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.
View of Norma (from the acropolis of Norba) and in the background the Volsci Mountains
(From Segni) we rode through a dense green forest with all the more delight because, as woods are not plentiful in Italy, this one brought their own native forests to the remembrance of two German travellers. There were, however, no dark whispering Christmas pine-trees there - only beeches, oaks, elms, and stone pines. This Italian pine reverberates like a harp when the wind plays round its crown, not murmuring sadly like our native fir-tree, but singing a sort of blissful and inspired song. (..) The deep silence was only broken by the distant strokes of a wood-cutter's axe reverberating through the tree-stems. (..) How charming is this Volscian forest! Never had I beheld wild woods so filled with poetry! This is the land of the fays and the elves. In yonder thicket - that grey cave - sleeps old Saturn, with his long silvery beard. I could not but wonder when I beheld these trees in their full beauty. The beeches, their tops embracing the blue ether, looked the colour of the rocks, soft grey shoaling into green. It often seemed as if the giant stems were but the growth of the precipices themselves in which they had their roots. (..) At last a glade of the forest opened out to the south-west. We emerged from it on the mountain-side, and, as if our eyes had suddenly been unbound, a marvellous sight burst upon our view. Below lay the Maritima, a shining spectacle; the Pontine Marshes, a softly glowing carpet of many hues; the sea, like liquid gold, the distant Isle of Ponza set amongst those radiant waves; the Cape of Circe, the tower of Astura and the Castle of Sermoneta - all lay beneath our feet. (..) After a ride of six hours we reached the little town of Norma.
Ferdinand Gregorovius - Aus den Bergen der Volsker -From the Volscian Mountains - 1860 - English translation by Dorothea Roberts.
Norma stands on a breezy height above a high, in places a dizzy, precipice, and just beside the Cyclopean remains of Norba. Norma, Norba, Ninfa - such are the legendary names we hear here in every one's mouth. These poetical names give to this mountain an unreal, mythical, fantastic atmosphere. Norba, Norma, Ninfa, Cori, Sermoneta - how musical they sound, and how they take hold of the imagination! Gregorovius
Norma lies on a veritable precipice which today attracts hang gliders; it was founded by the inhabitants of Norba, an ancient town, the ruins of which are just a mile from Norma; they relocated to the new site because it offered greater security.
(left) Parish church; (right) a street of Norma
Norma was a fiefdom of several important families such as the Frangipane and the Caetani; it was also for a few years a possession of the Borgia, the family of Pope Alexander VI; in 1619 the town and the nearby territory were bought by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V; at Montefortino, a town on the other side of the Volsci Mountains, the cardinal and his successors built gates, palaces and churches, but they did not do so at Norma, perhaps because it was too isolated and difficult to reach.
After a good midday meal and a refreshing rest, we sallied out, traversing the little town in search of Norba. (..)
These are a few minutes' walk distant from the present little town, and consist of the very remarkable remains of the Citadel and its surrounding walls. Here again the arx was placed on a platform of rock fortified on one side by nature, where the rock falls down precipitously from a dizzy height to the plain below. The inner quadrangle of the fortress is encircled by a double line of Cyclopean walls. An ancient gate leads into it, at one corner of which stands a circular mass of gigantic blocks, piled up to a height of thirty-six feet, and resembling a pillar or tower. Gregorovius
The walls of Norba were built in cyclopean (or polygonal) style, similar to those of other towns (Segni, Cori and Alatri) which Gregorovius described in his accounts.
Norba: the two main streets: (left) Decumanus (east-west); (right) Cardo (north-south)
The walls surround the steep limestone cliffs in long lines, and above, on the level space which appears to have been hewn into a rectangular form, are three great foundations formed also of Cyclopean stones, on which, perhaps, once rested the sanctuary or temple which was part of the Acropolis. Gregorovius
When Gregorovius visited Norba the layout of the ancient town could only be guessed at by viewing some remaining walls and terraces; current excavations have revealed the bases of some temples, a bath establishment and an orthogonal grid of paved streets between two small acropolises.
An ancient cistern and a few subterranean chambers and grottoes - these are all that remain besides the Acropolis and the walls of this old Norba. (..) The Norma folk call the more ancient town Civita la Penna. I cannot explain where this name comes from. It would seem to have some connection with Spain, where pegna, or pe˝a, means a rock. The "city on the rock" would suit this mythical Norba excellently well - a town which Hercules is said to have built. In the later Roman time, it is connected with Marius. He was besieged there by Aemilius Lepidus, Sulla's general, who, by the aid of traitors, made his way into the city of the Cyclopeans. The citizens in despair threw themselves into the flames then consuming their houses. (..) It is possible that Norba has remained in ruins ever since that time; when Pliny knew it, it had already been deserted. Gregorovius
View of Ninfa from Norma
We entered the inn at Norma, our host leading the way into a from the room, the windows of which disclosed to us all the glories of the Maritima. Looking over the edge of the precipice, which here falls sheer down to the plain, our eyes fell upon a great ring of ivy-mantled walls, within which lay curiosity mounds and hillocks, apparently made of flowers. Grey towers stood up out of them, ruins, all garlanded with green, and from the midst of this strange circle we could see a silver stream hurrying forth, and traversing the Pontine Marshes till it vanished in a lake lying golden in the sunlight, not far from the sea-shore. I asked, amazed, what that most puzzling great garland of flowers, that mysterious green ring, could be. "Nympha, Nympha," said our host. Nympha! then that is the Pompeii of the Middle Ages, buried in the marshes - that city of the dead, ghostly, silent. Gregorovius
Castello Caetani and the pond by which it is partially surrounded
We clambered down from the Citadel of Norba to Nympha, which lies just beneath it, within the radius of the marshes. A convenient zigzag path leads down to it from Norma, but as it was possible to make our way straight over the buttresses of the mountain, and we were nimble of foot, we chose this shorter route, and vanished over the rocks, like a flash of lightning, with a hop, a skip, and a jump. And this is Nympha, this unreal semblance of a town - its walls, its towers, its churches, its convents all half buried in the swamp, and entombed beneath the thickest of ivy. Gregorovius
The German writer visited Ninfa at sunset and he was impressed by the silence of death which rested on the site; he waited for the moonlight to make him feel immersed in a fairy tale.
The Pontine Marshes were reclaimed in the 1930s by digging a series of canals from the foot of the mountains to a series of coastal lakes and from these to the sea.
At the entrance to Nympha stands a fortress, once the seat of a baron; in its forsaken state it is an outrage on feudalism itself. High aloft rises its tower, four-square, built of flints like that of the Milizie in Rome, and, as it appears, contemporary with it. Gregorovius
In the XIIth century Ninfa was a relatively rich town and it belonged to the Frangipane, a very powerful Roman family; in 1159 the Frangipane supported the election of Cardinal Rolando Bandinelli; the cardinal became Pope Alexander III in Rome, however he had to escape from the city immediately and the coronation ceremony took place in S. Maria Maggiore, the main church of Ninfa. In 1171 Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, a great enemy of the Pope, retaliated on the Frangipane by plundering Ninfa.
The Ninfa River
The fortress stands close to a pond, spreading itself out like the Stygian pool before the dead city of Nympha. This lake is garlanded by tall reeds - a mystic spot - it might have come out of the world of shadows of the Iliad or the Aeneid. The dark tower and others cast their trembling images down upon the still waters of this pool. The reeds rustled sadly. Often, deep within them, came the sobbing cry of the water-hen, like the soul of one of the departed living in this Hades and longing for the upper regions. Gregorovius
The territory of Ninfa acquired importance whenVia Appia, the road linking Rome to southern Italy, was no longer properly maintained. This occurred after the Greek-Gothic War which in the VIth century devastated Italy and broke its unity. The road entered the Pontine Marshes near Velletri; in 312 BC the Romans dug a canal at the side of the road to facilitate the flow of streams, such as the Ninfa River, towards the sea; when the canal was no longer maintained swamps interrupted the road; starting from the VIIIth or IXth century travellers therefore followed Via Pedemontana, an alternate route along the foot of the mountains, until they reached Terracina, at the southern end of the marshes.
Inside Castello Caetani
The walls of the town are still standing, circling it all round like a ring, every stone draped in ivy. Here and there peeps out a broken pinnacle - a square ruined tower. The principal gates of the town are barred and barricaded by wild vine, ivy, and sprays of bramble, as if the flowers of Nympha feared some foe who, like the Saracens of old, might try to force his way in by night. Gregorovius
Towards the end of the XIIIth century Ninfa became first a possession of the Colonna and in 1297 of the Caetani, the family of Pope Boniface VIII. A rivalry between two Caetani brothers (Onorato and Benedetto) led to a war and in 1382 the inhabitants of Sermoneta, Sezze and other nearby towns, who supported Onorato, marched on Ninfa and seized and destroyed the town; Ninfa was never rebuilt, but it remained a possession of the Sermoneta branch of the Caetani.
S. Maria Maggiore: (left) bell tower; (right): frescoes in the apse; that to the left portrays St. Peter
S. Maria Maggiore was the main church of Ninfa; it was the only one which was restored by the Caetani after the destruction of the town, but in the XVIth century it was finally abandoned; it retains a Romanesque bell tower of the beginning of the XIIIth century and some frescoes of the late XIIth century.
Ruins of S. Biagio
Many piazzas, many streets still remain traced out here. Crumbling houses, all embraced by ivy, mark their limits. Some of them are of palatial size and of semi-Gothic architecture, and were once on a time inhabited by noble families. Wondrous are the churches to behold; four or five of them are standing, though in ruins - such fantastic ruins as I never before have seen. How can I describe them? How can I depict this brown, splintered bell-tower, its round-headed windows divided by graceful little pillars, its mediaeval friezes formed of rectangular blocks set on edge, all wreathed in a festal robe of blossom and leaves waving in the evening breeze? How can I describe the niches, the naves and aisles of those churches (they are all of the eleventh or twelfth century, if not still earlier, for they are of the very early basilica form); all draped and garlanded round with flowers? (..) From their walls, from here and there a tribune smothered with greenery, peers forth some early Christian saint or martyr, his palm branch in his hand. Gregorovius
According to records Ninfa had fourteen churches; some of them gave their name to the four gates of the town. Ninfa had a town hall, a hospital, mills, paved streets, bridges and some 150 houses, some of which of a remarkable size.
(left) Portal with the Caetani heraldic symbol (waves) leading to "hortus conclusus"; (right) 1771 chapel
In the XVIth century Cardinal Nicol˛ Caetani made an effort to save Ninfa from its abandonment by creating a walled garden (hortus conclusus) along the river; the entrance was marked by an elegant portal. In 1765 some of the ancillary buildings near the castle were restored and a small church was built in 1771.
Bridge on the Ninfa River
Flowers crowd in through all the streets. They march in procession to the ruined churches, they climb up all the towers, they smile and nod to you out of every empty window-frame, they besiege all the doors, for within dwell elves, fairies, water-nymphs, and a thousand other charming spirits from the world of fable. Yellow marigolds, mallows, sweet narcissus, grey-bearded thistles, which lived there once on a time as monks; white lilies, which just as surely were in their lives holy nuns; wild roses, sprays of laurel, mastic, tall ferns, the wind-flower and the bramble, the red foxglove that looks so like an enchanted Saracen, the fantastic caper-flowers growing in the clefts of the walls, the fragrant wall-flower, the myrtle, the mint, the yellow broom and the dark ivy which covers every ruin and falls from the walls in green cascades - yes! you fling yourself down into this ocean of flowers quite intoxicated by their fragrance, while, as in the most charming fairy-tale, the soul seems held and imprisoned by them. Gregorovius
At the beginning of the XIXth century the Caetani started to care more about Ninfa and in 1920 Gelasio Caetani turned part of the medieval town into a countryside residence and he planted many trees. His brother Roffredo continued to add new plants and gradually the whole area became a sort of botanic garden with many exotic species; in 1972 Lelia Caetani, the last of the family, donated Ninfa and the Castle of Sermoneta to a foundation (Roffredo Caetani) which takes care of the maintenance of Ninfa.
In his account Gregorovius made a long list of the flowers and shrubs he saw at Ninfa; obviously they all grew there without being tended. Unfortunately these flowers were not appreciated by the Caetani and today's Ninfa, although very nice to see, is slightly unnatural.
Introductory page on Ferdinand Gregorovius
Previous page of this walk: Valmontone and Montefortino, Segni and Carpineto
Next and last page of this walk: Cori
The Roman Campagna: Colonna and Zagarolo, Palestrina, Cave, Genazzano, Olevano, Paliano and Anagni
The Ernici Mountains: Ferentino, Alatri, Fiuggi (Anticoli di Campagna), Piglio and Acuto
On the Latin shores: Anzio and Nettuno and Torre Astura
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.