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PALESTRINA, Province of Roma, Lazio

Palestrina, located on a strategic spur of the Apennines (ancient Praeneste) was a very ancient city of Latium 23 miles east of Rome, reached by the Via Praenestina. The modern town of Palestrina is centered on the terraces once occupied by the temple of Fortune. On the summit of the hill (2471 ft.), nearly a mile from the town, stood the ancient citadel, the site of which is now occupied by a few poor houses (Castel San Pietro) and a ruined medieval castle of the Colonna. The magnificent view embraces Soracte, Rome, the Alban Hills and the Campania as far as the sea.

Info

  • Altitude: 450 m a.s.l
  • Population: about 16,000 inhabitants
  • Zip/postal code: 00036
  • Dialing Area Code: +39 06
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Provinces of Lazio

History - Antiquity

Early burials show that the site was already occupied in the 8th or 7th century BC. The ancient necropolis lay on a plateau at the foot of the hill below the ancient town. Of the objects found in the oldest graves, dated from about the 7th century BC, the cups of silver and silver-gilt and most of the gold and amber jewelry are Phoenician (possibly Carthaginian), but the bronzes and some of the ivory articles seem to be of the Etruscan civilization.

But from about 250 BC onwards there are a series of Praenestine graves surmounted by the characteristic pine-apple of local stone, containing stone coffins with rich bronze, ivory and gold ornaments beside the skeleton. From these come the famous bronze Ficoroni casket (Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia, Rome), engraved with pictures of the arrival of the Argonauts in Bithynia and the victory of Pollux over Amycus, found in 1738, unique in Italy, but a large number of mirrors of similar style have been discovered in Etruria, which points to an Etruscan factory in or near Praeneste itself.

Praeneste was probably under the hegemony of Alba Longa while that city was the head of the Latin League, but withdrew from the league in 499 BC, according to Livy, and formed an alliance with Rome. After Rome was weakened by the Gauls of Brennus (390 BC), Praeneste switched allegiances and fought Rome in the long struggles that culminated in the Latin War, in which the Romans were victorious and Praeneste was punished by the loss of some of its territory.

After that Praeneste was an allied city to Rome. Its citizens were offered Roman citizenship in 90 BC in the Social War. Under the Empire the cool breezes of Praeneste made it a favorite summer resort of wealthy Romans. Horace ranked it with Tibur and Baiae. The ruins of the villa associated with Hadrian stand in the plain near the church of St. Maria della Villa. Marcus Aurelius, Pliny the Younger and Symmachus also had villas there. A first bishop of Praeneste is mentioned in 313.

History - the Middle Ages

In 1297 the Colonna family, who then owned Praeneste (Palestrina), revolted from the pope, but in the following year the town was taken by Papal forces and razed to the ground. In 1437 the rebuilt city was captured by the papal general Giovanni, Cardinal Vitelleschi and once more destroyed. It was rebuilt and fortified by Stefano Colonna in 1448. In 1630 it passed by purchase into the Barberini family. Praeneste was the native town of composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

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What to see

  • The Museo Archeologico Nazionale of Palestrina.
  • The Sanctuary of "Fortuna Primigenia" - Praeneste was famous for its great Temple of Fortuna Primigenia connected with the oracle known as the sortes praenestinae which was a superb monument rising after a spectacular series of terraces, exedras and porticos on four levels down the hillside, linked by monumental stairs and ramps, features which influenced Roman garden design on steeply sloped sites through Antiquity and also Italian villa gardens from the 15th century.

    The oldest portion of the primitive sanctuary was situated on the lowest terrace but one, in a grotto in the natural rock where there was a spring, which was developed into a well. As the archaic shrine was elaborated, from the 2nd century BC, it was given a colored mosaic pavement representing a seascape: a temple of Poseidon on the shore, with fish of all kinds swimming in the sea. This immense edifice, probably by far the largest pagan sanctuary in Italy, must have been visible from a great part of Latium, from Rome, and even from the sea, being the ground at the foot of the lowest terrace 1476 ft. above sea-level.

    The goddess Fortuna here went by the name of Primigenia ("First Bearer"), she was represented suckling two babes, as in the Christian representation of Charity, said to be Jupiter and Juno. The oracle continued to be consulted down to Christian times, until Constantine, and again later Theodosius, forbade the practice and closed the temple.

  • The Christian Cathedral, just below the level of the temple, occupies the former civil basilica of the town, upon the facade of which was a sun-dial described by Varro (traces of which may still be seen). In the modern piazza the steps leading up to this latter basilica and the base of a large monument were found in 1907.
  • Portions of the southern wall of the ancient citadel, built in very massive limestone blocks, can still to be seen, as well as the two polygonal walls, which formerly united the citadel with the town.