In 388 BC Praeneste, today's Palestrina, was conquered by the Romans; subsequently the town experienced a long phase of development which was interrupted in 82 BC when Silla punished its inhabitants for having sided with his enemies and confiscated their properties; he assigned them to his veterans and he founded a colony on the plain at the foot of the hill where Praeneste stood; during WWII Palestrina was bombed and this resulted in unearthing some of the structures of the town founded by Silla inside medieval buildings and some very ancient walls in the upper part of the town.
According to Cicero, Praeneste was the site of a sanctuary known for its very old oracle; archaeologists are uncertain about the date of its construction: IInd century BC or in conjunction with the foundation of the new town by Silla; during the Renaissance the Italian architect Palladio drew a reconstruction (see external link) of the ancient sanctuary in which also the lower terraces were part of it; today archaeologists tend to believe that these terraces and their buildings and monuments were part of the town, although their design was consistent with that of the sanctuary.
(left) Walls supporting the third terrace in "opus quadratum"; (right) a brick wall in "opus latericium" forming a niche which was added to the
structure supporting the first terrace
Praeneste is a living catalogue of the construction techniques developed by the Romans; initially they relied on the careful alignment of rectangular stones, but later on they developed an advanced technology in the use of fired bricks and mortar.
(left) Sacred area behind the cathedral; (right) Antro delle Sorti
According to Cicero, Numerius Sufficius, an important man from Praeneste, was told in a dream to search for an oracle; he found some tablets which were engraved with letters of the alphabet; they were probably tossed or picked by random and the priests of the sanctuary based their oracles on the association of the letters (in essence a form of tarot reading); an artificial grotto which enlarged a small natural cave and which is located at the foot of a high wall behind the cathedral was thought to be Antro delle Sorti, the site where the oracle was announced.
Details of the mosaic of Antro delle Sorti
Today archaeologists believe the grotto was part of a fountain which decorated the forum of Praeneste; they have reached this conclusion after they unearthed fragments of a very fine mosaic which decorated the grotto; its subjects do not seem in accordance with the site of an oracle; Romans were very fond of mosaics depicting sea subjects and they employed them for the decoration of fountains and baths.
Palazzo Barberini which was built on the highest structures of the sanctuary
The bombs which fell on Palestrina in 1944 damaged many houses which had been built on the three upper terraces of the sanctuary; luckily they did not damage the palace built by the Barberini on the "theatre" which crowned the sanctuary.
View of the upper terraces
After WWII authorities decided to remove the debris of the bombed buildings in order to unearth the structure of the sanctuary; its upper terraces are impressive and they prove the high technical skills achieved by Roman engineers.
One of the two ramps leading to Terrazza degli Emicicli
The width of the two ramps leading to Terrazza degli Emicicli indicate that ceremonies involved a large number of people; we can imagine the effect on watchers of processions reaching the top of the sanctuary and more so if we think of them by torchlight.
Eastern section of Terrazza degli Emicicli
This terrace is named after two identical circular porticoes; one of them was preceded by a sacred well which might have been the place where the oracles were announced; archaeologists have found some analogies between the structure of this sanctuary and those of the Temple to Jupiter at Terracina and of the acropolis of Lindos (it was turned into a fortress by the Knights of St. John).
Stairs leading from Terrazza degli Emicicli to Terrazza della Cortina
The walls supporting the last two terraces are marked by a series of vaulted niches which probably housed statues; their purpose was not merely a decorative one; Roman engineers were aware that curved structures such as arches and vaults were more able to support weight than traditional vertical walls.
Terrazza della Cortina
The final terrace was much wider than the other ones and it ended with a sort of theatre having on its top a small circular temple; the majesty of the buildings was increased by their being located in a commanding position and by the perfect symmetry of the whole structure.
(left) Ancient structures inside Palazzo Barberini; (right) statue of Fortuna Primigenia
(another one is shown in the image used as background for this page)
For the Romans Fortuna was the personification of luck; the appellation of Primigenia (first bearer) indicates that the original
devotion to the goddess was part of the cult of Mother Earth; after the Roman conquest of Egypt Fortuna Primigenia took some features of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of motherhood, magic and fertility;
this last aspect led to depicting the goddess holding a cornucopia, a symbol of abundance.
The sanctuary continued to be very popular until most of the IIIrd century, when the diffusion of solar beliefs and Christianity reduced the appeal of polytheism. The sanctuary was most likely closed by Emperor Theodosius, but Fortuna continues to fascinate millions of gamblers.
|Other ancient oracles/shrines in this web site:|
The Oracle of Delphi
The Shrine of Mysteries at Eleusis
The Asklepion of Pergamum
The Asklepion of Kos
The Shrine of Dodoni
The sanctuary of Venus at Afrodisia
The Oracle of Didyma
The sanctuary of Apollo at Delos
The sanctuary of Poseidon at Cape Sounion
The sanctuary of Apollo at Hierapolis
The Artemision at Ephesus
The sanctuary of Leto at Letoon
The sanctuary of the Great Gods at Samothrace
The Shrine of Ba'al at Baetocece
The Oracle of Jupiter Heliopolitanus at Baalbek
The Asklepion of Epidaurus
The sanctuaries of Dion
Mosaic of the Nile; (insets) details of its upper part
During the XVIth century several fragments of a large mosaic were found in Sala Absidata,
a large hall with an apse near the cathedral; the fragments were in part sent to Rome, but eventually
Cardinal Francesco Barberini managed to acquire them all; they were assembled with the purpose of obtaining
a meaningful and "nice to see" work of art; in the process some parts of the mosaic were lost and others were added.
The mosaic portrays the river Nile from its sources to its mouth; the upper part shows hunters and wild animals while the lower one depicts the delta of the river during a periodic flood.
Mosaic of the Nile: Lower Egypt during floods with a possible depiction of Canopus, a canal which was a famous landmark
Archaeologists hold different views on the date of the mosaic which varies from the time of the Roman conquest of Egypt to the IIIrd century when the fashion for large coloured mosaics was at its apex.
Similar to Tivoli Praeneste was chosen for its salubrity as a location for summer residences by emperors and wealthy members of the Roman society; in a villa some two miles south of the town, a bust of Antinous was found and this has led to believe that it belonged to Emperor Hadrian.
Some archaeologists have assumed that the actual presence of Hadrian in Praeneste supports the opinion that the Mosaic of the Nile was made at his time because it shows Egyptian monuments which the emperor so greatly admired that he gave their names to parts of his villa at Tivoli.
Vatican Museums: statues found at Palestrina: (left) Silenus; (centre/right) Antinous
Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna: "Grimani reliefs", two panels of a fountain found at Palestrina which belonged to the collection of the Grimani, a Venetian noble family who had properties in Rome
Return to Palestrina - page one
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.