5 Sensational Reasons to Explore Amazing Anagni Off the Beaten Track
If you’re heading from Rome to Naples or the Amalfi Coast, venture off the highway (and the beaten tourist track) to detour through the green valleys of the hidden food and wine region of Ciociaria [cho-sha-ria] to discover the amazing medieval walled town of Anagni. You’ll be thrilled that you did, trust us.
Just an hour’s drive from Rome, at the moment the only tourists in Anagni [an-un-yee] that you’ll stumble across will be a few modern Romans seeking out the local Ciociarian specialities and soaking up their own rich history. In amongst the friendly locals, it will be almost like you have the whole place to yourself – and what a marvellous place to wander and get ‘lost’ in…
Anagni, Ciociaria – the ‘City of Popes’
“This ancient little town indeed, but full of many ancient things and sacred buildings and religious rites”
That’s Emperor Marcus Aurelius writing about Anagni sometime in the 2nd century AD. Yep, it was considered really old even then – the first human settlements here date back to Paleolithic times over 700,000 years ago. During the Megalithic era, it was an important city and spiritual centre for the Hernici tribe, who flourished during the Etruscan civilization before being subsumed into the Roman Empire around 300 BC.
According to Marcus Aurelius, Anagni was originally a city of temples and sanctuaries where sacred Etruscan writings were kept. In ancient Roman times, it was the favourite summer destination for Emperors such as Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, Caracalla and Lucius Septimius Severus, who all resided in their summer palaces in Anagni to escape Rome’s stifling heat (all that marble!). The famous Roman philosopher and orator, Cicero, was also one of the town’s most famous residents (a Ciociarian through and through, he was born in nearby Arpino).
So here’s our 5 sensational reasons for taking a detour to amazing Anagni in the 21st century:
Anagni is known as the ‘City of the Popes’, as during the 12th and 13 centuries no less than five Popes were born in this city and chose to reside here during their Papacies – effectively ruling the medieval world from Anagni (at the time, the Pope was more powerful than all the European Kings). Christianity arrived fairly early in Anagni, and the first Christian church dedicated to Saint Mary is believed to have been built circa 450 AD on top of the remains of a pagan sanctuary.
Commissioned in 1072 and completed in 1104, Anagni Cathedral is said to represent one of the most beautiful examples of medieval architecture in all of Italy. Inside the cathedral, also dedicated to Saint Mary, are many masterpieces by the Medieval sculptors and artists Vassalletto and Cosmati – even the marble floor by Cosmati seems almost too beautiful to walk on.
The interior of the cathedral is impressive enough, but OH BOY take a wander down into the Crypt and be prepared to gasp at the frescoes! Considered to be the Sistine Chapel of the Middle Ages, the Crypt underneath Anagni Cathedral is covered in wall-to-wall and ceiling frescoes which tell the story of humanity from the cosmos to the Apocolypse. It’s breathtaking. Even more breathtaking is the realisation that under all this, there’s a Roman temple to the Goddess Ceres. And underneath that, there’s an Etruscan temple…
Also down here in the Crypt is the tomb of St Magnus, a local bishop and former shepherd who in the 2nd Century AD helped spread Christianity from Rome to Ciociaria. He was martyred by the Romans for his efforts, and made the Patron Saint of Anagni by its distraught citizens. Relics of fellow Christian martyr Saint Thomas Becket (the Archbishop of Canterbury brutally murdered in England’s Canterbury Cathedral in 1170) are also kept here in the Crypt’s small chapel, which is actually an ancient Roman mithraeum – a cave-like room which was originally used for initiation rites into the cult of Mithras, the ‘creator of all’.
Palace of Pope Boniface VIII
Once you’ve dragged yourself away from the Crypt, come back up into daylight and cross the piazza to what is now known as the Palace of Pope Boniface VIII (it was originally the palace of the noble Conti family, who produced two of the city’s five Popes). There are frescoes galore inside here as well! Built in the 9th Century, there are only two rooms open to visitors but it’s worth going in to soak up a huge slice of history.
This is the place where the famous ‘Schiaffo di Anagni’ (The Outrage of Anagni) occurred, in the ‘Salon of the Slap’. In 1303, the King of France sent some minions to disgrace Pope Boniface VIII in an attempt to take over the Papacy. They slapped the Pope in the face (a massive insult to his position of power), carted him off to prison, and took the Papal Seat back to France with them for a time. Poor (former) Pope Boniface died soon after, and there are whispers down the corridors of history of poison. That’s the very short version of events, Dante Alighieri wrote about it in more detail in the Divine Comedy, and there’s Knight Templars involved in the shadows…
Wander Through the Vicoli
The cobbled laneways of Anagni spiral gently down a hillside, and it’s a wonderful walk from the Roman entrance arch and down through the winding streets and the town’s eclectic mix of Medieval, Renaissance and Risorgimento architecture. It’s just a little bit magical.
The Alchemist’s House
Here it is, our favourite house in all of Italy – Casa Barnekow, or as we prefer to call it ‘The Alchemist’s House’. Totally abandoned, we’ve been told that inside it’s still full of dazzling frescoes. First documented as an Anagni noble’s residence in the 1200s, it was named for a Swedish painter who lived there in the mid-19th century. It’s rumoured that Baron Albert von Barnekow also dabbled in alchemy…and inside the walls are full of secret symbols and inscriptions.
If you’re going to Anagni, make sure you go on Wednesday for market day. The market starts with fresh produce and flowers in the main piazza, then fashion as you wind your way down the hillside streets, with lots of local street food snacks along the way – grab a bag of sugared hazelnuts or a ring of traditional fennel-flavoured Ciociarian bread (Ciambelle). You are then going to SERIOUSLY deserve a glass of Piglio DOCG wine once you climb your way back up to the main piazza. Take a seat in one of the outdoor restaurants on the piazza and enjoy the view!
How to Get There
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