Grotta della Vipera: an evocative place of great historical value
The Grotta della Vipera, a symbol of the ancient city of Cagliari, is one of the many attractions of the vast historical, archaeological, artistic and cultural heritage of Sardinia.
Sardinia has centuries of history rich in myths and legends, such as the one on the Cave of the Viper, already known in the seventeenth century as Crypt serpentum, a Roman funeral hypogeum in the Sant’Avendrace avenue, near the Phoenician-Punic necropolis of Tuvixeddu, in Cagliari.
The tomb, decorated on the outside by a facade with two columns, of which only one capital and the pediment survived, consists of a pronaos and two funeral chambers. The Grotta della Vipera – Cave of the Viper, is one of the few testimonials of Roman necropoleis and is constituted from monumental tombs dug and differently modelled in the calcareous rock, it owes its name to the presence of two vipers carved on the architrave of the facade, on the sides of a triangle.
The two snakes, which according to popular tradition are two vipers, are placed in front of each other and represent eternal life and the immortality of conjugal love, it could be they are symbols of Mother Earth or a reference to the cult of Isis.
The value and uniqueness of the place were widely recognized already in the last century when renowned Sardinian scholars devoted particular attention to the sepulchral monument, however, what perhaps not everyone knows is that the noble tomb was almost destroyed during the construction of the royal road Cagliari-Porto Torres in 1822. To save it was Alberto Ferrero della Marmora, general, naturalist, cartographer and Italian politician, who prevented the mines near the cave from being shone, as had happened for another tomb nearby. Mine holes are still visible in the rock wall, which was left in disuse.
The general, in his “Itinerary of the island of Sardinia”, wrote about the monument: “This tomb (the Grotta della Vipera) is no longer in its original state of integrity, also because it has been dug around for a long time to extract cut stone from the rock, which here is of good quality. I can say, without boasting too much, that it was I who stopped the destructive hand of the impresarios of the great royal road in 1822. They had already erased a nearby tomb and would have done the same with the other if I had not brought in the authority of the viceroy to prevent its destruction.”
Access to the Grotta della Vipera is open to the public, who can access the tomb from the outer courtyard.
Viper Cave: the symbol of a great love story
More than for the structure, the Cave of the Viper is important for the inscriptions on its walls: there are twelve poems, some in Greek and others in Latin, which, through mythological and literary references, exalt the figure of Pomptilla and her conjugal love.
There is also a Latin inscription, placed under the frieze, which reads: “What seems to you a temple, wayfarer, covers the ashes and the small bones of Pomptilla”.
Who was Pomptilla again? Born in Rome to a noble family, Atilia Pomptilla followed her husband Lucius Cassius Philip in his exile to Sardinia, in Cagliari after emperor Nero had forced several political enemies including Lucius Cassius Longinus, father of Pomptilla’s husband, into forced exile. Shortly after his arrival on the island, Lucius Cassius Philip caught malaria in such an aggressive form that he feared for his life.
Atilia watched Lucius day and night, refusing food and praying to the gods to save her husband and take her life in place of that of her beloved. The gods, according to legend, moved by the courage and loving devotion of the woman, welcomed her prayers and so while Lucius began to recover and improve day after day, Pomptillia died.
Devastated by the loss of his wife, Lucius erected a large funeral monument to pay homage to the memory of Atilia and banished a poetic contest for compositions in Greek and Latin to beautify the tomb of his precious bride. The sweet poems were to celebrate and commemorate the sacrifice and love of Pomptillia.
Legend has it that even today the ghost of Pomptilla would often appear in the area surrounding the Viper Cave that, after being discovered and saved from destruction, has become part of the collective imagination to be the protagonist of other stories and legends. The most interesting is that under the temple there is a treasure of inestimable value, reachable only through the tunnels that wind in the subsoil. To defend the treasure there would be the traditional “Musca Macedda”, a gigantic insect from the deadly sting found to protect other numerous treasures on the island.
Do you want to visit the symbolic places of Sardinia and have a holiday full of charm and elegance? Book your stay at Palazzo Doglio in Cagliari.