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O. Blewitt - J. Murray, A Hand-book for Travellers in Central Italy

Ostia, and the Cities of the Coast of Ancient Latium

London 1850, p. 593-598.


This excursion, though less performed by the passing traveller than any other in the neighbourhood of Rome, is by no means one of the least interesting, though a journey through the forest is not unattended with difficulty and danger. Artists and scholars are occasionally tempted by the classical associations of the spot to make a pedestrian tour to Ostia, and explore the picturesque but deserted coast between it and Nettuno, visiting the sites of Lavinium, Ardea, and Antium on their way. The road from Rome ro Ostia is practicable for carriages, and those who are unwilling to encounter the fatigues of the excursion along the coast generally go and return on the same day. Travellers whose classical enthusiasm and love of the picturesque may lead them to extend their tour, will find it more desirable to hire horses at Rome than to encumber themselves with a carriage, or risk the fatigues of a pedestrian excursion. It is also desirable to obtain permission from Prince Chigi to make Castel Fusano the resting-place for the first night, and to be provided before-hand with letters to residents at Pratica, Ardea, and Porto d'Anzo. Those who intend to visit Porto and Fiumicino had better do so on their way to Ostia: they must therefore leave Rome by the Porta Portese, and proceed direct to Fiumicino by a road described in a subsequent page, unless they take advantage of the steamers which were lately built in England for the papal government, and now ply regularly upon the Tiber. If the road be preferred, the best plan will be to sleep at the good inn of Fiumicino on the first night, and at Castel Fusano on the second.

Ostia is distant 16 miles from Rome. It contains a miserable osteria, where the traveller must pay exorbitantly for every thing; he had therefore better make a bargain beforehand if he be unable to obtain accomodation at the Castel Fusano. A carriage for four persons to go and return in the same day may be hired for five scudi. The journey from Rome occupies 3 1/2 hours, and that on the return 4 hours. The road leaves Rome by the Porta San Paolo, and follows the Via Ostiensis running parallel to the left bank of the Tiber for the greater part of the distance. Soon after passing the basilica of S. Paolo we see the ruins of the Vicus Alexandri, an ancient Roman village discovered a few years ago by Professor Nibby. About 4 miles from the gate the ancient Via Laurentina, still used as the carriage-road to Decimo and Pratica, branches off on the left hand. At the distance of 9 miles from Rome, after passing the solitary osteria of Malafede, we cross a small stream, a tributary of the Tiber, by an ancient bridge called the Ponte della Refolta. The road gradually descends as we approach the coast, and traverses a district of melancholy desolation, presenting nothing to divert the monotony of the scene, except some finely-preserved fragments of the ancient pavement. As we draw nearer to Ostia we see the salt-marshes which Livy mentions as existing in the time of Ancus Martius. The road crosses their northern extremity by an ancient bridge, and immediately afterwards we reach the modern village of Ostia. Of all the towns in the contorni of Rome this is one of the most melancholy. The population by the official Raccolta of 1835 comprises only 50 souls; and during the summer heats, when the neighbouring coast is severely afflicted with malaria, this small amount is still further reduced by the emigration of those who are able to leave the spot. The destruction of ancient Ostia by the Saracens in the fifth century was so complete that no attempt was ever made to restore it, and the neighbourhood appears to have been deserted until A.D. 830, when the present town was founded by Gregory IV. at a distance of more than a mile from the original city. The pope surrounded it with walls, and it is mentioned in many ecclesiastical documents of the period under the name of Gregoriopoli. In the pontificate of Leo IV. it became famous for the defeat of the Saracens, which Raphael has immortalised in the third Stanza of the Vatican. For many centuries it was a position of some importance in the warfare of the middle ages, and the population appears to have been considerable as late as the 15th century, when it was besieged and taken by Ladislaus king of Naples.The fortifications were subsequently restored by Martin V., whose arms may yet be recognised on some portions of the walls. About the same time Cardinal d'Estouteville, bishop of the dioscese, restored the town, and probably laid the foundation of the present Castle, which was built and fortified by his successor, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, afterwards Julius II., from the designs of Giuliano Sangallo, who lived at Ostia, as Vasari tells us, for two years in the service of the cardinal. This castle, the picturesque fortress of modern Ostia, consists of massive semicircular towers in the style of the 15th century, united by a curtain and defended by a ditch. The arms of the della Rovere family are still seen upon the gate: coins were struck in commemoration of its erection, and the cardinal employed Baldassare Peruzzi to decorate the interior with frescoes; but all traces of his works have been destroyed by the damp and neglect of upwards of three centuries. In 1494 the cardinal made it memorable for his gallant defeat of the French troops, which had landed and occupied it in the previous year. He also built as an additional defence the Torre Bovacciana, lower down the river, but within the circuit of the ancient walls, and continued to improve and strengthen the town after his accession to the papal chair. The appearance of the old fortress of Ostia, with the two solitary pines which stand in front of it, is exceedingly picturesque, and is well known by numerous engravings. Many of the private houses retain their architecture of this period without change. Modern Ostia, after the death of Julius II., gradually declined, and was finally ruined in 1612, when Paul V. re-opened the right arm of the Tiber, precisely as the ancient city was ruined by the construction of the port of Claudius. It now contains nothing to detain the traveller except the castle described above, and the church or cathedral of St. Aurea, rebuilt by Cardinal della Rovere from the designs of Baccio Pintelli: it still retains his armorial bearings, and the trophies of his victory over the French. The episcopal palace was converted by Cardinal [---] while bishop of the see, into [---] museum of antiquities, which [---] some fragments of inscriptions [---] among the ruins of the ancient city. The bishopric of Ostia is one of the most celebrated in the Papal States: the Church tradition tells us that it was founded in the time of the apostles, while other accounts refer its establishment to the pontificate of S. Urban I., A.D. 229, and regard S. Ciriaco as its first bishop. From the earliest times, as St. Augustin mentions, the pope, when not already a bishop at his election, is consecrated by the bishop of Ostia, who is always a cardinal and the senior member of the Sacred College. The see was united to that of Velletri by Eugenius III. in 1150, and is still held in conjunction with that diocese.

The chief interest of Ostia at the present time is derived from the excavations begun among the ruins of the ancient city at the close of the last century. (...) The site is now marked by foundations of buildings of inferior architecture, in a great measure concealed by brambles and thickets. It is more remarkable for the excavations which have been made upon the spot than for the interest of the ruins. The most important buildings of which any vestiges remain are a temple and a theatre. The Temple was built of brick, and decorated with columns of the Corinthian order: the niches of the interior, and some remains of the portico which surround the court, may still be traced. Near it is a round subterranean chamber with niches, called the Arca di Mercurio, which retains some ancient paintings tolerably preserved. The Theatre, near the modern church of St. Sebastian, is remarkable as the spot on which many early Christians suffered martyrdom: the semicircular walls, a few of the seats and pilasters, are still visible. The only other ruins which deserve mention are the remains of a piscina, and some unimportant foundations of the city walls. The excavations from which these ruins derive their greatest interest were begun, as we have already stated, about the close of the last century. Among the earliest discoverers were our countrymen, Gavin Hamilton and Mr. Fagan, the British consul at Rome, by whose researches the well-known bust of the young Augustus, the Ganymede of Phaedimus, and other beautiful sculptures in the Vatican Museum were brought to light. In 1803 the great excavations were begun under the direction of Pius VII., and continued for three successive years with the most satisfactory results: indeed, there is scarcely a page of our account of the Vatican collection which does not bear record of the important works which were thus recovered. Notwithstanding these discoveries, there is no doubt that the numerous limekilns in the wood of Ostia have for centuries been supplied with ancient marbles. When Poggio visited Ostia with Cosmo de'Medici, they found the people occupied with burning an entire temple into lime, and it is of course impossible to estimate the immense number of antiquities which must have been consumed since the period of their visit. In 1824 Signor Cartoni of Rome undertook a series of excavations on the west side of modern Ostia, beyond the walls of the ancient city. The result of his researches was the discovery of a necropolis containing numerous inscriptions and some fine sarcophagi. In one of the tombs he found the most beautiful sarcophagus which has yet been obtained from the ruins of Ostia: it is of white marble, covered with exquisite bas-reliefs representing the visit of Diana to Endymion. The Commissioners of the Fine Arts immediately claimed it for the Vatican; but through the interest of the cardinal-bishop, on whose territories it was found, S. Cartoni was permitted to sell it to the late Lord Western, and it is now in England in the museum at Felix Hall in Essex.

The Torre Bovacciana, mentioned above as having been built by Julius II. while cardinal-bishop of the diocese, is also remarkable for the excavations made in its vicinity by Mr. Fagan in 1797. The fine statues of Fortune and Antinous in the Nuovo Braccio of the Vatican, the three Hermes of Mercury, the colossal busts of Claudius and Antoninus Pius, the busts of Lucius Verus, Tiberius, and Commodus, the Hygeia, and the semi-colossal statue of Minerva in the same museum, were the results of these researches, which do honour to the skill and enterprise of our contryman. (...)

Between moden Ostia and the Torre Bovacciana the Tiber makes a bend at the south-eastern angle of the Isola Sacra: in this bay many antiqueries have fixed the position of the ancient roadstead, while others with more probability have recognised it in the semicircular bank of sand close to Torre Bovacciana. (...)

Near the Torre Bovacciana is a ferry to the Isola Sacra, a sandy and desolate tract, twelve miles in circumference, lying between the two branches of the Tiber. It is supposed to have been first insulated when Trajan constructed the canal of Porto: it is not mentioned by any classical authorities, and the Temple of Apollo, from which Volpi imagined that it derived the name of Insula Sacra, has no existence but in the fancy of that antiquary and his followers. It is noticed for the first time by an anonymous geographer of the 5th century under the name of "Libanus Almae Veneris" and is described as abounding in summer with fresh pastures and covered in the spring with roses and flowers. Procopius is the first writer who calls it Sacra; and Professor Nibby supposes that the epithet was derived either form the donation of the district to the church of Ostia by Constantine, or from the church and tomb of S. Ippolito, bishop of Porto, whose tower is still standing. Crossing the island we arrive at the right branch of the Tiber, and cross by a ferry to Fiumicino and Porto.

(...) The basin constructed by Claudius was circular, and formed the outer harbour; the larger basin of Trajan was hexagonal. For many centuries this remarkable undertaking has been the admiration of engineers and men of science. Pius II. and Sixtus IV. were so much impressed with its magnificence and solidity, that they were anxious to restore it to its ancients purpose. Biondo and Maffei described it as one of the wonders of Italy, and Pirro Ligorio published a plan of the ruins as they were visible in his day. The moles formed for the external defence of the harbour are still traceable, and the supposed site of the Pharos constructed by Claudius on the wreck of the ship which brough his two obelisks from Egypt, is also pointed out; but without the assistance of a ground-plan no account of the ruins would be intelligible, and even then much would necessarily be mere conjecture. The hexagonal basin of Trajan, called by the country-people Il Trajano, communicates with that of Claudius by a canal: it is not less than a mile and a half in circumference! Volpi describes some of the mooring-posts, with their numbers, as still entire in his time. In different parts of the basin are the remains of enormous magazines, and numerous slips for building and repairing vessels; and we know no spot where extensive excavations would be productive of more valuable information regarding the naval establishments of the Roman empire. The ruins of the city of Porto are so irregular and encumbered, that it would be useless to attempt to describe them in detail: the outline of the city, the foundations of a circular temple, and some other unimportant ruins are traceable, but they present no objects of striking interest. Under the lower empire Porto was a place of considerable consequence: it was the seat of a bishopric as early as the third century, and became remarkable for the martyrdom of S. Ippolito, in the pontificate of S. Calixtus I. The city was enlarged by Constantine, and was for many centuries the most important position in the neighbourhood of Rome, on account of the supplies of grain which were landed there from various parts of the Mediterranean. It was besieged and captured several times during the Gothic war: in 408 it was taken by Alaric; in 455, by Genseric; in 537, by Vitiges; in 545, by Totila; in the same year it was taken by Belisarius; in 548 it was recaptured by Totila, and soon afterwards passed to the Greek emperors. In the 9th century it was seized by the Saracens, who retained it only for a few years, when the site was finally abandoned.


[jthb - 19-Jan-2007]