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San Martino al Cimino’s baroque ideal town and the ghost of Donna Olimpia

Nestled among the chestnut woods that grow on the volcanic ridges of the Cimini Mountains, the small town of San Martino al Cimino has several stories to tell. Above all of these though, looms the shadow of Donna Olimpia “la Pimpaccia”, perhaps the most famous woman of Baroque Rome and her ambitious urban plan which brought artists such as Borromini and Bernini to this region of Tuscia.

I will be writing many articles about the Monti Cimini; these modest volcanic mountains are one of my favourite places in Lazio and they were shaped by volcanic activity dating back to one million years ago.

In ancient times, these woods were the natural boundary between the Etruscan and Roman spheres of influence and their impenetrable darkness halted Roman advance until Quintus Fabius Rutilianus’ campaign of 310 B.C.

The highlights of the region are the ancient beech forest on the top of Monte Cimino (just above 1000 metres a.s.l. and part of the UNESCO network of old-growth European beech forests) and the beautiful Vico lake, shaped, according to legend, by Hercules’ club.

However, my main reason for going to San Martino al Cimino was a race in my trail-running calendar: the 21-k China Francigena, organised by the Ecomaratona dei Monti Cimini. This was a tough race in rain, mud, up steep hills to the peak of Monte Fogliano and even inside an ancient hermitage! I claimed 11th place (one of my best results in my young career) and after a proper shower, I went off to explore the town.

San Martino al Cimino is first mentioned in 838 as property of the Abbey of Farfa but in 1150 it entered the political and religious sphere of the Abbey of Pontigny and the Cistercian Order, as part of a plan of agricultural and rural development promoted by Pope Innocent III.

However, within two hundred years of the establishment of the Cistercian presence, the Abbey entered a crisis from which it never recovered: we know of only two monks living in San Martino in 1426. The Abbey was finally abandoned and closed in 1564.

A new age fro San Martino dawned in the 17th century when one of the most extraordinary individuals from Baroque Rome obtained ownership of San Martino’s lands from the hands of Pope Innocent X; of course, we are referring to Donna Olimpia Pamphilj, “la Pimpaccia”.

Olimpia Maidalchini was no stranger to San Martino. Originally from Viterbo and heiress to the vast wealth of her defunct husband Paolo Nini, Olimpia made her way to Rome where she married the poverty-stricken but noble Pamphilio Pamphilj and succeeded in making her brother-in-law, Giovanni Battista, the new Pope, under the name of Pope Innocent X. This, of course, increased her influence and power over Papal Rome, to the extent that she was often the target of Pasquino (and the other “statue parlanti” – talking statues) jeering verses and satirical lines, such as this one:

“He who chooses ladies chooses damnation; he who chooses women, misfortune; he who chooses Donna Olimpia, woman, misfortune and ruin”

Her greed, avidity and sway over the Pope were notorious in 17th century Rome, to the point that she would be colloquially known as “La Papessa” (The Papess) or “La Pimpaccia” (from the name of a popular play from the time).

Innocent X gave her the ownership (as Princess of San Martino) of the lands of San Martino, then abandoned and in a state of decay, and her vast resources enabled her to invite the greatest artists of the time to devise an extraordinary urban plan for the town.

Even nowadays this plan is clearly invisible: San Martino al Cimino’s urban fabric was designed by none other than Borromini himself and the military architect Marcantonio de Rossi.
Two gates are connected by a main street that rises to the town’s focal point, centred on the extraordinary Church (the former Abbey of San Martino) and the Pamphilj Palace. Borromini designed the lower gate, adding the insignia of the Pamphilj family, and worked on the façade of the Church where he added two bell towers and and buttresses which add significantly to the building’s monumental architecture.

Marcantonio de Rossi instead designed the walls and the regular rows of houses which are neatly aligned and clearly visible along Via Luigi Cadorna and Via Papa Nicolò Terzo. The houses were given to the workers, making San Martino a loyal and self-sufficient community under the control of Donna Olimpia, who even exempted the inhabitants from taxes and bought their loyalty with such exclusive favours.

Walking in San Martino al Cimino provides an extraordinary experience in the urban planning of an “ideal” baroque city, which might have even been influenced by the shape of Piazza Navona in Rome, where the Pamphilj Palace stood.

The Church is perhaps the most impressive building: consecrated by the Cistercians in 1225, it was partly renovated and rebuilt under Donna Olimpia. Much of the monastic complex has been lost to the 17th century works, but several ruins of the cloister are clearly visible near the Church and the Palace and Abbot’s Museum are partly built on the monastic structures.

The monumental façade of the Church is dominated by an impressive Gothic clerestory window framed by the two 17th century bell towers and crowned by a polygonal apse supported by buttresses.

The interior is Latin-cross shaped and crowned by cross-vaulting. The nave is separated from the aisles by ogival arches resting on alternating pilasters and the light filters in from the clerestory windows.
When visiting the church a few elements stand out: a Baroque railing preserving a a baptismal font, a 14th century fresco and, above all, Donna Olimpia’s gravestone and inscription.

The death of Innocent X, despite the tense relationship between the two (worsened by the growing influence of another Olimpia, Olimpia Aldobrandini, wife of her son Camillo Pamphilj), spelt the end of her authority in Rome. La Pimpaccia was exiled from Rome and retired to her estates in San Martino al Cimino (taking a substantial amount of Papal wealth with her) where the plague put an end to her days in 1657. The gravestone, with its memento mori, provides a powerful reminder of the lingering presence of Donna Olimpia.

A strong presence of Donna Olimpia can be perceived in the nearby Palazzo Pamphilj, which is occasionally open to the public (as it was that open day for the Chestnut Festival). I explored the Palazzo on a guided tour and admired its beautiful caissoned ceilings made of gilded wood and its frescoes.

Palazzo Pamphilj was partly built on the ruins of the old convent and restored by Bernini in 1652, who used, in part, architectural and decorative elements from the Pamphilj Palace in Piazza Navona.
Two of the building’s most impressive features are a monumental fireplace and Donna Olimpia’s bedroom which possessed an extraordinary feature: its ceiling could be lowered through an innovative system of pulleys so that it could be heated more efficiently in winter!

The guided visit also takes visitors down a helix staircase leads to the lower levels, known as Il Cantinone, which had been designed by the Cistercian monks to host pilgrims on the Via Francigena, and to the upper levels where Borromini and de Rossi’s plan for the town is clearly visible.

A final visit took me to the Sala Capitolare where the Zuccari brothers painted frescoes with landscape views of the Pamphilj possessions, a sight reminiscent of other palazzi and mansions of the region (such as Villa Lante and Caprarola).

Donna Olimpia continues, to this day, to be one of the most charismatic, fascinatingly interesting and complex personalities of Rome’s great baroque age. On a side-note, one of Rome’s most famous ghost stories condemns her to an eternal punishment:

Every 7th of January, anniversary of the death of Innocent X, a chariot in flames is seen on Ponte Sisto, plunging La Pimpaccia and all of her riches into the Tiber below.

Location: San Martino al Cimino

Distance from Rome: approx. 75 km

Sights: Church of San Martino, Palazzo Pamphilj (open only occasionally), Museo dell’Abate

Other sights nearby: Lago di Vico, Viterbo, Soriano al Cimino, Monte Cimino, Ronciglione



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