We take a break from the complexity and hustle and bustle of Rome to head to Castelgandolfo, which offers a refreshing change of pace but is still intimately related to Rome’s long history.
“Castelli Romani” refers to a group of towns, on the hillsides of an isolated group of volcanic mountains called the “Alban Hills,” roughly fifteen miles to the southeast of the city. A ride of about 45 minutes from the Termini Train Station will take you to Frascati, Castelgandolfo, or Albano. Great travelers and writers from the past, such as Henry James, Stendhal, and Goethe, featured the Castelli in their writings about Rome.
The Alban Hills are in the background of Blake Buchannan’s photo, and you can almost see that they are in the form of a large crater. The high point on the right edge of the crater is Monte Cavo. A hike to the top of Monte Cavo will give you a good look at the several smaller craters inside the large one.
For the purposes of today’s simple start, we will focus Castelgandolfo, but this will not be our only trip to the Castelli.
Two towns in the Castelli—Castelgandolfo and Albano—both claim to be on the site of the Alba Longa, whose founding Roman legend attributes to the son of Aeneas. Rome did not come into being until about 15 generations had passed after Aeneas. At this point, Romulus and Remus were born, and they had a legitimate claim to the throne of Alba Longa, which was a sufficient reason for the then-ruling usurper to order them to be put to death at birth. After being nourished by the famous she wolf and reaching their maturity, they reestablished the just line of kings in Alba Longa and then went off and founded Rome, or at least one of them did. Alba Longa was thus the mother city of Rome.
Moving now from myth to geography and history, Monte Cavo is the most dominant peak in the Castelli. If you hike up the old Roman Road that leads to the top, you can see that beneath it are several craters, two of which hold lakes, Lake Albano and Lake Nemi. Both are charming and historic, as are the towns above them. Castelgandolfo is the small town that runs in a narrow strip along the upper and western edge of the crater of Lake Albano, and it also includes a few homes and restaurants down at lake level. If you happen to be at lake level on the north side and pop into Da Agnese for a porchetta sandwich, which you should, tell Mario I’m thinking of him and of my many happy visits to his little eatery. You can walk it off by taking the 10-kilometer path that runs around the lake and through the trees.
Lago di Albano and Monte Cavo as seen from Castelgandolfo (My photo)
Wealthy Romans often built their villas in this general area. Cicero, Caesar, and Pompey all did so. Still later, the Emperor Domitian built his villa in what is now Castelgandolfo. His villa was of immodest size and included the entirety of Lake Albano and the land around it. His opulent treatment of himself is not the reason he was assassinated, but it may have helped.
Part of Domitian’s Villa is now included in the Papal Gardens, which are narrow but long and extend over a mile to Albano, the next town over. They are spectacularly beautiful and include suggestive ruins from Domitian’s day.
The view from the Gardens allows us to see the coastal town of Anzio, site of the Anzio Landings of January 1944. The Germans had occupied all of Italy in August and September of 1943, and the Allies were trying to fight their way up the long, narrow, and mountainous peninsula. It was slow going, so Churchill advocated an amphibious landing behind the German lines near the towns of Anzio and Nettuno. The Germans had big artillery guns in the Castelli that fired on the newly arrived troops on the beachhead below and helped to keep them pinned down for four long months. Since the Allies fired back, local Italians were at risk. The pope then opened these gardens so the locals could take shelter in them, and a story has it that in gratitude, many of the male babies born at this time were given the pope’s first name, Eugenio.
At one end of the long gardens is a papal palace that faces on the main square of Castelgandolfo. I’ll limit myself to one curiosity about the palace: its roof supports two large telescopes! The popes have for a long time supported astronomical research, and they moved their institute out here in order to avoid Rome’s bright lights.
Brother Guy Consolmagno shows us one of the “pope scopes” above the papal palace in Castelgandolfo (my photo)
One of the fruits of this papal support of science is the Gregorian Calendar, which we now use throughout the West. The older lunar calendar had allowed the months to wander all over the year, so January could turn up in the summer.
The papacy continues to support astronomical research conducted by the Vatican Observatory, or Specola Vaticana, whose offices are located in the Vatican Gardens here in Castelgandolfo. I’m grateful to Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno for having guided perhaps ten groups of my students through the observatory and engaged them with thoughtful discussions of the relationship between the Church and scientific study. It’s worth noting in this connection that Pope Gregory’s introduction of the new calendar preceded the trial of Bruno by a decade, so it would be wrong to say that the Church was simply opposed to science.
Another imposing building on Castelgandolfo’s main piazza is a charming church. The church was designed by Gianlorenzo Bernini, who among other claims to fame was the chief architect of St. Peter’s for half a century. The Bernini church is small enough that you can give it a good look even during a short visit, and rich enough that it repays your attention.
Most Roman churches are rectangles, with a crossbar or transept to turn them into the shape of a cross. This church is also a cross, but it is a cross whose arms are of equal length. One consequence is that the dome is centered over the whole interior, not just over the altar, and this allows the dome to be the source of illumination for the whole church. The height of the dome is also felt throughout the whole church. This is the general design that both Bramante and Michelangelo had wanted for St. Peter’s, but their plans were later changed by the addition of a long longitudinal nave.
The church designed by Bernini in Castelgandolfo (wikimedia commons)
One of the most durable ancient Roman constructions in the area was a tunnel built through the wall of the crater to limit the height of the water level in the Alban Lake. The tunnel is a little over a mile long and seems to have functioned for about 2,000 years. Now the lake level has slipped below that of the tunnel, so it sits idle, but building it must have been a tricky project, especially since the lake level at the time was higher than the tunnel.
There is also a Roman road that climbs Monte Cavo. You can still see that it was built with meticulous care. But why? Not for any commercial or defensive purpose, but because the mountain was deemed sacred, and the Romans built a temple on the top.
View of Castelgandolfo from the Lake. The little dome for the “pope scope” is at the center, with the larger dome of Bernini’s church to the left (My photo)