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Italy: Deeper Underground

Rome's sites are well known, well loved and well documented. La Fonte di Anna Perenna, however, is hidden in a subterranean car park and has a story that's well worth discovering

By Julia Buckley
Published 3 Jul 2018, 09:00 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 15:27 BST
Photograph by Getty Images

We are to meet at the underground carpark at Piazza Euclide, I'm told, an address that flusters my taxi driver. Am I sure I don't want a bar, he asks, or a church? By the time we arrive, he's so baffled that he passes the entrance and leaves me by a vast roundabout that was, in ancient Roman times, a hill in the countryside. I double back to the carpark and here we are: engines echoing from the floors beneath, a machine to pay for your ticket, an attendant smiling gamely, and next to it — a door with a barely visible sign: La Fonte di Anna Perenna.

Anna Perenna's fountain is a find so exciting it has changed the history of religion, according to the archaeologist who oversaw its excavation. While we typically think about the Romans and their panoply of gods — Jupiter, Mars, Venus and the rest — Anna Perenna stands for something very different.

Who was she? That depends on who you ask. A wise woman, says one; a witch, says another. An apocryphal figure, maintain a few; while the official explanation is that she was a vengeful spirit. We may not know much about her; she's been excised from the annals of history, but we do know what people wanted from her.

The fountain was discovered in 1999 when the carpark was being extended, and archaeologists found not just a sumptuous, multi-layered water system dedicated to Anna, but also votive offerings made to her. And they were all entirely negative.

Lead cylinders with curses etched onto them. Lamps with inscriptions referencing people who needed to be brought down a peg or two. Phials that once contained potions unknown. A copper cauldron. Even voodoo-like human figurines. No wonder people call her a witch.

Maybe it's the knowledge of what I'm about to see, or maybe it's something else, but as we make our way down the metal staircase into the bowels of the carpark, the temperature drops and the atmosphere gets distinctly heavy. By the time we get there, I can almost feel the weight of the concrete layers above us.

Today, Anna Perenna displays herself in the shape of her fountain: a once grand, now chipped waterfall-like system, with channels carved through the stone to guide the flow from high to low. There are pedestals carved with dedications to her, "ANNA PERENNA" carefully chipped into the creamy stone.

The rest of the finds have been dispatched to the Museo Epigrafico (writing museum) in the Baths of Diocletian, near Termini station. In a sense, compared to the grandeur of the Colosseum, Piazza Navona, the Vatican, there's nothing to see here. In another, there's everything. The last people to visit Anna came almost 2,000 years ago and the water's long stopped running, yet her presence in everywhere.

On the way up, I dare to ask my guide: have you ever felt anything down here? "Not felt as such," he says, "but it's funny you ask because this morning, when I went to open up before your arrival, there was a whoosh of air, like a sigh, coming from nowhere. It was… weird."

The next day, I go to the museum to see the finds. There's a video playing on repeat of a witch, boiling up something in a cauldron, and a soundtrack of women chanting incantations. I look at the cases — the coins tossed in the fountain, the strips of metal carefully etched with curses, the voodoo dolls — finds which, archaeologists think, signify a link with West African religions and certainly change our view of ancient Roman faith.

I think back to the underground space. Did I feel her down there? I don't know. But I'm glad she's finally found her place in history. 

La Fonte di Anna Perenna is open the first and third Sundays of the month. Guided tours are led in Italian €5.50 (£4.90). For English, you'll need to book the group (essentially private) option (€40), and bring your own qualified guide.

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