A visit to the ruins of Domitian's imperial palace in the papal gardens of the Villa Barberini at Castel Gandolfo
The final book in my Roman Mysteries series is about the mysterious and sudden death of Titus in September of AD 81. His younger brother Domitian became emperor and many contemporaries and subsequent historians are convinced that Domitian was behind Titus's death. That will be the mystery in The Man from Pomegranate Street: was Titus murdered? And if so, whodunnit?
I had been doing lots of research on Domitian, and when I first read that he built a palace on Lake Albano I was surprised. Then I visited Castel Gandolfo and understood why. It is a stunning location on the rim of a beautiful volcanic lake, only about 10 miles southeast of Rome just off the Appian Way. It is such a pleasant place that the Pope himself has a summer residence there. When I arrived to do research in September of 2008, I imagined the site of Domitian's palace would be underneath the main papal residence, with its circular piazza and Swiss guards and eye-catching dome. I assumed that tourists could just pop in to have a look, or that there would be guided tours.
But Castelgandolfo is part of the Vatican City and it is only open by special invitation. You can't just walk in.
Desperate to see the remains of Domitian’s palace (I imagined this would consist of the odd column or piece of statuary) I wrote a note to the divine father on hotel stationery and put it in a padded envelope with a copy of the first book in the Roman Mysteries series - The Thieves of Ostia - and DVD of the BBC children’s TV show adapted from my books. My friend Antonia – a geoarchaeologist who lives on Lake Albano – told me this wouldn’t work. She said that I needed to go through official channels. After some investigation, Antonia gave me the details. Once back in England, I duly sent off a polite email request, including this paragraph:
My name is Caroline Lawrence and I am the author of a series of historical novels… aimed at children aged 9 and up. The final book in my series is about the Emperor Domitian, and his opulent villa on the Alban Lake. I will be in Castel Gandolfo on Friday 20 March 2009, and I wonder if it would be possible for me to view any ruins associated with Domitian's villa that are not usually open to the public? I will be accompanied by my husband Richard, who does the maps for my books, and by a Dutch scholar living in Rome named Antonia H. If you could grant us access for a short time to any ruins still visible, I would be extremely grateful.
A few weeks later I was on at train at Reading, on my way to the Cheltenham Literary Festival, when my mobile phone rang. It was an Italian-accented man’s voice asking if I was Caroline Lawrence. When I say yes, he passed me over to someone else, someone more important. This new man told me I should present myself at the Villa Barberini at Castel Gandolfo between 8.00am and 12.00 noon on Friday 20 March 2009, and that I would be shown the remains of Domitian’s villa. When I arrive, he said, I should contact a certain Commendatore Petrillo.
Fast forward half a year to March 2009. I have just done some author events at International Schools in Rome. My husband Richard and have taken the train to Castel Gandolfo and checked into the charming Hotel Castelganolfo. On the Thursday Antonia and two archaeologists show us some of the imperial grottoes on the lake shore and also the Emissario.
At last it is Friday 20 March, the long-awaited day. Antonia arrives at our hotel at 9.00 prompt (she is Dutch). After a quick espresso she and Richard and I walk to the Villa Barberini, which is south of the Pope’s main palazzo with its dome. This surprises me. Aren’t we going the wrong way?
The Villa Barberini is an attractive peach-coloured building. An official behind glass sees us crossing the street and the gates swing open. Antonia tells him who we are and he says he will ring the commendatore. Last night the fine weather broke and a thunderstorm pelted our hotel window with hail while lightning flashed over to the east, lighting up the sky above the lake. This morning, a strong, cold dry wind is blowing from the north. Antonia says this is the tramontana. Because it is so cold, we are permitted to wait in the marble entryway of the villa.
Presently the official shows us into an office with a large wooden desk and a man in a suit behind it. He is Saverio Petrillo, a distinguished-looking Italian with white hair and a gap between his front teeth. He and Antonia discuss the ruins and especially the work of Lugli, the Italian scholar who studied the remains of Domitian’s palace. I can understand every three or four words. (Note to self: learn Italian)
After some polite small talk, the commendatore summons a guide. Paolo Turoli emerges from the archive room next door. Paolo has dark hair sprinkled with grey; he is about 40, perhaps a little older. He is shy but soon warms up as he leads us out of the villa and to the right. The cold wind blows in gusts, but we are somewhat sheltered by the ancient trees lining the walkway.
Ancient stone oaks - Paolo tells us that some of these trees are over 400 years old, from the 17th century. A terrible storm in 1961 killed many of them; these are the survivors. There are bits of statuary here and there, a pair of small white sphinxes face each other at the beginning of one path. A splashing fountain draws me to the right and beyond it I see an impressive topiary on a terrace below me and beyond it a panoramic view across the western slopes to the sea. The topiary is in the shape of an eagle above three balls with a venerable magnolia tree at its centre. Paolo tell us that in the 17th century an aristocratic cardinal called Barberini made this his heraldic symbol. An aristocrat from Milan violently objected, claiming the eagle was his symbol. He began to contest Barberini’s right to use the eagle until Barberini became Pope Urban VIII in 1623. Then the Milanese aristocrat hastily backed off. ‘Take the eagle,’ he said. ‘Please.’
Three vast terraces – We go along the sphinx-guarded path, towards another fountain at the far end. Emerging from the oak-lined walkway, we see the scale of the gardens for the first time. To our left ( the east) is a small theatre. Stretching straight ahead of us is a long terrace with three paths, leading to the site of Domitian’s palace. This was the highest of the three terraces.
Domitian’s private theatre – We investigate the theatre first. Paolo tells us it had 22 tiers of seating in the cavea (the curved part), the highest of which almost reaches the highest point of the rim of the crater around Lake Albano. The theatre is overgrown with oaks now, and probably not visible on GoogleEarth. There is a curving passageway beneath the cavea and we can still see remains of a stucco border of seated and standing figures.
Upper terrace - Leaving the theatre, we return to the fountain and then start south along the wall of the upper terrace. Its three paths are lined with majestic umbrella pines, ‘true oak’, and immaculate box hedges. Paolo tells me there are fourteen full-time gardeners here. He leans over one of the low hedges and plucks a flower and shows it to us: a tiny violet. They are everywhere. In contrast to these tiny flowers are massive twisted oaks with trunks hollowed out by time.
Why no lake view? - The view over the fields of Latium towards the sea is very beautiful, but can’t compare to the view of the lake. But it seems Domitian’s Alban Citadel had no view of Lake Albano. This is something which surprises me. Why build a palace with no view of the lake and Jupiter's Mount Albano rising dramatically in the east? Perhaps the answer is blowing in the wind. Literally. Here we are sheltered from the tramontana. On the other side we would be blown away on the winter days when it rises. Also, the other side is very steep, much steeper than the outer slope of the mountain. Paolo offers a third possible reason. Cicero attacked the aristocrat Clodius Pulcher for building a villa here on the holy site of Alba Longa. Clodius’s villa was probably where the Pope’s residence is now. But Domitian did have a way of enjoying the lake view on fine days. A tunnel led from this upper terrace through the mountain and out the other side. Paolo tells us it emerges between the Hotel Castel Vecchio and a nursing home, along the Galleria di Sopra.
Niches and the Tunnel - Piercing the eastern wall of the upper terrace are rectangular and semi-circular niches. These were probably nymphaea (fountains). I am examining the statue of a Claudian youth in one of them when Antonia excitedly summons me further along. Here is the entrance of the tunnel leading to the lake view terrace! Paolo tells us the excavators found a coin of Titus in the stucco coating the tunnel wall. Apparently that’s something Italian builders and sculptors still do today: they leave a coin somewhere in the fabric of the building. Unfortunately it’s too dangerous to explore the tunnel: electricity cables pass through it.
Inner room garden - We come to the end of the upper terrace and reach the beginning of Domitian’s palace. A path marks an inner corridor. The remains of an inner room have been made into a garden with a fishpond and a statue of the Madonna. According to H.V. Morton, who made a brief visit to these gardens in the mid 1950’s, the Holy Father picked wild flowers and gave them to her each morning on his walk. We can see the original level of the palace, a meter or so above us (for once) and the vaults that formed its foundations.
Herbs and flowers – Throughout our tour Paolo will stop to pick a flower or other piece of flora. He gives me little violets, an acorn, lemony citronella, a strong kind of mint, a sprig of rosemary, and he points out acanthus, the plant which inspired Corinthian capitals.
The middle terrace - We move out onto a terrace with steps leading down to the middle terrace. To our left, Paolo points out a hedge carved into the shape of an aqueduct though there was no aqueduct in that precise place, and also a webcam which overlooks the formal gardens below us. On our right are thick windows piercing the terrace we have just been strolling along. ‘Those are the windows of the cryptoporticus,’ he tells us. ‘Can we see it?’ I ask. ‘Certo,’ he replies. ‘In a month or so,’ he adds, ‘that whole wall will be covered with roses, the old-fashioned five-petaled ones.’
The lower terrace – As we start down the steps to the middle terrace and the cryptoporticus, Paolo points out the lowest terrace. This would have been a hippodrome for horse and chariot racing. Now it is beautifully decorated with box hedge squares and rectangular pools. Paolo unlocks and door and leads us down restored steps. Now we are beneath the upper terrace.
The cryptoporticus – nothing prepares me for the size of this. Yesterday the Nimfeo Bergantino turned out to be smaller than the Piranesi etchings suggested, but this is far bigger. It is vast and lofty and wonderful. Only half of it still stands; in Domitian’s time it would have been 300 meters long. The first 120 meters had relatively small high windows, to keep it light but warm in winter. The second 180 meters had big arches to let in the Ponentino, the offshore breeze that rises each day around 1.30pm and is especially welcome in summer. It is lofty and vaulted and on an overcast day like today the light is pearly and diffuse. The light is from the west, so the late afternoon light would be golden or even pink at sunset. Opposite the light wells - in the eastern wall - are various niches which could be used for dinner parties, musicians, and any number of decadent activities.
Frescoes, marble veneer and gilded coffers – Paolo points out fragments of frescoed wall to about head level. From there up to the vault would have been coloured marble veneer. Then stuccoed coffers with gilded roses at their centre. Another innovation of Domitian was to build a lofty stepped platform at the south end. He would summon the senate here and then address them from his superior vantage point. No wonder so many of the senators disliked him. There would have been a secret passage from the palace to this cryptoporticus, but so far we haven’t found it!
Roman road – proceeding down from the ‘hippodrome’ terrace, Paolo shows us a perfect Roman road, with the typical hexagonal stones. In the wall beside would have been niches. These are restored but the statues that fill them are original. One of them looks like Titus. Paolo says not. But perhaps it was a relative of Titus and Domitian, maybe even Sabinus, their cousin, who very nearly became emperor after Titus’s death instead of Domitian. This road would have led to the Via Appia, less than half a mile from here.
The Antiquarium – Paolo leads us back towards the Villa Barberini along a modern paved road. We have been more than two hours but he takes out a bunch of keys and opens a door in the basement marked ANTIQVARIUM. The museum! I have seen pictures of the objects in books in the Classics library in London but now I will see them with my own eyes. There are fragments of fresco from the cryptoporticus wall, a marble bust of Titus, parts of the marble throne from the theatre and my favourite piece: a beautiful basalt torso of a hero or athlete. We also see a massive marble Polyphemus from a monumental group which would have been in the Nimfeo Bergantino, which we saw yesterday and also a Scylla, also from the Nimfeo.
By now it has been nearly three hours. A few spots of rain just start to fall. I would love to come back and see the cryptoporticus wall covered with roses and hear bees buzzing in the rosemary. The site is fabulous, far exceeding my expectations. I’ve put a bit of it in the last Roman Mystery but not nearly enough. There is no other answer. I’ll just have to write another book set in Domitian’s time and bring my characters here!
Mille grazie, Paolo. Milled grazie, Commendatore Petrillo. It was a wonderful morning.
Ten interesting facts about Domitian’s Alban Citadel
1. It faces southwest to the sea, not northeast towards Lake Albano.
2. It had three vast terraces on three levels.
3. Slaves lived on the upper level and there were tombs there, too.
4. The complex had a small private theatre and also a hippodrome.
5. There was a summer cryptoporticus and a winter cryptoporticus.
6. A secret passage led from the palace to the cryptoporticus, but has never been found.
7. A secret tunnel led from the upper terrace to a small terrace overlooking the lake.
8. A coin of Titus was found in the stucco of this tunnel.
9. The palace was probably designed by the famous architect Rabirius.
10. Domitian hated leaving it for Rome, and often made the senate come to him!