Sirmione: Grottoes of Catullus

Cryptoporticus of the Grottoes of Catullus.

We know very little about the life of the Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus (ca. 84-54 BCE), but there is no doubt that he and Sirmione were close. In his Carmen 31, Catullus mentions the town:

“O Sirmio, little eye of peninsulas and of islands,
whatever in shining lakes
or vast sea either Neptune brings,
how gladly and how happily I go to see you
scarcely myself believing myself that I have left behind
Thynia and Bithynian fields and that I see you in safety.”
(translation: Wikisource)

In these lines, and in the rest of the poem not quoted here, Catullus clearly describes his homecoming after a stay in Bithynia in present-day Turkey. Ergo, the poet must have had a pied-à-terre in Sirmione. But was this abode the enormous complex on the edge of the promontory on which Sirmione is situated? That is rather unlikely. Catullus died in about 54 BCE and the villa complex was built during the Augustan era (27 BCE-14 CE), so it is of a slightly later date. There may however still be a link with the poet, which I will discuss below. But first I will explain the rather curious name of the complex. What we see are obviously not real grottoes, but when the remains of the Roman-era villa were rediscovered in the fifteenth century, the whole place was one big mess. The vaults of the rooms had all collapsed and the ruins were completely overgrown, so that it appeared to the people who discovered the villa that they had stumbled upon caves. The name ‘Grottoes of Catullus’ (‘Grotte di Catullo’) is technically incorrect, but it has stuck.

Grottoes of Catullus.

View of Lake Garda.

The Roman villa of Sirmione is one of the largest in Northern Italy. It was rectangular in shape and measured about 167 by 105 metres. As was already mentioned, the villa was built in the last decades of the first century BCE. After some 300 years, so in the course of the third century CE, the complex was abandoned. We do not really know why this happened, but it may have been related to the invasion of Northern Italy by Germanic peoples. In the year 268, the emperor Claudius Gothicus defeated an army of the Alemanni on the shores of Lake Garda (which was then named Lacus Benacus). The exact location of the battle is unknown, but an inscription which possibly refers to Claudius’ victory was found in Toscolano-Maderno, which is fifteen kilometres north of Sirmione as the eagle flies. It was made by the Benacenses, the people living on the shores of the lake. It is not inconceivable that the idyllic villa on the lake was simply in a spot that was too risky. This was, after all, the tumultuous third century.

Although their size alone makes the remains of the villa quite a sight and the location with its view of the lake is magnificent, we should keep in mind what it is we are visiting: a ruin. The villa must have had three storeys once, but these are long gone (this website has very good reconstructions of the complex). A part that has been preserved fairly well is the cryptoporticus, the gallery – once covered – that ran along the western side of the complex (see the image above). The word literally means ‘hidden portico’, but since the vault has collapsed not much is hidden today. The cryptoporticus supported the gallery or terrace above it, but it should not come as a surprise that this storey is gone as well. So is the peristylium, the large garden that was once the central part of the villa. Now we find a fragrant olive grove (‘grande uliveto’) here.

Aula dei Giganti.

The villa had its own baths, which were probably added when the complex was enlarged at the end of the first or the start of the second century. Researchers believe that a rectangular room at the southern side of the complex was once a heated swimming pool (natatio). Two cisterns have been found as well. The cistern south of the pool was of modest size, but the large one was at least 47 metres wide. It is, by the way, easy to miss these two constructions that provided the villa with water. I therefore recommend you take a look at the complex from above, for instance with Google Maps. If you do this, you will also notice that a construction was added to the northern side of the complex. This construction was huge terrace that must have offered a panoramic view of the lake. Unfortunately the terrace collapsed and parts of it fell down into the space below. That space was so large that it was nicknamed ‘Aula dei Giganti’ (for an impression, see the image on the right).

The Grottoes of Catullus have a small but very good museum, where we can admire objects that were found at the complex, but also elsewhere in Sirmione. In a previous post, I have already discussed a beautiful pluteus with Longobardic decorations. By far the most interesting Roman objects in the museum are the remains of wall frescoes. These frescoes are evidence that life here in Sirmione in Antiquity was not just agreeable, but also rather colourful. On some fragments we see fishing boats, on others humans figures. One fragment features a man wearing a toga and holding a scroll (see the last image below). According to the museum, it is quite possible that this man is the great Catullus himself. After all, there are clear similarities between this fresco and a fresco found in Pompeii and dated ca. 40-30 BCE, which is generally believed to depict the poet.

Remains of wall frescoes.

Remains of wall frescoes.

Catullus?

Although Catullus was long dead when the villa complex was built (Saint Jerome claimed he died in his thirtieth year), is it possible that the villa belonged to his family. The poet’s portrait may have been added to the walls posthumously. Lastly, near the southern side of the complex the remains of rooms from the second and first century BCE have been discovered. The foundations of these rooms were reused in the new villa. So in other words, there is still a possibility that Catullus did live here, at this spot in Sirmione, after all.

Sources

  • Capitool Reisgidsen Milaan & De Meren 2010, p. 148;
  • Evert de Rooij, Lago di Garda, p. 80-81;
  • Brochure from the Grotte di Catullo;
  • Imperium Romanum

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