The “Oreste Nardini” Civic Archaeological Museum
Founded in the early twentieth century by Oreste Nardini, one of the most significant figures in the town’s history and after whom it is named, the Civic Archaeological Museum of Velletri houses the oldest and most precious historic-archaeological evidence of the region and has to its name works of extraordinary importance, like the famous Sarcophagus of the Twelve Labours of Hercules, well-known in the world of international literature as the Sarcophagus of Velletri.
After the golden years of its first opening, while the collection was expanding, the Museum underwent difficult times. The death of Nardini, in 1939, marked the beginning of this dark period, and a hard blow was inflicted on the collection with the event of the Second World War. Following the death of its founder, in fact, the museum lost its function as prime testimony of the town’s history and, devastated by the destruction and lootings of the war, took on an ever-marginal role in the social life of the community, whose concern towards its own cultural heritage seemed to have weakened. It took until the mid-Fifties with the discovery of the Sarcophagus of Velletri (1955) for the local peoples pride in their own historic origins to re-surface and to re-kindle the affection of the town’s archaeological patrimony.
The discovery of this unicum (unique finding) of Roman art sparked-off a long conflict between the Soprintendenza (Monuments & Fine Arts Office) and the Amministrazione Comunale (Local Council) who at last managed to acquire it into the Civic Museum. As a result, in 1956 thanks to the work of Ferruccio Tata Nardini who succeeded Oreste Nardini as Honorary Inspector of Antiques & Fine Art for Velletri and Lariano, the Museum was re-opened to the public, after the re-organisation of the exhibits.
It was only in 1982 that the Museum opened with a new systematic reorganization, due to a scientific study of the materials, therefore resolving the pressure for the urgent need to make the collection enjoyable, to which the latest acquisitions had lent undisputable prestige. However, due to the lack of qualified staff, it was closed shortly afterwards and the subsequent re-opening of the institution was delayed, yet again, for several years.
The assignment of a permanent professional team of staff to the Museum, starting in 1992, marked the beginning of a new and progressive growth, which knew no interruptions, not even in 1995, when the U.S.L. (Local Health Authorities) declared the structure to be totally unfit for the purpose and closed it to the public. Works of renovation and expansion, not to mention the relocation of the collection, began on 15 October 1998 and were completed in 2000; but they only meant an interruption in the fruition of the collection itself. The Museum, as a cultural institution in the true sense of the meaning, continued to plan and carry out, often in collaboration with the central Institutions, a series of research activities, reports, teaching, finalised to the conservation and knowledge, outside local confines, of the territory and of the town’s cultural patrimony. Courses, publications, excavation campaigns, meetings and exhibitions, frequently of international importance, are the cultural activities with which the Institution, through qualified programmes, makes itself heard and asserts its presence.
The museum building itself now conforms to the latest E.E.C. rules and regulations regarding security, conservation and general improvements. A specialized library, a laboratory for restoration, two store-rooms, a conference room, several offices have been added, not to mention the introduction of new methods in gathering and displaying exhibits to put on show.
Within the present framework of the various displays, flanked by exhaustive teaching apparatus, the most remote and authentic proof of the territory re-gain all their evocative and documentary power, thus becoming precious instruments of knowledge of the past, while even more intense is the rapport created with its public of school children, for whom this material represents a really valuable resource for knowledge.
The constant proposition of scientific and didactic programmes, the quality of its projects, the presence of qualified staff and the long opening times to the public have all contributed in awarding from the year 2004 the Civic Archaeological Museum with the “Marchio di Qualità dei Musei del Lazio” (Quality Award for museums in the Region of Lazio).
The Collection and Exhibition Layout
The Collection has always been housed in the 16th.Century Town Hall and occupies the ground floor of the west wing at the rear of the building, covering a total area of over four hundred square metres. The oldest nucleus of the collection is that which was salvaged from the destruction and dispersion of the Second World War, which today is known as the “Nardini Collection”.
A recent study of the historical inventory put together by Oreste Nardini, between the end of the 19th.Century and the first half of the 20th.Century, has permitted the re-composition of the collection through the scrutiny of nearly 3,000 catalogued files and the examination of material still preserved today.
Among the most significant archaeological findings that makes up one fifth of the original collection and offers archaeological material dating from proto-history up to the late Middle Ages, are the so-called Lastre Volsche
( Volschian Slabs) that deserve a special mention. Discovered in 1910 in Velletri, in the grounds of the Church of the Holy Stigmata, these architectonic slabs illustrate scenes depicting chariot races, processions, banquets and assemblies; considered to be Volschian for a long time, today they are ascribed to the Italic-Etruscan decorative school (VI Century B.C.).
Another notable artefact is the Burial Slab of the Orant, with decorative reliefs of Christian subjects (IV Century A.D.). The bas-relief, made to adorn the front of a sarcophagus, bears notable figures: the Good Shepherd to the left, an orant in the centre, and a seated shepherd watching over his flock to the right. In the two spaces separating these a number of scenes depict events from both the Old and New Testament.
The “Nardini Collection” also boasts a series of ex voto terracottas (feet, heads, hands, legs, wombs, small animals), as well as utensils, ornamental objects and bronze weapons from the proto-historical age, all found in necropolises in the area. Various boundary stones, epigraphs, funerary urns, antefixes and Campana slabs (Bell Slabs), marble heads and busts from the Roman period have also all been gathered from a number of villas once present in the Velletri area.
In 1955 the discovery of the Sarcophagus depicting Hercules’ Labours (dated II Century A.D.) brings great prestige to the ancient collection. Of exceptional historical and artistic value, this splendid artefact of Roman art has since became the symbol of the archaeological patrimony of Velletri and the most representative piece of the Museum itself. It presents innumerable mythological figures that cover the entire surface, on which Hercules’ Twelve Labours are depicted; Hercules being the hero who confronts the challenges of life with his strength and courage. Also shown are the myths of Proserpine, Alcestis, Protesilaus symbolizing the immortality of the soul and the possibility of communicating with the other world through love: 184 figures that make this monumental sarcophagus a veritable compendium of sepulchral pagan symbolism.
In 1980 the Civitana Sarcophagus was discovered, esteemed to be Roman dating from the second half of III Century A.D. Its only decoration is on the front which shows two combed sections separated in the middle by a small plain column upon which a winged victory is present and, laterally to both combed sections, a male character is represented (on the right) and a female (on the left), clearly the deceased couple to whom the sarcophagus was destined.
In the last few years, further donations and several discoveries in the area have noticeably enriched the civic collection, mostly concerning paleontological and prehistoric pieces that have been placed in the different sections of the new Civic Museum of Geo-Palaeontology and Pre-History of the Colli Albani Hills, a museum that shares the same luminous and spacious entrance with the Archaeological Museum.
The present lay-out of the Archaeological Museum spreads over two floors that symbolize the “two levels” of human existence: the concrete reality of human life on the ground floor, and man’s interior struggles and spirituality on the second. Therefore, on the ground floor themes are developed that deal with worldly matters, such as human settlements or ceramic typologies; on the other hand, the second floor proposes themes pertaining to spirituality: the cult of the dead and funeral rituals, architecture and sacred art. The lay-outs, indicated in the maps found on both levels, follow, aside from a thematic criteria, also a chronological pattern that from Proto-History reach the Middle Ages and boast 10 rooms.
The first two are dedicated respectively to the history of the Museum and to the Velletri Collections, as well as to the problems of conserving the cultural patrimony.
Next is the Proto-History section with a series of arrow-heads in bronze and ceramics dating back to the early Iron Age.
Loom weights, lamps, amphorae and Campana Slabs are of particular interest occupying the show-cases in the subsequent Roman Room which also houses a series of special archaeological findings associated with rural Roman villas. Of great effect is the Sarcophagus Room in which the famous Sarcophagus of Velletri or Sarcophagus of Hercules’ Labours captures the eye. The Sarcophagus of the Civitana, a child’s sarcophagus, and a series of sculptures placed in special illuminated alcoves complete this suggestive exhibition in a context that leads the visitors back to the main entrance of the Civic Museum.
In this area, overlooked by a very high vaulted, lacunar ceiling, majestically dominates the Pallade di Velletri, plaster cast of the well-known sculpture found in Velletri which at present is exhibited in the Louvre in Paris. A series of epigraphs on either side give the impression of a lapidarium and the tomb-stone of a local noble lady, Euridice Monticelli, stand in the very centre, encased in the flooring.
Then, taking the stairs to the upper floor, the visitors have a splendid view of a rare marble oscillum with scenes of the Deposition and the reconstruction of one of the first incinerator tombs ever to be found; that of Vigna D’Andrea (X Century A.D.).
Further one finds a panel, lit from behind, depicting an inhumed tomb in a grave with two sets of funeral paraphernalia from a necropolis in Vallone, Lariano, dating from the Iron Age
The next section is dedicated to the so-called Volschian temple and exhibits decorative slabs in terracotta, found in Velletri, at the sacred church of the Holy Stimmata. The positioning of these slabs, wrongly thought to be Volschian for many years, recreates a linear pediment of an ancient temple and a better understanding of the fragments is given with the positioning of drawings that recompose the various scenes shown (chariot races and horse-men, processions with winged horses, scenes of assemblies and banquets).
The tour ends with the section dedicated to the funeral rites of Ancient Rome and the Orant Burial Slabs, the facade of a sarcophagus dating from IV Century A.D. of inestimable worth due to its interpretation of burial symbols from the Christian Era.
Palazzo Comunale, Via Goffredo Mameli 4-6
00049 Velletri RM Italy
Phone +39 06 96158268
Phone/fax: +39 06 96158239