Information about the Caffarella Park
Voluntary Association Comitato per il Parco delle Caffarella
For further information consult the website Ente Gestore Parco:
The Caffarella Valley borders the Latin way (via Latina) to the north and the ancient Appian Way to the south. It extends lengthways from the ancient Roman Aurelian’s Wall up to via dell’Almone. Today it is an oasis amidst sprawling high-rise buildings comprising a fascinating mix of archaeological and ecological wonders set in a picturesque rural landscape. This includes green fields, ancient monuments, old farm buildings, woods and ponds all merging into a single, unifying complex of uppermost importance not only for its immediate neighboring communities, but for the community as a whole as well as for scientists worldwide. We shall try and point out the most important characteristics of this complex, so that everyone can understand and learn to love the “inhabitants” of the valley and the environment in its entire
The plan of the Caffarella area
The geological evolution
The Caffarella area is a characteristic V-shaped valley with a river running through it. Geologically speaking its history begins between 360 and 80 thousand years ago. At that time various layers of volcanic matter erupting from volcano in the Albano Hills, began to accumulate on top of more ancient fluvial and marine sediments. Today the soil layer in the Caffarella area is made up of four layers of tuff and pozzolana, partly visible within the numerous caves dotted around the area or along the river banks.
The river of the valley is the Almone which originates at the foot of the Albano Hills and crosses the south-eastern area of the Roman countryside (Campagna Romana) before reaching the Caffarella valley. After crossing the valley the Almone river disappears near the Ancient Appian Way and joins the city’s southern sewage system. Previously it joined the Tiber near the site of the present day gas works at Ostiense.
The two sides of the valley are between 300 and 500 m apart suggesting morphological changes over time. It is believed that from 80 to 10 thousand years ago during the Würm glaciation period, the river Almone eroded the volcanic material and dug a canyon of 100 m deep. Subsequently the river began depositing silt and sediments, filling the canyon and slowly eroding the banks which gradually separated to their present distance.
Of the dozens of springs joining the river Almone today at least fifteen flow directly into the valley from their subterranean source. The abundance of water in the area is due to the different permeability specially to volcanic soils. This process enriches the water with mineral characteristics. The most notable example is that of the Acqua Santa spring rich in carbon dioxide and with a slightly acid taste.
The fertility of the soil, the abundance of water and the favorable climate have encouraged the growth of a rich and varied vegetation. Documents dating back to Roman times describe thick woods interspersed with pasture land, water courses bordering lush vegetation and wetlands covered with typical marsh flora.
Little of this remains today. Man has modified the landscape to suit his agricultural needs substituting the apparent disorganization of nature with his orderly regulated fields. However a few corners still remain almost untouched reminding us of the distant past, now mingling with newly built environments as a consequence of man’s intervention.
With our backs to the Via Almone on the left side of the valley, there are three small woods having maples, holm oaks, pedunculate oaks and downy oaks, some of which are centuries old. On the opposite side of the valley there are two false acacia woods. Instead at the far end we can find a small concentration of poplars, as well as long rows of southern nettle trees, mulberries and walnuts reminders of man’s influence on the landscape.
On the higher ground dominating the Almone valley, due to occasional collapsing of sandstone quarries developing until the end of last century, the deep caves have been colonised by a unique vegetation: elm, fig trees, Evonymous europaeus, dogwood, etc.
Close to Via Almone in between the giant reeds, the willows, the rushes and horsetails snipes and wagtails flit, there is a pond with frogs and toads leap and grass snakes and salamanders. In the more isolated woods, amidst the intricate undergrowth, made up mainly of butcher’s broom, cornelian cherry, sloe, wild apple and wild pear, wild rose and alder we can hear the calls and songs of sparrows, greenfinches, serins, great tits, blackcaps, blackbirds, robins, goldfinches, corn buntings or the sudden cry of the pheasant.
Up in the sky fan-tailed warblers, skylarks and kestrels can be seen. The latter are not the only predator in the valley: there are also foxes living in the area; they are rarely seen but their traces can be spotted because they mark their territory. Together with the kestrels and nocturnal predators such as the little owl and the barn owl, the foxes live among the main ruins and contribute to keeping the mouse and rat population under control. Otherwise rodents would thrive randomly.
Tradition and legend
Today the Caffarella valley is a typical example of the Campagna Romana where history and nature live hand in hand with abandonment and degradation; this is very different from the concern for the valley’s welfare in ancient times. Traditions and legends belong to ancient Roman cults. They revered all natural phenomena and considered the woods, rivers and springs to be true divinities. For example the Almone river was identified with the divinity Almone who was believed to distribute water aplenty or droughts at will.His cult included celebratory rites which took place each year where the water of the Almone river flows into the Tiber. From the Palatine, where the temple of the Magna Mater (the goddess Cybeles) stood, a statue of the goddess was carried with a solemn procession up to via Ostiense, Here she and other objects of her cult were washed into the river Almone. Her cult was of oriental origin celebrated every year on 27th March. The ceremony lasted well into the 3rd century A.D.Moreover along the banks of the river Almone in the Caffarella Valley, during the “ides of July” each year Roman knights proceeded in cavalcade in honour of Mars Gradivus to commemorate the battle of Lake Regillus in 493 B.C.In ancient times woods were other revered places. At that time consular roads bordered on thick “sacred woods”. In the Caffarella area on a small hillock opposite the church of Sant’Urbano, three mediterranean oaks are the only survivors of what was once a vast wood. Legend has it that the nymph Egeria (a minor ancient divinity linked to springs and childbirth) met with King Numa Pompilius and during their amorous encounters advises him on new laws; the sacred wood dedicated to Egeria was close to the Baths of Caracalla. The most beautiful and imposing sacred woods, the so-called “Luci”, were protected by law and damage to them was punishable by death.
The tomb of Cecilia Metella and castrum
A further legend concerns the god Rediculus (the god of safe return) the protector of travellers, who appeared to Hannibal and his army as they were marching into Roma after his victory at Cannae, frightened him and made him turn around.
On top of these anecdotes the Caffarella area has a rich and documented history. As a matter of fact the valley extends 200 hectares outside the Roman city gate of San Sebastiano. This is due to its position between two of the most important roads in antiquity the Ancient Appian Way and the Via Latina. Both played a fundamental role for historic, artistic and cultural patrimony of ancient and modern Rome.
The Via Latina is much older than the Via Appia. It is a natural road already in use in prehistoric times. It started near the Tiberina island and reached Capua after 191 km. During the 3rd century B.C., after important engineering works had been carried out the stretch of road joining Rome with the hill town of Grottaferrata was a 15 km single straight route.
Apart from the miraculously preserved stretch of road in the Archaeological Park of Via Latina, little remains of this important ancient highway. Today in the Caffarella valley between Via di Vigna Fabbri and Via Cordara, where the road is overpassed by a great bridge, the so-called Dell of Cessati Spiriti, recent excavations have brought to light the remains of tombs and of the original ground of the road. Another interesting tomb complex with niches and mosaics, found in 1981 in Largo Nicomede Bianchi, was later covered again when the modern Via Latina was tarmacked.
The sepulchre of Valerii in the Archaeological Park of Via Latina
The Appian Way commissioned by censor Appius Claudius Caecus in 312 B.C., required a much greater engineering feat than that of the Latin Way. The Appian Way by-passed the natural roads and headed straight for Capua therefore it can be considered an early forerunner of modern motorways.
At the beginning of the Middle Ages numerous towers were built both on Via Latina and on Via Appia, to exact tolls from travellers using the roads. In order to avoid these tolls, alternative roads were built cutting through the adjacent countryside. These roads eventually gained importance, supplanting their Roman precursors. The paved stretch of the Appian Way gradually fell into disrepair and was abandoned. Travellers preferred the Latin Way leading to Capua as well, or used new roads as the Tuscolana, the Casilina or the Appia Nuova (the New Appian Way).
Owing to its position at the gates of Rome and the fertility of its soil, the Caffarella valley has been a site for cultivating fruit and vegetables for centuries. While able to import wheat and grain from afar, ancient Rome was obliged to grow perishable food closer to its walls. For this reason the Romans built water cisterns in the valley (there are still traces of at least six) and created large land holdings such as that of Herodes Atticus.
Great cistern in front of S. Urbano
Herodes Atticus’ Triopius
During the 2nd century A. D. Herodes Atticus was a very rich and prominent figure of Imperial Rome. He was the tutor of the Emperors Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius.
Through his marriage to Annia Regilla, a member of the famous Annii family and descendant of Atilius Regulus, Herodes Atticus came into ownership of a large estate and centre of the activities was the Villa. The Villa was later transformed into the Palace of Maxentius on the opposite side of Via Appia Pignatelli.
After his wife’s death, Herodes Atticus was accused of murdering her but he was tried and acquitted. Hereafter he gave great show of mourning her. In her honour, he redeveloped the estate and called it Triopius after Triopas, King of Thessaly. This king had dedicated a sanctuary in the city of Cnidus in Asia Minor to Demeter, the goddess of harvests. What is more Herodes dedicated a temple to Ceres, the Roman goddess known as Demeter, and to the deceased empress Faustina who had been deified. By doing so Herodes wanted to raise his property above common mortal interests. At the same time by naming it after the King Triopas he intended to protect it from theft or damage: according to legend, in fact, Triopas tried to cut firewood in a forest sacred to Demeter and as a punishment he was condemned to suffer insatiable hunger eventually leading to his death.
The Triopius was an extremely rich property. It ranges as far as the mausoleum of Cecilia Metella on the Ancient Appian Way. This was the agricultural centre where the rural population lived.
In addition many epigraphs were discovered in this area, and together with the descriptions of ancient authors they provide us with an interesting insight into life in those days. The Romans cultivated wheat, olive groves, vineyards and pasture land. There was also a police station, a sacred site dedicated to Nemesis and Minerva, a park, the colonial village and the residential villa. Therefore it was an elegant suburban villa and a rich and industrious farm at the same time.
Today many historical remains bear witness to the richness of this estate. Among these is the former mentioned Temple of Ceres and Faustina, which is still almost intact today thanks to its conversion into an early Christian place of worship in late antiquity.This ensured the temple’s maintenance and preservation throughout the centuries.
The church was dedicated to Saint Urbano, a bishop martyred during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. A number of frescoes still decorate the interior and in the small crypt a Madonna with child dating back to the 10th century can be admired.
At the foot of the hill on which Sant’Urbano stands, there is the so-called Nymphaeum of Egeria, an artificial grotto receiving water from a nearby source. Originally the cave was fronted by a portico and a pool with water coming from the spring. From here the water flowed into a vast pound which received also the waters of the Almone. This body of water was mentioned as Lacus Salutaris (the “Lake of health”) in the chronicles of the time, due to the therapeutical properties of its mineral waters. The nymphaeum was also part of the Triopius, a pleasant summer place of relax with sumptuous fountains.
The Nymphaeum of Egeria
Not very far off, in the green valley between the Almone and Via della Caffarella, we can admire the so-called Tomb of Annia Regilla, one of the most beautiful and well preserved monuments existing in Rome. Some experts believe this to be the tomb Herodes Atticus dedicated to his wife, but it has come down to us as the Temple of God Rediculus (the god who made Hannibal turned around with a terrible nightmare), near the church of Domine Quo Vadis (on the Appian Way); ultimately, it stands as one of the better preserved Roman cenotaph. Those walking through the valley or along its slopes will surely notice many other ruins dating back to the 1st and the 4th centuries A.D. (water cistern, villas, tombs), more or less distinguishable amidst the blackberry bushes and shrubs (and sometimes still among the rubbish too).
Also to be mentioned are the Jewish catacombs, those of Praetestatus and part of those belonging to S. Sebastiano. They intertwine below ground on the side of the valley closest to the Appian Way.
The so called Temple of the God Rediculus
Middle Ages and Renaissance
Upon the death of Herodes Atticus the Triopius became imperial property and was progressively neglected. The Barbarian invasions were probably the darkest period for the Caffarella (excluding the present). Located between via Appia and via Latina the Caffarella area was right in the path way of invading armies.
With the fall of Roman Empire and its splendid palaces, villas and monuments, the countryside was abandoned and all the irrigation and drainage were left in ruins through lack of maintenance, while nature began regaining hold.
In the 9th century the Caffarella valley was known as the Vallis marmorea (Marble Valley) owing to the great number of marble remains to be found there. The marshy valley was divided into various holdings. At least five guard towers were erected along the river Almone together with fortifications and military roadblocks along the via Appia and via Latina. They were then gradually abandoned as the via Appia Nuova (New Appian Way) and the via Casilina became increasingly important.
Around the year 1000 the sight evolved with the buildings of the so-called “valche” or “mole”. They were a kind of water-mill used for washing woollen clothes (valche) or for the production of flour (mole). A florid industry developed especially in the case of the “valche”. In later centuries they were protected by special “statutes” and by institutions of privileges and tax exemption.
In 1536 Emperor Charles V victoriously entered Rome through the Porta S. Sebastiano. In this time the Caffarelli family who lavishly entertained the Emperor during his stay, succeeded in buying the Almone Valley from a number of owners. The valley had by then become known by various names such as Marmorea, Vallis Apie, Aquataccio, Fontana Vergine, Acqua Santa, etc.
The Vaccareccia farm
This pleasant complex of valleys, woods and slopes rich in ancient ruins, was restored to a fully functional agricultural farm by Giovanni Pietro Caffarelli. In 1547 he ordered the construction of the splendid “Vaccareccia”, the central farm building which is still being used.
The valley was thus renamed after the Caffarelli family. Works were undertaken, stagnant waters were drained, the old canals deepened and new ones dug.
During that period the Caffarella property played a “hygienic” role as well. In 1656, when Rome was hit by the plague, the mills in the valley were used for washing the infected laundry from the city.
From 1700 to modern days
In 1695 the estate was first sold to the Pallavicini family and later to the Torlonia family who completely renovated the water system at the beginning of the 19th century.
At that time the Caffarella area took the shape of its current aspect and became an obligatory destination for weekend walks. In the last century and at the beginning of the present one there were numerous osterie or wine shops to be found on this side. The most rated is probably the one that stood inside the Nymphaeum of Egeria. Underlining its beauty and value chronicles of the time annoverated this place as a destination for important guests of Rome.
Today much of it has been lost, but whatever has been cited so far is only a fraction of the great archaeological heritage still remaining. In its entirety the Caffarella Valley constitutes a unique historic and artistic panorama mainly because it is situated in the Campagna Romana full of oaks and rich pastures. More importantly it is adjacent to the Aurelian Walls, yet well within the current urban perimeter. Therefore it has become a public park since the ’30s, although officially instituted in 1988.
Notwithstanding the institution of the Regional Park of the Appia Antica, the Caffarella site had been a “no man’s land” up to the end of the 20th century. When settling scores the owners (for example the Gerini Foundation which has inherited all the property once belonging to the Torlonia), have been unable to exploit the land because of petty binding laws as well as to the complete lack of interest on the part of public authorities. Consequently the area had been abandoned for a number of years to filth and degradation.
Dating back to the 19th century structure the agricultural situation has undergone a major change partly due to the complete lack of interest on the part of its owners, and partly to the ever-increasing phenomenon of illegal cultivation, whereby allotments were formed. The valley, from time immemorial always used as grazing land, has been spoilt by the dumping of spent loam from the numerous illegal mushroom farms scattered in the caves and on the area by the intrusion of a sewage system that crosses the entire valley.
In 1984 a group of young Romans organized itself into a association called Comitato per il Parco della Caffarella.
The Comitato started its awareness-raising campaign involving schools, promoting the cleaning of the valley, and organizing archaeological and naturalistic tours: in the first two years, about fifty schools and several thousand citizens attended these activities. In addition, the association started collaborations with universities to increase the level of knowledge about the area, then popularising it to the locals; this resulted also in the publication of books, even with the collaboration of important professors. Currently, all this activities still continue.
On the same time, the association committed itself in the involvement of the political institutions.
In 1986, through a complaint to the Judiciary filed by the Comitato and signed by 600 citizens, approximately 100,000 square metres of the Caffarella Valley were seized and reclaimed from the pollution caused by the presence of landfills.
In 1988, through the pressure made by the Comitato and by famous local intellectuals, the law establishing the Appia Antica Regional Park was approved (Regional Law 66/88).
In the same year, the association collected 13,000 signatures of citizens asking the Italian Parliament to safeguard the Park: the request was welcomed and in 1990 26 billion lire (13,429,752 euro) were allocated under the national law for Rome Capital of the Republic (Law 396/1990), to be used for the expropriation of a private part of the Caffarella Valley that was destined for the construction of one million cubic metres of housing.
In 1995, the Comitato got included in the regional registry of Voluntary Associations from Region of Lazio and as a result its activities directed to schools and citizens increased greatly. The population became more aware and more involved into the urging of the institutions for the restoration of the monuments in the Park. This way, the Italian Parliament approved the Law 651/1996 (the “Great Jubilee Act”) that would have allocated 10 billion lire (5,165,289 EUR) for the restoration of the monuments of the Caffarella and for the maintenance of the pedestrian walkways. The association was also invited by the City of Rome to collaborate in the drafting of the Plan of Application of the Caffarella.
On April 9th of 2000, the Mayor of Rome Francesco Rutelli inaugurated the first 700,000 public square metres of the Caffarella with restored monuments.
2006: Mayor of Rome Walter Veltroni visit Caffarella
In 2006, another expropriation, realized after a meeting of the Comitato with the upcoming Mayor of Rome Walter Veltroni, allowed the acquisition as public assets of further 400,000 square metres of the Valley, in addition to three farmhouses of the Park, among which the Renaissance Vaccareccia.
The former owners of the Vaccareccia farmhouse tried to pressure the City of Rome to get their property back, with the aim of transforming it into a hotel. The City Council was not processing the paperwork needed, without which the property would return within two years to its former owners. To speed up the process, the Comitato collected the signatures of the citizens, released TV interviews and sent appeals to various newspapers: all these efforts led the City administration to finalize the expropriation, just four days before the deadline.
Vaccareccia after partial restoration
At the end of 2007, the Comitato urged the Lazio Region to take care of the restoration of the Vaccareccia farmhouse, for which the region allocated 2.7 million EUR (Deliberation of the Regional Council n. 886/2007). Said restoration, necessary primarily for safety reasons (being the building in danger of collapse), only began in 2011 and didn’t benefit for the whole amount allocated.
In 2011, the Comitato began addressing the issue of the pollution of the Almone, the river considered sacred by the ancient Romans, flowing in the valley. The river was seriously polluted by drains of untreated waste waters coming both by residential buildings and businesses. The association officially asked the City of Rome, the Province of Rome and the Lazio Region to have access to the documents relating to those polluting entities, but the answers to these requests were evasive or did not arrive at all. The Comitato insisted and finally discovered that the domestic sewage produced by 27,000 residents of two districts of Rome (Quarto Miglio and Statuario) was not being purified, but directly drained into the Almone River. To urge the City Council to solve the problem, the Comitato sent a inquiry signed by 500 citizens to the new Mayor of Rome Giovanni Alemanno.
Since the Mayor did not respond on time, the Comitato pressed charges to the Prefect against him. Therefore on July 27th, 2012, the City Council at last approved the Resolution n. 229/2012 for the construction of the sewage collector in the amount of 3,936,528 EUR paid by ACEA Ato 2 (a branch of the municipal undertaking for Water and Electricity). The collector started its activity in July 2017. The Almone River is already cleaner and more alive. Meanwhile, paying attention to the pressure performed by the Comitato, the Appia Antica Regional Park Authority began the renovation of the two smaller farmhouses previously expropriated, the farmhouses Vigna Cartoni and Vigna Cardinali, thanks to funds ROP 2007-2013 axis II Activity 4 – Enhancement of fruition structures inside protected areas.
The renovations were completed in 2015. The Humus onlus association, expression of the Comitato, run for the management of the Casale Vigna Cardinali and won; today, this is the Information Point inside the Caffarella, and many different activities are carried out thanks to this base, such as bike renting, vegetable gardening, kindergarten (Bosco Caffarella) and others.
In 2016, the association was able to purchase an electric vehicle intended to allow the elderly and people with limited mobility to visit the Park.
The electric vehicle
During the years hundreds of schools have been involved in the activities of the Comitato. In particular, following the last education laws, four schools have sent their students to work with the Humus onlus in the management of the Information
Point in the last two years.
The Comitato’s efforts actually led to the conservation of the Caffarella Valley, which would have been lost without them.
Despite the fact that the project can be considered for the most part completed, there is the consciousness that the achievements could be lost in many ways, especially due to changes in the political will. In this respect, the raised citizens’ awareness is a heritage in itself: as a matter of fact, it is the best guarantee for a long-term success.