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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria

by George Dennis

published by John Murray, Albemarle Street
London, 1848.

The text is in the public domain.


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 p109  Chapter V


"Remnants of things that have passed away."

— Byron.

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Park-scenery Nepi Remains of its ancient walls Picturesque ravines Few traces of the necropolis The modern town Caution to travellers History of Nepete

If on reaching the Guglia, or sign-post, beyond Monterosi, instead of taking the road to Ronciglione and "Firenze," the traveller follow the more holy track of "Loreto," three short miles will carry him to Nepi. Let him remark the scenery on the road. He has left the open wastes of the Campagna and entered a wooded district. It is one of the few portions of central Italy that will remind him, if an Englishman, of home. Those sweeps of bright green sward — those stately wide-armed oaks scattered over it, singly, or in clumps — those cattle feeding in the shade — those neat hedge-rows, made up of maples, hawthorns, and brambles, with fern below, and clematis, dog-roses, and honeysuckles above; they are the very brothers of those in Merry England. The whole forms a lively imitation of — what is most rare on the Continent — English park-scenery; and it requires no stretch of fancy to conceive himself journeying through Surrey or Devonshire.

The first view of Nepi dispels the illusion. It is a quaint-looking town. A line of crumbling wall, laden with machicolated battlements, and a massive castle within rising high above it, would give it the appearance of a fortress, were it not for the square red tower of the cathedral with its white pyramid of a spire, shooting high and bright into the deep blue sky. Behind it soars Soracte, its serrated mass  p110 blued by distance; and far away in the horizon is the range of snow-capt Apennines.

On entering the gate the eye is caught by a fine piece of ancient walling, in nineteen courses, or about thirty-six feet and a half in height, and of considerable length. Its crumbling weather-worn condition proclaims is antiquity, and the size and arrangement of the blocks mark its Etruscan character. Just within the inner gate is another fragment of less extent, only ten courses high, and still more ruinous. These are probably the very walls which Camillus and his soldiers scaled when they stormed the town, 386 years before Christ.1

But instead of entering the town, cross the courtyard to the right, and pass through another gate in the fortifications.​2 Here you are on the brink of the ravine which bounds Nepi on the south. The view of the cliff-bound city — of the profound, lonely ravine — of the lofty venerable walls of the keep, with their machicolated battlements towering above you — of the lowly mill at their feet, vying with them in picturesque effect, as it shoots out a jet of foam which sinks in a cascade into the glen — would alone claim admiration. But there is yet more for the attention of the antiquary. At the verge of the cliff, to which, indeed, it forms a fa­cing or embankment, and only a few steps from the gate of the town, is another bit of the ancient walling of Nepete, and the most perfect specimen remaining. It is but of four courses, in an excellent state of preservation. Like the two other portions mentioned, it is of emplecton, precisely similar to the walls of Sutri.

The wall, of which this is a fragment, seems to have extended along the face of the precipice. Much seems to  p111 remain imbedded in a mass of Roman opus incertum, which apparently once faced the whole structure, showing the priority of the emplecton.​3 If this formed part of the walls of Nepete, the ancient must have been somewhat larger than the modern town.

This is all I could perceive of the ancient walls of Nepete. These portions, be it observed, are on the weakest side of the town, where it receives no protection from nature. On every other side, as it is situated on a long cliff-bound tongue of land between two ravines that meet at its tip, there was little need of walls. But at the root of the tongue, where the ground on which the city stands meets the unbroken level of the Campagna, it was most strongly fortified in ancient times; and the necessity continuing through the troubled period of the middle ages, the walls were preserved as much as might be, or replaced, where dilapidated, by the strong line of fortifications and flanking bastions, which still unites the ravines. From the analogy of other Etruscan cities, it is probable that the inhabitants were not satisfied with the natural protection of their precipices, but surrounded the city with walls, which, in after times, were demolished, probably for the sake of materials to build or repair the edifices of the town.

My aim being simply to point out objects of antiquarian interest, I shall say little of the modern representative of Nepete, referring the reader to his guide-book for ordinary  p112 particulars. It is a small town, not larger than Sutri; and its position is very similar, though the plateau it occupies rises much higher from the ravines, and the cliffs are in most parts more precipitous. As to its natural strength it has certainly no less claim than Sutri to the title of "key and portal of Etruria."4

In strolling around the place, I was surprised at the small number of tombs. The opposite cliff of the ravine to the south, has not a single cave; and on the other side of the town there are far fewer than usual in the immediate vicinity of Etruscan sites, which present facilities for excavation. The Nepesini seem to have preferred burying their dead beneath the surface of the ground, to hollowing out tombs or niches in the cliffs; and the table-lands around the town are probably burrowed thickly with sepulchres. In the rock on which the modern walls are based, close to the gate that opens to Civita Castellana, are traces of sepulchral niches; and here also a sewer, like those at Sutri, opens in the cliff. The ravine is spanned by a bridge,​5 and also by an archway of a double tier of arches, the work of the sixteenth century.

No one should cross this bridge without a pause. The dark ravine, deepening as it recedes, leading the eye to the many-peaked mass of Soracte in the distance, by the towers and battlements of the town on one hand, and by a stately stone-pine raising its spreading crest into the blue sky on the other, is set off like a picture in its frame. It is one of those scenes in which you would scarcely wish an alteration — in which Nature rivals the perfection of art.

There is little to detain the antiquarian traveller in  p113 Nepi. Beneath the town-hall, in the Piazza, are several Roman altars and statues found in the neighbourhood, one of them having reference to the goddess Feronia; and a fine fountain of large size, ornamented with lions' heads. On the opposite side of the Piazza is a mutilated bas-relief of a winged lion.

Of the old inn, "La Fontana," no one speaks well; and I retain the remembrance of having once passed a most uncomfortable night therein. Very recently a new locanda, "Hotel de la Paix," has been opened, in which the traveller will fare well enough — but let him look to his bill — respice finem!

Nepete never took a prominent part in history; at least, we find little more than incidental mention of this town. It early fell under Roman dominion, for in the year 368, a few years after the capture of the City by the Gauls, we find it mentioned with Sutrium, as an ally of Rome; both towns seeking assistance against the Etruscans, by whom they were attacked. Nepete surrendered to the Etruscans, because a portion of the inhabitants were better affected towards their countrymen than towards their recent allies; but it was retaken at the first assault by Camillus; and the unfaithful citizens met their punishment from the axes of the lictors.​6 It was made a Roman colony ten years later than Sutrium, or seventeen years after the Gallic capture of the City.​7 Both these towns enjoyed municipal honours of the highest class, that is, while retaining their own internal administration, they were admitted to the full rights and privileges of Roman citizen­ship.8

There seems to have been some particular bond of union between Nepete and Sutrium; for they are frequently  p114 coupled together by ancient writers.​9 Similar bonds seem to have existed among other Etruscan cities, even those of the Confederation; for instance, Arretium, Cortona, and Perugia appear to have had a minor league among themselves​10 — a vinculum in vinculo — a bond arising, as in this case, from proximity and community of interest.11

Nepete, like Sutrium, never lost its name or site.​12 In Imperial times it seems to have been of inferior consequence;​13 but in the middle ages rose greatly in importance, and at one period exercised no little influence over Rome herself.​14 It is now an insignificant town, with about 1500 inhabitants.​a

Nepi is five miles distant from Monterosi, eight from Civita Castellana, five from Falleri by a path through the woods, the line of the ancient Via Amerina; seven from Sutri by a short cut, and nine by the carriage-road.

The Author's Notes:

1 Liv. VI.10.

2 The road from this gate is a bye path to Le Sette Vene, shorter by several miles, but said to be a wretched track, utterly impracticable for vehicles.

3 Nibby (II. p400) thinks these relics of the ancient walls of Nepi are of Roman construction, and of the time of the colony formed here A. U. C.381, because their masonry is analogous with that of the walls of the new Falerium (Falleri) raised not long after that date. But it is also precisely similar to the masonry of the ancient walls at Civita Castellana, which he admits to be Etruscan. There is no reason to suppose that these walls at Nepi are of less ancient construction. Whether raised by Etruscan or Roman workmen, they are in a style employed by the former people, and often imitated by the latter.

4 Liv. VI.9.

5 The stream below is said by Nibby to retain the classic name of Falisco, though all my inquiries produced no more elevated appellation than La Buttata della Mola, or the Mill-force. The stream in the opposite ravine is called Cava-terrai.e., Earth-digger.

6 Liv. VI.9, 10.

7 Vell. Pat. I.14. Livy (VI.21) makes it to be the same year as Sutrium, or A.U. 371.

8 Festus, voce Municipium.

9 Liv. VI.9, X.14, XXVI.34, XXVII.9, XXIX.5; Festus (l.c.).

10 Liv. IX.37; Diod. XX p773.

11 Müller (Etrusk. II.2, 1) thinks both Nepete and Sutrium were originally dependent on Veii; Nibby (II. p398) that the latter only was dependent on Veii, and Nepete on Falerii.

12 It is called Nepete by Livy, and by inscriptions, but Nepita by Strabo (V. p226). Nepe by Paterculus, and the Peutingerian table, Nepet by Pliny (III.8), Nepeta by Ptolemy (Geog. p72), Nepis by Frontinus (de Col.), Nepetus by Dionysius (XIII ap. Steph. Byz.).

13 Strabo (V. p226) classes Sutrium with Aretium, Perusia, and Volsinii, as cities (πόλεις) of Etruria; while Nepete is mentioned among the smaller towns (πολίχναι).

14 This was in the eighth century, when Totone, Duke of Nepi, created his brother Pope, under the title of Constantine II, and maintained him in the seat of St. Peter for thirteen months. "Nepi seems at that epoch to have risen like a meteor, and rapidly to have sunk to her former condition." — Nibby, voce Nepi.

Thayer's Note:

a The 2000 census gave the official population of Nepi as 7746 for the entire comune, that is, the town proper and the township around it.

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