The hidden estate of the Order of Santo Spirito: Rocca Respampani


I find it reassuring to know that even after all these years exploring Lazio there are still so many uncharted places and exciting discoveries that await and delving deeper into maps and books can be a rewarding experience: this is how I discovered the forgotten estate of Rocca Respampani and its many secrets.

The Rocca, a fortified farmhouse, is almost kept out of sight, a mere three kilometres from the scenic road that links the towns of Vetralla and Tuscania; it is an ethereal and perhaps incongruous building surrounded by hectares of pastures, oak forests and concealed canyons - that rustic and authentic landscape of Tuscia. To follow the itinerary you can download my gpx trail (at the end of the blog post) and park your vehicle (there being no means to get there by public transportation) in front of the church of Borgo Rio Secco - the road within the estate can only be walked on foot.


Rocca Nuova seen from the sky

The Rocca dates back to 1607 and it owes its existence to the ambition and vision of Ottavio Tassoni Estense, preceptor of the Order of Santo Spirito in Sassia, who devised a grand plan to make the estate, one of several in Lazio, productive. The Order, originally instituted under the Papacy of Innocent III in the late 1190s, had purchased Rocca Respampini from Pope Callixtus III in 1456 to finance the activities of what is considered to be Europe’s oldest hospital, the Ospedale di Santo Spirito in Sassia in Rome and its annexes spread all over Europe. Moreover, just two years before, in 1605, Pope Paul V had instituted the Banco di Santo Spirito, with the intention of managing the Order’s finances and properties more effectively: an institution only dissolved in 1976!


However, the plan was never truly completed as the estate was deemed to be too peripheral to be worth the investment and what we see today is an incomplete building intended to serve the administrative and practical needs of the farming community that was to turn the estate into a productive agricultural business. A moat surrounds the structure which, on its facade, is framed by two seemingly defensive towers, and it encloses an open courtyard with a small chapel on the opposite side for the necessary liturgical functions. We know the name of the architect, Canio Antonietti, who seems to be credited with this single project and an inscription above the main entrance adds that the site of Rocca Nuova was specifically chosen because of its salubrious position and ease of access.




The Latin inscription citing Paul V and Ottavio Estense


Regrettably, the interior is not accessible and one wonders whether its decorative apparatus and interiors, if ever completed, are still extant. The estate was reportedly on sale in 2018 but its 1000 hectares of cropland and 1300 hectares of pastures and managed forests are currently put to use by the Università Agraria di Monte Romano.



The defensive-looking façade of Rocca Nuova


Via Clodia and the Bridge of Fra Cirillo

In order to understand the estate’s present location we need to walk down to the ravine carved by the Traponzo stream just southwest of the Rocca. Here we come across the remains of an old path carved in the tuff rock which leads to a beautifully preserved humpback bridge known locally as the Fra Cirillo bridge, after a 17th century administrator who is said to have tricked the Devil into building the bridge overnight some time between 1661 and 1665. This is a common explanation employed in Italian folklore to come to terms with the engineering marvel that these bridges are. Remains of the original flagstones are still visible but it’s unlikely that the bridge did not exist in some form or another before the 17th century.



The 17th century Fra Cirillo bridge over the Traponzo stream


From what we know Fra Cirillo Zabaldani himself was somewhat of a controversial figure, said to be despotic and arrogant, and to have discouraged, with his uncompromising attitude, the estate’s farmers from actually staying in the Rocca Nuova and therefore accelerating the decline of the ambitious scheme.

Indeed, we known from the Tabula Peutingeriana, that extraordinary 13th century traveller’s map that Rocca Respampani was located between two important mansiones, resting stations, located in Vetralla (Grotta Porcina) and Tuscania along the path of the ancient Via Clodia, a road built by the Romans from the 3rd century onwards to facilitate the expansion into Etruscan territory. Across the bridge, crossing the now off-limits military facility of Monte Romano, one could hypothetically rejoin the Cava Buia in Norchia, a site that I have extensively described in a previous post.



The Traponzo stream carves a deep ravine


The Via Clodia served as the backbone for a number of trails that connected rural estates and Roman villae with the wider regional network and it served as a de facto border between the Lombard and Byzantine spheres of influence in the early Middle Ages. However, its isolation and distance from coastline led to its decline with the bulk of traffic being diverted to the more practical Via Aurelia and Via Cassia. The road has been recently rediscovered in its entirety and it should be considered as an alternative route for a long-distance hike across Southern Etruria.


Rocca Vecchia

While you rest a moment on the bridge and let your mind wander into the currents and eddies of the stream below, consider, however, that this decline was not so immediate. If you retrace your footsteps back to the Rocca, since crossing the bridge on the other bank is not allowed, and you take the unmarked trail that turns west and downstream, you will suddenly find yourself in an open meadow fringed on one side by a rocky tuff outcrop where the silhouettes of ghost-like ruins emerge.



The ruins of Rocca Vecchia emerge from the woods


These are the eerie remains of the Rocca Vecchia, the original mediaeval settlement that guarded the Via Clodia, and strategically located above the steep ravines carved by the Traponzo and Catenaccio streams. There is no clear path to the top, a little scrambling and discomfort are a reasonable price to pay to witness the ruins of a rather extensive mediaeval settlement dominated by a fortress and the church of St. John with an annexed bell-tower, believed to have been founded here in the 11th century A.D. at a time in which the countryside must have been rather unsafe and the old Roman rural villae rusticae and pagi, traces of which are spread all over the area, were forcibly abandoned. We also know that throughout the Middle Ages the fortress was governed by the Counts of Vetralla and Bisenzio and conquered several times during the conflicts between the forces of the Papacy, the city of Rome and the city of Viterbo. It was briefly governed by the powerful family of the Conti di Vico until the death of Giacomo Di Vico in 1435.



Rocca Vecchia's bell-tower seen through a window in the old Palazzo


Mostly built in the local tuff stones and hidden under the dense vegetation are strong, solid defensive walls and dozens of buildings which are slowly crumbling and fading away and dangerous gaping holes open up where cisterns and other underground structures once sheltered water and perishable items. On the other side of the cliff, on the banks of the Catenaccio stream, are the remains of a beautiful mill adorned with the symbols of the Order of Santo Spirito, in which the massive grinding stones are still visible, and, upstream, traces of extensive works which form an artificial waterfall and must have diverted the stream to provide water for the community’s mill.



The ruins of the old mill in Rocca Respampani


But why was the site abandoned? Perhaps its relative isolation and its obsolete defensive walls no longer served their earlier purpose while the Papacy chose to invest its resources in the founding of the town of Monte Romano and the botched attempt of rebuilding a more practical rural estate at the “New” Rocca. Additionally, the earthquake of 1349 and the spread of malaria probably accelerated its decline. An inscription hidden on the walls just above the mill actually cites a 1587 reconstruction by the Order of Santo Spirito but little else is known about the history of the site and I have found no evidence for later interventions.



Waterfalls upstream from the mill


Porcareccia

I made an attempt to follow the labyrinthine trails that lead from the ghost town to the sulphur springs, but I soon gave up since the water levels of the stream were too high for a safe crossing (something to return to someday, along with the hermitage reported to be hidden within a short distance of the springs) and returned to the Rocca. Just before the bridge, look to your left and notice the extraordinary geological formations of the outcrop, a result of the pyroclastic magma flows which cooled down and created column-shaped leucite tephrite igneous rocks.



Details of the fascinating geology of the area

From there I crossed over the countryside, over pastures where proud-looking cows of the Maremmana breed questioned my unexpected presence, to reach a forgotten necropolis known as the Porcareccia, or pigsty. Indeed, it seems that in later times the impressive Etruscan tombs dating back to Hellenistic times were converted into animal stables and perhaps even simple places of worship as suggested by the carving of crosses on these otherwise pagan places.



Porcareccia Necropolis


This is a small necropolis, most likely the burial site of a rural community that dwelled in the region from the 7th to the 1st centuries B.C. providing livestock and agricultural foods for the nearby powerful city of Tarquinia. I have come across very little in researching the history of this necropolis, other than an inscription on a cippus currently located in the Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia in Rome with the word σeθre. An older chamber tomb with two rooms still has traces of carved benches upon which the sarcophagi were presumably placed while the other three tombs are deep and wide galleries (I estimate one to be about 100 metres deep at the most) with ventilation shafts and traces of Etruscan numerals carved on the walls.



Inside one of the tombs of the Porcareccia Necropolis


Another tomb, known as the Grotta delle Statue is located close to the road, near the modern settlement of Borgo Rio Secco, and is remarkable for its sculpted Caryatid and sarcophagi said to be on display at the local museum in Monte Romano: yet another reason to return to Rocca Respampani!



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Rocca Respampani
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