Tuesday 12 January 2016


The Sabine hilltown of Cottanello as seen from L'Eremo di San Cataldo, courtesy of Alessandra Finiti 
In late March of 2013 a dear friend from high school and university years, Fern, came to visit us in Casperia with a friend of hers from Norway, Heidi. Richard and I were staying at Il Sogno, with Ina, a friend of our friend Candace, so Fern and Heidi shared a room at  the beautiful La Torretta B&B just down the road from us. 

Heidi, Fern and Ina hit it off really well and actually spent a lot of time together. They travelled to Poggio Mirteto and to Farfa Abbey with the help of the staff from La Torretta (we were without a rent-a-car at the time). 

The one time we actually got to go on an excursion all together was thanks to our friend Alessandra Finiti who arranged with staff from the Comune of Cottanello, Alessandra's old home town, for a tour of the local attractions there.

This collage of images from the excavations at Cottanello's Roman Villa courtesy of Alessandra Finiti.

Cottanello sits on a spur of a hill guarding a mountain pass that connects the Bassa Sabina, or the Sabina of the Tiber, with the Rieti Valley. The name Cottanello derives from an ancient Roman family name, Cotta, the Aurelii Cottae were an important branch of gens Aurelia who claimed descent from King Numa Pompilius. Prominent personalities from this family served Rome in political and military life from the third century BC to the first century A.D.

After their conquest of the Sabina, the Romans subdivided the land into farms and villas. Many of Rome's patrician and senatorial families had villas in Sabina. The Aurelii Cottae, Julius Caesar's wife's family, owned a large villa complex on the south facing slopes below the present day village known today as Collesecco, which translates as "Dry Hill". This Villa, which over the past decades has been excavated and maintained by the comune of Cottanello, was our first destination in our specially arranged itinerary.

View of the Cotta mausoleum on the Via Appia Antica south of Rome courtesy of Alessandra Finiti
There were five of us needing a ride from Casperia to Cottanello and Alessandra's car could not fit all of us. In the end we were able to get a ride for half of the group from Franco Angelelli, the owner of Gusto Al Borgo

Depending on who is behind the wheel, Italian or Canadian, the drive from Casperia to Collesecco can take from 14 to 20 minutes. Franco had us at our destination in no time.  

We all piled out of the car and headed down through the field past a ruined farm house to the villa site.

L. to R. Me, Ina and Richard heading toward the villa ruins

This farmhouse which sit directly above and behind the villa excavation site is for sale. It very likely sits atop more buried villa ruins as only part of the villa has been excavated. 

The villa was discovered in the late 1960s during agricultural work. Intermittent excavations were carried out by volunteers from Cottanello's Pro Loco under the supervision of the Archaeological Superintendency of Rome. 

Layout of the Villa Excavation from Cottanello town website

Over the decades a large section of the ruins were uncovered revealing a working agricultural villa which, however, had a number of rooms with richly mosaic covered floors. 

Mosaics at Cottanello's Roman Villa - Photo courtesy of Alessandra Finiti
In one section of the villa fragments of massive terracotta dolia, or storage jars, were uncovered. The discovery of the words M. Cottae stamped on one of the jar rims furnished proof that this villa was indeed the country farm of the illustrious Cotta family.   

Photo courtesy of Alessandra Finiti
At the villa gate, our group was met by Monica Volpe, our guide from Cottanello's town office. She escorted us inside the roofed enclosure and gave our group an overview of the history of the villa, then took us through the villa complex room by room explaining each location. Our group was mixed, Italian, Canadian, Russian and Norwegian. I ended up interpreting, as best as I could, Monica's Italian for the non-Italian speakers in the group.

When Monica arrived I noticed that she carried with her a plastic spray bottle full of water. I wondered what it was for. We soon found out.       

Something that was not readily apparent at first, because of an accumulation of dust, was the fact that most of the floors we were walking on were covered with intricate mosaic designs. Even after we noticed them, the mosaics seemed to be muted work in black and white. 

Some of them indeed were, but here and there when Monica crouched down and sprayed a section with the water in her bottle, vivid colours would spring to life from beneath the dust. 

There were not only black and white, but rich reds and browns, ochres and grey blues. There were not only intricate geometric patterns in repetition but also whimsical portraits of human faces, little birds, as well as floral and leaf designs.

Monica getting ready to work her magic

One of the villa tabbies sneaking up behind Heidi
All the while Monica guided us through the various rooms, corridors, the atrium and peristyle of the villa two semi-feral tabby cats, possibly the hired guardians of the villa site, accompanied us.

Alessandra tried her hand with Monica's spray bottle. This site was very small but we were just gobsmacked by the richness in the decoration of the rooms. Here and there the original plaster still stuck to the opus reticulatum walls, some with the reds and black of fresco colours still evident. 

One of the villa cats comes to listen to Alessandra and Monica's conversation about the mosaic
We got shown so many amazing things during the visit. One fascinating element were the square holes on either side of the thresholds in which at one point either metal or wooden blocks with sockets for doors once had been. 

Photo courtesy of Alessandra Finiti

One of these thresholds had a very interesting mosaic, that of a cock chasing after a hen. If I remember the explanation correctly, it seems that the meaning of this mosaic was that the room behind the door was the master bedroom.

Another fascinating feature of the villa was the cryptoporticus, a large storage vault, that ran beneath the villa.

It was likely in this extensive underground chamber that the fragments of the terracotta dolia with the M. Cottae stamp were discovered.

It was almost time to leave the villa and head off to our next stop on our Cottanello itinerary, the Hermitage of San Cataldo, but the sun was so nice and warm that we couldn't resist sitting down on the stone walls with the cats and enjoy the Sabine sunshine for a few moments before we headed back up the hill.

I love this picture of Alessandra and the cats... I think they were priming her for getting some tabbies of her own...

Our friend Fern getting in a pat before we had to leave

Just as we were about to leave for the Hermitage Monica presented each of us with a pamphlet on the villa excavations produced by the town of Cottanello. We posed happily together: Italians, Canadians, Russians and Norwegians, for a formal group shot before we headed back to the cars. 

L. to R. Marco, Irina, Heidi, Richard, Ina, Alessandra, me, and Fern
For the next leg of our journey we split into two cars, Alessandra's and Marco's, and drove the seven minute windy uphill road to the carpark outside the walled town of Cottanello. 

From the Cottanello's car park to the Hermitage was a five minute walk... according to Google Maps, but I remember it taking a little longer.

Five minutes away from civilisation seems a bit close for a hermitage. In actual fact, up until 1888 when the current road linking Bassa Sabina and Rieti was built, the original access to the hermitage was not from the road below as it is today, but from a treacherous goat path which descended along the shear rock slopes toward the hermitage from the mountain above. 

Photo of me, Ina, Fern, Richard and Heidi courtesy of Alessandra Finiti
Thankfully, we took the modern easy route. If you are driving from the Bassa Sabina over the pass behind Cottanello toward the Rieti valley many motorists might not even notice the hermitage or stop to think about what it is if they do. 

Perched in a cleft among the granite rock of the cliffs, L'Eremo di San Cataldo has stood guard over Cottanello for over a thousand years. Built originally by Benedictine monks preaching in the area, the hermitage is dedicated to Saint Cataldus, an Irish monk who lived during the late sixth and early seventh centuries. Cataldus, while returning to Ireland from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, was shipwrecked near Taranto in Puglia. 

The holiness of the shipwrecked Irish monk prompted the local population to beg him to be their bishop. He eventually became Archbishop of Taranto, dying there around the year 685. Apparently San Cataldo is invoked for protection agains plague, drought and storms.

Why the hermitage is dedicated to this transplanted Irish saint is not certain. Legend has it that the saint took refuge in the hermitage to escape during the Arian persecution but there is no historical confirmation to corroborate this hypothesis. Though the official patron saint of Cottanello is Saint Andrew, the people of Cottanello have a particular fondness for San Cataldo whose feast day is celebrated on May 10th.

Inside the hermitage's small chapel are housed the most ancient Byzantine-style frescoes of Sabina. Particularly beautiful is the age-old painting of The Redeemer and other beautiful paintings from the fifteenth century that depict the Madonna and Child with saints and bishops. The fresco of The Redeemer dates from the ninth to tenth century and shows a seated Jesus in the act of blessing flanked by the apostles and saints. 

This fresco, with its Franciscan Tau cross painted on Jesus's right leg in the late 1200s during a time when Saint Francis evangelised in the area, lay forgotten and hidden from view under a more recent layer of fresco and would have remained hidden if not for a strange twist in history. 

In 1944, during the last months of the war in Italy, a rear guard of young German sappers were charged with the destruction of the road connecting the Bassa Sabina and Rieti in order to slow the advance of Allied forces who were hot on the heals of the retreating Nazi and Fascist government troops. The point where the sappers were laying their mines was a bridge directly below the hermitage. If everything went according to plan the road would indeed have been cut but the bombs would have destroyed Cottanello's beloved hermitage as well. By some miracle—the weeping townspeople were all on their knees watching and praying—the blast did not go as planned. Some of the bombs exploded, but when the dust cleared the astonished people of Cottanello saw their hermitage intact. The only damage to the chapel was where the shock of the blast knocked off a layer of newer fresco revealing the precious older fresco beneath. 

In a corner of the same wall is the fresco of the Virgin that dates back to 1443. Some assert that the face of the baby Jesus is reminiscent of the appearance of Saint Francis.

Heidi admires a rustic altar made of the famous local red Cottanello marble
The views of Cottanello from the hermitage were stunning. We took lots of pictures of both inside the hermitage chapel and of the beautiful surrounding countryside. My stomach clock though was telling me it was time for lunch. History always makes me hungry. Luckily for all of us, a spectacular meal had been arranged for the group at La Foresteria, Cottanello's premier restaurant.

Alessandra is obviously very happy with the tour so far...

Monica and Alessandra led our hungry group back down the road toward Cottanello.

On the way Alessandra led us on a small detour during which she showed us Cottanello's old communal laundry.

I love the atmosphere of these old laundries. It feels almost as if you can hear the echoes of the laughter of the women who once gathered, worked and gossipped there still ringing off the walls. Unfortunately, Casperia's old communal laundry just outside the centro storico has been closed for a number of decades and is now being used as the pro loco's office, but a number of communal laundries are still functioning in the countryside around the paese. Every so often, when Richard and I have been out walking in the countryside foraging we have come across ladies of the older generation still using them. 

Marco, Richard and Fern in front of La Foresteria look ready for lunch!
Though it might have been a bit early for Italians to dine al fresco, there were Canadians, a Norwegian and a Russian in the group. To our great joy our Italian friends agreed to dine outside. La Foresteria has a wonderful large terrazzo. 

Cin cin! L to R: Richard, Fern, Alessandra, Marco, Irina, Heidi, me, Monica. Thanks for the photo, Ina!

We were all relaxed and happy and ready to eat and drink. As soon as our table was set, out came large blue bottles of sparkling and still water. La Foresteria's home-made red wine was absolutely stunning! This was my first clue that this was going to be one the the best and most memorable meals of my life. What follows is an excerpt from my TripAdvisor review of the restaurant. You will find the full review with pictures posted June 18, 2013. You can't miss the title: “The first words out of our mouthes were "O.M.G.!"


O.M.G. indeed!
In March a number of friends were staying with us for a week in Casperia, a small hill town outside Rome that we like to visit. It was the last full day for two of our friends, one from Canada, and one from Norway, and a friend from Rome had arranged a special excursion for us to the neighbouring hill town of Cottanello. We had just finished a fascinating visit at an archeological dig of an ancient Roman villa, followed by a tour of the cliffside hermitage of San Cataldo when our host guided our happy but weary feet to La Foresteria. We were mostly Canadians and Norwegians so when we saw a table open in the outside patio we asked to eat there. On the patio, surrounded by an amazing view of the Sabine hills and listening to birds singing their spring love songs, we were treated to what has to be one of the best meals of my life... Stringozzi is the traditional hand made pasta in Sabina. After a nice plate of local Sabine antipasti, out comes a plate of stringozzi, but stringozzi like we have never tasted before. Instead of a hearty red sauce, this pasta was dressed simply with a mix of garlic infused Sabina D.O.P. Extra Virgin Olive Oil, red chili (peperoncino) flakes, and a mix of pecorino and parmigiano cheese. Quite literally there was a chorus of "O.M.G.!" when we tasted it.

Stringozzi Piccante alla Cottanellese a.k.a. Stringozzi O.M.G.

Then followed a traditional meat course with arrosticini (lamb skewers), pork cutlets and grilled sausage.

Everything was done to perfection, but it gets better. Roberto, the owner, makes his own red wine from local grapes. It was so delicious we begged to buy bottles of it after. It was poured from a keg into empty water bottles, but we got our wine all the same. 

What a day! Cottanello is way outside the regular range of tourists visiting Rome. It has none of the tourist infrastructure that places like Tuscany or the Veneto boasts. What it does have is fascinating, small scale local attractions explained to you by proud local town staff and a restaurant, that if it were closer to Rome would have lines out the door every night. As it is, it is a jewel of a restaurant enjoyed by the 800 inhabitants of Cottanello and visitors lucky enough to stumble across it. If you go there, ask for Stringozzi alla Cottanellese or Stringozzi Picante. And if you can't remember that, ask for what the Canadian group had. I can't wait to go back for a visit.

With full and very happy bellies we headed out for the next stage of our Cottanello odyssey. This was a car trip up a narrow country road, the old road that linked Bassa Sabina and the Rieti valley before the modern road was built in the 1880s, followed by hike. At a turn in the road there was a small car park and an unpaved mountain road leading off to our right. We parked the cars and got out. There was absolutely nothing to indicate that this fork in the road was important... that the mountain path we were about to take led to one of central Italy's most important quarries.

During the Renaissance, massive rough-hewn columns of so-called Cottanello Marble were quarried in this location, then dragged down the mountain all the way to Stimigliano on the Tiber. From there they were barged and ferried down to Rome where today they adorn, among other prominent baroque churches, Saint Peter's Basilica, Sant'Andrea al Quirinale and Sant'Agnese in Agone in Piazza Navona. 

Like the mosaics at the villa in the valley below, the beautiful marbled reds and browns of the Cottanello Marble are not so readily visible unless the stone is wet, or has been freshly broken.

Monica took us to a section of the quarry where there was a rough cut pillar abandoned by 17th century workers. Who knows why... Perhaps there was a crack or the colour pattern was off. As far as Roman stone pillars go it was not huge... nothing like the massive red granite pillars brought from Egypt for the Pantheon, but you have to marvel that people back then could and did quarry and move stones this big on the slopes of a mountain and were able to transport them by the existing roads down to the Tiber and then load it on a boat to take to Rome.

Monica explained that the pillars were carved into shape as much as possible at the quarry to make the pieces of stone more portable.

Cottanello Marble is not a true marble. It is rather a multicoloured marled limestone. It was discovered by the Romans in the first century BC. Quarrying of the rock by the Romans was in full swing by the third century AD around which time a number of quarries were in operation in the two and a half kilometre stretch between modern day Cottanello and the hamlet of Castiglione.

Cottanello slab image courtesy of Wikipedia
In Roman times it was used mostly to make wall veneer panels and for floor tiles for public buildings and villas scattered in the surrounding area. Evidence of its use was found at the Cotta family villa at Collesecco but Cottanello marble was also found as far away as the villa of Lucullus in Terracina, 76 kilometres southeast of Rome, where it was used in some of the floors.

One of the best preserved ancient Roman artefacts in Cottanello marble, a beautifully preserved 3rd century AD columned basin, was sold for US$266,500 in June of 2009 by Christies Auction.

Cottanello marble basin sold in 2009 by Christies auction

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the quarries, seven in all, remained closed and abandoned for a long time. The value of Cottanello marble was rediscovered in the 17th century when it was used extensively to create columns, altars and altar railings in many churches throughout Lazio and Umbria. It is in fact one of the most popular materials used in Roman Baroque churches.

If you have visited Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome you might have noticed quite a lot of Cottanello marble there. Gian Lorenzo Bernini used Cottanello marble for the 44 massive columns with which he framed the side altars there. Who knows, the workers who abandoned the pillar were most likely quarrying material for one of Bernini's projects.

Cottanello Marble used in Bernini's Tomb of Pope alexander VII in St. Peter's Basilica
On the way back down the hill to the cars each of us kept and eye out for a small piece of red Cottanello marble to keep as a memento of our visit. But our tour of Cottanello was not finished. We slowly drove back down the hill toward Cottanello where we said our thanks and goodbye to Monica before heading into the centro storico for a final piccola passeggiata. 

We wandered though the winding vie and vicoli of Cottanello marvelling again at how each of these hill towns has a different feel, a different atmosphere. Here and there pieces of ancient Roman and medieval marble decorated the walls of some of the principle buildings.

Also evident here and there were decorative pieces of Cottanello marble. 

We saw it used in arches, as a keystone, in door frames, as a threshold, and even worked in among the stone cobbles we were walking on. As we rounded the corner we saw a barber shop open for business. Richard couldn't resist. We all had fun taking photos and videos of Richard getting a hair cut and beard trimmed by Benito "Benito like Mussolini," the affable barber... 

As you can see, Richard got the full treatment from Benito. He gave Richard a haircut, trimmed his beard and moustache. He trimmed his eyebrows, and even his nose hairs, and at the end of it all would not accept any money in payment! What a sweet guy!

The sun was slowly descending toward Monte Soratte with promises of yet another stunning Sabine sunset. Happy, and still very full from our wonderful lunch at La Foresteria, we headed down towards the town gate and the parcheggio taking even more photos as we went. 

Near the town gate are two windows with a panoramic view of the Sabine hills and the valley below. According to Alessandra, when she was a young girl, she used to climb up and sit in one of these windows and daydream. As we paused for a moment beside the windows Alessandra climbed up onto the rose-coloured stone frame, assuming the position she had taken so many times as a child. As Alessandra looked out of the window to the view below I imagined just how filled with nostalgia she must be at that moment. Cottanello holds so many powerful memories for her... And thanks to our wonderful day with Alessandra and Monica it does for us as well. 

I would like to thank Heidi Økern, Ina Dennekamp, Fern Braein Teleglow, and Alessandra Finiti for their kind permission to use of their images throughout this post.

For more information (in Italian) on the Villa Romana in Collesecco near Cottanello, please check out these two websites:

Here are also English language links for the Roman Villa, the Hermitage of San Cataldo, and the Cottanello Marble Quarry

If you are interested in a guided tour of any of Cottanello's historic attractions, this link will give you access to contact numbers for Monica and Alessio at the Cottanello Tourism Office

...and that is the end of my tale!