Italy – Alatri

When I first went to Alatri it was while laboring under the excitement of discovering that early Gothic architecture had been introduced into Italy by the French Cistercian monks about fifty years earlier than any one had supposed. I had visited in these hills the extraordinary monasteries of Casamari and Fossanova, picturesque survivals, isolated microcosms in the hillside, which seem almost as if brought here bodily from Burgundy. And, by the way, a lover of the picturesque and of medieval architecture cannot find a more delightful excursion than to these two monasteries hidden away and unknown except to a half-dozen specialists. Once they had few rivals in Italy; popes and cardinals came to consecrate them. Great men like St. Thomas Aquinas lived and died in them. They were peopled with three hundred or four hundred monks and had daughter monasteries throughout central and southern Italy. I was then tracing in the neighboring towns the influence of this northern monastic Gothic on the natives, in their churches, town halls and houses. Alatri, Ferentino and Anagni are particularly rich in secular Gothic; no more unspoiled even if quite simple palaces and houses remain in Italy, and the picturesque people and still more picturesque scenery made the quest a continuous and delightful series of surprises.

But if the medieval spirit was strong in these towns, the prehistoric spirit was simply over-powering at Alatri, especially from the moment when one catches sight of the citadel wall while crossing the town, until, after passing under one of its two antique doorways and up the steps or the long incline one stands on the edge of the ramparts and tries to recreate the scenes of the days of Tarquin. The hills are still so unchanged and the town so archaic and soft-toned that this does not require any strenuous imaginative feat. The three-stepped base of the old sanctuary, under the present cathedral, is beside us, and we have come through the old gate up into the absolute stillness.

The acropolis stood on the highest peak almost in the center of the town, and the city walls them-selves had a length of nearly three miles. We have no clue as to when either was built, but there are traces of earlier fortifications on the acropolis,—of a rough first wall of small extent and modest height, which did not much change the natural aspect of the ground; of a second wall not very different in extent and direction from the present one, though of less perfect workmanship. This, then, is the third acropolis. It is built in the most advanced technique of the polygonal style, with large blocks sometimes between three and four meters long, perfectly fitted, without any crevices to be filled in with smaller material. Faces and beds are carefully, prepared. The door jambs and corners are strengthened by setting the upper blocks with a diagonal inward slant, and the same slant given to the wall itself prevents dislocation from internal thrust. For this third acropolis was given at its summit a broad expanse by making here a large artificial plateau at the highest level of the central peak after it had been quarried down.

When we measure some of the blocks we begin to entertain quite a high opinion of the building capacity of these primitive engineers. The architrave over the main entrance is over five meters long, and nearly two meters wide. On the architrave of the minor gate is carved in the stone a group of three phalli; the two outer ones horizontal, the central one vertical. They had, of course, a religious meaning. Beside the two doorways with their passages leading into the bowels of the hill, there is a curious group of three quasi-openings, three niches, in the south wall. They are probably consecrated to three gods of the city and may have contained emblems or sculptures. An inclined plane in a passage-way between two polygonal walls leads to the top from the main door; a flight of steps, in the same way, from the smaller one.

There is, besides, one very remarkable peculiarity about the access to the top. At present the third and common way is, not through the inside but along the outside by a gently inclined plane which one is tempted to regard as modern because it nullifies the defensive qualities of the citadel. But, beside the existence of the antique retaining walls which bound and support it, we find a proof of its construction under the Romans. This is an inscription which I will give here because it is by all odds the best explanation of the way the prehistoric cities were transformed after they came under Roman rule. It reads :

L. Betilienus L. F. Vaarus j Haec • quae • infera • scripta Sont • de • senatu • sententia facienda • coiravit • semitas ( in oppido • omnis • porticum • qua in , arcem • eitur • campum • ubei ludunt • horologium • macelum basilicam • calecandam • seedes ~ lacuna. balinearium • lacum • ad ~ portam • aquam • in • opidum • adou arduom • pedes • CCCV • fornicesq fecit • fistulas • soledas . fecit ob • hasce • res • censorem • fecere • bis I senatus • filio • stipendia . mereta ~ ese • iousit • populusque • statuam ~ donavit censorino.

This magistrate Betilienus Varus then, carrying out a decree of the senate, appears to have quite transformed the interior of the city. He reconstructed all the streets, built a colonnaded portico from the main gate to the top of the citadel, including evidently the creation of the above esplanade supporting this portico. Below, in the town itself, he established a forum where games could be held, placed here a public sun dial and surrounded it with public buildings, a market-hall, a basilica, public seats and a public bath. He also built a large cistern near the city gate and, best of all, brought water in on a high-pressure aqueduct at a height of three hundred and ten feet. The lead pipes had a diameter of ten centimeters and the source of the water sup-ply on Monte Paielli was hardly six feet higher than the outlet. There are only five other Roman high-pressure aqueducts known and this one at Alatri is much the earliest, the others’ being of the imperial age. The most interesting fact is that this cistern and part of the aqueduct and of the portico have been found. The date of this transformation of Alatri is determined by the character of the inscription at about the time of the Gracchi, from 135 to 100 B.C. It has been determined that the colonnaded ascent had a passage 4.12 meters wide, ascending along the north flank of the citadel and that the columns, placed about 2.52 meters apart, supported an architrave with a Doric frieze, similar in style to what was current under the Republic from North Etruria to Campania.

I will refer only briefly to a small temple found, in very ruinous condition, outside the city gates. It was evidently of no importance, and is interesting only from the scarcity of the temples of the Republican era thus far unearthed. It had a single cella and a pronaos with only two columns on the front. The important part consists in the terra cotta decorations, which supplement those of Falerii in helping us to reconstitute the ornamental scheme of an Etruscan temple. It is reconstructed with its decoration and polychromy in the court of the Etruscan Museum (Villa Giulia) in Rome. Of the really important temples of Alatri not a trace has been found.