Palestrina is an enigmatic town near Rome where literally you walk in millenial history. Recently, a part of the ancient Forum of Palestrina was reopened to refresh the city with a modern ‘Forum’. It is an extremely suggestive game of historical mirrors in which perhaps you can find yourself living the same emotions as you may have two millennia ago. A feeling that made chills run up my spine.
To walk among the ancient walls, listening to the speeches of ‘regents of the town’, take an aperitif in the large courtyard of the forum and witness restoration of the beauty of the past with a play of light, which projected the Nile mosaics on the floor, made me feel as if history of two thousand years did not exist.
We were all there, and we continued to feel the throbbing life of the community of Palestrina. The centre that came back to the city, and the city to the citizens, just like a modern Forum of Palestrina with a conference room and a place for cultural and social gatherings. It has thus recovered not only the architectural site but also the social, more importantly to demonstrate the vitality of this modern and ancient city.
When we look at the past we often imagine serious people, all involved in the great deeds that we read in the history books, and we forget about the daily aspects of their lives. The Forum, the Basilica and the baths were social places. Here everything happened from relaxation to justice, from the market to entertainment.
And what could be more thrilling than to savour a glass of wine among the impressive ruins of this forum, in the midst of people who shared your own amazement? And what’s more incredible than to look at the back walls of the Cathedral of Sant’Agapito that still show the columns of the Forum of Palestrina and the temple dedicated to Jupiter?
We had arrived in the afternoon to visit the Temple of Fortuna Primigenia and the Archaeological Museum in Palazzo Barberini and immediately we realized that we would not have time to do everything that we planned. Everywhere you could feel the excitement building for what was happening.
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At the museum ticket office immediately a kind clerk informed us that at six she would leave her post to attend the inauguration and advised us not to miss the event that had been long-awaited for over 10 years.
Going down the side stairs, once part of the temple and today part of the historic centre of Palestrina, we passed elegant ladies of a certain age who were on their way to the inauguration.
Everywhere voices rang out and words called about the new opening of the Forum.
We were lucky: we arrived on time and fortunately found a seat. But the buzz of hundreds of people standing in the room and in the side hall prevented hearing the stories of this particular recovery operation. I quote from my memory of what I understood.
For many centuries this building belonged to the bishopric who had adapted it to their needs, creating rooms for the students. There were no plans and when the architects decided to intervene, their project was based on a pair of Baroque prints.
However, the truth was different, and as soon as work began it was clear that the prints did not correspond to the real situation and the project team were faced with choices. Hence doubts arose about which way to go. The entire building was an integral part of the millennial history of the city but the decision was which of those stories should prevail: between the Roman history and the medieval.
It was decided to investigate the Roman history and to demolish some walls, a daring operation that has been performed by reinforcement of the building based on carbon fibers and resins. Not until all the work had been done were they rewarded with the discovery of an ancient apse, carved into the rock, whose base had been the Nile mosaic visible today at Palazzo Barberini. On this day the colours and scale of this mosaic are revived with a play of light that projects the pattern in the place where it originally had been found.
What a strange past history and who knows what will remain of what we are writing. This Forum of Palestrina, forgotten for years, robbed of marble and coatings for other uses, then used as cellars by the Barberini, later becoming the Diocesan seminary and finally managed by the Superintendent who has brought it back to life and given it to the city as a new Forum of Palestrina.
In this story, an unusual role was played by the bombings of World War II that destroyed many houses in the center and brought to light the Roman ruins on which the houses had been built. In an area just behind the church you can still see the effect of one of these bombs that struck what was then the Museum of Palestrina.
The place is magical, the atmosphere was shared by all and when the mayor had given honorary citizenship to director Sandra Gatti to thank her for all the work done over these many years, the audience’s applause was long and powerful.
I will return to take part in the life of the Forum. I think that this architectural salvage will become part of the history of the great sensitivity with which modern and old worlds are drawn together in a simple, elegant and engaging dialogue. Greetings to Palestrina and best wishes to Sandra Gatti, the architect Roberto Pinci and their team.