With unerring lack of timing we arrived in Fermo just as everything started to shut. We did manage to slide into the tourist office before the key was turned and ascertained that 3.30pm was re-opening time. Just 3 hours to wait then! Fortunately the winter sun was high in a blue sky, a food market was in evidence and stone benches leaned against the Piazza del Popolo's colonnaded sides.
Food from across Italy was on offer - award winning salami, oranges from Sicily, cheeses from Sardinia, olives from all over and fresh from the fryer a local food, olive and meat fried balls. I did not stop with the local delicacy but tried the mozzarella and cremini (cream) versions as well. A tad pricey at 5 euros a pop but very tasty, though you need a sweet tooth for the cream version.
In between olives and fried balls we slowly roamed the streets of Fermo. Situated on the top of a hill the old town of Fermo is similar to many of the hill-top towns of central Italy. Within the town's walls are narrow winding streets that open up into pretty piazzas. Dark doorways lead into atmospheric churches, a glance up and you see pretty balconies and weathered statues whilst a peek down an alleyway can award the viewer with a pleasing view across the countryside - and so we passed some of the time.
The stallholders congregated on the sunny side of the square as trade slowed to a barely perceptible pulse and regaled each other with tales of mad cousins, aging grandmothers and alcohol-induced happenings. We watched the street cleaner armed with his broom and spade carefully sweep up invisible detritus as the hands of the clock slowly turned.
At 3.30 we were at the Tourist Information office's door filled with pent up enthusiasm. 3 part tickets purchased - Roman Cisterns, Pinacoteca and the Villa Vitali - we hastened next door for a 25 minute dash around the Palazzo dei Priori. This was not enough time to do the palace justice as it houses not only the Archaeology Museum on the first floor but the Pinacoteca and the Sala de Mappamondo upstairs (the police station is housed in the ground floor).
We skipped through the archaeological artefacts as our preference lay in the art upstairs. It is an impressive display considering we had already been spoiled by the Pinacoteca in Ascoli Piceno. The minatures telling the life-story of Saint Lucy are exquisite but when we walked into one of the rooms there was one picture that was head and shoulders above the rest, and we thought that before we realised it was a Rubens; but for me the best was yet to come...
When the attendant unlocked the heavy dark doors I was not ready for the assault on my senses - tears pricked my eyes. The scent of aging manuscripts and books filled my nostrils and I looked around a room that was filled from floor to ceiling with books. To one side stood a large globe made in 1713 by the Abbot Amanzio Moroncelli from strips of paper - a similar one stands in the Vatican and has been somewhat botched by previous years' attempts at restoration. I could quite happily have sat in the middle of the small roped area that we were confined to and inhaled the scent of centuries of writing for the remainder of the day. My enthusiasm must have been noticed by the attendant as she smiled for the first time as I gabbled away questions that Stefano translated into sensible Italian. I would have given anything to hold one of the manuscripts in my hands but instead made do with the digitalised copies that can be viewed on a large screen outside the room. As we looked at the rich colours and ornate decorations of an 11th century prayerbook we were called away to our next appointment.
Pine trees gripped onto the orange boulder-strewn sides as we curled up the mountain. The sea, once a hazy ribbon, became a memory hidden behind the peaks. As we snaked around the valleys into the Serranía Ronda the trees thinned to be replaced by shrubs amongst which could be seen the odd sheep grazing. The rocks took on a greyer hue as we neared the town of Ronda in the Andalucían province of Málaga, with areas of flat land dressed with weathered rocks. Life became more evident with a few small hotels and restaurants grouped at crossroads as we approached the outcrop of rock on which Ronda sits.
A billy goat chewed nonchalantly on a shrub next to a shrine, impassive as the bus sailed past him. Then in front of us the sprawling white town of Ronda, larger than I remembered from previous visits, sat perched as if a spaceship had landed and remained. On the outskirts a huge hospital is being built, or at least the shell is there but no workmen were evident and I wonder whether there is money enough to finish it, and housing estates have sprung up like mushrooms. The other side of the road remained farmland with farmsteads dotted about the land.
Ronda is one of the oldest towns in Spain with origins in Prehistory. The caves of Pileta are one of the most significant monuments from prehistory with its Stone Age art whilst other megalithic monuments are scattered about. Closer in history are the Roman remains which can be found dotted around the area including the town of Acinipo. There was not time enough, restricted as we were by bus timetables, to hire a taxi to take us to the town but there are the remains of the theatre that make it a worthwhile excursion if already in the Ronda area. It was under the Moorish influence that Ronda attained its status and some of its most impressive architecture. Ronda became one of the capitals of the five coras of Al-Andalus.
The walk from the bus station took us through the new part of the town past the seventeenth century Church of La Merced which is said to house the 'incorrupt hand' of St. Theresa de Jesus and to the 19th century Alameda del Tajo Park. Consisting of tree-lined avenues the views from the balconies are worth a look. Along one avenue there is a celebration of 75 years of the Sur newspaper. It was interesting to see the front page coverages of the end of the Second World War, man landing on the moon and Franco's funeral. From there it was only a few yards to one of the greatest symbols of the romantic era of Ronda – the Plaza de Toros.
The bullring has been recognised as the first purpose-built spaces for the fighting of bulls in the world. The first bullfight took place in 1785 in the ring that is surrounded by a two-storey arcade of Tuscan columns. The bullring also hosts museums of Antique firearms, harness and livery collections as well as to bullfighting and the riding school and stables of the Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda. The bull is not forgotten. A sculpture of the magnificent beast stands outside one of the puertas. Next to the bull was a chap with his horse (which looked bored beyond belief) ready to take money from tourists willing to shell out €2 to sit on his horse, waving his hat in the air, whilst their travelling companions took a photo. He did a relatively good trade during the early hours but when we returned in the early afternoon sun, when most sensible people were sat in the shade or taking lunch, both he and the horse looked as if they would rather be anywhere else.
The Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) is the most recognisable of the Ronda monuments as it spans the depth of the gorge. It is quite an extraordinary feat of engineering. The first attempt at a crossing at this part of the gorge, there were already two earlier bridges one from Arab times and the second from the seventeenth century (the Puente Viejo or Old Bridge), was begun in 1735. It consisted of one large arch and took eight months to build but only lasted for six years. The second and remaining attempt was started in 1758 and was finally completed in 1787. The opening of the bridge changed the nature of the city with the Muslim medina being replaced by the modern Mercadillo with life revolving around the Plaza de España which sits next to the Puente Nuevo. For €2 you enter the bridge where there are displays on the history of the bridge and the birds that live in and around it. It is also good to get another view from the bridge though understandably one is not allowed to open the windows to take a picture.
Over the Puente Nuevo and a cobbled street leads down towards the Casa del Rey Moro (House of the Moorish King), the Arab Baths, and the Old and Arab bridges. The Casa del Rey Moro was described on our tourist map as containing "Impressive Islamic work" which I took to be tiles, arches and decoration as well as the stylish gardens that one can see at palaces like the Alhambra in Granada and Alcazaba in Málaga. I was disappointed. The casa has fallen into serious disrepair with foliage growing out of the roof, the majority of the windows smashed and broken and little sign of anything remotely Islamic from the outside. This is because it is a fraud. It had never been the home to a Moorish king having been constructed in the eighteenth century when the time of the Moorish kings was but a distant memory. The gardens are even more modern having been designed by the Frenchman Forestier in 1912 along Moorish lines. They are quiet gardens offering shade in which it is pleasant to take a rest from the hot sun but the whole affair is tired and crumbling. The part of the gardens which is truly Moorish is La Mina Secreta but it requires lungs and legs that do not mind descending and then ascending a steep winding staircase of uneven steps that is poorly lit. One lady who was catching her breath at the top informed us that there were 194 steps to the bottom. I took her word for it as I concentrated on not breaking my neck as I made my descent (I am not goat-like in surety of foot).
At the bottom of the steps is part of the river Guadelevin which barely flows but resembles a small lagoon from the bent and rickety metal platform upon which you stand. The water has a green turquoise hue to it with fish and crayfish living in its shallows and only the calls of the birds nesting in the gorge's walls to disturb a time of quiet contemplation. Here you dream of a Moorish harem enjoying the cool waters or a princess enjoying time away from the court but the reality would have been something different. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Ronda was caught in the crossfire between the Christians of Sevilla and the Moors of Granada and was frequently besieged. In the hot mountains of Andalucía the first target would have been the water supply. It is rumoured that the Moorish king Abolmelic used Christian slaves to cut the original steps down to the gorge in order that water could be brought up. The name La Mina Secreta, Secret Mine, would intimate that the stairway was a secret but as the Christians were known to say that "In Ronda you die carrying water skins" it must have been a very open secret.
We passed by a number of chambers built adjacent to the stairway including the Sala de Secretos (Room of Secrets), Terraza de la Conquista (Terrace of the Conquest) and Sala de las Armas (Armoury Room). Sadly I did not know at the time that the Sala de Secretos, which had formerly been another well, is a room in which a whisper made in one corner can be heard in the opposite corner but not by anybody stood in the middle; I like to try these things out for myself! The reason for not knowing: the only leaflets available were those in French and German and as between the two of us we can speak four languages we were rather unfortunate to be stuck with the only leaflets we could not understand.
Down the hill to the arch of Philipe V and the Arab Baths we walked on a cobbled street so worn that the stones shone. Cars sped up the hill which they had no option to do as stopping would not be a wise move on a hill so steep, beeping at the corners to give tourists time to move out of the way. Incredibly a Learner driver was being initiated in the 'driving with foot to the floor' style of motoring, and unfortunately for her when she failed on the lower part of the hill to maintain momentum, on hill-start motoring as well. The learner smiled broadly as her instructor encouraged more power and an abandonment that would send UK instructors to the nearest asylum.
The Arab Baths were not worth their €3 entrance fee. 90% of the baths could be photographed from the road, informative signs were almost non-existent and the garden area that I assume was meant to resemble a Moorish garden was a forlorn example of horticulture with a couple of sad young almond trees, a few thriving rosemary bushes and plethora of dried and dying weeds filling the spaces between the pathways. A screen was playing a history lesson on bathing culture in one the rooms. The couple who stayed to watch it for a second time must have determined that they were going to get their money's worth as well as take respite from the now beating sun.
Climbing the gorge, having crossed over the Puente Viejo, we were able to see the full extent of the dilapidation of the Moorish King's house. I find it sad to see once elegant buildings fall into disrepair especially when money is coming into the coffers in some form or another. Having reached the Puente Nuevo once again we crossed over but this time made a right turn towards the Mondragón Palace past the Casa de Don Bosco. Our luck was in as it was a free entrance day into the palace which houses the headquarters of the Museum of Ronda.
The building is an example of the Mudéjar style of architecture. Mudéjar is a symbiosis of Muslim and Christian cultures that is shown in architectural ways. The buildings were mainly of brick and interpreted Christian styles with an Islamic influence. The courtyards with their arches and galleries link the different areas of the palace and lead out into the gardens which also offer views across the plains and the gorge. The museum has displays on the history of the area, funeral rites and the Roman town of Ancipio. It is an informative and attractive palace to visit.
As the time drew near for us to start our walk back to the bus station we took the scenic route via Saint Mary's Church. Dating from the fifteenth century it had been the principal mosque before being converted into a church by Fernando 'El Catolico'. The only remaining element of that time is the arch of Mirhab and part of its walls which is hidden behind the tabernacle's altar. Part of the Gothic style of the original church is retained through the columns and arches (part of the church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1580). We did not feel inclined to pay €4 each to enter the church and so missed the ostentatious altar of the Virgin that I remember from previous visits as being blindingly golden.
My thirst from walking up and down the sides of Ronda was suitably quenched as we neared the bus station and dipped into 'El Purto' bar. Clean, with good service and free from tourist prices (only €1 for a bottle of beer) with tapas available, I would highly recommend it to the weary day tripper.
Ronda has a lot to offer and we did not see many of the places open to us, so if you are tied down by the number of visiting hours available to you, select wisely and be aware that most sites charge at least €2 and you may not get to see very much for your money. A good pair of shoes is essential especially if descending into the gorge or walking up and down the cobbled streets that line its side.
In my first article in this series I covered the generalities and historic background of the Vatican Necropolis. (Go back and read itif you haven't, I'll wait.) In this second post I'll cover the mausoleums in the underground tour under Saint Peter's Basilica, one by one with the its highlights. I hope this compendium will bring us closer to the people who built these tombs, the care they poured into these family spaces commissioning the decoration and the architecture, the dedication and the sentiment in making these the best place possible for their dead.
And ultimately, let us go back in time in a walk up the Vatican Hill, to finally reach the tomb of Saint Peter, Jesus' right hand man.
According to the Open University’s course about ancient Roman funerary monuments family was important for the ancient Romans. One way to preserve the name of the family was to build a family tomb. Though most Romans could not afford one, many built them for their nuclear family of husband, wife and children. Poor Romans would be buried in mass graves or small tombs marked on the ground with modest markers o amphorae.
The size, extent of decoration and inclusion of architectural elements had a direct relation to the social status of the family. During the first century AD the deceased were cremated and their remains put into containers or urns that were placed in small niches (columbarium) inside the family tomb I will be using a Vatican Necropolis floorplan along the way, so that you know exactly where you are. Here we go!
This is where the tour starts. The mausoleum of Caius Polilius Heracla contains a tablet in which the existence of the nearby arena (Nero’s circus) is mentioned. Tablet from Mausoleum A. From 'The Tomb of St. Peter' by Margherita Guarducci, Hawthorn. 1960
It belonged to Fannia Redempta, the wife of Aurelius Hermes, a freeman of the Augusti family who highlights his wife as "incomparable." The walls have niches where the ashes were stored in urns, which indicate a pagan (different from the main religions of the world) burial. The painting on the vault is of a "Sun Chariot" accompanied by figures of the seasons. The rest of the tomb is decorated with paintings of flowers and animals.
This is the tomb of L. Tullius Zethus. The L preceding the name implies he was a freed slave or his father had been. He must’ve done pretty well for himself since this tomb is one of the most ornate with wall decorations and mosaic floor. Two marble urns were added at a later period. The tomb has niches for urns and two arcosolia (a recess on the wall in the form of an arc, used as grave).
We don’t know who it belonged to. It’s called Mausoleum of the opus reticulatum, named after the pattern in which the bricks have been placed.
This is the tomb of T. Aelius Tyrannus, a freedman who worked in public office. The most notable elements of this tomb are two alabaster containers, one with a Medusa carving and the stucco paintings on the walls.
As with other tombs there are niches and arcosolia… but observe also the staircase that was used to go up to and down from the upper room which was used for the “refrigerio” a rite in which family accompanied the deceased in a sort of feast. The family go down to the inner burial room to pour libations (offerings of food and wine) through holes on the floor, to feed the deceased.
Interior of Mausoleum E with alabaster containers. Photo: Blanca & Ian's Travels
The first to be discovered in 1939, this is the tomb of the Tulli and the Caetenni as it is stated on the altar that stands in the middle of the mausoleum. This is a pagan tomb with some Christian symbolism. The woman mentioned in the altar is Emilia Gorgonia, and her husband mentions her beauty and goodness. The holes for the libations are visible on the right side of the floor. Romans held funeral banquets in which wine and food were poured inside these holes, for the deceased to be fed.
The Tomb of the Teacher is named after the painting in the back wall depicting an old man with a scroll, in front of a younger man. It is most likely an administrator and a servant, though the first people who saw the tomb interpreted the painting as a teaching and his student. The ceiling depicts beautiful paintings of animals, garlands and geometric figures. Can you imagine the artist painting these figures with so much care and attention?
The Tomb of the Valerii is the most luxurious of all the tombs. It belonged to Valerius Philumenus and Valeria Galatia who gave permission to several members of their family and some friends, to use this mausoleum. Several marble portraits (including some children) were found in it. See a couple of them on the bottom-right corner of this picture?
The Tomb of the Chariot from the quadriga figre in the mosaic floor that depicts the rape of Persephone by Pluto on a chariot driven by Mercury. The fresco paintings depict birds, a peacock (a symbol of afterlife), ducks, doves and floral designs.
The tomb of the Julii or "Cristo Sole", Christ the Sun or the Christan Mausoleum. This tomb was built by the parents of Julius Tarpeianus. Even though the shape and some elements of the tomb are pagan, the mosaics are Christians depicting a scene of Jonah being eaten by the whale and a scene of a fisherman.
The tomb of Aebutius also bears the name of "Clodius Romanus". His mother calls him her "most gentle son" on the epitaph of the urn.
A reduced tomb, you can only see a small detail of a painted “light-bearer”.
The Tomb of Trebellena Flaccilla is decorated with delicate painting of birds and flowers. There’s also a detail of a dolphin.
This tomb has been largely occupied by the foundations to Bernini’s Baldaquino (the canopy above). Mausoleum S is very important because it’s located on the south of Field P and beyond it, there’s a small corridor called the “Clivus” that runs from south to north meeting the “Red Wall” at the northeast side. You need to remember these three terms for the next post, because here, we are entering the Tomb of Saint Peter itself. But for that, we need an even more thorough explanation.
By now we have walked up the slope of the Vatican Hill, south to north, going through the remains of a cemetery for wealthy Romans. We have imagined how they remembered their dead and how they celebrated life with their rituals and the ornate decorations that cemented their family tomb. Have you ever visited other Roman cemeteries? What was the experience like? How do they relate to the way we see death now and our own rituals?