Palestrina: The Duomo

The Duomo of Palestrina.

The Duomo of Palestrina is dedicated to Sant’Agapito or Saint Agapitus, a teenage martyr from the third century. Virtually nothing is known about his life, apart from the fact that he was apparently a native of Palestrina, then called Praeneste. The Duomo is located just west of the Piazza Regina Margherita, where we also find a statue of the most famous inhabitant of the town of all time, the composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (ca. 1525-1594). Giovanni Pierluigi may in fact be more famous than the town of Palestrina itself. When I told some of my friends and family that I was going to Palestrina, quite a few assumed that I was going to Palestine, while others thought that I was going to a concert.

The Piazza Regina Margherita is the spot where we would have found the (primary) forum of Ancient Praeneste. Behind the Duomo are the remains of a large basilica, which had two halls connected to it, one on either side. The western hall held the so-called Fish Mosaic, the eastern one the more famous Nile Mosaic, which I have discussed separately. In front of the basilica stood a large temple which was probably dedicated to Jupiter Imperator. The Roman historian Livius relates how, in 380 BCE, the Romans captured Praeneste and confiscated a statue of this deity which they subsequently paraded during the triumph to celebrate their victory.[1] So Praeneste definitely had a temple dedicated to this god and the forum of the town seems to be the most natural location for his temple. Ancient Praeneste had a few other temples as well. A temple possibly dedicated to Juno stood about 100 metres to the west of the temple of Jupiter and a sanctuary dedicated to Hercules has been identified outside the city walls.[2] And then there was the huge sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia of course, which I have discussed previously.

Interior of the Duomo.

Facade with remains of a sun-dial.

The Duomo of Palestrina was built over the pre-existing temple of Jupiter in the fifth century. The Christian edifice had the same structure as the pagan temple until the early twelfth century. Then bishop Cuno of Praeneste (Conone in Italian; died 1122) decided to make drastic changes to the cathedral. He had the building enlarged, adding an apse, two aisles and a bell tower. At the time, Palestrina was a fief of the powerful Colonna family from Rome. The Colonnas managed to put one member of their family on the Throne of Saint Peter when Oddone Colonna became Pope Martinus V (1417-1431). However, they then quarrelled with his successor Pope Eugenius IV (1431-1447), who sent his general Giovanni Vitelleschi (1396-1440) against them. In 1437, cardinal Vitelleschi captured Palestrina and destroyed the town along with the cathedral. The Duomo was quickly rebuilt and two chapels were added in the fifteenth century, including the large Chapel of the Sacrament. A thorough restoration was carried out in 1703 and another one between the end of the nineteenth century and 1917. As a result the interior of the Duomo feels rather modern. There are no great artistic treasures here. The work of art I liked best was a painting showing the execution of Saint Agapitus by Carlo Saraceni (1579-1620), a painter from Venice.

While the interior of the Duomo is only marginally interesting, the cathedral façade is intriguing. What we see here has been plausibly interpreted as the remains of a sun-dial. We see a triangular pediment, a large arch with the central entrance and mix of red and grey tuff with all sorts of incisions. The identification of this curious combination of elements with the sun-dial or solarium of Praeneste is based on the fact that such a sun-dial is mentioned in Marcus Terentius Varro’s work on the Latin language.[3] It should be noted that only the red tuff is original. The grey tuff was added after World War II to repair damage from Allied bombings.

Notes

[1] Livius 6.27-6.29.

[2] See Paula Landart, Palestrina: Walks in the City and the Acropolis of Ancient Praeneste, p. 7 for a map.

[3] Paula Landart, Palestrina: Walks in the City and the Acropolis of Ancient Praeneste, p. 22-25.

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