Nemi, wild strawberries, and the sacred grove of Diana

If you would like to spend some time in the Rome area while one of the local food festivals, or sagre, are on, one of the best periods to come is toward the end of May/beginning of June, when you can head down to Nemi in the Castelli Romani and take part in the town’s wild strawberry festival.

There are very few people I know who do not like strawberries. In fact, most people cannot stop eating them once they have a bowl in front of them. That is what makes this such a delightful festival, with strawberries playing the lead role and celebrated everywhere – you can pick up a basket from the stalls on the streets, or you can try the local delicacies flavoured with them, including liqueur, ice cream, tea, and even risotto. The small strawberries grow in the Volcanic crater under Nemi, which has a climate that preserves the sun’s warmth and adds to their lovely sweet taste.

The height of the festival is usually around the first weekend of June, when there is a special procession known as the “sfilata delle fragolare” in which it is customary for girls and women to walk through the town in traditional dress, distributing strawberries. On other days around the time you can pick up a case full from the street stands, or try the delicious tarts and cakes topped with the fruit, and take part in other scheduled events such as concerts.

According to a legend told locally, the tears of Venus, the goddess of beauty and love, transformed the blood of her lover Adonis into these strawberries after he was killed by a wild boar while out hunting. This is one of many myths linked to Nemi in the Alban Hills, about a 45 minute drive south of Rome.

The town’s name derives from the Latin Nemus, meaning “Sacred Grove”. In ancient times, its area held a famous Roman sanctuary dedicated to the Goddess Diana. When you are in the town and you are looking down to the lake below you can still see the remains of the temple that stood nearby.

In Roman religion, Diana is the goddess of the hunt, the moon (and childbirth), and the underworld, and  is linked to wild animals and woodlands. Along with Minerva and Vesta, she was a virgin goddess, swearing never to marry.

Diana Nemorensis is actually an Italic form of the goddess, who became conflated with the Greek goddess Artemis from the fourth century BC onward. Her name is associated with light (Dia).

According to ancient sources, the classical hero Orestes came to Nemi and established a cult of Diana here. His priest was known as the Rex Nemorensis, a runaway slave who could succeed his predecessor only by killing him in a duel, after having grabbed a branch of mistletoe from an oak tree in the grove preceding the sanctuary.

The votive offerings archaeologists found here show Diana was viewed as a goddess that blessed couples with children, and was prayed to by women to ensure a healthy delivery. The cult of the goddess that spread around the classical world, originally linked back to that of Mother Earth, can trace its origins to the area of Nemi. The grove was described as a big garden with flowers and foliage, next to a lake, and at its center was the huge sacred tree. This could be compared to the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament.

“In this land there is a unique and incredible story to rediscover and tell… the most ancient of all stories,” a run-down plaque reads at the site of the temple.

You can discover more about this classical site in the nearby Museo Nazionale delle Navi Romani (National Museum of Roman Ships) which houses the hulls of two monumental ships built by Roman Emperor Caligula in the first Century AD for the site of Lake Nemi.  It also displays some of the remains of the temple and votive offerings discovered here during archaeological excavations.

The first temple to Diana was built here at the end of the fourth century BC. It grew to become one of the most important sanctuaries of antiquity, covering thousands of square meters. It would have included housing for priests and pilgrims and in the complex there would have been altars, porticoes, therapeutic baths and a small theatre.

It also had a Nymphaeum, one of the largest and most impressive structures brought to light by excavations. This was likely supplied by waters from a nearby spring, and makes sense in a sanctuary closely linked to water and nature. But it may have also been an independent feature, associated not to Diana but to the water nymph Egeria. It originally included a huge semicircular fountain, but it was then converted into a terraced structure which allowed for great views over the lake.

From around 1885 onwards, the sanctuary was excavated by Lord Savile Lumley, British ambassador to Rome. Numerous sculptures were found, as well as votive offerings and bronze and ceramic goods, many of which Lumley took to Nottingham Castle Museum.

Within a group of excavated cells, archaeologists found an antefix with the head of Diana and images of a potnia theron (The Mistress of the Animals, a female deity associated with animals). Cell “F” contained a colossal head of Diana. The picture below is a copy held in the nearby museum of Roman Ships, the original is in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek of Copenhagen.

Caligula’s two ships, though dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis, were also aimed at highlighting the Romans’ devotion to the cult of Diana.

The museum’s information says that these ships were likely a floating adjunct to the temple. They were “majestic vessels” from an Egyptian tradition which reached its height in the Hellenistic period (around the third century BC). They were used to transport the cult images of gods in processions, the one time they came in contact with ordinary people. They were also a chance to exalt the divine nature of a ruler, which Caligula liked doing for himself.

Fascist Dictator Benito Mussolini built the museum between 1933 and 1939. He had Lake Nemi drained to pull up the wrecks of Caligula’s two giant ships. The museum suffered serious damage in a fire that broke out while Allied fighters were forcing German troops out of the area in 1944, and the ships were practically destroyed. All that remains of them today is their hulls, in the new museum opened in 1953 and re-inaugurated in 1988, along with some bronzes and sections of timber and some other materials now stored in Rome.

As Christianity grew up in the empire, from the second century BC the temple was gradually abandoned and stripped of its marble and decorations, and some say the cult of Diana merged into the cult of the Virgin Mary.

You can get to the site by driving down towards the lake from Nemi. It is near a farm holiday home, and not really open or prepared for tourists. But I was able to catch a glimpse of the ruins amid the overgrown vegetation and flowers. Even if there is not much of the temple remaining, when you are looking over the lake from Nemi, you can still feel the special atmosphere of the place.

A particularly interesting time to come would be a night of a full moon. The Roman name for the lake is Speculum Dianae (Diana’s mirror) and during the summer you can see the reflection of the moon in the water.

 

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