The Latin poet, Horace, wrote in rapturous terms of the country retreat in the valley of Ustica, which his millionaire patron, Maecenas, had given him: “A shady valley, hidden amongst mountains... where the generous plum trees give flowers and fruit... there’s a spring which pours out a stream of water that is more limpid and fresher and purer than the Ebro that runs through Thracia…” was how he described the spot in a letter to his friend Quintius. He went on to remark on the good health he was enjoying there. It was September and in ancient Rome September was notorious for bringing ’flu and fevers.
The remains of Horace’s villa are situated on a wooded hillside above the river Licenza, which joins the Aniene as it flows on to Tivoli. What is believed to have been the fons Bandusiae – the spring he praises so highly – gushes out of the undergrowth just above the villa. However, the poet would no longer recognise it because the noble Orsini family, who became the overlords of Licenza in the 12th century, transformed it, in the 17th century, into a picturesque nymphaeum. The nymphaeum, a copy of an ancient Roman garden feature dedicated to the nymphs, was greatly in vogue during the baroque period and the Orsini strove to improve on nature by hollowing out a fern-filled rocky niche where the water cascaded down a three-metre drop into a semi-circular stone basin. It is still there, more or less as they created it.
Horace, or Quintus Horatius Flaccus, to give him his full name, was the leading poet of his day and he continued to influence European poets right up to the Romantic period. Nowadays, however, his works are little read and tend to be relegated to dusty back shelves in public libraries frequented by shrinking numbers of classical scholars. However, a dedicated little group of residents of the nearby towns of Licenza and Civitella work constantly to keep his memory alive.
The Centro Studi Oraziani (Horatian Study Centre), founded in Licenza in 1996 on the model of an earlier association dating from the 1970s, organises special events in honour of its poet. These include debates, theatre performances and readings of the works of Horace and other poets, as well as a biennial poetry competition, where unpublished works by contemporary poets, centred round a particular theme chosen by the study centre, are presented to the public. The association president Arturo Foschi – a lively 87-year-old former mayor of Licenza – is flanked by poetess Annelen Josten, who is responsible for much of the organisation. German-born Josten came to live in neighbouring Civitella 20 years ago and says she was inspired to start writing her own poetry when she came into contact with “this great poet and the majestic scenery all around us here.”
The big event of the year is the annual “Arte a Palazzo Oraziana”, a day-long happening staged in Licenza. Previous years’ editions have centred round themes such as “Horace and Women” (he was a notorious womaniser), “Horace and Nature” and, in 2005, “The Secret Horace”, where the writer and Latinist Luca Canali presented a tongue-in-cheek dialogue with the poet lying on a psychiatrist’s couch confessing his fears and phobias to his personal doctor, Antonius Musa.
The programme always includes a guided tour of the remains of Horace’s villa, now clearly visible after a meticulous excavation campaign carried out by the University of California and Los Angeles, as well as a visit to the museum inside the baronial castle of the Orsini at the top of the old town of Licenza, where the finds from the villa are on display.
Despite the poet’s oft-repeated protestations that he yearned for a simple life, he nevertheless surrounded himself with every refinement and luxury in his country retreat. In the museum, you can admire the Rosone Lacunare, a splendid marble ceiling-rose, carved with acanthus leaves, little frogs and crabs, the pride of the collection and the symbol chosen as the logo of the study centre. “The exquisite workmanship of what must have been a relatively minor architectural feature of Horace’s home shows us just how splendid his villa must have been,” Josten remarks, as she shows us around. Unfortunately, only fragments of the decor – in the stylish Pompeiian tradition – have survived, along with the remains of what must have been a magnificent statue of a warrior, one of the souvenirs the poet would have brought back from his travels.
Nonetheless, thanks to the meticulous research carried out by Angelo Pasqui, director of excavations of Rome and ancient Lazio between 1911 and 1915, and, subsequently, by Bernard Frischer of the University of California and Los Angeles, we have a pretty clear picture of what Horace’s hideaway must have looked like. The plan bears a remarkable resemblance to the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum, where Horace is known to have stayed as a guest of the owner. The visual effect of the long garden flanked by arcades, where the poet could stroll and admire the central fountain, also inspired the modern-day millionaire, J. Paul Getty. His museum at Malibu, California, in fact, is also modelled on the Villa dei Papiri.