Contextualising the past in the Alban Hills (Colli Albani)

Contextualising the past in the Alban Hills (Colli Albani). Villa, tomb and sacred space from the 12th to the 18th milestones of the ancient Via Appia
The project is based at Aarhus University, School of Culture and Society, headed by B. Poulsen, Department of History and Classical Studies; C. Manetta, deputy director, University of Exeter, and F. Diosono, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich/University of Perugia in collaboration with Accademia di Danimarca, Rome, and Soprintendenza Archeologia Belle Arti e Paesaggio per l'area metropolitana di Roma, l'Etruria Meridionale e la provincia di Viterbo (SABAP).
The project involves several scholars and partner institutions (alphabetical)
S. Aglietti: Independent scholar; N. Bargfeldt: Aarhus University; P. Boila: Idrogeotec, Perugia; B. Borg: University of Exeter; J. Carlsen: University of Southern Denmark; K. Bülow Clausen: Copenhagen University; S. Carosi: SABAP; C. Dupré: Società CENSE, Castelromano; C. Fisker, Independent scholar; G. Ghini: SABAP; G. L. Giovannucci: Società CENSE, Castelromano; M. Holm: Architect; H. Kumke: Technische Universität München; M. Moltesen: former curator, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek; E. Mortensen, Aarhus University; A. Palladino: Independent scholar; G. Vatta, Independent scholar. For other collaborators and volunteers, see the preliminary reports.
The Project
The project investigates the relationship between villa, tomb, and sanctuary along the Via Appia Antica from the 12th to the 18th milestones from ca. 100 BC to AD 500.

Fig. 1 Map of the Ager Albanus (G. Lugli, 1917)
The Alban Hills were central to the founding myth of Rome and the area retained close relations to the city through the Republican and imperial period. From the late 4th century BC the Via Appia made it easy to reach the Alban Hills from the metropolis. The Alban Hills have several advantages: they are cool during the summer with easy access to water and two deep volcanic lakes at Albano and Nemi. The hills were an important sacral place housing the famous Latin sanctuary of Diana at Lake Nemi, and they were also much favoured as a setting for luxurious villas and tombs of the Roman elite, senators as well as emperors. From the late Republican period, the Roman elite had large properties in the region close to the political important sanctuary of Diana, and Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) - and later Caligula (emperor AD 37-41) - had built a huge villa on the shore of Lake Nemi where also the two large floating palaces (luxurious barges) of Caligula were anchored. Domitian (emperor AD 81-96) had his villa at Lake Albano, the present-day Castel Gandolfo, now the summer residence of the Pope, and also several of the later emperors had villas in the Alban Hills. The region was therefore closely related to the political arena of Rome and the centre of power.

Travellers leaving Rome - then as today - along the Via Appia will notice the remains of a number of huge tombs on either side of the road. The majority has now been stripped of their revetment of precious stone and sculptural embellishment and only the opus caementicium (concrete) cores now witness their size and importance. Many of these tombs have neither been studied nor measured and they have never been related to the surrounding building remains which in several cases have been identified as villas along the Via Appia Antica. During recent years the archaeological activities have been intensified in the area around Lake Nemi, and the present team is establishing an international project focusing on this important environment. The project aims to contextualize older and more recent findings and investigate the relationship between villa, tomb and sanctuary. It will partly consider the archaeological remains partly combine these studies with the abundant unpublished documentation preserved in the archives.
Case study: The so-called villa of Clodius on the Via Appia
As a case study, we had the opportunity to conduct four short field campaigns combined with geophysical surveys and measurings in the so-called Villa of Clodius standing at the 13th milestone at the Via Appia. Publius Clodius Pulcher (93 - 52 BC), the Roman politician living during the tumultuous years of the late Republican period, has become well-known through his mortal feud with Marcus Tullius Cicero and Titus Annius Milo. He is in particular remembered for his scandalous intrusion in the religious festival of Bona Dea - a cult reserved exclusively for women - when the celebration was hosted by Pompeia, the wife of Caesar (in 62 BC; Cic. Att. 1.12.3; Plut. Caes. 10). Cicero relates that Clodius had an Alban villa close to the Via Appia (Cic. Mil. 19), and that he was murdered on the Via Appia near Bovillae, just in front of a sanctuary of Bona Dea (18th January, 52 BC, Cic. Mil. 31). This is the reason why, for centuries, a large structure to the east of the Via Appia has been interpreted as the Villa of Clodius.

The fieldwork (2017-2018, 2019) combines multidisciplinary investigations and technology including Electrical Resistivity Tomography (ERT), 3D-models, and Georadar. The Villa Santa Caterina, the site of these archaeological remains, was from the 19th century owned by the Orsini family, a wealthy aristocratic family, and is now in the private property of Società CENSE, Castelromano.

Fig. 2 Plan of the so-called Villa of Clodius (G. Lugli, 1914).
The site
The interpretation of the architectural remains at the 13th milestone has been much debated among scholars throughout the centuries, but since G. Lugli in 1914 no investigation has been conducted on the site. Scholars have partly interpreted the structure as the 'Villa of Clodius', partly as part of the large imperial estate of Domitian, the Albanum Domitiani. The structure consists of recognizable elements such as a road, an entrance, an atrium, a peristyle, cisterns and a large structure built of large ashlars (opus quadratum), so far explained as a substructure or a fortification.

Fig. 3 View of the road leading from Via Appia Antica to the building.
Considering the evidence from the literary sources previous scholarship has taken it for granted that the Sanctuary of Bona Dea should be located on the western side of Via Appia, but the recent investigations have indicated that the structures can no longer be identified as a villa but should instead be interpreted as a sanctuary, and probably the very one of Bona Dea. This sanctuary is known to have been within the estate of a certain T. Sergius Gallus (Cic. Mil. 31).

Fig. 4 View of the 'atrium' (K).
More specifically, the overall plan of the complex shows similarities with sanctuaries of Bona Dea (Good Goddess, deity of fertility and health for the people, and protectress of the Roman state), for instance Ostia, IV 8.3, first half of the 1st/3rd century AD. Sanctuaries of Bona Dea are multi-functional complexes rather than ordinary temples. In addition to the shrine (sacellum), these buildings may contain a courtyard, a kitchen, a pharmacy, a porticus, a fenced area, as well as provision for water like fountains and cisterns. This is a significant breakthrough, not only for a completely new understanding of these structures but also for our interpretation of the site and the ancient landscape in this area more generally.

Fig. 5 View of the impressive structure (α-ζ) built of big ashlar blocks, assumed to be the sacellum of Bona Dea.
Preliminary results
The investigations conducted in 2017-2018 and 2019 consisted of a thorough cleaning and documentation of the visible remaining structures combined with geophysical prospection on the site and its immediate surroundings. As for a short description of the preliminary results, we refer to the links below. The results obtained were among others:

Fig. 6 New updated plan of the structures on the site (N. Bargfeldt 2019).
  • One important result of the recent investigations is a new updated plan of the ancient structures (by N. Bargfeldt), the first since P. Rosa (1869) and G. Lugli (1914). The metric survey reveals very interestingly that the structure differs considerably from the plan published by Lugli in 1914, and the building has now for the first time been placed correctly according to the four points of the compass.
  • Archival studies and investigations on the site have resulted in a better understanding of the ruin. It is apparent that former owners, and first and foremost the Orsini, made considerable alterations and restorations on the site.
  • The road to the south of the building has always been considered as an ancient diverticulum privatum leading from Via Appia towards Castel Gandolfo, the site of the Villa of Domitian. The ancient basalt blocks of the road must have been reorganized in later periods, perhaps during the ownership of the Orsini (?) and a small semi-circular place surrounded by a bench opposite the entrance to the ancient building was constructed.
  • The majority of the walls is made of opus reticulatum and it has become evident that the impressive building of opus quadratum in the NW corner of the ruin (α-ζ) is much earlier than the late Republican additions made during the second half of the 1st century BC. A later construction phase (opus latericium) is found in the northern part of the building.
  • The large Room G turned out to be of particular interest. It contained a huge bottle-shaped cistern with an ancient wellhead in situ. It had at least three doors and seems to have been a central room - or perhaps a yard - in the building.
  • The building contained a latrine (E) in the SE corner
  • A detailed registration and description of all visible walls and floors as well as a photographic documentation is now available, but to obtain a full picture the ruin has to be fully excavated and vegetation removed.
  • Comparisons with other sanctuaries of Bona Dea combined with the literary record make it probable that this is to be identified with the Sanctuary of Bona Dea mentioned by Cicero and other literary sources to be situated in the 13th mile of Via Appia. In any case, the structure in opus quadratum is definitely earlier than the surrounding rooms.
Sincere thanks to the present owners of the site, the Soprintendenza Archeologia Belle Arti e Paesaggio per Area Metropolitana di Roma, la provincia di Viterbo e l'Etruria Meridionale, and the Accademia di Danimarca, Roma.
For funding in 2016-2020 we sincerely thanks: AIAS/AU Collaborative projects; the research programme Classical Antiquity and its Heritage, School of Culture and Society, Aarhus University; the Beckett Foundation; Dronning Margrethe II’s Arkæologiske Fond.
The Volterra Collection of Antiquities
Since 2018 the project also includes the study of the antiquities originally collected by the famous Italian mathematician and Senator, Vito Volterra. This study has recently, thanks to the kind generosity of the Volterra family, been laid in the hands of the archaeologists, Mette Moltesen (Copenhagen) and Germana Vatta (Rome), in collaboration with Giuseppina Ghini (SABAP) and Maria Grazia Granino Cecere. The Volterra collection of antiquities is predominantly housed at the Villino Volterra in Ariccia, which still is in the possession of the Volterra family.

Fig. 7 Ariccia, Villino Volterra, ca. 1930 (Property of the Volterra Family).
Originally much richer and more extensive, the collection was heavily affected by raids and devastations occurring during the Second World War - when the Villa was first confiscated by the German army and subsequently used as a shelter for refugees - as well as thefts of more recent date. Today, indeed, only a small part of its original holdings of sculptures, reliefs, urns, sarcophagi, architectural marbles, and Roman inscriptions, is still visible in the gardens and the interiors of the villa. However, significant traces of the missing antiquities can be tracked thanks to the several old photographs, in which they appear and possibly more can be traced through the channels of the antiquarian market.

Fig. 8 Ariccia, Villino Volterra, garden with antiquities, no date (Courtesy of the Volterra family).

Fig. 9 Ariccia, Villino Volterra, a corner of the sitting room with various antiquities, ca. 1930 (Property of the Volterra Family).
While shedding new light upon the figure of Vito Volterra, not only an outstanding man of science but also a collector and a refined connoisseur of antiquities, the value of this collection also lies in identifying the provenience of the individual items. Probably most of the antiquities, in fact, come from the town of Ariccia and its surroundings. Archival documents indeed show that some of the ancient artefacts were found during the building of the villa itself in 1904. In addition, however, other antiquities have been acquired through the Roman antiquarian market. For example, a provenience from Rome has been ascertained for the funerary urn CIL VI 29384. The impact of the Volterra collection of antiquities within the framework of our project is therefore evident. This study will clearly enhance our knowledge of the monuments, which probably originally stood along the 16th mile of the Via Appia, and of sculpture in general (not only from a funerary context) but also contribute to the social history of the investigated area in the Roman period. The Volterra collection of antiquities is unpublished except for two items: the alter of the Imperial libertus Macrinus, procurator of the XX hereditatium regionis Tarricinensis, probably dated to the Hadrianic period and the sarcophagus with Nekya, which probably comes from the territory of ancient Aricia.
Gasparri, C. 2013: Un nuovo sarcofago con Nekyia tipo Villa Giulia, RM 119, 201-220. Granino Cecere, M.G. 2011: Nuovi dati sulla vicesima hereditatium da un documento epigrafico nel territorio aricino, in G. Ghini (ed.), Lazio e Sabina 7, Roma, 283-288. Taglietti, F. 2014: Un nuovo sarcofago con scene dell'oltretomba ad Ariccia. Qualche riflessione, ArchClass 64, 433-459. Veneziani, R. & V. Volterra 2011: Il villino Volterra di Ariccia, Roma.

Further information:
Research project related to the Contextualising project
Public cults in private hands. The Appropriation of Cult Sites from the 2nd Century BCE to the 2nd Century CE
C. Manetta, Marie Curie Research Fellow, University of Exeter.
Drawing on exciting new discoveries in the Colli Albani area, the CULTUS project offers an unprecedented opportunity to explore the role of religion in Roman élite competition, identity creation, and state ideology, from the perspective of actual practice, agency, and integration into daily activities and more mundane physical surroundings. The identification of the famous sacrarium of Bona Dea at the ‘Villa of Clodius’, Castel Gandolfo, and a re-assessment of the villa of Secciano, have closed important gaps in our knowledge of the Colli Albani’s sacred landscape, and have paved the way for the successful application of an innovative approach that moves away from still-prevailing paradigms of normative and static concepts of religion, and binary oppositions such as public/private or official/popular. Focussing on the much-neglected semi-public cult sites situated in private properties, the study aims to identify the patrons of these initiatives (male and female private individuals; emperors), and the reasons for their actions (self-promotion and socio-political ‘cultural capital’) over four centuries of extensive change in Roman political and social history (2nd c. BC to 2nd c. AD).
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 844113”, and it is hosted by the University of Exeter, Department of Classics and Ancient History.

For more information:
Public Cults in Private Hands - The Appropriation of Cult Sites from the 2nd century BCE to the 2nd century CE (
Activities related to the Contextualising the Past Project
June 2016: Workshop hosted by Aarhus University/AIAS.
5-7 January 2017: Workshop hosted by the Danish Academy in Rome.
9 February 2017: F. Diosono, C. Manetta, B. Poulsen: Contextualising the Past in the Alban Hills: Places for Life and Death, for Production and Otium, at the international workshop: Tra Appia e Latina: dinamiche insediative e sviluppo del territorio alle pendici dei Colli Albani hosted by the Reale Istituto Neerlandese di Roma.
10 February 2017: Preliminary survey of the so-called Villa of Clodius, Villa Santa Caterina, Castel Gandolfo.
May 2017: Fieldwork and geophysical survey in the so-called Villa of Clodius.
July and September 2018: Fieldwork and measuring in the so-called Villa of Clodius and topographical survey of Via Appia.
30 October 2018: Workshop on recent fieldwork in the Colli Albani hosted by the Villa Santa Caterina.
6 March 2019: Workshop at Aarhus University: Via Appia XIII. Participants: H. v. Hesberg, C. Manetta, N. Bargfeldt and B. Poulsen.
July 2019: Fieldwork in the so-called Villa of Clodius.
27 January 2021: Lecture at Klassische Archäologie, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg: Recent research in the Alban Hills: An Imperial (?) villa at Lake Nemi and the so-called ‘Villa of Clodius’ at the Via Appia (B. Poulsen).
The site of the Villa Santa Caterina
Manetta, C. & B. Poulsen 2017: From AIAS to the Alban Hills. The so-called Villa of Clodius at the Via Appia, AIAS Annual Report 2016/17, Aarhus, 12-13.

Aglietti, S., C. Manetta & B. Poulsen 2018: Villa Santa Caterina e il Santuario delle Bona Dea (?) al XIII miglio della Via Appia, Villa Santa Caterina.

Bargfeldt, N., C. Manetta, E. Mortensen, B. Poulsen 2019: Mord, Myter og Monumenter på Via Appia, Veje & Kultur, KĂžbenhavn, 32-37.

Diosono, F., C. Manetta, B. Poulsen 2019: Contestualizzare il passato nei Colli Albani. Ville, tombe e spazi sacri tra il XII e il XVIII miglio dell'Antica Via Appia, in: A. L. Fischetti & P. Attema, Alle pendici dei Colli Albani. Dinamiche insediative e cultura materiale ai confini con Roma. On the slopes of the Alban Hills. Settlement dynamics and material culture on the confines of Rome, Groningen, 133-149.

Aglietti, S., F. Diosono, C. Manetta, A. Palladino, B. Poulsen 2021: Villa or sanctuary? The so-called villa of Clodius at the 13th milestone of Via Appia, ARID.

Manetta, C. 2021: Reframing the Alban ‘Villa of Clodius’ in the Via Appia, ARID.

Contact information
C. Manetta:
B. Poulsen: