Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
- This article deals with the ancient town, for the composer see: Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Palestrina (ancient Praeneste) was and is a very ancient city of Latium (modern Lazio) 23 miles (37 km) east of Rome, and was reached by the Via Praenestina (see below). Palestrina is sited on a strategic spur of the Apennines.
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, and supposed to date 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. No objects have been discovered belonging to the period intermediate between the 7th and 3rd centuries BC. But from about 250 BC onwards we have 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 boxes (cistae) and hand mirrors with inscriptions partly in Etruscan: the famous Ficoroni casket, engraved with pictures of the arrival of the Argonauts in Bithynia and the victory of Pollux over Amycus, found in 1738, is still unrivalled. The caskets are unique in Italy, but a large number of mirrors of precisely similar style have been discovered in Etruria. Hence, although it would be reasonable to conjecture that objects with Etruscan characteristics came from Etruria, the evidence points decisively to an Etruscan factory in or near Praeneste itself.
Other, imported objects in the burials show that Praeneste traded not only with Etruria but with the Greek east. 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. Praeneste was an allied city, thus furnishing contingents to the Roman army, and Roman exiles were permitted to live at Praeneste, which grew prosperous. The roses of Praeneste were a byword for profusion and beauty.
Its citizens were offered Roman citizenship in 90 BC in the Social War, when concessions had to be made by Rome, to cement necessary alliances. In the civil wars of Sulla, the younger Marius was blockaded in the town by the forces of Sulla (82 BC); and when the city was captured Marius slew himself, the male inhabitants were massacred in cold blood, and a military colony was settled on part of its territory. From an inscription it appears that Sulla delegated the foundation of the new colony to M. Terentius Varro Lucullus, who was consul in 73 BC. With a decade the lands of the colonia had been assembled by a few large landowners.
It was probably after the disaster of 82 BC that the city was removed from the hillside to the lower ground at the Madonna dell Aquila, and that the sanctuary and temple of Fortune was enlarged so as to include much of the space occupied by the ancient city.
Under the Empire the cool breezes of Praeneste made it a favorite summer resort of wealthy Romans, whose villas studded the neighborhood. Horace ranked it with Tibur and Baiae, and at Praeneste Augustus stayed, and Tiberius recovered from a dangerous illness. The ruins of the villa associated with Hadrian stand in the plain near the church of S. Maria della Villa, about three-quarters of a mile from the town. At the site was discovered the Braschi Antinous, now in the Vatican. Marcus Aurelius resorted to Praeneste too. Pliny the Younger and Symmachus also had villas there. Inscriptions show that the inhabitants of Praeneste were fond of gladiatorial shows.
Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia
Praeneste was chiefly famed for its great Temple of Fortuna Primigenia connected with the oracle known as the Praenestine lots (sortes praenestinae), which was redeveloped after 82 BC as 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 once again in Italian villa gardens from the 15th century. The monument to Vittorio Emmanuel II in Rome owes a lot to the Praeneste sanctuary complex.
The inspiration for this feat of unified urbanistic design lay, not in republican Rome, but in the Hellenistic monarchies of the eastern Mediterranean. Praeneste offered a foretaste of the Imperial style of the following generation.
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. To the east of this grotto is a large space, now open, but once very possibly roofed, and forming a two-story basilica built against the rock on the north side, and there decorated with pilasters also; and to the east again is an apsidal hall, often identified with the temple itself, in which was found the famous mosaic with scenes from the Nile, relaid in the Palazzo Barberini-Colonna on the uppermost terrace (now the National Museum). Under this hall is a chamber, which an inscription on its walls identified as a treasury in the 2nd century BC. In front of this temple an obelisk was erected in the reign of Claudius, fragments of which still exist.
As extended under Sulla, the sanctuary of Fortune came to occupy a series of five vast terraces, which, resting on gigantic masonry substructure and connected with each other by grand staircases, rose one above the other on the hill in the form of the side of a pyramid, crowned on the highest terrace by the round temple of Fortune. This immense edifice, probably by far the largest sanctuary in Italy, must have presented a most imposing aspect, visible as it was from a great part of Latium, from Rome, and even from the sea. The ground at the foot of the lowest terrace is 1476 ft. above sea-level; here is a cistern, divided into ten large chambers, in brick-faced concrete.
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, and she was especially worshipped by matrons. The oracle continued to be consulted down to Christian times, until Constantine, and again later Theodosius, forbade the practice and closed the temple.
A bishop of Praeneste is first mentioned in 313. The 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; so that only a part of the piazza represents the ancient forum.
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 Cardinal Vitelleschi and once more utterly destroyed. It was rebuilt once more and fortified by Stefano Colonna in 1448. In 1630 it passed by purchase into the Barberini family . Praeneste was the native town of Aelian, and in modern times of the great composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.
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 Capipagna as far as the sea. Considerable portions of the southern wall of the ancient citadel, built in very massive Cyclopean masonry of blocks of limestone, are still to be seen; and the two walls, also polygonal, which formerly united the citadel with the town, can still be traced.
The calendar, which, as Suetonius tells, was set up by the grammarian, Marcus Verrius Flaccus in the forum of Praeneste (the reference being to the forum of the imperial period, at the Madonna dell Aquila), was discovered in the ruins of the church of S. Agapitus in 1771, where it had been used as building material.
- Model of the Roman Sanctuary and its modern appearance
- Full description of the Sanctuary, illustrated (Italian)
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