Capena is a small town on the northern outskirts of the metropolitan city of Rome. The commuter housing on its eastern edge is late-20th century, while the town centre is older by 100 years or so – and pleasant enough, though nothing special. But on the west side the centro storico dates from the Middle Ages – and is remarkably unspoilt.
The Benedictine monastery of Saint Paul was established here In the 11th century on an outcrop of volcanic rock that is nowadays simply called la Rocca – the Rock. The monastery later became known as the Palazzo dei Monaci (Palace of the Monks).
The main frontage of the monks’ palazzo faces the Piazza del Popolo, the largest public space in Capena. The square was laid out in the 16th century, when its clock tower was erected on the north side, which is shown in the photo below – following a recent facelift with the help of some EU funding.
The surviving monastery complex dates primarily from the Renaissance era, with extensive modifications in 1851. Despite occasional popular uprisings, the entire village remained under monastic jurisdiction until the fall of the Papal States in 1870, when Leprignano (as Capena was called until 1933) broke away and became an independent municipality.
The palazzo continued to be occupied by monks until the end of the 19th century. The former monastery was subsequently used for municipal purposes and as a school until 1930, and was later subdivided and sold to individuals. Although you can freely roam the narrow paths winding around and through the Rocca, no internal part of the palazzo is open to the public – but a couple of modernized properties are available as holiday lets, including the monastery’s former guest quarters.
The Lazio region has proclaimed Capena a città d’arte in recognition of its history and its many archaeological finds (most of which are now scattered to museums near and far). The town is home to a small community of present-day artists, notably Rosina Wachtmeister, who has frequently depicted the old quarter – and particularly its scores of cats – in her work. Rosina’s daughter Gabila is also a resident artist and her grandson Battista is a ceramicist who has led a project to install mosaic benches and sculptures at various locations around the old quarter.
Just down the hill from a convenient car park, there’s a delightfully quirky café-bar in the north-west corner of the Piazza del Popolo, which often hosts live music events (mainly of the jazzy variety) on a Saturday night.