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Translated Jeff Matthews

We sometimes come across underground structures, the purposes of which are unknown. Due to inadequate or limited research, these works remain in the unidentified, ‘unusual’ or even ‘mysterious’ category. Others, despite in-depth research, may pose several unanswered questions, both in relation to their size and because these spaces have been altered through continuous use over time. They lack sufficient internal or external clues as to their purpose and also lack written documentation or even oral history.

At the gates of Tarquinia (Viterbo) there are two mounds termed “orientalizzanti”) [i.e., oriental-like]. In the drum (or tholobate; i.e., the upright part of a structure on which a dome is raised) of the larger of the two mounds there is an opening to a shaft that leads down below the funeral monument to a rectangular well not quite two meters deep. It leads further on, in a curve, for a few more meters. Part of the drum was recently restored using brickwork for everything, even for the entrance to the shaft, making it impossible to determine whether the structure was actually an integral part of the monument. The only way to determine this would be to excavate everything (or at least the space in front of the entrance) layer by layer. As it now stands, however, the structure remains in the category of “unidentified”.

At Cattolica (Rimoni) the Paparoni Grotto is laied out in a quite particular fashion: “You enter the gallery, which has a barrel vault, by means of a steep stairway, after which there is a portal leading to descending ramp oriented parallel to via Cattaneo. At the halfway point of the that ramp, there is an crossing topped by a semicircular vault (where you can see a design in the shape of a cross in the brickwork); from that point two short arms lead off to then terminate in semicircular spaces with half-circle arches. The path continues down to a T-shaped space at about five meters below the surface (in reference to the street level of via Cattaneo); it, in turn, has cross vaults such as to form at the points of intersection six short arms identical to the ones mentioned above, with the exception of the one on the left of the ramp; it continues on past bend a bend that has a ring vault to terminate in an octagonal space with a central column. The space, itself, is oriented along the cardinal axes. Ribbing of rounded arches open off the space and the individual spaces between them have triangular veil vaults. Seven small arms with rounded arcades, identical to the ones described above, open off of the sides of the octagon. Along the length of the gallery there are eight small niches with rounded arches; the are two semicircular air-intakes located in the octagonal space above the north arm and at the extreme end of the of the T-arm on the side of the sea (now walled over, it originally faced a well).”

(Castelvetro M., “Schede delle gallerie esistenti o rinvenute, in Gallerie sotterranee a Cattolica”, Exhibit catalog, Municipality of Cattolica – Council Clerk for Culture, Quaderni dell’Antiquarium IV, Cattolica 1997, pp. 52-58).

Among possible conclusions is that the site was somehow tied to rites of initiation. In any case, the entire space has since been reused as a cellar, and its original use remains unknown.

The Paparoni Grotto is not an isolated example. At other sites such as Gradara, Trebbio Antico, Santarcangelo di Romagna, Sirolo, Osimo, Camerano and others, there are similar examples over an extended area. They have stairways or ramps leading down that then level off into a main space that generally consists of:
-a single straight gallery with short straight arms leading off;
-a single gallery, generally with right or obtuse angles with short arms leading off;
-two straight galleries, more rarely three, with straight arms leading off that are interconnected.

Many of these sites consist of a single chamber, circular, rectangular or, more rarely polygonal or irregular. The larger spaces have a vault supported by columns. Many underground chambers are paved with brickwork and have a barrel vault with a variety of architectural features at the intersections of in the rooms, themselves. They are not all completely accessible and may in part be blocked or collapsed.

[translator's note]
This is the end of the English translation of

by Gianluca Padovan


Padovan Gianluca (ed. ), Archaeology of the Subsoil. Lectures and studies of artificial cavities. British Archaeological Reports, International Series 1416, Oxford 2005.

Basilico Roberto et alii, Italian Cadastre of Artificial Cavities. Part 1. (Including introductory comments and a classification), B.A.R. International Series 1599, Oxford 2007.

Gianluca Padovan (Associazione S.C.A.M. – Federazione Nazionale Cavità Artificiali)

Click on images to enlarge

Società Studi Romagnoli, Le Grotte di Santarcangelo

Ipogeo Urlante, San Lorenzo Vecchio, Catasto F.N.C.A. CA 00037 LA VT (ph. R. Basilico)

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