The first. The second. The third. The defeaning noise of bombs reached the citizens of San Pietro in October 1943. Hidden in the caves, in the cold with hunger pangs, and scared of death, they heard and saw thousands of years of history be destroyed. The history of their town.
This history began in Roman times and continued for centuries, seeing scroll armies and merchants, sovereigns, popes and peasants on the Via Latina between Rome and Capua. When it was all over, little or nothing stood up. But memory did and does still today.
It walks with the legs of the young people of that time, people from San Pietro, America, Canada, Poland, whose inhabitants escaped the war and came and come back there with children, nephews on a journey into the abyss of suffering and humanity. And especially to travel in memory, mightly evoked by the charming setting of the museum space, by its exhibits, its movies and sounds. Moreover, the dark where the itinerary takes place is even more charming, since it seems to be generated by rocks and poor walls belonging to the former mill.
The town, though, is also art and archaeology, antiquity and Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque, art and architecture, faith and trade, culture and popular traditions, agricultural work and proto-industry. It is, above all, a novel thanks to the guides’ voices that welcome and come with the visitors.
When you go up with difficulty, you could reach the remains of the castle. While, when you go down till the fountain of Santa Maria dell’Acqua, it is possible to see her shrine to regain two Roman memorial stones and to bounce back in history. Eventually the beauty of this landscape wins over the pain of remembering and it reconnects with life and history.
The museum itinerary has been created and realized by Officine Rambaldi of designer Carlo Rambaldi, who won an Academy Award.
The journey in the memory of the town which doesn’t exist anymore starts inside the visitor centre. This is an itinerary that takes place in the twilight of the rooms of an old oil mill, built on the remains of the medieval church of San Nicola. The light guides the visitor who is welcomed by water and an art installation – a big sphere flanked by the reproduction of a solar clock face. You go through seven set deisgn and production enriched with sounds and music played in quadrophonic.
On the left of the entrance there is a fragment of a Roman epigraph on limestone dated back to 50 BC. It reminds us of Gaio Annio, son of Sesto from the Tribù Teretina, and was placed by his brother Lucio when he was still live. The itinerary goes on recalling the war by panels from the newspapers of the time and objects from daily life of civilians and allied soldiers. The itinenary ends with the screening of an extract from “The battle of San Pietro”, considered as the first documentary about war in history. It was shot in 1943 by the already famous director John Huston with sound during the military action of the 143rd Infantry Regiment of the 36th “Texas” Division from USA. This film reports the conquest phase of San Pietro by the Allies, an action crucial for the movement of the forces towards the following Gustav line and then to Rome.
The itinerary continues outdoor in the destroyed medieval town, abandoned and left deserted. Just above the visitor centre there is the Town Hall Square. Here it is possible to see the remains of the city gate – nearby there are two medieval engravings used for boardgame – and the remains of houses and shops, partially carved into the rock. The Church closes the square, which is probably from the Early Medieval of San Sebastiano and rebuilt in its present form in 1501. The portal maintains damaged its medieval stone frames with frieze decorated with garlands of plants and animals. The interior shows remains of paintings on walls and on its hemispherical dome. Among the several houses and memories of daily life, in this town it is important to highlight its Gothic arch and the remains of some paintings – a number of votive ones and another on walls of churches collapsed – probably dated back to the end of the end of the 14th century and the first years of the 15th century. Even higher there is the church of San Michele, Latin cross plan, made of three naves with a barrel vault and a semi-spherical cap high dome on the presbitery – which is visible only from the outside. The Renaissance portal bears the epigraph of 1580. The apse of the church leaned against the medieval city walls that terminated in the tower-castle, with a trapezoidal plan, of which there are only the imposive wall structures in the highest part of the town.
This territory preserves remarkable traces of an intense human activity even of ancient age. First, the Samnite megalith ring of colle sant’Eustachio that spans the hillside for about 1,5 km with a trapezoidal plan. Optional excursion – not included in the itinerary – might be following the old shepherd’s trail San Leonardo: here you might admire the outer wall and, from the square at the top of the town, you could get to the top of the mount (1205 m slm) in about two hours walking. Here there is a second megalith wall much smaller, within which you could see the remains of the ancient pagan altar and of a cistern from 4th or 3rd century BC, a kiln immediately at the foot of the wall and, finally, the remains of the medieval church of Sant’Eustachio, aisleless with an apse active since 1760.
Other archaelogical remains from the Roman era dot the plain crossed by the Via Latina, Roman renovation, dated back to the 4th century BC, of an old through route towards the flat Campana, always preferred compared to the Appia and used for ages by pilgrims, merchants and armies until 1943. The seventeenth-century inn san Cataldo inherited the function of the parking Roman station, known also for the quote carved on the Peutinger table. The carving of 1826 reminds us of the passage of King Francesco I in 1824 and his grandfather Carlo di Borbone in 1734. Other Roman cisterns are related to rustic villas like masseria de Rossi, grotta di Sabatino, Monticello, all distributed throughout the area. Two tombstones are walled up outside the church of Santa Maria dell’Acqua. It arose close to the ancient centre of ad flexum, by the name of the curve on the ground created by the Via Latina. The tradition remembers the Apparition of the Virgin on 13th September. In the 19th-century present Church, remains of the 15th-century paintings had surfaced. A 19th-century oil mill and the remains of the Roman aqueduct are close to the source that gives its name to the shrine.
Another path in nature is surrounded by greenery around the abandoned village. Along the deep valley on the west of the medieval town, you can get to area below the ancient inhabited centre in about 5 minutes walking. Here in autumn 1943 the San Pietro citizens dug the so-called “grotte della Valle”, temporary shelters that allowed more than 500 people to survive bomb-raids. Today they remain in testimony to tenacity and attachment to life and to their land with a population who refused to leave their own country. This because San Pietro is the history of a town that stood and has been standing there, frozen in time, since that distant autumn in 1943.
text by Pietro Di Lorenzo / translated by Denise Kendall-Jones (2020)