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THE CASTELLI ROMANI

Nature and History

Author: Giammaria Maffi

Multimedia: Giammaria Maffi

"(These hills) became alive, as they sunk down in harmonious sinuous lines, illuminated by the prodigious clearness of the air which seemed about to fly towards the sky (…)". Nikolaj Vasiljeevitch Gogol.

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So warmly did Gogol, the famous Russian writer, describe the Alban Hills in his letters from Italy, during one of his frequent stays around 1838 in parts of Albano and Genzano, where he composed some pages of his celebrated novel "Dead Souls". Like many other writers and artists of that age he had discovered the beauty and riches of these places, overcoming an initial scepticism. Certainly, among the many hill zones of volcanic origin surrounding Rome, the Alban Hills represent an anthropical ecosystem full of fascination and variety. Their features are quite distinct from those of the external ring of the volcanic crater - to the north, the complex of so-called Colli Tuscolani, and to the south west, the already quoted Alban Hills. This ambience has two sides to it: the countryside is, on the one hand, uneven and wild - but when it descends towards the sea it appears more open and, in fact, "sinuous", so that the whole region has an animated and variable image. Its beauty has always been, in some tracts, wild and a little hostile, as we may sometimes discover today; it seems, too,at times to have been able to appear shadowy and mysterious, almost an enemy - this region which gave birth to the so-called Castelli Romani. ?Such variety and richness of hill country has favoured, then, from ancient times, the development and cultivation of different crops such as vines, olives and grain, while above a height of 400 metres rich vegetation has extended from year to year, consisting mostly of beeches and oaks. Man has intervened, creating ample wooded areas, planting chestnut trees which grow rapidly and are good for carpentry and building purposes. This Lazio territory, most of which comes within the confines of the Parco Regionale Dei Castelli Romani, largely retains its beauty and variety of countryside. In ancient times, due also to its favourable summer climate, it attracted Romans to settle and build here. First,in the time of the Republic, patrician and consular villas were built here, and then, in the 80's B. C., a sumptuous summer residence for the Emperor Domitian himself, by Lake Albano.
So the history and peculiarities of the area of the Castelli Romani seem to be closely linked to its geographical variousness. This first made possible the formation and consolidation of inhabited centres of different kinds and sizes, scattered throughout the region. Then, during the so-called phase of "battlements", of the feudal age (early Middle Ages), came the birth of agricultural centres, organised round a comparable to the "domuscultae" of the Campagna Romana, farming units of former times. They adopted the praedia of Roman times, evolved first as "curtes", that is to say, fenced settlements, and then "castra", the first settlements surrounded by walls - which anticipates the castles of the feudal era.

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So the history and peculiarities of the area of the Castelli Romani seem to be closely linked to its geographical variousness. This first made possible the formation and consolidation of inhabited centres of different kinds and sizes, scattered throughout the region. Then, during the so-called phase of "battlements", of the feudal age (early Middle Ages), came the birth of agricultural centres, organised round a comparable to the "domuscultae" of the Campagna Romana, farming units of former times. They adopted the praedia of Roman times, evolved first as "curtes", that is to say, fenced settlements, and then "castra", the first settlements surrounded by walls - which anticipates the castles of the feudal era.
Today very little remains of this complex of crenellated towers and medieval walls constructed with buttresses of tufo, once features of these parts. But it is still possible in some corners of the city or along some urban or provincial roads connecting different centres to notice what was once an efficient system of control and management of the territory by local signorie (feudal authorities). There was a system of garrisons, situated along the ancient consular roads (the Appia, the Via Latina, now the Anagnina connecting with the Tuscolana), points of necessary passage connecting all centres in the hinterland and in southern Italy.
Such an urbanistic complex can, for the most part, no longer be traced, due to the almost continous development of the area over the years, resulting today in sequences of centres that have cropped up haphazardly along road routes. Nonetheless, it is still possible for the traveller of today to appreciate the built up area of Rocca di Papa, clinging to the ancient volcano, or the citadel of Rocca Priora, rising above all the woods of Tuscolo, or elegant Castel Gandolfo, extending round the shore of Lake Albano.
Inspite of the loss of more typically medieval characteristics, topographically these historic places of Lazio together make up what is called the area of the "Castelli Romani",a name originally applied to an entire district area of Rome - a band of boroughs and rural centres surrounding the capital on its southern side. Following the Unification of Italy, this place name was used to indicate only the southern part, gravitating towards the district of the Colli Albani and Tucolani, a geographical area of 100 square kilometres. Within this area there were 14 city centres (15 if we include the citadel of Velletri) of varying importance and size.
The vicissitudes of this territory changes towards the end of the XVIth century. With the return of the papal court to Rome following the so-called Avignon Captivity, the temporal power of the Church is re-establised, and there is a rediscovery of the Colli Albani and Tuscolani. This is nourished by a rediscovered love of classical culture and an interest in ancient roots. There is renewed attention to these places, favoured by the cultural activities of abbots and monks of the area, such as those of Grottaferrata, the monastery of S. Silvestro of Montecomprati and the barefoot Carmelites at the hermitage of the Camaldolesi Di Monte Corona sul Tuscolo.
At the same time, there is a rediscovery of the so-called Vetus Latium as a place of recreation and repose from the summer heat of Rome for popes and members of Roman high society. A rediscovery, in fact, of the ancient custom of summer residence in the Castelli, as practised by Romans of the classical era, such as Cicero, Lucullo and Cato, to mention only a few. But it was the high Renaissance that saw all doubts removed about the desirability of living in such beautiful parts: people began to cultivate vines and build villas in the district of Tuscolo, between Frascati and Grottaferrata. At the same time, they introduced urbanistic improvements, not only in architecture but also in the choice of more accessible places and sites best able to exploit the whole marvellous heritage of the landscape.
Here we find a planning strategy, which involves two complementary ways of looking at the surrounding space, on the one hand formal and representional, looking outwards, and on the other hand more private and directed by the spirit.
?Taking the Villa Aldobrandini at Frascati as a more successful and visible example of combining architecture and nature, environmental planning and the needs of presentation, and we see that the whole is stripped of the narrower dark spaces of the medieval castle, to introduce other wider and more airy ones. So we begin here to think of city and countryside no longer in terms of the defense of possessions, but of the organisation and development of inhabited centres. At the same time, the nobility discovers leisure in the ancient Roman sense of otium - and a new style of living in the present moment, "alla francese". And the people are now offered the opportunity of enjoying a pic- nic on the lawns, and of drinking the local wine in the "frashette" characteristic of these parts. These aspects of life, of wine and conviviality, have always been a part of the lives of people living in the castelli. Since Roman times, right down to our own, the cultivation of grapes and the production of wine have been a big factor in agrarian life.
?There is a strong sense of the past in the Castelli, and so a continuity through a love of these places and parts characterised by nature and the local people, a memory of ceremonies, customs, sayings and popular songs - which contribute to a strong cultural matrix. This clashes, of course, with the increasing fragmentation and tendency towards multi-culturalism which is becoming more and more common in the metropoli, and particularly in Rome. Cultural identity in the Castelli is clear, enacted in contemporary rites reflecting archaic symbols, in local customs and the habits of farmers. Religious processions, popular sagras (festivals), rural fairs and serenatas, are all occasions when countryside and citizens are involved together, sharing in gaiety and beauty. The favourite recipe today for involving tourists and Italians in the beauties of the region is so called cultural tourism and eno-gastronomic tourism.
Here in the Castelli, there is a strong sense of tradition and of the charms of the natural ambience, genuine hospitality, ancient memories and lively modernity.

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