Nemi is one of those little towns in the Castelli Romani south of Rome that warrants just a tiny mention in the guidebooks: Nemi is known for its strawberries.
So why would you go there? Obviously for the strawberries. They’re very, very good, being grown in the volcanic soils at the border of Lake Nemi and all.
Nemi is also what you might call a “cute” town. It’s cuter then the picture, which was taken on a drizzly Saturday in April. But you still might not think to go there. You’d choose the better known Castel Gandolfo, perhaps.
But consider again Nemi. It has some underground caverns that have been made into an art gallery. Besides the strawberries, it has countless Norcherie, places you can buy salamis longer than your arm, called something like “shepherd’s sticks” in translation. Nemi has porchetta because it is near the mecca of porchetta, Ariccia.
Then there’s antiquity. Roman writer Servius began calling Lake Nemi “Speculum Dianae” or the “Mirror of Diana” and poets kept the image alive. The goddess Diana Nemorensis is seen everywhere in Nemi, including on restaurant menus.
But Nemi also has a secret. Well, it was a secret to me, even after I had visited the town. You see, that Roman you love to hate, Caligula, built some enormous boats to sit upon Lake Nemi. So large, in fact, they just about took up the whole surface of the lake.
These floating palaces were attached to the shore by chains, and bridges were built across the water to link with the ships. According to some historical accounts, Caligula’s ships were the scenes of orgies, murder, cruelty, music, and sport and he supposedly spent much of his inheritance from his Uncle Tiberius to create his Nemi Ship retreat. ~ Roman Emperior Caligula and His Legendary Lake Nemi Ships
According to the fine historical work of Kathy Warnes linked above, “the largest ship resembled one of his palaces transported to water and it featured a temple honoring Diana. Marble mosaic floors of many colors, inlaid ivory on the walls, heating and plumbing and baths were featured throughout both ships. The water flowed through pipes etched with Caligula’s name. Bronze sculptures were part of the decorations.”
But then, of course, all those orgies caught up with Caligula and the Senate decided to off the guy and burn his boats.
There were several attempts to raise the remains, which were legendary amongst the local fishermen, but only Mussolini’s draining of the lake and Guido Ucelli’s recovery of the ships actually worked. Benito put them in a concrete museum by the lake near to where the strawberries were grown and all was well—until the end of the big war, when retreating Germans were reputed to have set fire to the boats.
It’s lucky that we have pictures of them. Ucelli’s Le Navi di Nemi first was published in 1940, and shows the process he used to get the ships out of the muck.
Besides Kathy Warnes excellent article, you can read more about the Nemi Ships, or see the illustrated Italians viewing antique Emperor Caligula’s Nemi ships 1932, on the web.
You may wish to see a map of the Castelli Romani.