This is a short tour in the South East of the Lazio countryside along the Via Prenestina, through the “feuds” owned by the important Roman aristocrats, the Colonna family, a land filled with archaeological treasures, baronial palaces and historic museums.
It starts at Zagarolo, goes on to Palestrina and ends up at Genazzano.
Following the main road through the old town of Zagarolo you come to the three main squares: piazza Santa Maria, at the foot of the eponymous Church; continue down Corso Vittorio Emanuele and pass the "Porta Rospigliosi", where 16th century bas-reliefs are flanked by marble busts and theatrical masks from Roman times, and from there walk into the piazzetta delle Tre Cannelle, with a fountain made out of a Roman sarcophagus; finally there is piazza dell'Indipendenza, (formerly known as Piazza di Corte), with the imposing Rospigliosi Palace.
The Ducal Palace is situated on the site of the old medieval castle, a defensive fort used by the great Roman Colonna family. Later, the princes ordered the castle be transformed into a purely residential palace. It was eventually ceded to the municipality of Zagarolo and is now used for conferences, exhibitions, has a large library and the left hand wing is the new base for the Toy Museum.
In May 1606 Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, found refuge in the palace when he fled Rome after being accused of murder. While he stayed here he painted Cena in Emmaus (Supper at Emmaus) and Maddalena in Estasi (Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy).
The surrounding Prenestini Mountains offer breathtaking views and there is also the new Via Francigena road to remember the pilgrims who walked through this area in ancient times. The last place on our journey is Rocca di Cave, which was very ahead of its times in architectural terms, and there is Capranica Prenestina with its treasures.
It is certainly worth taking a walk through the old town to visit the Baroque Church of St. Peter, built in 1722 on top of an older structure. There is a Greek cross with an airy elliptical cupola, 46 metres high.
Continuing down the main road you reach the 16th century piazza Guglielmo Marconi, where you will find the Church of San Lorenzo, built at the start of the 17th century by the Ludovisi family, containing a precious triptych by Antoniazzo Romano.
A little further ahead you will come across the 16th century Church of SS. Annunziata (1580-82), which is worth a visit. The door is decorated with two granite columns supporting two Roman capitals.
It has its original octagonal bell tower and inside you can see very valuable paintings and intricately carved wooden choir stalls. You can end your stroll at Porta San Martino (St Martin’s Gate), erected in honour of Pope Martin V (Oddone Colonna).
If you want to taste some of the local gastronomic delights, we recommend "il tordo matto", a typical dish from Zagarolo with origins dating back to renaissance times.
The visit to Palestrina starts from Via degli Arcioni, a very suggestive street, the left hand side of which is bordered by a large wall dug out of a series of deep arches and a huge propylaeum. Also on the left you’ll come across the 17th century Porta del Sole, decorated with the Barberini crest. This gate has been recently renovated and special lighting installed to restore the most important gate into the city to its former glory.
When in Palestrina you should not miss the Temple dedicated to the goddess of Fortune and the Archaeology Museum.
To reach the Temple, go down Corso Pierluigi da Palestrina and then choose one of the many lanes going uphill.
As you take step after step you will be repeating the ancient pagan ritual of purification that the visitors completed before placing their offerings in front of the goddess of Fortune and hearing the Oracle’s replies in the “cave of fate”.
The imposing Temple is located on the top of this characteristic “terraced” pyramid, where the Colonna family erected their Baronial Palace in the 11th century, now Barberini Palace, home to the National Archaeology Museum.
On the left of the Museum square is the gate of Porta S. Croce, probably the oldest in the city dating back to the Middle Ages. From here you can walk back down to the old town of Palestrina. It is worthwhile visiting the house of Pierluigi known as “il Palestrina” (16th century), the reformer and composer of sacred music, located near to the gate of Porta San Martino and its Church.
Alongside Via Pedemontana there is an perfectly intact stretch (of about 16 KM) of the old paved Via Prenestina road, which connected the town to the Capital. In medieval times it was used by pilgrims who, having visited Rome, would head South to catch a ship from Brindisi or Otranto to the Holy Land, and vice versa.
Our journey now continues to Genazzano, the third feud owned by the powerful Colonnas. And indeed the main attraction here is the imposing castle named after the aristocratic family. The International Centre of Contemporary Art is based in the Castle and hosts prestigious exhibitions in the spaces built on the orders of Pope Martin V in 1423, to celebrate the Jubilee. The rooms have decorated wooden false ceilings and frescoes on the outer walls.
The visit in Genazzano continues on foot along the main street connecting the Castle to the Roman Gate though the town, which has preserved its original layout.
Very close to the Roman Gate you’ll find the nymphaeum, the elegant space said to be by Bramante, used for open air theatrical performances, decorated with shells, oeil-de-boeuf and niches. After years of abandonment and dereliction, restoration work has now started to enable locals and visitors to enjoy its former splendours.
Many noble residences are situated along the main road, with exceptional windows from the late gothic period, decorated with precious marble fretwork. The most beautiful is Apolloni Palace, the birthplace of Pope Martin V, with its double lancet windows and Aragonese-style doors.
From Genazzano head towards Rocca di Cave, situated at a height of almost 1,000 metres. At the summit of the hill where the village lies, you can see the Fort, dating from the 11th century. It is now home to the “Ardito Desio” Geopaleontological Civic Museum on the geology of Lazio, tracing its long history and examining its rocks, packed with fossils from an ancient coral reef that existed about 100 million years ago.
There is a wonderful view from the Museum’s terrace, stretching over 100 kilometres, from the Tyrrhenian coast to the centre of the Apennine mountain chain.
Just outside Rocca di Cave, continuing down the road on foot towards Capranica Prenestina, you will be amazed by the sight of what was once a huge coral reef lying at the bottom of the sea. Part of the rocky mountain wall has been cut and you can see the fossils from the reef, which emerged when the sea retreated.
Once past the reef you reach Capranica with its district called Guadagnolo (the highest village in the province of Rome, lying at 1,218 M) and you are now on the crest of the Prenestini Mountains.
The view is spectacular: to the north is the Aniene Valley, to the South is the River Sacco Valley and to the East at the Colli Albani hills, the Lepini Mountains and in the background, at night you can see the lights of Rome.
Descending from Guadagnolo, there is an asphalt road on the right that leads to the ancient Sanctuary of Mentorella (about 1.5 KM), a particular favourite of Pope John Paul II.
A bit further down is Castle San Pietro Romano. The acropolis of the ancient Praeneste is dominated by the Colonna Fort, which held illustrious prisoners such as Jacopone da Todi and Corradino di Svevia.
In the 1950s, Vittorio De Sica made this location famous worldwide thanks to his performance with Gina Lollobrigida in the film by Luigi Comencini Bread Love and Dreams (Pane amore e fantasia) set in the lanes of Castel S. Pietro.
Locations on the trail
Zagarolo Rospigliosi Palace Toy Museum Palestrina Barberini Palace National Archaeology Museum Temple to the Goddess Fortune (Tempio della Dea Fortuna) Genazzano