The editorial staff of GardaConcierge has prepared a new cultural guide which helps visitors explore the past of the Lake Garda area via its archaeological sites.
Monte San Martino – Riva del Garda
One of the most important archaeological sites in the region is located on the northern shore of Lake Garda: an old town was situated on Monte San Martino, at a height of about 800 metres. It had a favourable location due to its access to major transportation routes. Finds on site date the settlements in the area to the late Iron Age. They also prove there was religious life during this period. The settlement was still a cult site during Roman times; indeed the construction of a complex that probably served as a sanctuary dates back to the 1st century A.D. Statuettes of various deities found here indicate that the complex was used as as polytheistic holy place. The area was, however, used primarily for military purposes between the 5th and 6th century, at least in the southern part. At that time, a permanent settlement arose; judging from the finds of dwellings, this was a large town. The Chiesa San Martino church dates from a later period, namely the time between the 8th and 9th century, and has experienced various changes over time.
Tenno is the seat of the documentation centre of Monte San Martino. It houses finds from the excavation works, exhibited according to the various settlement periods. We recommend a visit to the centre’s website* for further information and ticket reservation.
Petroglyphs – Torri del Benaco
Our exploration of Lake Garda’s prehistoric past takes us to some of the many places on the slopes of Monte Baldo that feature petroglyphs. The area concerned is extensive. Most of the petroglyphs are situated in the Torri del Benaco area that reaches from Crero to Brancolino and borders on Garda. In close proximity to Crero is the so-called Roccia Grande, the largest piece of rock covered with petroglyphs in the area. The area around Brancolino features petroglyphs that were discovered in the 1960s and mostly depict boats. Drawings of weapons were uncovered later. These were created much earlier, around the 1st century B.C. The petroglyphs were made by engraving or bush-hammering with hard stone such as serpentine or quartzite. The petroglyphs are more clearly visible in the morning light when wet.
To visit the petroglyphs in the Crero area, it is advisable to leave the car in Torri and follow the mule track leading to the Coi quarter. Brancolino is also best reached on foot. We recommend leaving one’s car in San Vigilio and walking along the Strada dei Catèi that was once the only connecting road between Torri and Garda.
Some of the most beautiful petrogylphs can be seen in the “Sala delle Incisioni” at the museum of the Scaliger castle in Torri del Benaco.
Pile-Dwelling Villages – Peschiera del Garda
Lake Garda is characterised by various prehistoric pile-dwelling villages. These villages in Peschiera and at Lake Frassino have been added to the UNESCO world heritage list along with other places in the French, Swiss, Italian, Austrian, German and Slovenian Alps. The organic materials of the buildings have been preserved because of the surrounding water – in better condition than they would have been. The settlement extending from Belvedere to Peschiera del Garda is one of the oldest of its kind and, counting thirty thousand square metres, one of the largest.
Underwater research has revealed that the area was inhabitated throughout the Bronze Age. The less extensive works at Lake Frassino brought to light finds that are well-preserved due to their origin in a peat pit.
Finds from the pile-dwelling villages on Lake Garda can also be seen in the palaeoanthropological collection at Verona’s natural history museum. We recommend a visit to the museum website* for further information.
Grotte Catullo – Sirmione
The “Grotte di Catullo” are located in Sirmione on the southern end of Lake Garda. The remains of this North Italian manor house are impressive. Despite the fact that the Roman poet Catullus had a property in the Sirmione area, it is by no means certain that this villa was it.
Due to excavation works started between the two world wars and finished only recently, the underlying principle of the construction can now be seen. It is characterised by order and symmetry even when it comes to space distribution. The villa has a rectangular layout, covering an area of more than two hectares. For its construction, the ground had to be levelled on a wide area. The main floor has suffered damage, while the middle and ground floor are well-preserved. The villa was built during the Augustan age, more precisely, between the end of the 1st century B.C. and the start of the 1st century A.D.; it seems however to have been abandoned in the 4th century. After this era, the villa was uninhabited, and the building started to deteriorate.
The Grotte di Catullo can be visited from April to September, from Tuesdays to Sundays from 9 am to 6 pm, and from October to March at reduced opening times on the same days from 9 am to 4 pm. The associated museum is close to the excavation site, at the Piazzale Orti Manara, and has the same opening times. Further information is available on the website of the excavation site.
Villa Romana – Desenzano del Garda
At the beginning of the 1920s, the remains of another villa from Roman times on Lake Garda came to light quite by accident. The villa is also situated in the province of Brescia, but further west, in the town of Desenzano del Garda. The construction of the villa can be traced back to three successive phases during the period from the end of the 1st century B.C. and the 1st half of the 4th century A.d. If the villa traditionally attributed to Catullus is impressive, the Villa Romana in Desenzano wins visitors over with its splendid multi-coloured mosaics that have been reconstructed over an area of more than 240 square meters. Due to the building’s close proximity to Lake Garda it is assumed that it once had direct access to Lake Garda with its moles and berths. It seems likely that the building was used for fishing. As mentioned before, the mosaics give great artistic value to the site. Among the designs, grape gathering putti, chariots, wild animals, allegorical scenes, and maenads and satyrs are worth mentioning. The name of the villa’s former owner is unknown, but the building’s opulence suggests that it was an illustrious and affluent person. The villa could therefore have belonged to the brother of the Roman usurper Magnentius, Flavius Magnus Decentius, whose name can be easily traced back to the town of Desenzano. The museum seat is in the villa’s entrance area. In the “antiquarium”, it houses the finds from excavations. Visiting hours are as follows: from March to October, Tuesdays to Sundays from 8:30 am to 7 pm. From November to February, the museum closes at 5:00 pm on the same days. Further information is available on the town website*.
Villa Romana – Toscolano Maderno
Another archaeological complex from Roman times is situated on the western shore of Lake Garda, in the town of Toscolano Maderno: it is a villa similar in structure to those of Sirmione and Desenzano. The existence of the Villa Romana was already known in the 15th and 16th centuries. It is thought to have belonged to the Nonii Arrii, one of the most important families in the Brescia area. Even though the excavation works on Lake Garda brought to light only a part of the complex, one can imagine the structure of the general complex. Construction started in the 1st century A.D. The main body of the first building ran parallel to the lake shore and boasted two front buildings on the north and south side as well as a loggia with lake view. The complex then experienced various changes and renovations up to the 5th century. During a visit today, one can explore the lateral front building on the villa’s south side. It consists of various rooms which feature external walls of more than one metre high with the remains of earlier decorations. The excavations have also brought to light the floor of a few rooms, decorated with mosaics. Identification of another part of the complex started recently. About 50 metres north of the so-called front building is a room that probably served as a triclinium, a Roman dining room, that had access to the loggia with a lake view. In the outdoor area, i.e. in the garden leading to the lake, the remains of an impressive rectangular fountain have been found.
For information on the opening hours for indidvidual, free and guided tours subject to a cost, we recommend visiting the town website*.
* website in Italian
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