by Gloria Chiarini
The Fairy Hollow
"Fertile hills covered in rich earth... just as fertile as the cultivated fields down on the plains... vineyards stretching in all directions... woods, meadows and wheatfields on the slopes below... fields of clover and other tender plants... thanks to the perennial springs that supply this area with water ...". This is how the Latin writer Pliny described this area that, over two thousand years ago, was inhabited by the Etruscans. A prosperous country, its mountains rich in raw metals and minerals, with skilled craftsmen and a sophisticated culture...
It is therefore hardly surprising that the Romans, who had only recently appeared on the historical scene, were unable to resist trying to conquer such a tempting land of milk and honey whose inhabitants, moreover, could teach them so much. The Roman occupation, which began under Veius in 396 B.C., was slow but definite; this was also due to the gradual amalgamation and intermarriage of the two peoples, though there were many problems and any attempts at rebellion were paid for dearly.
The history of mighty Fiesole and the tiny town of Florence is emblematic; the latter was simply a commercial landing place, unhealthy and swampy, on the banks of the Arno when the Etruscans built their powerful city walls, long stretches of which have survived to this day, up on the shady and well-drained hill of Fiesole. This ring of polygonal blocks, that stretched for over two kilometres, once defended this city; founded in the 4th century B.C., remains of organized settlements have been found that date from the 7th-6th centuries (Villanovian and Archaic Etruscan cultures), while the ancient presence of man can be traced back to the 1st and 2nd centuries B.C. and to as early as the protohistoric epoch (the Aeneolithic culture).
Although it was not among the 12 most important Etruscan cities, Fiesole held a vitally strategic position near the roads that communicated with the North (the Bologna and Faenza roads pass here before crossing the Appennines) and stood very near the ford across the Arno, where a great deal of commercial activity was carried out: the hill is in fact only 8 kilometres away from Piazza della Signoria. Rome was therefore to find it an experienced and dangerous challenge to its expansion towards the North: the power of its armies was still apparent in 225 B.C., when they repulsed the invading Gauls and drove them back as far as Talamone. The people of Fiesole later aided Rome in its fight against Hannibal from Carthage though the end of the Punic Wars was eventually to decide their fate: once Rome had eliminated all its rivals, it was able to extend its power throughout Italy.
Threatened by the Roman armies and their colonizing settlements, the Etruscan city was forced to unite with the opposing forces in order to defend its territory. It joined the Italic League during the Social War but was conquered by Porcius Cato (90 B.C.). It opted for Consul Marius against Silla but the latter won and retaliated by setting up a military outpost at San Domenico. Unsubdued despite its collection of failures, it became the stronghold of the Catilinian plot. The latter's defeat in 63 B.C. also decided the destruction of Etruscan Fiesole, which was put to fire and sword. However the cause of its decline was not caused so much by warfare as by Caesar's decision, four years later, to found a city called "Florentia" on the banks of the Arno, as though to stand guard against the people of Fiesole, and built especially for his soldiers, the veterans of so many battles. From that moment onwards, Florence was, century after century, to weaken Fiesole's prestige and absorb all its economic and political power, eventually destroying it after a 10 month seige in 1125. Time was gradually to bury the remnants of its past glory so that all trace of its monuments was lost. The places where the Etruscans once worshipped their gods (temples and necropoli) and the Romans relaxed (the theatre and the baths) were to disappear from the sight of man, covered by earth, meadows and trees. The vast area where they stood, situated to the north of the Cathedral of San Romolo and immediately behind the main square, Piazza Mino, was to become a fascinating and mysterious woodland, where any reminders of the ancient cults were transformed into sylvan legends. The place was known as the "fairy hollow" and often produced some magical discovery for the peasants who went there: tankards, little bronze statues, chunks of marble or reliefs bearing unintelligible writing.
Things did not change until 1792 when archeology became extremely popular. The discovery of a flight of stairs in the "fairy hollow" (belonging to the Roman temple), was to lead to the start of a long excavation campaign which saw the discovery of the Roman Theatre (in 1809), the Baths (in 1891), the Etruscan Altar, dating from the 3rd century B.C. (in 1899), followed shortly after by the Roman Altar. Muntz wrote at the end of the century: "coins, marbles and pottery are discovered in this classical area every week. The children in the streets will offer mosaics found in the fields for only a few pence".
In the meantime, a Civic Museum was set up alongside the archeological site to preserve all the finds (1878), while the excavations were extended as far as the old Basilica of Sant'Alessandro (where several rooms used for religious purposes were discovered), between Via di Santa Maria and Via del Carro (a Roman house with a mosaic floor), on the land around the Villa Marchi to the south of the town (votive offerings with 40 Etruscan bronze statuettes), and in Via Matteotti and Via del Bargellino (4 Etruscan-Hellenistic tombs). It seemed as if the hill could hardly wait to reveal its one thousand year old history, transforming itself into a sort of open air museum (as it still is today, for those who are curious enough to walk its length and breadth on foot). The search was to go on, interrupted only by the two world wars, and continued to produce amazingly important discoveries: for example, two circular holes that were probably used for prehistoric huts were found beneath the Roman Altar in 1958. Once the topographical map of the actual archeological area had been defined (covering 3 hectares), diggings were extended to new sites like those in Via Marini, Via Portigiani and Piazza Garibaldi. Research over the past ten years has confirmed that many treasures are still hidden beneath the surface of the earth at Fiesole, with the result that the Town Council has prepared an interesting "Archeological risk map", to indicate the areas where ancient "relics" may possibly be present. This can be viewed inside the Museum which has been situated inside the archeological site right from the start and shares the same opening hours (open daily 9am-7pm from April 1st to September 30th, closed on the first Tuesday of the month). Recently rearranged by Marco De Marco, the Museum contains over 7.000 exhibits and has also been enlarged by an underground passageway to link it with the Antiquarium, which for several years now has displayed the collection of ancient pottery (Greek, Italic, Etruscan) donated by Professor Alfiero Costantini to the Town Council of Fiesole. The excavations, Museum and Costantini Collection now form a single unit. Apart from this, the glass panels along the passageway now make it possible to get a close-up view of the mighty Etruscan walls that descend from the top of the hill to the excavation site and, thanks to the extra space gained with the new arrangement, permit the display of finds from the latest digs: these include the Etruscan fireplace discovered inside the Cathedral of San Romolo. Found beneath the crypt, the fireplace was surrounded by chards of pottery with votive inscriptions, giving the impression that it was once the site of an extremely ancient place of worship, and built over in later times by the Christian church.
The reconstruction of the Longobard tomb discovered in 1988 in the barbarian burial ground underneath Piazza Garibaldi (another exists in the archeological area) is particularly suggestive. Here we can see the remains of an man aged between 50 and 60, who was buried with various items of equipment (an iron knife, an ax, a goblet of blue glass...). Fiesole's easily defended position high above the plain allowed it to rise to new importance in the centuries that spanned antiquity with the Middle Ages, when the barbaric invasions decreed the decline of Florence. This was where the Byzantine general Stilicone halted Radagaiso's hordes of Goths (on October 8th 405, the feast day of Saint Reparata) and also the scene of many episodes that marked the Gothic War. During this period, Fiesole housed a Gothic military garrison and later a Longobard settlement, before returning to live under the shadow of Florence which had by then become a free (and very wealthy) city. Funnily enough, it is now the Florentines who, especially in the summer, seek the shade of Fiesole in order to get away from the muggy air of the valley. They can board 'bus number 7 and get off in Piazza Mino where they can enjoy the breeze on the hill and the incomparable views to be seen from the panoramic terraces overlooking the city. Or else, with the onset of the evening, they can climb down into the "fairy hollow" and sit on the steps of the Roman Theatre to watch the theatrical performances and ballets that are still performed there every summer in July and August against the star studded sky. The unique fascination of these monumental ruins makes it difficult to tell whether the performance is on the stage or in its surroundings.