The Abbey of Santa Maria di Falleri, a 12th-century Cistercian monastery about thirty miles north of Rome, has crumbled over the centuries into disrepair. It makes a brief appearance as a medieval palace in the classic comedy L’armata Brancaleone (1966). The roof was restored a few years ago, and the abbey can now be visited – Covid-19 permitting – on Saturday and Sunday mornings between April and October, or by appointment during the winter. It doesn’t seem to get many visitors: only one person has written a review on TripAdvisor (but then the last time I went to the Villa Farnese at Caprarola, seven miles away, there were more people working in the ticket office than there were tourists, even though it’s one of the most magnificent secular buildings in Italy).
Much the most interesting thing about Santa Maria di Falleri, however, is what lies beneath. The track leading to the abbey passes through a stone archway, a gate in an ancient Roman wall. The medieval buildings stand towards the western end of the site of Falerii Novi, a city founded in 241 BC and occupied until the sixth or seventh century AD. It hasn’t been excavated – within the tumbledown and overgrown Roman walls, the 75 acres of fields still look like fields – but researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Ghent have recently conducted a survey of the entire site using ground-penetrating radar. Anyone catching sight of their equipment from a distance might well have mistaken it for one of those small 1950s tractors you still sometimes see working in the Italian fields (a Fiat 25R, perhaps, or a Lamborghinetta), towing a harrow. Closer inspection, however, would have revealed it as a modified quad bike with a Belgian numberplate and a thick rope of yellow wires unspooling from the back, connected to fifteen 500 MHz antennae slung beneath the trailer’s wooden frame.
Falerii Novi was mapped twenty years ago using a technique known as fluxgate gradiometry, which works by detecting local disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field, but only gives you a two-dimensional image of underground structures sited fairly near the surface. Ground-penetrating radar, however, gives a three-dimensional image that includes deeper, older layers. The researchers – Lieven Verdonck, Alessandro Launaro, Frank Vermeulen and Martin Millett – began their GPR survey in 2015, and published preliminary results in the journal Antiquity last month: ‘an overview of the full plan, alongside a more detailed case study of one sample area’, as well as a thorough account of their methods (and a photograph of their marvellous machine). The smaller sample area, of just over an acre, includes two or three houses (‘remodelled over time’), a bath house with hypocausts, and a ‘very large rectangular building’ that they think was probably an open-air swimming pool. Walls, floors, roads and water pipes are all visible, to the expert eye, in the GPR data.
‘The work at Falerii Novi has significant implications for the study of Roman cities,’ Verdonck et al conclude. It also, for armchair archaeologists (or maybe only for me), has the added allure of buried treasure: its not having been physically excavated, brought to light as a ruin, somehow makes it easier to imagine the city entire, intact, pristine beneath the ground.
There’s a rich, deep and ancient seam of stories about magical underground cities, from Enkidu’s visit to the underworld in The Epic of Gilgamesh (c.1800 BC) to Jennifer Bell’s children’s book The Crooked Sixpence (2016) and its sequels. And there were actual underground cities even before the oldest surviving stories were written down: the networks of caves and tunnels at Derinkuyu and other sites in Cappadocia, large enough to house thousands of people, may have been begun as early as five thousand years ago. It seems improbable that anyone lived in them permanently: they were more likely built as refuges for time of war. Some things never change.
Nine miles south-east of Falerii Novi – as the crow flies, or the badger digs; it’s nearly twice that distance by road – is the Bunker Soratte, built on Mussolini’s orders in 1937 as an air-raid shelter for the Italian army high command.It’s in typical, bloated Fascist style, consisting of nearly three miles of tunnels under the Monte Soratte ridge. After Mussolini’s overthrow, it was Field Marshal Kesselring’s headquarters during the Nazi occupation. He abandoned it following heavy bombing from Allied B-17s in May 1944. The story goes that he gave orders for the complex to be destroyed from within (‘Burn it down and salt the earth,’ as a US government official says of the Initiative’s underground base at the end of season four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) before retreating, in the process supposedly burying several strongboxes of gold looted from the Bank of Italy. In 1967 Nato began converting the surviving tunnels into a nuclear bunker, but gave up after five years, for obscure reasons (perhaps the builders found the gold).
Elaborate and secret bunkers tend to be linked in the popular imagination (and perhaps in reality too) with evil megalomaniacs: every other Bond villain is to be found lurking in an underground lair – under the influence, perhaps, of the Führerbunker in Berlin. In March 1999 Slobodan Milošević was said by the New York Post to be ‘holed up in a fortified underground bunker in Belgrade’. In March 2003 the papers were full of stories about Saddam Hussein’s ‘secure and luxurious … palace-and-bunker complexes’, as Newsweek put it. When US troops captured him nine months later, the word ‘bunker’ was routinely used to describe the squalid trench they found him in. The Cabinet War Rooms in London have a different vibe: an Englishman’s bunker is a far cry from the foetid dungeon where Hitler spent his last days – a wholesome place more like Bag End, perhaps, or the Mole’s ‘little home’ in The Wind in the Willows, or even the ‘safe pit of blackness’ in the Dorset countryside where the narrator of Geoffrey Household’s 1939 thriller Rogue Male goes to ground. As for the bunker under the White House that Donald Trump went to ‘inspect’ on 29 May, while Black Lives Matter protesters gathered near Lafayette Park – well, think what you will about that one.
Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back by Mark O’Connell (Granta, £14.99) was published in mid-April, a book for lockdown if ever there was one (or not, as the case may be), though clearly written in the pre-Covid era: in one chapter O’Connell even describes a trip to New Zealand (just imagine). In August 2017, as Trump was vowing to meet threats from North Korea with ‘fire and fury like the world has never seen’, O’Connell went to the Black Hills of South Dakota, where a developer from San Diego was converting a decommissioned army munitions storage facility into an array of luxury bunkers, set to become ‘the largest survival community on earth’. (As armed anti-lockdown protesters gathered outside the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, in the days after O’Connell’s book appeared, I wondered how many of them had well-stocked bunkers back home, ready for any emergency except one the government told them they had to stay in for.)
There are perhaps two kinds of bunker: one is a form of luxury insurance, a place you will probably never have to go into, but, even if you do, from which you feel sure you will eventually emerge, once the disaster is over, blinking in the benign sunlight; the other is a place you will be compelled to enter, and may never be able to leave. And the best bunker stories, such as Bong Joon-ho’s recent movie Parasite or Kafka’s story ‘The Burrow’, realise that the same physical space can be both kinds of bunker at the same time. The lucky few may have insurance against the end times, but for the less fortunate, Parasite suggests, the apocalypse is already here. Kafka’s creaturely narrator may sometimes leave his burrow, but he isn’t really absent:
I seek out a good hiding place and keep watch on the entrance of my house – this time from outside – for whole days and nights … At such times it is as if I were not so much looking at my house as at myself sleeping and had the joy of being in a profound slumber and simultaneously of keeping vigilant guard over myself.
The Bunker Soratte reopened to visitors on 2 June: just the place to spend a Saturday morning with the family after three months of lockdown. I’d rather take a stroll around the walls of Falerii Novi, and leave the underground city to my imagination.