Rome is, according to a lot of people, the most beautiful city in the world (Rome Travel Guide): churches, monuments, museums, archaeological sites, private collections, and natural parks literally make Rome the “Eternal City”. Around it there are similarly admirable towns and villages, characterized by wonderful places, architecturally, ecclesiastically or naturally.
However, all around Rome, there are cities that are not eternal as Rome is. They are really dead, as the traditional ghost towns. Indeed, few of them rise a few kilometers far from Rome and, although collapsed and decayed, have acquired a mysterious charm, sometimes with very disturbing contours.
This article wants to lead you to the discovery of the two most famous dead cities around Rome: Galeria and Canale Monterano. Both are located north of the Capital and, precisely because they have fallen into oblivion, they represent the stages of an absolutely new emotional itinerary, far from conventional tourist routes. You have the chance to visit it in a virtual way following the words and the steps of Vincenzo, official Tour Guide of Rome and President of the Cultural Association Rome Guides.
Galeria Antica (Ancient Galeria) – Rome Travel Guide
The ruins of Galeria Antica are located on a quadrangular tuff spur, bordered to the west by the Arrone river, which at the time of the foundation of the village was an excellent natural defense.
The traditional sources related to the birth of the city of Galeria Antica present two different versions: the first states that the town was founded by the ancient people of Galerii (of which, however, we do not know exactly where they were settled or the exact period in which they lived), while the second is based on some Etruscan findings, which would suggest an Etruscan foundation, with the city initially having the name of Careia.
In any case it is certain that the Etruscans dominated this village: as an evidence of it, it is possible to mention the presence in the area of some small necropolis in the gorge below the town and some ruins of walls inside the old village.
Careia was however an Etruscan center of modest importance, protecting the southern borders of the territory, situated between the major cities of Veio and Cerveteri.
With the decline of the Etruscans, Careia was colonized by the Romans, as evidenced by some arches and a series of buildings in opus incertum found in the city. Obviously, in the 5th Century A.D., as happened to all the satellite cities of Rome (Rome Travel Guide), also Galeria Antica declined under the pressure of the Barbarian invasions.
Although it was rebuilt and repopulated in the 8th Century A.D. by Pope Hadrian I, who wanted to consolidate and fortify the surroundings of Rome, it was sacked again in the 9th Century by the Saracens, who at that time raged on the coasts of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Galeria was then besieged and destroyed again.
The town was rebuilt and enlarged first by the Counts of Galeria and later by the Orsini family, to whom it belonged since 1276. The village was bought and sold several times over the centuries: in 1486 it became property of the Colonna family, followed by the Caetani, the Savelli and finally the Sanseverino.
In 1536 the most important event happened, according to which Galeria was awarded the honors of history: on his return from Tunis, the emperor Charles V spent a night in the castle with all his entourage.
With the passage to this last family, for Galeria Antica began a slow but inexorable decline that over the years saw it transformed from a fortified center to an agricultural estate. The population began to progressively decrease, until a catastrophic event that evidently occurred in the 18th Century.
Around the middle of the Century, indeed, the inhabitants of Galeria Antica began to die in a rather mysterious way, with a frightening demographic decline: today, thanks to the most modern analysis, it is believed that those suspicious deaths were due to an epidemic of malaria, a disease that was not rare in the Roman countryside (Rome Travel Guide), which at the time was invaded in several places by the water that flooded from the Arrone torrent.
Despite this more than plausible explanation, it is very difficult to understand why the city was abandoned so hastily to leave in place not only tools and furnishings but even the corpses of dead bodies, which were found only at the beginning of the XIX Century and had decent burial only half a century later.
By now in ruins and reduced for the most part to a refuge for a few desperate people, Galeria Antica was completely abandoned in the year 1809. The few surviving inhabitants, no more than a few dozens, decided to move just one kilometer from Galeria Antica, in a vaguely healthier area, to found a new village called Santa Maria di Galeria Nuova.
Abandoned for more than two centuries, the vegetation has taken over the place where the fortified city stood, creating a unique ecosystem: among the ruins you can admire plant species of great interest including holm oaks and maples, but also turkey oaks, elms and alders. Also for this reason the ruins of Galeria Antica were declared in 1999, by deliberation of the Lazio Region, a Natural Monument.
Get ready to be excited to admire the landscape of Galeria Antica, similar to the one that presented itself to the eyes of the English archaeologist Thomas Ashby, who passed by on horseback at the beginning of the 19th Century, being literally amazed.
Walk along the steep path framed by lush ferns, wandering with your gaze between the remains of the walls of the ancient houses and the arches still standing, even if sometimes almost englobed by some lush trees grown undisturbed for at least over two centuries.
Go closer to the core of the medieval village, inside which there was undoubtedly a castle (today there are just few ruins), attached to the Church of St. Nicholas, of which you can admire the small bell tower erected in the 18th Century, the only evidence of its existence.
During the malaria epidemics, the church, already in bad condition and in a serious state of neglect, was transformed into a cemetery by the inhabitants who needed to bury their victims. However, in addition to this church inside the village there were three others: the Church of St. Andrew, the Church of St. Mary of the Valley (also known as the Old Hospital) and the Church of St. Sebastian.
The first one was completely destroyed by a fire in 1816, the second one was devastated by lightning at the end of the XVI Century, while the third one was demolished at the end of the XVII Century.
Except for the main mule track that crosses the village, there is no precise route to visit it. Other buildings are scattered and half-hidden by vegetation everywhere around the central area, such as the suggestive bridge that crosses the Arrone river downstream of the village.
The whole panorama around the ruins of the houses, invaded by the woods and destroyed by the neglect of time, shows a landscape full of fantastic suggestions and magic: for this unreal atmosphere, Galeria Antica has become one of the sites of worship for Satanists who have left their esoteric signs of the nocturnal rites here and there, amplifying the fascination for thrill seekers.
Legend has it that a ghost also “lives” in the city: it would be an ancient inhabitant of the place that died of malaria, who every year returns on his white horse to sing and play for his beloved woman.
Rome Travel Guide included the town of Monterano also rises on a tuffaceous hill, whose very steep sides plunge into two canyons below formed by the Mignone river to the north and the Bicione torrent to the south. The abandoned village lies between the Tolfa and Sabatini Mountains, in the heart of the Monterano Natural Reserve.
The hill where the ruins of Monterano are located is scattered with Etruscan burial grounds, dug among small caves and some boiling water, a clear evidence of the ancient volcanic activity in the area.
In reality, no traces of the ancient Etruscan city remain, except for the tombs just mentioned and the large artificial furrow dug into the tuff, which at the time allowed a comfortable descent to the valley.
Like all the Etruscan centers, from the II Century B.C. Monterano too was subjected to the Romans, who enlarged the road system and built several works, including the aqueduct.
From the 4th Century A.D., when the Roman Empire began to fall under the pressure of the Barbarian invasions, the same fate happened to Monterano too.
Subsequently, the Lombard domination impoverished the population even more, and the situation seemed irreversible until the remaining inhabitants of the nearby Forum Clodii, exasperated and frightened by the continuous Germanic raids, decided at the beginning of the 6th Century A.D. to move to Monterano in a more defensible position.
The village was thus expanded and equipped with new roads and solid walls. The city became an Episcopal seat and one of the most important settlements in the territory north of Rome.
This status, unfortunately, lasted only until the 10th Century, when the Diocese of Monterano was assimilated by the city of Sutri; this event was followed by a slow and progressive decline, which led the village to a gradual depopulation.
Only the lord of the castle, the administrators of the feud, some servants and some peasants remained in Monterano.
In the XIV Century, Monterano saw a substantial economic, demographic and social recovery, even if the center of power had definitely moved to the nearby and more powerful city of Bracciano.
The village had however a decent notoriety for its captains of fortune Coluzia and Gentile: the first was sent by the Pope to quell the revolt of Tarquinia and the second participated in the struggles of succession for the Kingdom of Naples.
In the 16th Century the feud of Monterano was bought by the Orsini family, who took advantage of the economic crisis to invest in profitable cultivations.
The real flourishing of the village took place after the acquisition of the feud by the Altieri family, who had the honor of having one of its members elected Pope with the name of Clement X in 1670.
Thanks to the new property, the village was enriched by remarkable buildings, whose design was entrusted to the great baroque architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. He built the Church and the Convent of St. Bonaventure, the beautiful octagonal fountain in the center of the square and the façade of the Baronial Palace.
Unfortunately for Monterano, this new artistic vitality did not last long. After the death of Pope Clement X, the inhabitants of the village experienced another period of great economic and social difficulty due mainly to the confusion and instability of the Papal State.
An even more serious scourge, however, fell in 1770 on Monterano: as happened also for Galeria Antica, malaria decimated a large part of the population.
The village, devastated by difficulties, was literally destroyed by a very bloody episode: at the beginning of the 19th Century, indeed, Monterano was completely burned by the French army, as a consequence of the inhabitants’ refusal to grind the grain to be delivered to the French themselves.
Entering inside Monterano, you will be literally stunned by the charm and intriguing beauty of the evocative ruins: the scenery that appears before the eyes of visitors seems to come out of a page of the hell described by Dante Alighieri in the Divine Comedy, where the ancient ruins of the village appear by surprise in the middle of thick and intricate vegetation.
There are monuments of significant architectural value, such as the Baronial Palace or the Church and Convent of St. Bonaventure, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, where in the center of the nave, among the moss-covered debris, a hundred-year-old fig tree slowly engulfs the last fragments of the marble floor.
However, what is most striking is the presence of monuments built in different periods, in an unusual and evocative combination of architecture and landscape. So you can admire buildings from the Etruscan period as the burial grounds at the base of the hill and later transformed into cellars, next to impressive artifacts of Roman times as the aqueduct, medieval as the castle later became a baronial palace, and the Baroque period as the Convent of St. Bonaventure is also included in Rome Travel Guide.
You can admire, on the St. Bonaventure Square in front of the homonymous church, a beautiful fountain with an octagonal base (a copy of the original, saved during the first restoration works in 1956, and placed in the Piazza del Campo in Canale Monterano) and, near the Baronial Palace, the famous Fountain of the Lion realized by Bernini.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini had an ingenious idea worthy of his great creative genius: the Fountain of the Lion was perfectly set into the natural background formed by the foundations of the palace, with the great feline shaking a rock with one paw to release the very pure water. It is an evocative combination, where art and nature blend with extreme harmony, giving you a feeling of absolute comfort.