This was one of two entry gates to the present day Piazza della Rocca, the other being situated where the steps now exist beneath the access bridge to the Rocca (Castle). Its arch forms a picture frame of rare beauty to view the lake below, the shoreline and, in the background, the Bisenzio headland. On an ideal walk through the heart of the town, a pause to view the Porticella is must.
Once the holiday residence of the family of Prince Marcantonio Borghese, this was until last century the town's elementary school and is currently the headquarters of the town council. A wonderful view of the landscape can be enjoyed from the panoramic council hall, increasingly chosen by young couples for their wedding ceremonies.
Situated on the hill of Capodimonte, in the vicinity of the Rocca Farnese, the church of S. Maria Assunta occupies a position of enchanting beauty, with a panoramic view of the lake and its islands. It is adorned by beautiful stuccos and an arch which, according to tradition, was designed by Vignola during the period in which he was working on the church on the Isola Bisentina, later completed by Garzoni. Inside is a statue of the Madonna Assunta (Our Lady of the Assumption) and a fine painting of Maria Santissima delle Grazie (Our Lady of Graces), attributed to the school of the Neapolitan painter Sebastiano Conca (1680-1764). Particularly devoted to the Madonna delle Grazie, the people of Capodimonte commemorate the day that the canvas was brought to the town and welcomed with a great feast: rose petals were scattered along its path, thus founding the tradition of the Infiorata. To this day, every year on the second Sunday after Easter, the icon of the Madonna delle Grazie is displayed in the church for a week and then carried in a street procession the following Sunday through a path of flowers and colours, a real carpet of flowers in memory of its triumphant welcome. The great love felt for this sacred image is demonstrated by the fact that it is displayed to the faithful for only a week, remaining "jealously guarded" for the rest of the year. It was donated by Cardinal Marcantonio Barbarigo of Montefiascone to the Maestre Pie Filippine of Capodimonte, who in 1694 had founded here the first religious school in the diocese for the education of young people.
The majestic octagonal Rocca (Castle) stands on the volcanic cliffs of the Capodimonte headland, dominating it completely with its grandeur and beauty. The first sources relating its origin describe it as a military construction, an outpost controlled by the Barons of Bisenzio who were a branch of the Aldobrandeschi family of Sovana. Its history changed with the rise of the Farnese family, originally from this area, who turned it into a place of official entertainment for meeting and managing relations with the highest Roman nobility. The beauty of Capodimonte, the Rocca and the Isola Bisentina, became in effect the natural setting for friendships, loves and the "life of court".
A memorable event took place in June 1462. Pope Pius II Piccolomini, on a visit to Capodimonte, gave a description to his secretary Giovanni Gobelino that read as follows:
"Castle in an extremely agreeable position, with the lake on three sides and defended on the landward side by a moat and a very strong fort. Not far away there rises from the waves a cliff with its sides covered in vines and holm oaks. A lovely haven for birds that, were it not for a flight of steps dug into the rock, would afford no path for any person wishing to descend on foot. Above, however, is a beautiful plain which, enclosed all around by a wall, contains the houses of the farmers and the riding stables of the lords.
From the rock leads an avenue that continues for over a mile to the lakeside, flanked by tall poplars which in the summertime offer a delightful and relaxed shade to walkers".
What had once been a military construction became, between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, more and more of a princely dwelling thanks to the work of the respected architect Antonio da Sangallo, the true realiser of dreams for the Farnese family. Another memorable event was the magnificent feast held here in 1493 to honour the appointment of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. The entire papal court of Alexander VI, Pope Borgia, moved here for the occasion, giving rise to tales and local legends that echo down the centuries. Then, when in 1534 Alessandro became Pope assuming the name of Paul III Farnese, the Rocca reached the height of its splendour and, on the creation of the Dukedom of Castro (1537), was transformed into a prestigious official residence for the Duchy. When in 1649, by order of Pope Innocent III, the capital of the Duchy was razed to the ground and became the "Carthage of the Maremma" its ruins were fatal, in these lands, to the Farnese family and to the Rocca, which slowly sank into historical oblivion. Indeed with the subsequent acquisition by the Church of the Rocca and the terrain of Capodimonte, these events and places lost forever their role in the worldly affairs of the time.
Today the Rocca is private property and visits upon request, which we strongly recommend, are only allowed in one part of the building and the Italian garden that surrounds it. Worth noting in the latter are a number of splendid exotic plants introduced in the nineteenth century, such as an imposing magnolia, a very tall palm, a pagoda tree, oleanders and Mediterranean plants.
Dominated by a view of the Palazzo Farnese, the church of San Carlo, dating from the period in which the Duchy of Castro was governed by Duke Odoardo Farnese (1616), has recently undergone refurbishment. It was built with funds collected from the community and with the decisive involvement of the Farnese family: on the laying of the first stone some medals of Cardinal Alessandro were placed in the foundations. It immediately became the headquarters of a number of confraternal societies. Of the five altars that were built, the most important is that dedicated to a saint highly revered by the Farnese family, San Carlo Borromeo, from whom the church itself derives its name.
In the locality of Giardinetti, at the bottom of the lake at a depth of a few metres, it is possible to admire an underwater Nativity scene. It is very easy to see on fine, windless days, reaching it from the public garden above. This has recently undergone restoration work involving, among other things, the creation of a terrace suspended over the lake with exceptional panoramic views. The historic centre of Marta, the ring of hills skirting Lake Bolsena to the east, the outline of Montefiascone with the ruins of its own imposing Rocca and the "grandness" of the lake that seems to unite the whole, make this place another of the must-see destinations for those who want to immerse themselves in the beauties of Capodimonte. A visit during the Christmas period is particularly evocative, when the Nativity scene is illuminated by a large Star of Bethlehem which, through reflections off the spotless water, provides a night-time spectacle from the bottom of the lake.
From Piazza Umberto I an ancient paved ramp and a small wooded path lead to the Mergonara, a small beach and an islet of rocks called Monte Cucolo by the inhabitants. In the period spanning the 16th and 17th Centuries it was the "tourist marina" of the Farnese family which could access it from the Rocca above and sail on the beautiful waters of the lake. Popes, cardinals, noblewomen and noblemen of the Roman court, the VIPs of the age, walked along these paths to reach the splendid boats that awaited them. Little has changed since then, and the clean water and panoramic views are still today a source of great pleasure for tourists.
The immediately deep water and high rocks were an aspired destination for young swimmers for diving, often involving high feats of daring. It was these true "tests of courage" that bonded many young men of Capodimonte who would go on to become particularly able and highly rated military sailors. These places can today be reached, with some difficulty, from the historic centre of Capodimonte, with a need to always take great care and to respect the unspoilt nature that sets them apart.
The marina, perfectly equipped for mooring pleasure craft, has two harbour walls that, by protecting it from the wind, make it particularly fit for purpose. Boat moorings can be requested by application to the council offices. Tourist ferries operate from the marina, providing short cruises on the lake and around the two islands: the Bisentina and Martana. This trip should absolutely not be missed by anyone wanting to fully enjoy the beauty of Lake Bolsena … sail it and believe!
With its position and layout, which juts out into the lake like a large ship, with its history, traditions and its "life on the shore", Capodimonte is the ideal place to house the Museum of Navigation of the Inland Waters. The museum enables visitors to understand the forms, environments and specific needs of navigation on lakes and rivers. A "dive", we could say, among ancient craft such as galleys, galeotte, tartanes, feluche, lenunculi, caudicarie, navicelli, scafe, battane ... The museum also displays a prehistoric piroga (dugout boat) found near the Isola Bisentina. With this discovery, the boat of one of our distant ancestors has landed at Capodimonte to tell us its incredible story.
The impressive building of the Cascina - currently undergoing essential restoration work - is, together with the Palazzo Farnese, one of the oldest constructions in Capodimonte. Inside are the riding stables of the Farnese family. The name "Cascina" is a link with the culture of Northern Italy, since it is said that the building was enlarged when the Farnese moved to the Po Valley with the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza (1545). It was also a storehouse for wheat, oil, wine and various foodstuffs such as cheeses and pasture-derived products that were then sent to the Duchy in the north. It probably already existed before the Duchy of Castro as a farmhouse belonging to a large estate (Pratino). After years of almost total abandonment, which greatly eroded its structure, in 2000 the council of Capodimonte began meticulous recovery and restoration work to transform it into the town's cultural centre. When the work is finished, the rooms of the Cascina will be used to create a hall for conferences and exhibitions, a bar with an internet point and the new premises of the town library. Today it provides the ideal showcase for exhibitions and cultural, musical and theatrical events.
Recently embellished with the frescoes of the painter Martin Figura, the church is dedicated to San Rocco, the patron saint of Capodimonte. Of note is the distinctive and evocative lighting which, for a few weeks, is highlighting the church's details in the run-up to the patronal festival of the 15th and 16th August, one of the most important events in the town. An evocative religious procession and a famous firework display, which attracts thousands of people every year, characterize this "heartfelt" festival. Well worth seeing inside the church is a valuable altarpiece representing San Rocco, the work of the nineteenth century painter Luigi Cochetti, who resided for a long time at Capodimonte, and the Isola Bisentina. He also produced other works at Capodimonte including the ceilings of the former hotel Etruria, the atrium of which is today the offices of a commercial business that has expertly restored and preserved the frescoes.
With its approximately 2 kilometre length the promenade - in Capodimonte dialect "le Pioppe" - is the area of the town dedicated to fun and entertainment. It winds along the beach of black volcanic sand which, alternating with large expanses of greenery, creates the ideal place for a relaxing swim or just for sunbathing. The majority of the town's recreational activities take place here during the summer season, with musical performances and sporting events. The green areas, always beautifully tended, are criss-crossed by ample pathways suitable for walking or cycling. Numerous bars, kiosks, restaurants and pizzerias also make it possible to combine the pleasure of "beach life" with that of good eating and drinking. Of note is the spectacular line of plane trees, planted in the 1930s, which adorns most of the beach in a kind of green picture frame.
The Bisenzio headland is situated about four kilometres west of Capodimonte, directly opposite the Isola Bisentina to which it gives its name. Originally inhabited by the Villanovian civilization it became the site of the glorious Etruscan town of Vesentum, described by Pliny the Elder himself as one of the most important cities of southern Etruria . It attained its maximum splendour in the period between the V and VI centuries BC thanks to the achievement of very high levels of workmanship in bronze. The bronze statuettes of Vesentum were well-known throughout the Mediterranean basin and were used as votive images. It was during this period that the city also became centre of a flourishing trade with the maritime and metal-producing areas of Tuscany (Venturina, Massa Marittima, Populonia), with ferrous minerals from the island of Elba being essential in the manufacture of weapons. Today we can only imagine the coming and going of pirogues, joined together to form barges, linking the port of Bisenzio near Punta San Bernardino with the area south of the present day San Lorenzo Nuovo, from where road connections departed to the Tuscan region. After the arrival of the Romans, the Etruscan centre - already weakened by bloody internecine wars (298-280 BC) - slowly lost its importance and gave rise to the Roman town of Visentium that remained active, though by now as a place of secondary importance in the historical-economic panorama of the time, until the fall of the Empire. From the dark ages of the early medieval period Bisenzio and its district became prey to invasions and raids by Lombards and Saracens, with heavy destruction that gave rise to a lengthy period of deep decline. In the fourteenth century it experienced a happier period, becoming one of the centres of what was known at the time as the "Val di Lago", a strategic area long contested by the towns of Orvieto and the estate of San Pietro in Tuscia, to which it became definitively subjected in 1269. In the following centuries the city became increasingly marginal to events, slowly disappearing from maps and local history to move to what is today the headland of Capodimonte. This far is history: today, mount Bisenzio appears as a wild place where nature has taken repossession, with dense and luxuriant woodland overlooking Lake Bolsena, the Bisentina and Martana islands, the Capodimonte headland and a beautiful landscape covered in olive groves and pasture. In the immediate vicinity there is also a long stretch of extremely attractive shoreline, known by many as "il lago dei contadini" (lake of the peasants), which extends westwards for over a kilometre in the direction of Gradoli. From there it is easy to reach San Magno and through to the "Sentiero dei Briganti" (path of the brigands), a favoured route into the Alta Tuscia and its natural treasures (the Lamone and Monte Rufeno Nature Reserves), archaeological and historical sites (the necropolis of Pianezze, Vulci, Castro and the hermitages) and gastronomic specialities (high quality olive oils, pulses, sheep's cheeses and wines such as Aleatico of Gradoli and Est Est Est of Montefiascone)Evidence of Bisenzio's flourishing Etruscan period is still visible today in the numerous necropoles which were initially built in the vicinity of the town and then spread to the surrounding area. These ancient burial places have, over time, yielded treasures of great historical and archaeological value. Worth noting are the finds from the necropoles of Bucacce and Olmo Bello: from the latter, in particular, is a small bronze chariot for holding an incense burner dating back to the beginning of the VII century BC, decorated with sculpted figures representing warriors, animals, ploughing and hunting scenes. It is currently kept at the Villa Giulia in Rome. In a more curious vein, the excavations at Bisenzio have also discovered a gold denture.
Also worth noting in the area is a Christian catacomb of the IV to V centuries, evidence of a strong human presence over the different eras.
This is the strip of territory of Capodimonte that extends towards the Isola Bisentina, little more than one kilometre distant, and it owes its name to San Bernardino of Siena who embarked from here to visit his brothers living in the island's friary that was donated to them by Ranuccio III. In the waters in front, at a depth of about 2 metres, there are traces of a series of Etruscan period furnaces - today visible as "brick cells" - used for the working of bronze. The city of Bisenzio, which overlooked this strip of land, was particularly renowned for this process as is well demonstrated by countless valuable finds in all the necropoles surrounding the settlement. In the area closest to the Monte di Bisenzio there are visible traces of the ancient port of the rich and flourishing Etruscan city, while in front of and to the west of it, at a depth of about 14 metres, the discovery was made (still in situ) of a piroga monossile (an ancient dugout boat) that is similar and probably contemporary to that kept in the museum of Capodimonte. The whole shoreline near to Punta San Bernardino is today notable for its extremely natural state which makes it, without doubt, one of the most important scenic and natural areas of the entire Lake Bolsena. Sailing around this area today, we can truthfully say that we are experiencing it exactly as the Etruscans did, and very little has changed since then. To fully appreciate the beauty and atmosphere of these places we recommend visiting them by boat, with many hire locations in Capodimonte, and particularly by canoe which makes it possible to relive the area's splendours and historical events in silence and tranquillity.
The Isola Bisentina is the green and wooded island that, together with the Isola Martana, adorns and refines the Lake of Bolsena like an emerald. Its territory has witnessed a history that, since the time of the Etruscans, has left its mark on the features of its natural heritage. In medieval times it was a stronghold, a refuge from the barbarian invasions and an infamous prison (the Malta remembered by Dante). During the Renaissance its residential and religious function came under the imprint of Ranuccio III, the true founder of the Farnese dynasty who, in choosing it as the family tomb, consecrated it the "Fanum Farnesianum". A "Temple Shrine" to which all of his descendants would later have to bow. In 1431, at the wish of Pope Eugene IV, the island was ceded to the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor. This led to the building of: a friary with its own church and, at the perimeter, four oratories in memory of the sacred sites of the Passion of Christ; a reproduction of a small "Holy Land" with a frescoed Crucifixion by Benozzo Gozzoli; a chapel immersed "in the garden of olives"; the oratory of San Francesco; and, at the highest point, "the Monte Tabor" with the little church of the "Transfiguration"With the visit of Pope Pius II Piccolomini, the number of temples increased to five. After 1493 the number of oratories became seven. Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (according to the Vasari) ordered the architect Antonio da Sangallo the Younger to create two chapels: one in a square shape on the northernmost point and an octagonal one on the most southerly point. This is the "Rocchina" or temple of Santa Caterina, a jewel of Sangallo's art that continues to celebrate the patronage of his client and to remind us that for the man of Renaissance and culture that Cardinal Alessandro was, having been educated in the humanistic school of Pomponio Leto, the octagon is a symbol of purification and spiritual regeneration. On 24th June 1462, Pope Pius II spent the feast of Saint John the Baptist on the island. At the castle of Capodimonte he was the guest of Gabrielfrancesco, eldest son of Ranuccio, who in his honour organized a magnificent boat race that sent the Pontiff into raptures. In his "Commentaries" the Sienese Pope left us a beautiful and spirited account of the event. During his stay on the island, with intense spirituality, he expressed the wish to grant a Plenary Indulgence to all visitors inspired by a spirit of faith and repentance. This was later confirmed by Pope Paul III along with an invitation to visit all of the seven oratories, emulating the pilgrimage around the seven penitential basilicas of Rome. Ranuccio could not have imagined the success that his lineage would achieve. His nephew, the Pope, elevated the small lordship to the Duchy of Castro, of which the Isola Bisentina, with its environmental prerogatives, became the jewel in the crown. Not even the subsequent creation of the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza overshadowed the island's symbolic importance, in view of the fact that Cardinal Alessandro (the "Gran Cardinale") built the graceful Cupola Vignolesca that rises on this small paradise on the water. A sacred and profane garden where the magic of time has stopped to preserve its natural, historical, artistic and spiritual values for eternal memory.
From the book "Isola Bisentina - Giardino - Tempio dei Farnese" by Alessandro Menghini and Felicita Menghini Di Biagio which is available, for those who wish to study the subject in greater depth, at the Museum of Navigation in Capodimonte.