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Page revised in May 2023.
All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Page revised in May 2023.
Ferdinand Gregorovius, a German historian best known for his studies on medieval Rome, spent the summer of 1860 at Genazzano with his friend Johannes Muller, a painter; the two decided to go on a ride across the Volsci Mountains to see the Pontine Marshes. The journey was described in an account (Aus den Bergen der Volsker) written by Gregorovius for a German paper. Muller was a watercolourist who later on opened a studio at Piazza Barberini.
Segni seen from Gavignano and enlargement showing its polygonal walls at Ponte Scarabeo
The hill on which Segni is situated is very steep, and we were nearly two hours ascending its barren sides. The sites, in general, of all the towns in which Cyclopian remains are found, are on very steep and high mountains. The Cyclops always inhabited elevated situations.
John Izard Middleton - Grecian remains in Italy: Cyclopian walls and Roman antiquities - 1812
Having crossed the Sacco near Valmontone, we began to ascend, continuing to do so till Segni was reached. As we rode over the foothills of the Volscian range we saw Fortino to the right, Gavignano on a pleasant eminence to the left. The road is a little monotonous, climbing always higher into the mountains; as we wound up, the classic plains of Latium spread out more and more beautifully at our feet, sad and grand, each hill crowned with its castle, and all shut in by the blue Apennines.
Gregorovius - From the Volscian Mountains - 1860 - English translation by Dorothea Roberts.
(left) Porta Maggiore; (right-above) inscription mentioning two freedmen of the Volumni family (Ist century BC); (right-below) inscription celebrating Emperor Caracalla
I rode in by the Porta Maggiore, hoping to find an inn. This is the only gate to enter by; here alone is it accessible, precipitous cliffs guarding it everywhere else. The gate rests against the Cyclopean wall, and above it is a huge edifice which once dominated the town, the Palace of the Conti. Gregorovius
We copied a number of inscriptions that lie scattered in various parts of the town; some in private houses, others serving as corner-posts in the streets; some of them are, very probably, already published, but if so, are scattered in ponderous collections. I shall therefore give them all, as they serve to throw some light upon the history of Segni. Middleton
In the XIXth century Segni occupied only a part of the site of ancient Signia, a town on the northern side of the Volsci Mountains which according to tradition was conquered (or founded) by Tarquinius the Proud, the last Roman king in 513 BC. Ancient Roman inscriptions and fragments of reliefs can be seen on the walls of many buildings of the town.
No cathedral or fortress breaks the uniformity of its rows of low houses. I had fondly imagined I should find it an ancient place, filled with old monuments, but I was disillusioned. The towns in Latium proper bear the stamp of the Middle Ages, but this old Signia looks desolate, sad, with no historical interest. (..) I found Segni grey and monotonous; not a garden, not a tree, breaks its uniformity; its limestone is dull in its hue. (..) If we except Cori, which is not so far from Rome, the Volscian towns have all a forlorn, poverty-stricken, and deserted aspect. Gregorovius
The German writer was impressed by the poor houses he saw in Segni; they were built with white calcareous stones mixed with black tufo which overall gave them a grey colour; today most external walls have been covered by an outer layer, while flowers and climbing plants give the houses a bright appearance.
(left) Medieval building; (right) Ponte Scarabeo
Similar to nearby Montefortino, Segni was plundered by the troops of Pope Paul IV
in 1557, but it still retains some medieval buildings.
Ponte Scarabeo is a medieval arch built between a house and the ancient Roman walls; its unusual name is associated with a tale about a scarab donated by a Carthaginian prince to a local girl.
Medieval bell towers: (left to right) Cathedral, S. Pietro and S. Stefano
The Conti, ancestors of Innocent III, Gregory IX, and Alexander IV, and their families were the lords of Segni. After the reassertion of the Roman independence in 1143, the Pontiffs were often obliged to fly from the hatred and persecution of the Roman people to their strongholds in the Campagna. (..) Innocent III was born in his father's palace at Segni. He and Alexander III and Lucius III all resided there at intervals. Gregorovius
The Romanesque bell towers of Segni are a sign of the importance acquired by the town in the XIIth and XIIIth centuries when several popes resided there for a short time; in 1198 Lotario dei Conti di Segni, a member of the family which ruled Segni, became Pope Innocent III, one of the most important popes of the Middle Ages and a keen asserter of the supremacy of the popes over kings and emperors.
Cathedral: (left) interior; (right) inscription celebrating St. Thomas Becket and St. Bruno of Cologne
When I have got hold of the geography of these Campagna towns, I visit, as a rule, the cathedral, which is the historic museum of the place, and it is seldom that I fail to discover in it some relic of the Middle Ages. (..) I was building on this cathedral at Segni, for it has been a Bishop's See ever since the year 499, but a modern edifice confronted me, decorated, after the present Roman fashion, with an exuberant painted cupola which it dislocated one's neck to look up at. Gregorovius
The cathedral of Segni was entirely redesigned in 1626-1657 in a period during which several families competed for the control over the town which eventually was assigned to the Sforza Cesarini (who had another fiefdom at Genzano in the Alban Hills).
An inscription was placed in the new building to celebrate two events which had occurred in the medieval church: in 1173 Pope Alexander III canonized Thomas Becket and in 1183 his successor Pope Lucius III canonized Bruno of Cologne. These two popes were able to reside in Rome only for short periods as the city was hostile to them; they often stayed at Anagni and Velletri, but occasionally also in Segni.
The Sforza Cesarini were more interested in the Roman theatrical life (they built Teatro Argentina) and in the development and embellishment of Genzano than in living in Segni; for this reason Palazzo Cremona is the only XVIIIth century building which stands out from the grey houses of Segni because of its elegant loggia which connects to the building across the street.
The air felt cool, almost sharp; wild roses, tall brown grasses, sprays of golden broom waved in the breeze to and fro. The spirit of a primeval world - a grand, awe inspiring, prehistoric world - broods over the weather-worn Cyclopean masses which form these ancient walls. I climbed up to examine them, far-famed as they are. As in all the other Latian towns, their long lines encircle the arx or Citadel set on these mountain precipices. Their gigantic blocks are as closely fitted into each other as if the architect who placed them there had been at work only yesterday. Gregorovius
Because of its walls and gates Segni is twinned with Mycenae, one of the major towns of Ancient Greece in the period 1600-1100 BC. The walls of Segni however are not as old as those of Mycenae: it is now believed that they were built after the Roman conquest; they are called polygonal walls for the shape of their stones, but Gregorovius preferred to use the term cyclopean, which was utilized by Pliny to mean that only those mythical giants could have moved these boulders.
(left) Porta Saracena; (right) a corbel arch at Tiryns
A low Etruscan gateway has here and there been broken out through their massive bulk. The original Cyclopean gate of the town is still in use. It is composed of huge blocks of dressed stone leaning towards each other at the top of the opening, with a great lintel stone covering them in. The colossal size of these walls, their surface worn by the storms of thousands of years, the wild growths which garland them, the immense strength of the rocks which they crown, the vast scale of all their surroundings excite emotions which it is quite impossible to put into words. Gregorovius
This gate was called Porta Saracena after a Saracen (Arab) raid; these raids were not limited to towns on the coast, but reached sites very far from the sea.
Porta Saracena consists of a corbel arch closed by an enormous boulder; it has been compared to the Lion Gate of Mycenae, but a more appropriate comparison would be with other corbel arches at Mycenae and Tiryns.
(left) Porta (della) Foca; (right) peperino walls
The name given to this other ancient gate, in the lack of more plausible explanations, is thought to be a reference to Byzantine Emperor Phocas to whom a column was dedicated in the Roman Forum.
Segni has also sections of ancient walls built at a later time and which were aimed at supporting some small terraces (similar to those which can be seen at Cori).
Sketch of the walls from "Augustus J. C. Hare - Days Near Rome - 1873"
All those who visit Segni should make the circuit of the Pelasgic walls which give the place its chief interest. They are formed by masses of rock jammed into one another, and though of no great height, almost surround the existing town, and are among the most extensive in Italy. In some places they are most picturesque, especially where a tall cross crowns the huge pile of stones, and stands out against the vast expanse of distance, for you look across the great depths to billow upon billow of purple Hernican hills, and beyond these upon all the ranges of the Abruzzi, still, in April, covered with snow. Hare
On the highest ground in the town, close by the Church of San Pietro stood the Volscian Cyclopean Fortress in days of old. On that eminence, dominating the whole of Latium, were seated the Citadel and temple of the ancient Signia, of which but few fragments now remain; a circular cistern is amongst these. This platform is a favourite resort of the townsfolk, who stroll about on what resembles a huge stone table supported by prehistoric walls, and set amongst grey rocks overgrown with moss and wild flowers. Nothing can be more original than this promenade, up in the clouds, and in such a grand and rocky region. Gregorovius
A large Roman cistern was still utilized when Gregorovius visited Segni; Pliny the Elder (Historia Naturalis - Book 35 - XLVI) mentioned the town for opus signinum, a particular mode of flooring made of tiles broken up into very small pieces, mixed with mortar and turned into a paste which had impermeable properties and was used for aqueducts, pools and cisterns (more on Roman construction techniques).
(left) S. Pietro on the ancient acropolis; (right-above) XIIIth century fresco; (right-below) stones of the cell of a temple behind the altar
On the acropolis archaeologists have identified a temple of the IIIrd century BC which replaced a previous temple dedicated to Juno Moneta; this epithet of Juno meant she was worshipped as protectress of funds; eventually the epithet became a noun from which the word money derives. A church was built inside the cell of the temple; in 1965 some medieval frescoes were discovered behind later additions.
Gregorovius was at the acropolis on a Sunday evening and he watched the inhabitants of Segni who reached the site wearing their best suits, enjoying the breeze and the view over Anagni which is located on the other side of the valley of the River Sacco.
Sheer down fell the rock into the Latian plains below, where in a glance you behold more provinces, cities, mountains than it is possible to enumerate, each rich in historical memories, classic associations, and poetic myths. Gregorovius
Gregorovius enjoyed a dinner at the only inn of Segni; in his account he praised the local wine, although he knew that Martial (XIII. Ep. 116) warned about its astringent effects: Potabis liquidum Signina morantia ventrem? / ne nimium sistas, sit tibi parca sitis (Will you drink Signine that constricts relaxed bowels? That you may not check them too much, let your thirst be sparing - translation by Walter C. A. Ker).
On the next day Gregorovius and his friend were ready to cross the Volsci Mountains (with the help of a local guide) to reach Norma.
Gavignano seen from the road to Carpineto
The name of the town is generally thought to origin from a property of Aulus Gabinius, a politician and military commander who was supported by Pompey.
Gabinius, one of Pompey's intimates, drew up a law which gave him, not an admiralty, but an out-and-out monarchy and irresponsible power over all men. For the law gave him dominion over the sea this side of the pillars of Hercules, and over all the mainland to the distance of four hundred furlongs from the sea. These limits included almost all places in the Roman world, and the greatest nations and most powerful kings were comprised within them.
Plutarch - Pompey - 25 - Bernadotte Perrin, Ed.
Abbazia di Rossilli at the foot of Gavignano on the site of a Roman villa (in the lower part of the image)
The property of Aulus Gabinius was most likely at the foot of the hill of Gavignano along Via Latina the road which linked Rome with Casinum. The remains of a Roman villa were used in the late XIIth century to build a Benedictine abbey. Its importance declined with that of the Benedictine order in the following centuries and most likely it was temporarily assigned to the Basilian monks of Grottaferrata. In the early XIXth century it was sold and turned into a farm.
(above) View northwards with the Hernican Mountains in the background (see them from Veroli); (below) details showing Genazzano (left) and Paliano (right), both fiefdoms of the Colonna
The valley is one of the most delightful that can be conceived; it is protected on each side by lofty mountains, and through the centre of it runs the river Sacco, which contributes to fertilize the whole of the surrounding country. The hills are covered with olive trees, and the plains with corn. Add to this, the facility of access afforded by the Via Latina, which is ranked by Strabo with the Via Appia, and which leads through the centre of it ; and it affords the idea of one of the richest and most populous countries imaginable. Middleton
Cingoli is a town known as the Balcony of the Marches because of its commanding views. Gavignano could be rightly called the Balcony of Ciociaria, because of its views over the whole valley of the River Sacco which is known as Ciociaria (the land of those who wear ciocie, a traditional footwear).
View southwards in the direction of Frosinone and Ceccano from Porta Napoletana
The isolation of the hill of Gavignano, in addition to providing views in all directions, was a natural fortification for the inhabitants of the valley who sought refuge there in the IXth century when the Saracens, raided the coasts of Latium and its interior reaching even Subiaco at the foot of the Apennines.
The two gates: (left) Porta Romana; (right) Porta Napoletana
Gavignano was fortified according to a scheme common to many other small Italian hill towns: a ring of walls or of houses without openings and a watching tower on the highest point which served as a last defence. In the case of Gavignano the houses themselves protected the access from Rome whereas the southern gate was placed at the centre of a short stretch of walls. The earliest document mentioning Gavignano is dated 1161 and it is signed by Pope Alexander III; it assigned the town and the surrounding countryside to Abbazia dei SS. Vincenzo ed Anastasio ad Aqua Salvias (aka as S. Paolo alle Tre Fontane).
(left) Arches supporting Palazzo Aldobrandini; (centre) main street; (right) "cordonata", street with very low steps leading to Palazzo Aldobrandini
In the XIIIth century Gavignano became a fiefdom of the very powerful Conti di Segni, but it suffered from the rivalries among the members of that family. In 1266 Mattia d'Anagni, a nephew of Pope Gregory IX sacked Gavignano in an attempt to create his own fiefdom. In 1495 the town was almost razed to the ground by the troops of King Charles VIII of France who, after a failed attempt to conquer the Kingdom of Naples, was returning home. The Conti di Segni rebuilt the town during the pontificate of Pope Leo X, but in 1597 they sold Gavignano to Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, nephew of Clement VIII, the reigning pope.
Cardinal Aldobrandini ordered the redesign of the small castle at the centre of the town which was given the aspect of an urban palace (the tower and the battlements are a XXth century addition). He also granted some rights of self-government to the citizens of Gavignano. Similar to nearby Carpineto and other properties of the Aldobrandini, e.g. a large villa at Frascati, Gavignano was inherited by the Pamphilj, the family of Pope Innocent X. In 1816 the feudal system was abolished by Pope Pius VII. Gavignano was not bombed during WWII and thus has retained its historical aspect.
Chiesa del Calvario (XVIIIth century) at the northern end of the town surrounded by a small cemetery
Introductory page on Ferdinand Gregorovius
Previous page of this walk: Valmontone and Montefortino
Next pages of this walk: Carpineto, Norma and Cori
The Roman Campagna: Colonna and Zagarolo, Palestrina, Cave, Genazzano, Olevano, Paliano and Anagni
The Ernici Mountains: Ferentino, Frosinone, Ceccano, Ceprano, Alatri, Fiuggi (Anticoli di Campagna), Piglio and Acuto
On the Latin shores: Anzio and Nettuno and Torre Astura plus An Excursion to Ardea and An Excursion to Lavinium (Pratica di Mare)
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.