Wanderjahre in Italien

Ferdinand Gregorovius

This extract from Ferdinand Gregorovius' book Wanderjahre in Italien describes how he visited the caves of Collepardo.

From the Mountains of the Hernicians


I set out from Alatri to visit the grotto of Collepardo, of whose beauty I had been told so much. A mountain path leads to it; for a few millien beyond the town, the character of the land changes, culture disappears, bare red limestone rocks lead into the mountains, whose wild solitude now embraces the hiker.

A coal burner from the small mountain village of Collepardo, who had left his load in Alatri and happened to meet me, became my companion and guide through the mountains. I enjoyed listening to this good-natured man's tales of the poverty but frugality of life in his homeland, although his mountain dialect made it somewhat difficult for me to understand.

The rock masses became rougher and rougher, the valleys more romantic and wilder, and we now came across the river Cosa, which roars violently down through these mountains. Its water, greenish in colour like the Inn in the Engadine, teems with trout. This lifeline of the mountains draws the only narrow strip of culture through the rocky wilderness; after an abrupt course it plunges into the Sacco river and rushes with it towards the Liris.

High above the Cosa, where it squeezes through narrow gorges at the foot of a steep rock face, lies Collepardo. Nothing could be more melancholy: small houses made of limestone stand in a stretched row, interrupted by a bizarre church, and a black splintered wall stretches all around - proof that even this poor village was not safe from the predatory enemy. Few gardens, olive trees and grapevines gave evidence of extreme poverty; for apart from the small area on which Collepardo stands, everything all around seemed to stare at rocks. The brave charcoal-burner invited me to stay in his house, which I gladly did, as I would otherwise have been at a loss for accommodation. I made myself as comfortable as I could in the poor room to let the heat of the sun pass. It was very fortunate for me that some gentlemen from Velletri had just arrived on horseback, who had been brought here with the same intention of seeing the grotto, because this made it possible for me to view this miracle by torchlight.

The cave lies deep below Collepardo. A steep mountain wall leads down to it; here the Mosa river roars through a gorge; one rides along its bank for a while, which is shaded by chestnut trees, and has rock walls on both sides in the most magnificent shapes. To the left, Mount Marginato rises and stretches its weathered masses into the air, casting deep and black shadows into the water, which boils and boils with fury around the rock. To the right rises a rocky cave, no less sloping and bushy with trees, in which the grotto lies just now.

Even the entrance to it promises something extraordinary. A blackish maw yawns out of dark blocks, and a cold stream of air seems to rise from the deepest depths. We wrapped ourselves carefully before descending. The guides with the torches had gone ahead, and soon light clouds of smoke rising from the crevices of the outer wall showed us that they were inside. I have seen many grottos in the mountains and am no longer receptive to these natural spectacles; I therefore did not expect much from the grotto at Collepardo when I entered it. However, it did make an impression on me, especially because it has a lot of space. It consists of two main parts, two enormous halls, as it were, which are separated in the middle by a cracked low wall. The colour of the walls and the floor is black or yellow-brown; large rocks lie around, some of which have to be climbed, and stalactite formations hang down from the irregular arches of the ceilings in a variety of shapes, while others seem to grow from the floor itself in the most bizarre shapes and groups. The strangest figures have formed in the back part of the grotto; in order to completely overlook it, we were made to wait in the front room until it was illuminated. For many men and boys had not only set themselves up here and there with their torches, but had also lit great heaps of tow at various places. When I looked into the magic hall illuminated in this way, it was a disconcerting sight. At one moment you seemed to be entering an Egyptian temple of black columns, between which stood images of sphinxes and gods, at another you were wandering in a forest of stone palm crowns and other fantastic plants, and again lances and swords were staring here, or armour of giants and dwarfs hung down from the walls. All this lived and flickered by the glow of the torches, which made the masses stand out glaringly here and produced all the more powerful shadows there. The billowing clouds of smoke moved back and forth like veils, and through the humid air the disturbed bats and night owls threw themselves out with wild cries. There is no picture to be made of such caves, for everyone's imagination sees them in a special way and populates them with phantoms. Of course, there is no lack of names for individual, particularly prominent stalactite formations, of which only the so-called "trophies of the Romans" have remained in my memory. There is no doubt that the cave of Collepardo still contains a larger context of chambers and extends deep into the mountain, but it has not yet been possible to penetrate further.

In general, there are many caves in the limestone in this area, which may have housed many a hermit in the past. As late as 1838, a hermit lived near Collepardo in a grotto on nearby Mount Avicenna. In September of that year, a young Frenchman appeared there, calling himself Stefan Gautier, and declared that he was following the promptings of heaven, which had called him to this wilderness to lead an anachoretic life. The stranger made himself at home in that cave; food and drink were brought to him, he prayed and chastised himself, and he was often seen in Collepardo, in Veroli or in the Charterhouse of Trisulti, where he visited the churches and conversed with the monks. His way of life was irreproachable, even that of a budding saint, although he was still young. Gautier had already been living in that solitude for two years when one day henchmen surrounded his cave, seized him and took him prisoner. No one knew the cause, and no one could afterwards give any definite tidings of the hermit's fate; all that was known was that the saint had been delivered into the hands of French justice; a rumour said that he had taken part in one of the attempts on the life of Louis Philip.

Nature has brought together many strange things around Collepardo, for only a short distance from the stalactite cave lies that famous Italian fountain, the Pozzo di Santulla, hard by the road to the Charterhouse. I wanted to reach the monastery before evening so that I could take advantage of the hospitality of the monks. After half an hour's ride between gardens and on a stony plateau, I suddenly found myself at the edge of a circular depression, vividly reminiscent of the great latomia in Syracuse. At a circumference of about 1500 paces, this enigmatic well sinks to a depth of 150 feet, revealing in its bottom a dark green forest of treetops and creepers, which, when a breeze ventures down, sway gently up and down like the waves of a lake. The sun let streaks of light fall from the clearest sky into this depth, and I saw white butterflies playing merrily back and forth above the sunken forest. Flowering tendrils hung over the branches of these trees, which, I am assured, rise more than 30 feet from the depths and yet, seen from above, resemble nothing more than shrubs. The inaccessible flowers at the bottom, the wild labyrinthine paths in the dark thicket, the fluttering of the fowl that go about their business there, lure the imagination down; it imagines in this subterranean magic grove a fairy paradise and a pleasure garden for Oberon and Titania. Abundant springs of mysterious course seep there and nourish an evergreen herb, while this pool draws down to itself the dew of the night. With admiration, one's gaze then descends along the walls into the depths; in bizarre and fantastic, stalactite-like forms and figures they tumble down all around, showered with golden-flowered broom and mastic bushes. They are adorned with a variegated iridescence of colours, for sometimes the rock is delicate silver-grey, sometimes burning red, again dark blue, yellow and deep black. The wild mountain scenery around this fountain forms a strange theatre: here, the brown village of Collepardo, sultrily encamped behind green trees; there, long glimpses of sinking rocky valleys; furthermore, huge mountains of majestic shapes, around whose never-entered summits lonely golden eagles hover or fantastic mists draw their white veils.

Wild-looking shepherds, sandal men of the mountains, with lance-like staffs, were camped at the edge of the fountain with their climbing goats, bringing life to the great scene, while some sturdy boys amused themselves by rolling down stones. They fell down into the woods with a dull crash and then startled the grey pigeons out of their nests so that they shot up from the treetops and went back and forth in despair. Although these shepherds tried to convince me that there was a tiger in the mysterious well, they confessed that now and then they let goats down on ropes. These animals find water and herbs in abundance there and stay down there for months until they are brought up again well-fed.

If the Pozzo were in Germany or Scotland, the popular imagination would undoubtedly populate it with the most fabulous creatures; but the Italians on the whole have no sense of the fairy-tale and the ghostly, because the clarity of the air does not allow it to flourish with them. And so the tale of the origin of this well, as I heard it from the mouths of the shepherds, was characteristic for me, for it is a legend. The Pozzo, they told me, was once a large circular threshing floor; one day people were enjoying themselves pounding out grain there, although the feast of Assunta the Holy Virgin was being celebrated. The Madonna was enraged by this sacrilege; she suddenly sank the threshing floor with everything that moved on it, and thus the circular pozzo was created. By the way, volcanic phenomena are nowhere to be seen, so the view that this well was once a cave whose vault collapsed may well be correct. I was reluctant to tear myself away from this strange apparition; I thought with desire of the magical spectacle of nocturnal illumination when the moon floats through this great mountain wilderness and its hazy light pours down from the crater walls onto the ghostly forest below. The goatherds led me and my campagnoles sideways along stony paths until we reached the treaded rocky road that one has to take to get to the Trisulti Charterhouse. This abbey, famous far and wide, was supposed to be about a German mile ahead of us,-it was not visible, but I was shown the dark strip of an oak forest at the top of the high mountain region to be climbed, behind which I would find it, a true cultural wonder of the mountains. I could hardly remember a wilder and more beautiful mountain landscape than the one I was now descending. The view soon fell into dizzy depths, from which the roar of the Mosa river rose up with a muffled sound, soon it rose again to magnificent mountain pyramids, below which the Monna rises gigantically towards the sky. We descended, passing here and there grey rock obelisks which, blocking the way, had pushed their way forward one by one, and after an arduous half hour we had arrived at the bottom of the river. Here, the river has torn through two mountainous areas, and its thundering waves of foam tumble on through dark gorges. The sun had already sunk behind the mountains, it was still gilding the peaks all around with a pre-dawn glow. Now we climbed up the broad flanks of the mountains. I turned in the direction from which I had come and saw eight to ten soldiers coming down the path I had covered at a short distance. Were they bandit hunters? I doubted it, for the notorious band of Gasparone's brigands were no longer active in these mountains, where one can still read the names of the brigands in many places, which those brigands have dug into the rocks with their daggers. "These soldiers," said my knowledgeable companion, "come from Alatri to visit the Charterhouse, to find food and lodging with the monks. For you must know that the rich white-coats are compelled by law to feed every wayfarer for three days free of charge; and if a whole army were to enter their charterhouse, they would not be allowed to bar their monastery house to it." Now, knowing that that company with whom I had seen the grotto of Collepardo had spent the previous night at the expense of the monks, seeing behind me half-starved soldiers who were already in their thoughts wandering about the monastery, and having the same intention, and being conscious of a reckless hunger, some apprehensions rose in my mind. "Come then, Francesco," I said, "and let us double our steps, lest those soldiers overtake us and make the faces of the monks dark for us, when we too knock at their doors, desiring food, drink and lodging." Francesco laughed, and we pushed on briskly.