If you leave the city by the Porta Maggiore and take the Via Prænestina, which leads east into the Sabine hills, at some thirty-six kilometers' distance from Rome you will pass on your left a gray-walled village climbing up the hillside. This is Palestrina, the old Roman ...
If you leave the city by the Porta Maggiore and take the Via Prænestina, which leads east into the Sabine hills, at some thirty-six kilometers' distance from Rome you will pass on your left a gray-walled village climbing up the hillside. This is Palestrina, the old Roman Præneste; and a short distance beyond—also on the left—you will find branching off from the straight Roman highway a steep mountain road, which, if you stick to it long enough, will take you, after many windings, to Castel Madama and Tivoli.
Several kilometers along this road you will see shooting up from a bare crag above you a little stone hamlet crowned by the ruins of a medieval fortress. The town —Castel Vivalanti—was built in the days when a stronghold was more to be thought of than a water-supply, and its people, from habit or love, or perhaps sheer necessity, have lived on there ever since, going down in the morning to their work in the plain and toiling up at night to their homes on the hill. So steep is its site that the door way of one house looks down on the roof of the house below, and its narrow stone streets are in reality flights of stairs. The only approach is from the front, by a road which winds and unwinds like a serpent and leads at last to the Porta della Luna, through which all of the traffic enters the town. The gate is ornamented with the crest of the Vivalanti—a phoenix rising out of the flame, supported on either side by a smiling full moon —and it is surmounted by a heavy machicolated top, from which, in the old days, stones and burning oil might be dropped upon the heads of unwelcome guests.
The town is a picturesque little affair,—it would be hard to find a place more so in the whole of this picturesque region,—but, like all of the Sabine villages, it is very, very poor. In the march of the centuries it has fallen out of step and been left far behind; to look at it, one would scarcely dream that on clear days the walls and towers of modern Rome are in sight on the horizon. But in its time Castel Vivalanti was not insignificant. This little hamlet has entertained history within its walls. It has boldly outfaced robber barons and papal troops. It has been besieged and conquered, and, alas, betrayed— and that by its own prince. Twice has it been razed to the ground and twice rebuilt. In one way or another, though, it has weathered the centuries, and it stands today gray and forlorn, clustering about the walls of its donjon and keep.
Castel Vivalanti, as in the middle ages, still gives the title to a Roman prince. The house of Vivalanti was powerful in its day, and the princes may often be met with—not always to their credit—in the history of the Papal States. They were oftener at war than at peace with the holy see, and there is the story of one pope who spent four weary months watching the view from a very small window in Vivalanti's donjon. But, in spite of their unholy quarrels, they were at times devout enough, and twice a cardinal's hat has been worn in the family. The house of late years has dwindled somewhat, both in fortune and importance; but, nevertheless, Vivalanti is a name which is still spoken with respect among the old nobles of Rome.
The lower slopes of the hill on which the village stands are well wooded and green with stone-pines and cypresses, olive orchards and vineyards. Here the princes built their villas when the wars with the popes were safely at an end and they could risk coming down from their stronghold on the mountain. The old villa was built about a mile below the town, and the gardens were laid out in terraces and parterres along the slope of the hill. It has long been in ruin, but its foundations still stand, and the plan of the gardens may easily be traced. You will see the entrance at the left of the road—a massive stone gateway topped with moss-covered urns and a double row of cone-shaped cypresses bordering a once stately avenue now grown over with weeds. If you pause for a moment—and you cannot help doing so—you will see, between the portals at the end of the avenue, some crumbling arches, and even, if your eyes are good, the fountain itself.
Any contadino that you meet on the road will tell you the story of the old Villa Vivalanti and the " Bad Prince " who was (by the grace of God) murdered two centuries ago. He will tell you—a story not uncommon in Italy— of storehouses bursting with grain while the peasants were starving, and of how, one moonlight night, as the prince was strolling on the terrace contentedly pondering his wickednesses of the day, a peasant from his own village up on the mountain, creeping behind him, quiet as a cat, stabbed him in the back and dropped his body in the fountain....