In a recent telephone chat with Roberto Nini, we reminisced about our first meeting. In 1997, I had taken the train from Assisi to Narni to study the art and history of the town for the upcoming Umbria guide examination.
I remember hitching a ride up to the town center as there was no bus transportation from the train station then…
With my guide book, I explored the town, the churches, the 14th-century fortress and then entered a wrought iron gate with a sign in block letters: Narni Sotterranea (“Narni’s Underground”). I entered the gate, walked down the steps to the entry door and ticket office. Roberto was there selling tickets – and later gave me a tour of one of the most fascinating archaeological sites of all of Umbria.
And what a tour: I later learned that he was one of those who had discovered it.
I recently asked him about that day in 1979 when he and friends had discovered Narni’s most famous treasure, an underground one. He and five narnesi friends had decided to start spelunking, eager to explore the grottoes, caves, cisterns, ancient wells, and the remains of the Roman aqueducts bordering Narni.
“Why?” I had asked him. Roberto replied that a trek in the Narni countryside and the discovery of a grotto had sparked their interest.
He added, “Anna, that day in May, 1979, was our first try at using ropes on a wall”. A small park, il Parco di San Bernardo, gathering place for children and the elderly, is perched on Narni’s limestone cliff at the edge of town, flanking the 13th-century church of San Domenico.
Not far from the church bell tower, a wall stretches out bordering a park with children’s play equipment. That was the wall that Roberto and his five friends would try to scale…but on the other side.
From the other side, one looks out over the valley below, San Cassiano, 12th-c Benedictione abbey perched on the wooded hillside across the way. You can see the wall they scaled in the lower left corner of this photo:
Roberto leans against that wall these days, while telling visitors with grande passione about a memorable May day in 1979.
While scaling the wall that day, Roberto slipped, landing on the cabbage plants in elderly Signor Ernani Proietti’s vegetable garden just below the wall.
After a gruff reproach from Signor Ernani – and apologies from young Roberto – the two struck up a conversation and Roberto told him about his group’s desire to explore the underground, hidden ambiences of their Narni.
Signor Ernani suggested that their explorations should then include a blocked-up door near his vegetable patch. Pointing to it with his cane, the elderly signore Roberto that the locals had always talked about a monastery near the San Domenico church.
No other encouragement was needed: Roberto’s group cleared away vines and thorns to discover what appeared to be a blocked-up doorway. Roberto told me recently, “I don’t remember now who went in first – it was either Massimo or one of our Mauros (there are two of them).” Whether Massimo or a Mauro, a hidden treasure of Narni awaited the dusty, scratched young teen: on a wall, a medieval fresco of an angel. I asked about his reaction and Roberto told me with a chuckle, “We heard him shout ‘mamma mia!’…or as you would have said, Anna, ‘oh, my GOD!'”
Here is what those six young men saw in 1979 (an angel barely discernible to the left of the arch:
Here’s that angel today, after years of restoration work in Narni’s Underground:
For Roberto, it was most significant that an angel was first discovered – and particularly Michael, the Archangel (as they were soon to discover); for as Roberto said, “San Michele is he who defends the good from that which is evil.”
That May day in 1979, six youth (Roberto was 19 then and the oldest) discovered a passageway, a cistern and other blocked doorways that they imagined would lead to other discoveries.
“Trovato un tesoro?” (“Found any treasure?”), Signor Ernani queried with a chuckle when they came out. Roberto told him that not as yet, imagining that discoveries were to come.
And as he recently told me, “that day simply changed by life, Anna.” He had been enrolled in a 5-year secondary school program to become a geometra (draftsman-surveyor). He changed his future direction, enrolling in the faculty of archeologia in Rome.
Robert told me that he and his five friends worked about six years, digging and uncovering, dedicating all their free time to the exploration of their discovery. They were assisted also by municipal workers. The worked continued. For years. “It took time,” Roberto told me, “as the funds for restoration came in slowly – and most of the funds were simply from the sale of tickets to the Underground.”
One of the first ambiences fully restored of Narni’s Underground was the frescoed chapel which they called “Santa Maria della Rupe” (“Holy Mary of the Rocky Cliff”). As of 2012, this splendor greets visitors:
At the tip of the arch over the altar area, the presbytery, Christ is depicted, arms crossed, nails in His hands:
Christ is flanked by the symbols of the Four Evangelists, two to His right, two to His left. Just above Michael the Archangel, the winged ox represents St. Luke and above him, the eagle with the scroll symbolizes St. John.
On the right side of the pointed arch over the presbytery, the angel holding the Bible, symbol of the Evangelist Matthew, flanks Christ…
…and below St. Matthew, a winged lion – symbol of St. Mark – clutches a scroll in his paws and rears up, tail looped around his legs:
It took decades for the dedicated group and supplementary workers to clear and restore the other rooms and the Roman cistern as well as various burials found in the sotterranei (“underground”).
But for me, the most fascinating link in the long looping chain which ties together the story of the Narni Undergound? It’s Roberto’s own story of his self-declared mission to uncover the truth behind a tale of torture, murder…
…and the Papal Inquisition taking place right under the foundations of the church of 13th-century San Domenico church and revealed in cryptic graffiti (taking years to decipher):
The Dominicans, after all, were Inquisition protagonists. Roberto’s studies took him to France, Scotland, Ireland…and finally to the Vatican Library archives, thanks to the intervention of a Scottish Vatican archivist visiting the Sotterranei in 2002.
The archives related to the Inquisition had only been available to scholars since 1998 but Roberto’s repeated attempts to gain access had been futile. Thanks to the Scottish archivist, Roberto finally immersed himself in studies there in 2003 – and in 2005, discovered Narni’s links to the Inquisition which spanned centuries. From 1554 to 1860, the horrors of the Inquisition had cast a somber darkness on Narni.
Roberto, mille grazie for your grande passione, revealing to us the fascinating history of Narni’s Underground.
And thanks to all six of you “young men” who years ago, scaled a Narni wall – and found us an angel…
Click here to read about Narni’s medieval festival in honor of the town’s patron saint, San Giovenale.