Less than two hundred years ago the countryside around the ancient city of Rome was indeed special and picturesque. Since then, sadly, it has been largely obliterated by the expansion of the modern city.
The essence of Roman countryside nowadays exists in a just a few locations. Perhaps the most illustrious of these is the open-air museum that is the ancient Appian Way. It runs parallel to the modern road, some 500m to the southwest.
The 19th-century Roman countryside was dotted with ancient artefacts, mostly villas and graves dating back to Imperial times and before. But the most outstanding of these remains were those of the majestic Roman aqueducts.
Here and there throughout the countryside were scattered inns, villas and farms. The Roman hinterland was loved by Romans and foreigners alike.
To relate just two examples, Lord Byron wrote a poem on the tomb of Cecilia Metella: “A stern round tower of other days”. And Goethe cherished the landscape to the point of having himself portrayed there, with a very typical Roman grave in the background. It was possibly the very same tomb.
If you happen to spend some time in Rome, a visit to the ancient via Appia is surely worthwhile, especially if you are blessed with a sunny day (which is frequent). Just try to avoid the peak summer heat. Bring with you a hat, walking shoes, sunglasses, water, and a camera, the lighter the better.
From now on I shall just refer to the ancient road as the via Appia, and ignore its modern variants (via Appia Nuova and via Appia Pignatelli), which however do offer some nice views, especially of the aqueducts.
A road is born
Inside the city, the via Appia is born as via di Porta San Sebastiano and keeps this name to the Aurelian Wall, which encircles the city and was built by the Emperor Aurelianus in the third century.
Via di Porta San Sebastiano is enchanting in itself, but its villas date back only to the 17th century, with many even more recent. At Porta (gate) San Sebastiano (seen in the above picture) you can visit the museum of the Aurelian Wall.
As you exit the gate you step onto the via Appia proper, the regina viarum (Queen of Roads; the word is of feminine gender in Latin), and enter history. You pass the church of Santa Maria in Palmis where Jesus is said to have appeared to Saint Peter.
As the story runs, Peter, who was proselytising in Rome, had been given the choice of leaving the city or being executed. The not-yet saint was thus leaving the city, when a mile beyond the then-not-yet-built wall he saw Jesus coming in the opposite direction. Peter asked Him, Quo vadis Domine? (where are you going my Lord?) and got the answer Eo Romam, iterum crucifigi (I go to Rome, to be executed again).
Peter understood the message, turned back to Rome, continued his predication and was duly executed and sanctified.
Shortly thereafter you reach the catacombs of San Sebastiano, a Christian cemetery dating back to the second or third century. The grave of Cecilia Metella (early first century) comes next, together with the so-called grave of Romulus. It was customary for the noble Roman families to build their graves along the major roads leaving the city, while the poor were interred in cemeteries and necropoles.
Beyond this point, vehicular traffic is blocked and the via Appia is reserved for walking, running, and cycling (above). You decide whether you want timeless pictures of the Roman countryside or you want to include the present day population of the park, which may be quite picturesque in itself, often showing the most recent fitness attire and gadgets.
Listing the graves, monuments and artefacts that you encounter in the next five or so kilometres is essentially impossible. Suffice it to say that there is something interesting every few steps. Just walk and enjoy what you see (pictures below).
Osterie and villas
A special mention should, however, be reserved for the picturesque inns, or osterie, not all of them in operation, and the many villas.
Most of these date back to the 17th or 18th centuries, and some are built on top of much more ancient Roman artefacts.
The villa dei Quintili, at the fifth (Roman) mile of the via Appia, is a grand home comprising several buildings. The owners, members of a patrician family, were executed by the emperor Commodus in the second century following a failed conspiracy.
Fight to the death
In front of the villa, two mounds (plus a third close by) mark the supposed graves of the legendary warriors Horatii and Curiatii who battled in representation of the cities of Rome and Albalonga (now Albano) during the reign of Tullo Ostilio, third king of Rome (673-641 BC).
According to the legend, the kings of Rome and Albalonga had agreed to decide the war between the two cities with a fight between three Roman and three Albalonga warriors. Both kings chose as their champions three brothers: the roman Horatii against the Alba’s Curiatii.
At the end of the fight, just one of the warriors survived and he was of the Horatii family, thus Rome conquered Albalonga and started its expansion in the Latium region. The five deceased would be interred at the fifth mile of the via Appia, the road leading from Rome to Albalonga (and destined to reach Brindisi and the Adriatic coast in the following centuries).
Anio Novus aquaduct
If you still have time and the will to walk further, the Roman artefacts become less dense, but you are compensated by a view of an olive tree garden on the left of via Appia, beyond which you see a very well preserved portion of the aqueduct Anio Novus (first century). However this is a different story, and a different park, located between the roads of Appia Nuova and Tuscolana.
I took the pictures in this article during several walks; the cameras may have been a Fujifilm XE3, or an Olympus OMD-EM10ii or an Olympus EPM-1. The lenses were usually kit zooms, and you really don’t need much more. Both Olympus and Fuji produce excellent jpegs, and the majority of the pictures are out of camera jpegs; editing the raw files has been necessary in a few cases, essentially to raise the shadows or to lower the highlights.
Welcome to Andrea Bellelli
This is the first Macfilos article from a new author, Andrea Bellelli, and I am sure all our readers will welcome him. Prof. Bellelli teaches biochemistry at the Medical School of the University of Rome “Sapienza”. He is 62 years old and is married, with three daughters and two grandchildren. He thus comfortably fits within the Macfilos demographic… He tells us that he loves walking and hiking, especially in the Appennini mountains, relatively close to Rome, and photography is his way of bringing home the memories. Andrea specialises in landscapes and Italy offers some really special opportunities. Although it is densely populated and lacks the type of wilderness found in many other countries, the Italian landscape is remarkable because of the extensive combination of nature with the man-made. As a walker, he values the lightness of his photographic gear. He uses Olympus (OM-D E-M10ii and PEN EPM1) and a Fuji XE3. On the road, he tries to make do with just one camera and two or three lenses at most.