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What to see in Italy: Rovaglioso and the legend of Oreste

2020-07-04 02:29

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What to see in Italy: Rovaglioso and the legend of Oreste

If you're looking for something to see in Calabria, we recommend "Cala di Rovaglioso" in Palmi. A mythological and characteristic place on the purple Tyrrhenian

What to see in italy: Rovaglioso and the legend of Oreste

If you're looking for something to see in Calabria, we recommend "Cala di Rovaglioso" in Palmi. A mythological and characteristic place on the purple Tyrrhenian coast.

Rovaglioso or Porto Oreste

Porto Oreste (Portus Orestis in Latin) is a town that is said to have existed in southern Calabria and legend attributes its foundation to Oreste. Historians locate the city in the municipal territory of Palmi.

Legend has it that Orestes founded a town and a port in the area now called Rovaglioso when he landed on the coast of Calabria. In fact, in the 16th century, the monk Tommaso Aceti in his book 'De antiquitatae et situ Calabriae' reports that 'not far from the Metauro river there is Porto Oreste, which the inhabitants of the area call Roccaglioso' (Rovaglioso).

The place of Rovaglioso was frequented and well known since the first century of the Christian era, although there are no ruins or anything else that could attest to the existence of a town in ancient times. Therefore, in the first centuries of the Christian era, there must have been only a few villages which, perhaps temporarily between the fifth and sixth centuries, enjoyed a bishop's residence. There are historians who claim that the town of Porto Oreste was a very old bishop's seat, and that its bishop Longinus participated in the Council of 504.

Some historians speculate that the Port of Orestes might instead correspond to the port of the ancient city of Tauriana. The structure was probably located further north of Rovaglioso, in the 'La Scala' area, between Pietrenere and Scinà. This is because aerial maps from the 1950s show a natural sandy tongue that could have sheltered the hulls from the winds coming from the south and west. In Roman times, this natural landing place may have been transformed by adequate masonry work into a harbour basin equipped with wharves.


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The legend of the legendary Orestes

Orestes (Ancient Greek: Ὀρέστης, Oréstēs) is a character from Greek mythology, son of King Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and brother of Iphigenia, Electra and Chrysothemis.

His legend has been particularly enriched along with that of his sister Iphigenia. His role as avenger of his father was already known in the Homeric poems, although Homer

Little Orestes was born on the occasion of the festival of the Furies. It is said that, while still in swaddling clothes, Orestes was taken from his cradle and touched by the sword of Telephus, with the complicity of Clytemnestra, who swore to kill the infant if Achilles did not agree to heal him. Orestes was still very young when Agamemnon returned from the Trojan War and was murdered by his mother's lover, Aegisthus.

Electra, worried about the fate of her brother, with the support of Agamemnon's old guardian, wrapped her brother in a sheet embroidered with effigies of wild beasts, which she herself had woven, an instrument with which her sister would recognise Orestes, and secretly escaped from the city to entrust him to the care of her uncle Strophus, king of Phocis.

Aegisthus ruled Mycenae for seven years, sitting on Agamemnon's throne, holding his sceptre, sleeping in his bed, squandering his wealth. When drunk, Aegisthus would throw stones at Agamemnon's tomb, exclaiming: 'Come, Orestes, come and take what is yours'. Electra herself sent frequent messages to Orestes begging him to help her realise the revenge she expected from him.

As an adult, Orestes visited the oracle at Delphi to find out if he should mete out punishment to his father's murderers. The response issued by Apollo, authorised by Zeus, gave his consent and announced that if he did not honour the memory of Agamemnon by avenging his death he would be relegated to the fringes of society.

Having become an adult, Orestes decided to return to his homeland, to fulfil the task entrusted to him by the oracle of Delphi. In the company of his cousin Pylades, he returned to Argos and avenged his father's death by killing Aegisthus and Clytemnestra.


Picture: Orestes and Pylades against the enemies in Tauride, painting by François Bouchot

Rendered mad by matricide, Orestes was persecuted by the Furies and came to Athens. There he underwent a trial, from which he was acquitted, thanks to the intervention of Athena.

 Apollo told him that in order to find peace he had to go to Chersoneso, the land of the Taurians, steal the ancient wooden statue of Artemis and then go to a place where there was a river with seven springs. In Chersonese, when he arrived there with Pylades, he was captured and, like all foreigners, prepared for sacrifice to Artemis.

The priestess of the temple was Iphigenia, sister of Orestes, who, having recognised her brother, tricked Toante, king of the Taurians, by telling him that the new arrivals had to be washed in the sea because they were accused of matricide and also asked the population not to attend the rite. This enabled the three to escape with the statue of Artemis and sail to Greece. Toante pursued them but was defeated.

After many wanderings, they arrived in Sicily and then in Ausonia (as the coast corresponding to the present provinces of Catanzaro and Reggio Calabria was called in ancient times) and here Orestes landed at the mouth of the Metauros river (today Petrace) indicated by the oracle of Delphi(1).

 This is still today a river fed by seven springs.

As soon as he plunged into it, Orestes regained his senses. Legend has it that he founded a city there, which took his name (Port Orestes).

 From this tradition so ancient and fabulous, it seems that the people of these places were right to call port Orestes that short and unsafe breast of the rocky and high coast between the Petrace and Marina di Palmi, which has long carried the name of Rovaglioso, the place where he landed Orestes and Fury, a good part of that territory, a little higher and adjacent to the plateau of the coast of Pietrenere, near the district, now called San Filippo; in memory of the furies that, according to the narrated legend, had tormented Orestes so much (2).

He continued his journey to the city of Ipponio (today Vibo Valentia) to purify himself completely of the matricide, in the magnificent temple dedicated to Proderpina. Returning to Reggio, he built a temple to Diana Fascelide and near it a laurel tree grew from which the theori of the Reggini detached a branch to offer them, as a sacred thing, to Apollo in Delfo, whenever they went there to consult the oracle; and on this laurel tree. Here, it is said, remained for a long time the sword that Orestes had to leave when he left, consecrating it to the Goddess.

On his return he took the throne of Mycenae and Argos (after killing his half-brother Aletes) and on the death of Menelaus also that of Sparta. Pylades married Electra and Iphigenia became priestess of Artemis in Greece.



Rovaglioso is a natural cove surmounted by cliffs and ravines that opens up at the end of a sheer cliff, covered with orange blossoms and prickly pears, offering a truly suggestive and characteristic landscape.

Until recently, the route to Ravaglioso was via a steep, partially unpaved road.

Today, the little road leading to Ravaglioso is less uneven and the open parking area among the olive trees now has benches and tables made of recycled wood and small patches of succulent plants. The brambles that took away the view of the cove have been cut down and today this space has become a belvedere with a breathtaking view of the 100-metre cliff. A wooden sign with the words 'Rovaglioso presidio di volenterosi cittadini palmesi' welcomes you, while others call for respect for the environment. On one side of the clearing among the olive trees, a path of 119 steps, previously impassable and now recovered, leads down to the cliff, interspersed with a few benches for a temporary rest. At the end of the descent, the only accompaniment for the visitor is the rustle of the wind, the voice of the sea and the sound of passing boats. For the rest, there is only silence, crystal-clear water and a transparent sea bed teeming with life.

There is even a spring at one point that creates a sort of freshwater pool, a true paradise for scuba diving enthusiasts. This small miracle of recovery was achieved in 2013 by the Province of Reggio Calabria. This work has given visibility to a natural scenario that had long been inaccessible to the general public and reserved for individual and daring trekkers.


In August 2013, to crown this beautiful change, Legambiente awarded the Scogliera di Rovaglioso the 'La più bella sei tu' (The most beautiful is you) prize and the site became one of the 17 most beautiful beaches in Italy. This was decided by the outcome of an internet survey, which allowed anyone to express their opinion on Italy's outstanding places. Rovaglioso has thus been included in the list of Italy's most beautiful beaches, although there have also been references to other evocative Calabrian locations, including Praja di focu-Capo Vaticano in Ricadi, the Marinella beach in Isola di Capo Rizzuto, the Caminìa beach in Stalettì, the Roccella Jonica coastline and many others.

Immagine: William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Oreste perseguitato dalle Furie, 1862 – Norfolk (Virginia), Chrysler Museum of Art| Public Domain

(1)    Fra i primi autori che parlano del fiume e della sua ubicazione, indicandolo anche come leggendario, vi sono Varrone nel suo “Rerum Humanarum“, Probo Grammatico e Marco P. Catone nel “De Originibus“. Anche diversi studiosi di epoche successive concordano sul fatto che il Metauros corrisponda al Petrace, e Rocco Liberti, Deputato di Storia Patria per la Calabria, in un libro su Gioia Tauro pubblicato nel 1982, scrive che Antonio De Salvo alla fine dell’Ottocento sosteneva che il territorio intorno alla città venisse definito “Furia” proprio in ricordo delle Erinni che perseguitarono Oreste.

(2)  a fronte delle numerose fonti sul mito di Oreste in Calabria, in realtà pochissimi sono gli autori antichi che citano Porto Oreste, uno dei quali è Plinio il Vecchio, che nella sua Naturalis Historia (III, 73) scrive: “…Poi [c’è] Ippone, che ora si chiama Vibo Valentia; il Porto di Ercole, il fiume Metauro, la città di Tauroento, il Porto di Oreste e Medma”. Sulla scia di Plinio, secoli dopo parlano di Porto Oreste gli umanisti calabresi Gabriele Barrio e Girolamo Marafioti (XVI -XVII sec.)  e il geografo tedesco Filippo Cluverio (XVII sec.).

Portus Orestis è dunque il nome mitico di una città-porto nei pressi di Palmi per il quale, negli anni, sono state diverse le proposte di ubicazione. Stando a quanto pubblicato dalla Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Calabria, l’ipotesi più accreditata allo stato attuale delle ricerche archeologiche, sarebbe quella che il bacino del porto si trovasse a sud di Contrada La Scala, in un tratto di costa d’antica formazione ma oggi occupato in gran parte da strutture moderne, un luogo dove la lettura della cartografia aerea degli anni ’50 ha evidenziato una lingua sabbiosa naturale che poteva fungere da riparo alle imbarcazioni nel caso di venti spiranti sia da sud che da ovest. E tale approdo naturale in età romana, è probabile si sia trasformato con adeguate opere murarie, in un vero e proprio bacino portuale attrezzato con moli. Un porto che deve essere stato estremamente rilevante per la sopravvivenza della città in età imperiale e tardo-antica e che la tradizione letteraria ricorda attivo anche nei secoli successivi fino al XVIII, così come si ricava dalle opere ottocentesche di Antonio De Salvo il quale ne cita il disarmo spiegando che “…poiché l’interrimento sempre più avanzatesi…” il Porto di Oreste fu soppiantato da quello di Gioia Tauro, per volere del Vicario generale di Calabria “…avendovi fabbricato il primo magazzino di deposito, per il commercio dell’olio”.

Se al di là delle vaghe prove archeologiche, ci rivolgiamo ancora alla tradizione, scopriamo che un documento del XVIII sec. pare citi l’esistenza di una Cappella dedicata alla SS. Vergine di Porto Oreste proprio nella zona di Rovaglioso, luogo che la tradizione popolare fa coincidere con la sede del misterioso insediamento. Certo la presenza di una cappella dedicata non è una prova di esattezza del contesto geografico, ma un semplice indizio da non trascurare. Da ricordare è poi anche la menzione che di Porto Oreste fa Tommaso Aceti, vescovo, bibliotecario e filologo calabrese vissuto fra Sei e Settecento, che nell’occuparsi delle città scomparse della Calabria cita Porto Oreste collocandolo “inter Taurianum et Palman, nunc Rovaglioso”, riportandoci ancora una volta lungo l’affascinante tratto costiero. Rievoca inoltre la presunta importanza del luogo, se è vero che fu sede vescovile agli albori del Cristianesimo in Calabria, ma poi dice che la furia distruttiva dei saraceni spinse gli abitanti a trasferirsi nella vicina Taureana che avrebbero lasciato a seguito della sua distruzione nel X sec. Costoro – aggiunge il De Salvo – si sarebbero infine rifugiati nella parte alta della costiera, tra il monte Aulinas (oggi Sant’Elia) ed il fiume Metaurus, nella contrada De Palmis dove vi erano alcune case coloniche, e così Porto Oreste fu condannata all’oblio. Una correlazione fra Porto Oreste e Rovaglioso la ritroviamo anche in un Vocabolario italiano-latino in due tomi del 1764, stampato a Venezia, che alla voce PORTUS ORESTIS fa corrispondere la definizione “Plin. Porto Rovaglioso in Calabria”.


Nella cartografia antica, che spesso ripropone luoghi e toponimi desunti dagli antichi scrittori, troviamo traccia del Porto Oreste, in una carta del 1652 realizzata ad Amsterdam dal cartografo, editore e incisore olandese Joannes Janssonius, incisa in rame e colorata a mano, decorata con un bel cartiglio recante l’iscrizione “Itala nam tellus Graecia major erat”. E’ tratta dall’atlante storico “Accurata Orbis antiqui Delineatio”, curato da Hornius ed inserito da Janssonius come volume VI del suo “Atlas Novus”. La carta riprende quella originariamente edita da Ortelio nel “Parergon” del “Theatrum Orbis Terrarum”.

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