Blog Post/

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



  • Oggi siamo qui! Alla presentazione del #librofotografico di @liberomiddei #Latiumvetus a Palazzo Ruspoli, #Nemi
  • A spasso nella fitta vegetazione e paesaggi rupestri della Selva di Malano, a nord di Soriano. Gli Etruschi o i loro precedessori trasformarono questi massi vulcanici in altari sacrificali e luoghi rituali.
  • Dal piccolo borgo di San Vittorino raccolto intorno al piccolo Castello Barberini, un sentiero non segnato raggiunge le suggestive cascate di San Vittorino tra resti di acquedotti romani ed un antico mulino. 
The waterfalls of San Vittorino are beautifully located at the end of an unmarked trail from the small village of San Vittorino. As you walk this short trail you will pass by the ruins of an old mill and remains of Roman aqueducts.
  • Presso il chilometro 28-29 della Polense, tra San Vittorino e Poli, un cancello sulla destra apre su un sentiero che porta nella Valle dell'Acqua Rossa. All'improvviso, sulla sinistra, la valle è chiusa dalle arcate massicce del Ponte Lupo, imponente opera ingegneristica Romana alta 30m e lunga 100m, che permetteva alle acque dell'Aqua Marcia di superare le profonde forre della zona. Il luogo è tra i più belli di tutto il Lazio!

The massive arcades of Ponte Lupo, a marvel of Roman engineering, connects the steep flanks of the Valle dell'Acqua Rossa. It is part of the Aqua Marcia aqueduct and it can be reached on foot on a trail along the Via Polense (after San Vittorino).
  • Il Lazio è terra di palazzi e magnifiche residenze rinascimentali ma spesso dimentichiamo i nostri tesori nei piccoli paesi. Ieri sono andato ad esplorare Oriolo Romano e dintorni, con la faggeta del Monte Raschio e la vecchia mola, e ho esplorato in solitudine le magnifiche sale del palazzo Altieri, del tardo 500, e restaurato nel 600, affrescate con vicende classiche, bibliche e splendidi paesaggi della campagna romana, ma soprattutto la galleria dei papi con i ritratti dei pontefici. Un luogo che merita sicuramente di essere conosciuto e visitato!

An extraordinary gem in the small town of Oriolo Romano, surrounded by forests, such as the UNESCO beech forest of Monte Raschio: Palazzo Altieri, a late 16th century residence with magnificent frescoed halls and a gallery of papal portraits!
  • #latiummirabile

Exploring the Scala Santa sanctuary in Rome with my dear fellow adventurer @allamericanroman 
The stairs that are believed to be the ones that Jesus climbed upon being judged by Pontius Pilate were brought to Rome by Helena, mother of Constantine. It is a ritual for every Roman, whether religious or not, to climb the stairs on one's knees and we did it too! We also visited the stunning chapel of San Lorenzo in Palatio ad Sancta Sanctorum, with the icon of Christ Pantocrator and the stunning cosmatesque pavement. This was the Pope's private chapel until the French captivity of the 14th century. 
Esplorando il complesso della Scala Sancta con la mia fedele compagna di avventure! Siamo saliti per la scala dove si dice che Gesù sia salito prima di essere giudicato da Ponzio Pilato in ginocchio ed abbiamo visitato la cappella privata dei Papi prima del periodo avignonese con l'icona Acheropita e i pavimenti cosmateschi!
  • When the Romans defeated the Faliscans, they resettled them in the 3rd century B.C. to the new Roman colony of Falerii Novi. Little remains of that Roman town, other than the impressive walls, the gate of Jupiter and traces of the theatre, and fields of poppies and spring flowers bloom over the ancient city's grounds. The 12th century abbey and church of Santa Maria in Falerii is the most notable site within the walls and is a wonderful example of a Cistercian abbey that has been restored after two centuries of abandonment. 
Quando i Romani sconfissero i Falisci, spostarono le popolazioni nel nuovo abitato di Falerii Novi nel terzo secolo a.C. Della città romana oggi rimane ben poco: due chilometri di poderose mura, la porta di Giove e resti del teatro. Il resto è ricoperto da papaveri, fiori primaverili e silenzi profondi. Al centro dell'abitato l'abbazia cistercense di Santa Maria in Falerii del 12mo secolo, ricostruita dopo due secoli di abbandono. Un luogo suggestivo ed imperdibile!
  • Il Monumento Naturale delle Forre di Corchiano è una stupenda riserva naturale raccolta intorno al borgo di Corchiano, nello storico Ager Faliscus, e in pochi chilometri si incontrano tombe falische, un ponte romano, resti di mulini, cascate e stupende chiese rurali, come la chiesa di Santa Maria del Soccorso. Questo luogo dalle molteplici valenze naturalistiche e storico-archeologiche meriterebbe una tutela ed una gestione differente! 
The Monumento Naturale delle Forre di Corchiano is a stunning nature reserve at the heart of the historical Ager Faliscus, the heartland of the Faliscan people. In the gorges below one comes across Faliscan tombs, ancient mills, a Roman bridge, waterfalls and stunning rural churches, such as the church of Santa Maria del Soccorso! Visit Corchiano!
  • Passeggiando tra le rovine di Galeria Antica, il borgo medievale abbandonato nel 1800 per un'epidemia di malaria, si incontrano rovine di palazzi, mura possenti, chiese e mulini. Un luogo suggestivo a due passi dalla Cassia! 
Galeria Antica, a medieval settlement a few kilometres west of the Cassia, was abandoned in the 19th century because of a malaria epidemic. The fortified settlement can be explored with some caution and it will reveal ruins of palazzi, churches, mills and impressive walls!
  • A Collalto Sabino, stupendo borgo medievale sopra la Valle del Turano, si respira un'aria di tempi antichi! Il paese, la cui storia racconta delle epoche longobarde, sveve ed angioine, si trova nel Parco dei Monti Navegna e Cervia a quasi 1000m. Forse uno dei grandi tesori della provincia di Rieti!

Collalto Sabino is a small medieval town built around a medieval (though its present architecture dates back to the 16th century) castle. It is almost 1000m a.s.l. and it is located in the Navegna and Cervia mountains reserve. One of the treasures of the province of Rieti!

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