Museo Archeologico Nazionale e Santuario della Fortuna Primigenia, Palestrina, Roma
One of the most interesting characteristics of many Italian buildings is the fact that their structures are the results of many centuries of building and rebuilding. In Rome we can find this characteristic associated with many churches: an initial structure, often erected before the Christian era and altered (in shape and function) a few times throughout the Roman period, eventually becomes an early Christian church whose subsequent structural modifications – both minor and major – will be associated with the main cultural phases experienced by the city.
This type of building has a structure akin to that of an “onion”, where the separate layers reveal a couple of millennia of structures and materials.
In Rome we can read the long history of many such buildings on panels posted by their entrances. These descriptions and accompanying drawings make up a fascinating reading and in some case the ‘historical layers’ described can also be partially seen through “archaeological windows” that restorers and archeologists have installed on walls and floors of the building to show the embedded structures. Churches aside, perhaps the best known building in the city whose interior has been stripped to reveal, in full, the historical layers composing the structures erected at various times, (beginning from the 13 century BCE) is the Crypta Balbi. This rather unassuming late renaissance building in the center of Rome (now one of the four National Museums of Rome) provides an amazing educational telltale of the city’s history.
This long note is intended to introduce the spellbinding Palestrina’s Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia and Palazzo Barberini, now an archaeological museum (under the ‘Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici’ of the ‘Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo’, ‘Direzione Regionale per i Beni Culturali e Paesaggistici del Lazio’).
In 1640 the family Barberini made the last modifications to the building we can see today atop the Palestrina’s skyline. The building had been previously reconstructed (ca. 1500) by the Colonna family after it had been heavily damaged by the Pope’s troops.
In the XI century the Colonna’s had built their fortress on top of the decayed structure of the roman Fortuna Primigenia. The colossal Hellenistic Sanctuary had been erected during the IInd cent. BCE in Praeneste on a site inhabited since the IV century.
A set of fortuitous circumstances enabled the Barberini structure to remain intact until the present and to allow the archaeological recovery of the Sanctuary in all its massive structure. The palace restoration work, with the exposure of large portions of the Sanctuary’s structures, was completed quite recently and it lead to the use of the XVIth century building as a museum structure. Further archaeological activities allowed the recovery and exposure of large sections of the sanctuary. Although the very large size of the sanctuary and its location on a the steep slope of a hill unfortunately prevent the complete appreciation of the exposed temple (a favorable vantage point would be a low altitude aerial view) we can view the reconstructed Sanctuary model in the museum and gain a sense of the complex original structure.
The museum today exhibits some of the material recovered during excavations in situ and in the area around the old Praeneste, a very important commercial post in roman times and now a quiet town a few miles south-east of Rome.
The restored Barberini palace has been masterly arranged to provide a full sense of the original roman structure upon which it is built, as well as to exhibit the museum artifacts.
The museum collection is relatively small but very interesting.
Several large mosaics are in display and one, called “The Nile” and recovered from a floor of the sanctuary, is very large, amazingly complex and it constitutes an extraordinary historical record. Although restored and somewhat rebuilt a few times, its depiction of the flooded Nile is fantastic.
Of the many items recovered from various necropolises, from terracotta votive objects to bronze items, some of the bronze “cista” figurines are truly exquisite (and perhaps deserving of a display that enhances rather than hide their beauty).
From the tombs of the nearby necropolises (dating as early as the VIth cent. BCE) the archaeologists recovered many very interesting architectural elements, now assembled and exhibited in the museum.
Even though some sculptures are recovered much damaged, it is intriguing how they can still fascinate the visitor when properly displayed.
Upon reaching the room of the Sanctuary’s goddess, we can see that even pieces of the larger than life size “Fortuna Primigenia” provide a clear sense of the imposing sight the statue must have had two thousand years ago. The grace and sensuality of several other smaller Fortuna sculptures in display capture the viewer’s imagination regardless of their state of completeness.
It is very unfortunate that this special museum is not well attended, it is perhaps confused with the many small town museums found everywhere in Italy. The Sanctuary is an incredible archaeological site and the museum hosts amazing artworks, it most certainly deserves to be more adequately promoted to attract the attentions of all type of visitors.