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PRAENESTE (Palestrina) Italy.

An ancient Latin town on the inland highway from Etruria to Poseidonia, ca. 36 km E of Rome, set on the steep slope of Monte Ginestro, an outcrop of the Apennines commanding the entrance to the Hernican valley. It possessed wealth early, as the finds from the necropolis S of the city at La Columbella show. Here just after the middle of the 19th c. were found a number of fossa tombs with extraordinarily rich furniture. The most famous of these are the Bernardini and Barberini tombs of the orientalizing period (third quarter of the 7th c. B.C.), the material from which is now in the Museo della Villa Giulia. But there were also other important finds, including the famous Praenestine gold fibula inscribed along its catch-plate in archaic Latin, showing that in the second half of the 7th c. this was Praeneste's tongue. The wealth of the Bernardini tomb shows a completely Etruscanized taste. The finds included personal jewelry, among it a large pectoral fibula of gold (0.17 x 0.06 m) covered with 131 tiny figures in the round of lions, horses, chimaeras, and harpies, all decorated with granulation; other large pins of different design, including a gold serpentine fibula and silver comb fibulas; a dagger with a sheath of silver and a hilt decorated with gold, silver, and amber. There was also table ware, including a gold bowl with embossed animals in single file in Egyptian style, other bowls more elaborately decorated in silver, a small silver cauldron decorated with similar embossing mounted with six silver snakes rising from rosettes, a gold skyphos of great beauty mounted with tiny sphinxes decorated with granulation, a great bronze cauldron mounted with six gryphon protomes, together with a decorated base for this, and numerous bronze vessels and mounts, some of which show lively wit and imagination. Other luxuries include glass and carved ivories. The Barberini tomb was equally rich and contained a similar pectoral fibula in gold and a similar great bronze cauldron; it also produced a bronze throne and a great bronze tray mounted on wheels, as well as numerous very fine carved ivories, including a cup supported by four caryatids, and a charming wooden box in the form of a fawn. The use of some of the ivories may remain in doubt, but not the wealth to which they attest. A silver situla from the Castellani tomb is another unusual piece of treasure.

Sporadic finds of fine terracotta temple revetments show the continuance of wealth and artistry in the 6th and early 5th c., but we have no buildings to associate with these, and there is then a gap that lasts from the early 5th c. to ca. mid 4th. Sometime in the 4th c. the city walls must have been constructed, fortifications in great polygonal blocks of the local limestone fitted together with varying degrees of precision but usually with some attempt to make the main beds nearly level, while there is virtually no coursing. These present differences of style in different stretches, and some try to distinguish different periods of construction. The walls are long (ca. 4.8 km), with rectangular towerlike bastions at irregular intervals. That they are built without knowledge of the arch suggests an early date, but the fact that they include the arx above the town (Castel S. Pietro) and the town itself in a single system that must climb the steep cliff face boldly suggests a late date. A mid 4th c. date best accommodates their peculiarities and is consistent with the reappearance of wealth in Praenestine burials, but the walls still need thorough investigation. Along the S front they are replaced by later walls of tufa.

From Livy (2.19.2) we know that Praeneste, one of the original members of the Latin League, went over just before the battle of Lake Regillus in 499 B.C. to alliance with Rome. But after the invasion of the Gauls it revolted from Rome and was at war with Rome down to the final dissolution of the Latin League in 338 B.C. Thereafter it kept its independence and rights of asylum and coinage and was governed by four magistrates, two praetors, and two aediles, responsible to its senate. It furnished Rome with a military contingent, when needed, the cohors praenestina, commanded by one of the praetors (Livy 23.19.17-18).

In excavations in the Columbella necropolis that began in the 18th c. and continued into the early 20th c. a great number of burials of the 4th c. and early Hellenistic period came to light. These were usually in sarcophagi of peperino or tufa, their places marked by cippi consisting of a block of limestone inscribed with the name of the deceased surmounted by either a rather crude portrait bust or a smooth, sharply pointed egg-shape usually poised on a base of acanthus leaves; the latter is characteristic of Praeneste. In the graves were found a great many bronze cistae, decorated boxes containing toilet articles and feminine adornments, and at first it was thought Praeneste was a center of the manufacture of these. But the handsomest of them, the Ficoroni cista in the Museo della Villa Giulia, bears an inscription stating that it was made at Rome. In general the cistae, when they are inscribed, are inscribed in Latin, while the mirrors they may contain are inscribed in Etruscan. The decoration of the cistae consists of engraving (or embossing with a point in dotted patterns, an early technique) and the addition of cast mounts and chains. The main scene on the body tends to be mythological, framed by formal borders; the mounts are usually without narrative content. Thus on the Ficoroni cista the main scene is the aftermath of the boxing match between Pollux and Amykos from the Argonaut story, some 19 figures. It is framed at the base with an engraved band of confronted sphinxes and palmettes and at the crown with a double interlace of lilies and palmettes, standing and hanging. The cover is decorated in two rings: the outer, a hunt; the inner, lions and gryphons. The handle of the cover is a youthful Dionysos standing between two young ithyphallic satyrs. The feet are lions' paws set on frogs with relief attachment plaques showing groups of three figures, one of whom is Hercules. The older cistae (mid 4th c.) tend to be oval, broader than deep, and with a handle of a single figure in an acrobatic arch. There are also some in which the bronze wall was worked à jour over a wooden lining (such a lining was probably always present). Among other objects in these burials one may note bronze implements (strigils, tweezers) and alabastra of glass paste.

The great glory of Praeneste was the Temple of Fortuna Primigenia, a sanctuary that grew up around the sortes praenestinae, a collection of slips of oak marked with words in an archaic alphabet kept in an olive wood box. When someone wished to consult the sortes, a young boy (sortilegus) drew one or more of these at random from their box in a ceremony we understand only poorly. The sortes were held in awe and honor, and the inscriptions of grateful devotees chart the cult's enormous success. It is uncertain whether the goddess' name comes from her being the eldest child of Jupiter, as some inscriptions have it, or from her having nursed Jupiter (Cic. Div. 2.41.85). The coins found in the excavation of the sanctuary show that it still flourished into the 4th c. A.D. The chief festival fell on April 10-11.

The sanctuary consists of two complexes, commonly known as upper and lower. The axis of the two is unified, but there is no direct connection between them, and they seem to express rather different architectural ideas, points that have led some to presume that the lower sanctuary was rather simply the forum of Praeneste. The lower sanctuary consists of three principal members, the “grotto of the sortes,” to W, a large rectangular edifice in the middle, and an apsidal building to E. Walls of tufa before the grotto of the sortes and under the cathedral of Palestrina show that this area has been extensively rebuilt. The grotto is in part natural, in part artificial, an ample nymphaeum paved with a splendid colored mosaic of fish and other marine subjects; from what can be made out of the plan of the whole, this should have been the focus of a large hall balancing the apsidal building. To E of it a rectangular building enclosing a Corinthian colonnade is best completed as a basilica, despite some uncertainty; a basement story on the S with a Doric colonnade carried the S aisle down to the level of the street outside. To the E of this and communicating with it is the apsidal hall, its apse, like the grotto, cut into the rock and rusticated, also presumably a nymphaeum; it was originally paved with the famous Barberini mosaic of Nilotic subjects, now in the museum. The hall preceding it is ringed with a deep podium trimmed with a diminutive Doric frieze along the crown, above which rise engaged columns alternating with great windows that must have given this hall a very grand effect. It has been supposed that the podium was for statuary or ex-voto offerings, but certainty is impossible here. In the basement of this hall, accessible only from the exterior, is a vaulted chamber identified by an inscription of the aediles as an aerarium.

The upper sanctuary consists of a sequence of steep, shallow terraces rising to a great colonnaded square, above which stood the temple proper, the apex of the design. The first terraces are two of fine polygonal masonry separated by one of opus quadratum, possibly a survival from an earlier period. The upper polygonal terrace, relatively high, is cut at its ends by broad stairways that lead up to the base of a double ramp that sweeps across the whole complex. Throughout this part of the sanctuary the visitor is presented with a series of surprises, the height of the terraces preventing his forming any notion of what awaits him at the successive levels. To increase this effect the Doric colonnades along the great ramps turn to the hill and present a blank wall to the view to the S. At the top of the ramps a generous terrace spreads to either side. This is lined with a fine Corinthian colonnade with a high attic, in effect a second story, and develops into a hemicycle halfway along each arm. That to the E framed a tholos, that to the W an altar. The tholos is not centered on its hemicycle, and it covered a dry well that has been supposed to be the place where the sortes were believed to have been found.

From this level a monumental stair follows the main axis, rising through a terrace of vaults with a facade of arches alternating with rectangular doors, all framed by an engaged order, architecture similar to that of the tabularium in Rome, to emerge in a great ceremonial square surrounded on three sides by porticos in which the columns support vaulted and coffered roofing. At the back of this, lifted a story above it, a hemicyclical stair of broad shallow steps rose to a final hemicyclical colonnade that screened the tholos of the temple proper at the same time it made a grandiose entrance to it.

The whole building is generally consistent in fabric and style, with walls faced with fine opus incertum of the local limestone and carved members of travertine and peperino. On the basis of a building inscription that mentions the senate of Praeneste, the excavators wished to date the upper sanctuary toward the middle of the 2d c. B.C. and the lower to the time of the Sullan colony. This has been strongly opposed, especially by architectural historians, who see a difference between the two parts of little more than a decade at most and incline to ascribe the whole temple to the time of Sulla's colony. For Praeneste, after many decades of prosperity as an independent municipium, refused to take sides in the social war with the Italian towns against Rome, but in the Marian war it had the misfortune to give shelter to the younger Marius and his army after their defeat by Sulla. There he stood siege for many months, but after the battle of the Colline Gate the Praenestines surrendered, and Marius killed himself. The sack of Praeneste was extraordinarily savage (App. BCiv. 1.94), and it is generally supposed that this gave the opportunity for replanning and rebuilding the temple of the goddess to whom Sulla was so devoted. And at this time the city became a colony.

Besides the buildings noted, one should mention extensive works of terracing in opus quadratum along the S front of the city that replaced the old city walls, an impressive series of vaulted rooms in opus incertum in continuance of the line of these (Gli Arconi), and a large imperial cistern of brick-faced concrete. All these works follow the orientation of the buildings of the sanctuaries higher up, but it is not clear what the purpose of all of these may have been, or even whether they formed part of the sanctuary. But it seems not unlikely that by the Sullan period the forum of Praeneste and all its appurtenances had been moved to the foot of the hill. Inscriptions mention numerous public buildings, including baths, an amphitheater, and a ludus gladiatorius, but these have not yet been located. There are remains of numerous villas in the neighborhood, the most impressive being the Hadrianic ruins near the cemetery (Villa Adriana) from which in 1793 Gavin Hamilton extracted the Braschi Antinous now in the Vatican (Sala Rotonda).

The Palazzo Barberini built on the hemicycle at the top of the temple of Fortuna has been converted to use as a museum, and an excellent collection of material from the site is displayed there.


R.V.D. Magoffin, A Study of the Topography and Municipal History of Praeneste (1908); C. D. Curtis, MAAR 3 (1919) 9-90, pls. 1-71; F. Fasolo & G. Gullini, Il santuario della Fortuna Primigenia a Palestrina, 2 vols. (1953)MPI; P. Romanelli, Palestrina (1967)I.


hide References (2 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (2):
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 23, 19
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 2, 19.2
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