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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Italy's Millennial Walls, Robert Frost and us

“Good fences make good neighbors.” Robert Frost’s line came to mind as I was preparing this post.

I was thinking of appropriating and corrupting the line so it reads: “Good walls make good neighbors.”

But in finding and re-reading Frost’s poem, in which this line appears twice, my college English class came back to me. The poem is really about a wall that is a fence. The title of the poem is “Mending Wall,” and the first sentence, which is in the poet’s voice is: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” The more famous line, “Good fences make good neighbors,” is actually said by his neighbor. So, Frost, the poet, does not like walls; it's his neighbor who does - and Frost is criticizing him in the poem.

The first 4 lines of the poem read:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The polygonal walls in central Italy seem to defy Frost’s notion that they will crumble and fall. There may be gaps, and spills in the upper boulders, but what’s astounding about these walls is how much of them still is standing, anywhere from 5,000 to 2,000 years later.

Some recent dating shows these walls – made of variously shaped (hence “polygonal”) stones and stacked with NO mortar – pre-date the Romans and even the Etruscans; they could be as old as the 3rd millennium before Christ, or 4,000-5,000 years-old.

We first noticed these walls in Segni, a small hill town about 1 hour outside of Rome where we (finally) had found a hotel after hiking all day (this story may sound familiar to some of you). Taking a walk through the town before dinner, we discovered these amazing walls surrounding a good portion of the city (photo above). We began reading a bit here and there and discovered for the first time the polygonal walls and how old they are.

Fortunately for us, at the same time in Rome there was a fascinating exhibit on the Lazio (Rome’s province) cities that have enormous stretches of these walls remaining. [Note the exhibit used "megalithic" - which refers to structures made of large stones and without mortar - tho' usually we see "polygonal" in references in English.]

We realized there are polygonal walls at the base of Circeo (which we’ve hiked), in Orbetello (where we’ve put our feet in the water), in Norba, and many other places. But, we were a little like the Stupids Go to Italy on this one… we had no idea what we were seeing. Sometimes we don’t read ahead, because we like to discover things for ourselves, but this time we were missing something because we were uneducated about these marvelous walls.

I’ve listed a few websites below that have a bit more information in English about the walls, as well as a link to all of Mending Wall and some analyses of the poem, one of which traces the poem’s activity of two neighbors mending their joining wall back to, guess who, the Romans! See also our earlier blog that includes Segni. Also, for you who need shelter and sustenance, we heartily recommend the hotel we found. Hotel La Pace, which caters to international business people from nearby towns and has a very good restaurant ("famous in the area," says scooter rental guy linked below).



Article by Giulio Magli, a mathematician in Milan, about the walls of four Italian cities. And lots of pictures in Rome Art Lover's website. And some nice photos and text from a scooter-rental guy whose home town is Segni.

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