This hill town located just outside of Rome is not only a gateway the rolling Monti Prenestini, but it is a center of culture and history unparalleled by other towns in Lazio. Visitors are often surprised to learn the town’s history of destruction and renaissance, as the home of Popes, as a religious center (in ancient times a pagan sanctuary, in modern times a Bishop diocese), as the home of polyphonic music, as a place of inspiration for artists and authors such as Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Thomas Mann.
The main attraction in modern Palestrina is the National Archeological Museum which is situated at the summit of the largest pagan sanctuary dedicated to the goddess of fortune. In ancient times the sanctuary was a place of pilgrimage for merchants, travelers and those seeking guidance or healing. Today the Museum also houses the famous mosaic of the Nile River in flood, one of the largest and most detailed and colorful mosaics still intact today. The open air archeological area allows for exploration of the main part of the pagan temple and provides access to the well where sorts were taken from the water and interpreted by oracles to predict the future. Inside the Museum visitors will find numerous treasures includes artifacts, mosaics, votive sculptures, ciste (bronze beauty cases), mirrors, jewels and burial markers.
Next to the Museum visitors will find the Chapel of Santa Rosalia, a jewel of Roman Baroque style boasting statues and sumptuous decorations in polychrome marble. The private room behind the chapel was the original resting place of Michelangelo’s Pietà di Palestrina, one of his last sculptures which is now housed at the Accademia Gallery in Florence (a copy is on display inside the main cathedral of Palestrina).
The Carmelite Father’s Convent and the religious complex dedicated to Sant’Antonio Abate, the Convent of the Cloistered Clarisse Nuns, the Seminary of Saint Francis and the main cathedral dedicated to Sant’Agapito are the main Catholic religious structures. The Diocese Museum houses an extensive collection of artwork, relics, religious garments and texts and other pieces of interest.
Just off the main street of the center of town, visitors will find the home of the world-famous composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Here the Fondazione Pierluigi houses a collection of musical archives dedicated to polyphonic music. The house is also open as a museum. Frequent concerts are performed in the main cathedral by Palestrina’s polyphonic choirs.
Palestrina is also well known for his handy craft work. Master embroiderers carry on their special artistic tradition of embroidery through use of the Palestrina stitch. While copper smiths still make containers and decorations using the traditional methods, and gold smiths continue to make original pieces of jewelry using the Etruscan styles and designs as inspiration.
Palestrina enjoys food festivals, holidays, parades and festivities all year long, but the town becomes especially animated in the summer when there are free activities for the whole family almost every evening. The giglietto cookie festival and the Palio of Sant’Agapito are special times when all townspeople come together to celebrate their local traditions.
Palestrina is a hill town, which means that for visitors who want to explore the narrow cobblestone streets and get a closer look at the townspeople and the local architecture, it will be necessary to walk up and down steps. For those who don’t mind walking and love to find surprises around every corner, enjoy a good panoramic view and want to get a real idea of what Italy is like outside of touristy places, they will love Palestrina.