuary; this explains why the bell tower of the cathedral is almost the only monument of the old medieval town.
(above) Coats of arms of Cardinal Girolamo Basso della Rovere, nephew of Pope Sixtus IV (left) and of the Colonna family (right) on the lintel of the cathedral (in the centre Agapito, the patron saint of Palestrina);
(below-left) c.o.a. of Cornelia Baglioni Colonna at Chiesa dei Cappuccini; (below-centre) c.o.a. of the Barberini and Colonna family on the façade of Palazzo Barberini; (below-right) c.o.a. of Prince Maffeo Barberini and his wife Olimpia Giustiniani, a relative of Pope Innocent X on a side entrance to Palazzo Barberini
The Colonna regained possession of Palestrina and in 1307 Stefano Colonna promoted its reconstruction; in 1436 however the town was pillaged and almost destroyed by the troops of Giovanni Maria Vitelleschi, who acted on behalf of Pope Eugenius IV; in 1448 the Colonna returned: the decoration of the lintel of the cathedral indicates that they were on good terms with the Della Rovere family; in 1630 the Colonna sold Palestrina to Carlo Barberini, brother of Pope Urban VIII; his son Taddeo was given the title of prince by the pope. Many monuments of the town bear the coats of arms of these two families.
Monument to Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina by Arnaldo Zocchi (1921) and behind it the former seminar which incorporated "Sala Absidata", an
ancient building inside which fragments of a large mosaic were found during the XVIth century (see page two)
It is uncertain whether Pierluigi da Palestrina was actually born in the town; at the beginning of his career he held the post of organist at the cathedral and he married a woman from Palestrina. He became the most acclaimed composer of his time and he enjoyed the protection of popes of very different views; one of his best known works is Missa Papae Marcelli, a mass dedicated to Pope Marcellus II.
Gates: (left) Porta S. Croce (XVIth century built by the Colonna); (right) Porta del Sole (XVIIth century built by the Barberini)
Palestrina retains its four old gates; they were all opened at a time when defensive needs were not paramount; the Barberini decorated one of the gates with a relief showing a radiant sun, one of their heraldic symbols, which eventually gave its name to the gate.
The ancient sanctuary was structured on a series of terraces; the highest one housed a sort of theatre with a small circular temple; the Colonna built their houses on the ancient structures; Prince Taddeo Barberini had these houses reshaped along the curved lines of the theatre; inside the palace it is still possible to see the location of the circular temple.
Palazzo Barberini - interior: (left) fragment of the frescoes which decorated the palace; (right) stone frame with the Barberini's heraldic symbols
In 1956 the palace was turned into a national archaeological museum (Museo Nazionale Prenestino) which displays reliefs, statues, mosaics and other exhibits found at Palestrina; prior to this change the building was abandoned for a very long period and it retains only small parts of its XVIIth century decoration.
Renaissance well and view of the Castelli Romani from Palazzo Barberini
Monument to Cardinal Antonio Barberini by Bernardino Cametti in Santa Rosalia: the angel writes "aeternitati vixit" meaning that the cardinal lived having in mind his eternal life
The Barberini built a small church near their palace, where several members of the family were buried; unlike the main building, the church fully retains its lavishly decorated interior, with two striking baroque monuments which show angels apparently floating in the air;
the icon of this website is based on a detail of one of these statues.
Gregorovius made Palestrina popular among German readers and spending a summer in one of the towns described in his books became fashionable. Among others, Thomas and Heinrich Mann spent a summer in Palestrina.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Introductory page on Ferdinand Gregorovius
Next pages (in Gregorovius' walks): Cave, Genazzano, Olevano, Paliano and Anagni
Next page (in Giuseppe Vasi's Environs of Rome): Frascati
The Ernici Mountains: Ferentino; Alatri; Fiuggi (Anticoli di Campagna); Piglio and Acuto
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
Small towns near Subiaco: Cervara and Rocca Canterano; Trevi and Filettino.