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Ciciliano and Castle Theodoli

The medieval core of Ciciliano built around the Castle and granaries

There is a corner of Lazio which is unknown to most travelers, and unfairly so, and it’s hidden between two mountain ranges, the Prenestini and Ruffi mountains: the Giovenzano Valley.

In this relatively isolated valley are a number of small villages and towns: Gerano, Pisoniano, Cerreto Laziale, Sambuci, Saracinesco, Rocca Canterano and Ciciliano. I’ve been exploring this area for a few years now and I think that it is far too underrated; the Monti Ruffi, for example, are most likely the least explored mountain range in Lazio, shadowed by the more popular Simbruini Mountains nearby.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Castle Theodoli in Ciciliano and I also walked the 501 “Sentiero dei Pellegrini” from this town to the Mentorella sanctuary and in the following two blog posts I will focus on these two experiences.

Part I: Theodoli Castle and Ciciliano

Ciciliano, perhaps deriving from the old toponyms oppidum Sicilon or Siciletum, is a small town built on a modest elevation and, like other medieval settlements, it was built around the remains of a fortress named after the Theodoli family, who also lay claim to castles and palaces in nearby Sambuci, San Vito Romano and Pisoniano. The history of the nearby Roman settlement of Trebula Suffenas and the ancient history of Ciciliano will be discussed in a separate blog post.

The Theodoli family, originally from Forlì, in Emilia Romagna, settled in Rome during the 16th century serving often as cardinals and, under Girolamo Theodoli, in 1570, purchased the estates that are currently named after them and as a result adopted the title “Marquis of San Vito Romano and Pisoniano”, which they still hold today.

The Theodoli family featured in a volum on Italy's noble families

However, the origins of the castle are much more ancient with some sources claiming a 10th century foundation by Saracen prisoners subject to forced labour or perhaps a later 12th century foundation during the heyday of the powerful Abbey of Subiaco which established a series of fortresses to defend its territory, and its fiefdom then known as the Massa Jubenzana, from the Bishop of Tivoli. Ciciliano emerged along the dangerous fault lines that divided the warring sites of Subiaco, Tivoli and Rome: a precarious position which must have required a good deal of diplomacy and realpolitik but which ultimately favoured the Abbots of Subiaco.

The inner courtyard with an altar from Trebula Suffenas

Over the course of the later Middle Ages and the early Renaissance the castle and fiefdom were owned by the Colonna family who saw it wrested from their control at the time of the Borgia interregnum - and there is a concrete possibility that Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia visited the stronghold - until the death of Pope Alexander VI in 1503. Conflict with the Farnese family during the Papacy of Paul III led to another change in administration until the return of the family, but Marco Antonio Colonna, the hero of the Battle of Lepanto, was forced to sell it to the Massimo family who in turn ceded it to the emerging Theodoli in 1576 for the sum of 30,000 scudi. The fiefdom was mostly agricultural with the castles serving as granaries and storages for the local produce.

The grape press in the courtyard

The castle has not just witnessed several changes of owners but also architectural changes which explain the different architectural styles that are visible today. A square plan is framed by four towers, one of which has a circular shape and dates back to the time of the Colonna family’s ownership during the 16th century, with a recent addition of Welph-shaped crenelations, and its entrance, with two double ramps, is a recent addition providing a more symmetrical access to the Piazza di Corte below.

Two hanging gardens, a common feature in palazzi across Lazio, are accessible from the piano nobile with the larger one centred on a well and a ring of boxwood trees.

The upper garden with its boxwood hedge

Past the main entrance, an inner courtyard leads to the staircase to the Piano Nobile as well as a series of rooms which include a large oven and bakery, a kitchen (still used when the Theodoli family spend their holidays in their castle) and the former prison, which I will discuss later. Near the oven are the remains of a large wooden wine press, a tangible sign of the castle’s earlier agricultural role.

The two hanging gardens and the four towers of Castle Theodoli

The piano nobile, on the first floor, includes a large hall with a central fireplace and the emblem of the Theodoli family and a series of private rooms which in succession lead to the main hanging garden. Several personal items are on display, including an article from an American newspaper that recounts the story of the American heiress from Pennsylvania who married the Theodoli marquis in 1909 (grandfather of the present marquis) and who contributed to the architectural restorations that we see today.

A picture from 1912 depicting the Marquis and his wife leaving Ciciliano

During the tour, our guide shared an interesting anecdote which is very revealing about the differential treatment of the nobility in the past: one of the family’s ancestors, a marquis from the 1700s was accused of fatally wounding his cook although the exact motive is unknown, and received a papal pardon. A poorly prepared meal? An accident? A fit of rage? No one knows though the position is currently vacant since the Theodoli family only make use of the castle occasionally.

The main room in the Piano Noble

Our tour ends with the oldest part of the castle: the dungeons. These were in use from 1579 when the Marquis was the rightful and uncontested ruler of his fiefdom and administered justice. Anyone who was indebted or had committed a crime was held in these small, dark and humid cells where hundreds of inscriptions bear witness to the slow agony and miserable conditions of the prisoners. The conditions must have been unsurprisingly awful and a special Papal representative was sent to Ciciliano to verify whether the prisoners of the marquis were treated humanely although little else is known.

The dungeons

Unfortunately, the castle is only open during special occasions, such as the local seasonal sagre but you can try to arrange a private visit by emailing the local caretaker:

A walk around Ciciliano should also include a brief visit of its three churches: Santa Maria Assunta (partly hidden by the enormous granary and dating mostly to the last decade of the 18th century although the main altarpiece is a painting of the Assumption from the 16th century), the curiously named Madonna della Palla (designed by the architect Girolamo Theodoli and built over a chapel dedicated to the finding of a fresco of the Virgin revealed when the local children accidentally hit a wall with a ball) and the Church of San Liberata with a cycle of frescoes attributed to the school of Antoniazzo Romano that decorates the presbytery.

The view towards Sambuci from the castle

A good time to visit Ciciliano could be during the popular Festa della Panarda, which occurs on the 19th of August, an event that is celebrated since the 16th century with a great feast that brings the community together but also represents an opportunity for each one of the four rioni to compete against each other over the most impressive display of abundance of the local produce and dishes!

The old kitchen


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