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From Vigna Barberini, the history of wine in ancient Rome between archaeology and viticulture

The vineyard planted on the Palatine Hill, in the heart of the Colosseum Archaeological Park, joins the “Itineraries of Iter Vitis”

The Barberini Vineyard, planted on the Palatine Hill in the heart of the Colosseum Archaeological Park, officially becomes part of the “Iter Vitis Routes”, the Council of Europe’s cultural itineraries created to promote and preserve the tangible and intangible European heritage of wine and viticulture. In the area of Vigna Barberini, named after the Roman family of the same name that owned the property in the 17th century, two years ago the rootstocks of the Bellone variety, a very ancient and native vine, which the historian Pliny the Elder called “uva pantastica”, still cultivated in the provinces of Rome, were planted. Welcoming Vigna Barberini in the “Itineraries Iter Vitis”, a panel discussion focused backwards on the history of the vineyard, from its planting in 2020 to the eighteenth-century vineyard, from the genomics of ancient vines to the archaeological traces of wine production in and around Rome.

Archaeology and research underlie the scientific reports, such as that of Professor Osvaldo Failla of the University of Milan, who summarized the latest discoveries in the field of molecular biology thanks to which it has been possible to assign the names of ancient or indigenous grape varieties with some accuracy. “The first center of vine domestication was, in all probability, Asia Minor and not the Caucasus as was thought until recently. It was precisely from the coexistence, in some cases for a long time, in the same area of wild and domesticated vines that those crosses were born that today we can call autochthonous, in that they originated in a given place”.

It was Dr. Rita Volpe, a longtime archaeologist, who had the task of contextualizing the myth of wine-producing Rome. If, in fact, one trivially thinks of the spread of viticulture through Roman rule, few are aware of the traces, important ones, of viticulture in and around Rome. “There are many “archaeological markers” related to vine cultivation and wine production traced in excavation campaigns in and around Rome. From the use of ancient presses, probably shared between wine and oil production, to the famous “canals” dug in the tuff and at first assimilated precisely to drainage canals. Instead, thanks to the analysis of ancient authors, it was concluded that these parallel tracks, sometimes overlapping but with different orientations testifying to how the same field saw a “replanting” of the vine, were none other than the “sulci” mentioned by Cato. Vines need soil to explore with their roots, on the tuffaceous soil surrounding Rome this however was at most 50 cm, and so the Romans had studied the possibility of digging these parallel trenches where vines could be successfully grown”, Dr. Rita Volpe explained. Other evidence relates to a villa in the Tor Vergata area, where it was possible to reconstruct a storage capacity of 100,000 liters of wine, an impressive amount for the time.

The Archaeological Park of the Colosseum is not only an archaeological site but also a large green area that includes the Roman Forum and the Palatine and extends over 40 hectares in the heart of the city of Rome. A “natural park” that, in its toponymy, still preserves areas called “vigna”, or gardens, in the broadest sense of the term; moreover, archaeological surveys and historical maps well document the presence of vineyards. Hence the idea of planting a small vineyard on the Palatine Hill: “Vigna Barberini”, from the Roman family of the same name that held the property in the 17th century, in 2020, thanks to the collaboration of Azienda Agricola Cincinnato, which took care of the planting of the rooted cuttings of Bellone, a variety also known as Cacchione, a very ancient and native vine that the historian Pliny the Elder called “uva pantastica” in his encyclopedic work “Naturalis Historia”, and still cultivated in the provinces of Rome and Latina.

“The vine and its cultivation”, commented Alfonsina Russo, managing director of the Colosseum Archaeological Park, “have always represented a symbol of identity, capable of shaping the territory as much as the culture of a people. This is a value that our institution has always shared and that constitutes a founding element of our way of working in the context of the enhancement of the PArCo’s heritage. Becoming part of the Iter Vitis itinerary”, continued Alfonsina Russo, “represents for us a source of great pride because it effectively testifies to the PArCo’s commitment, since its establishment, to the protection and enhancement of its extraordinary green heritage”.

“The Vigna Barberini project represents a courageous and far-sighted choice”, concludes Emanuela Panke, president of Iter Vitis Cultural Itinerary of the Council of Europe. “Wine production has always been an identity symbol of the European continent, the savoir faire at the basis of this production has contributed over the centuries to the construction of the European citizenship of regions and peoples. Today, Vigna Barberini expresses a concept more relevant than ever, to be conveyed as a valuable tool of cultural diplomacy and involvement of new generations in heritage protection dynamics. Iter Vitis”, concludes Emanuela Panke, “is proud to welcome Vigna Barberini among its members and to award the Colosseum Archaeological Park with the Iter Vitis Award as the best practice related to archaeobotany”.

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