On the southern coast of Lake Garda, at the far end of the Sirmione peninsula, in a splendid panoramic position are the remains of the Roman villa known for centuries as the "Grotte di Catullo", the most grandiose example of a private building in noble character of all northern Italy. In the Renaissance the name of "caves" or "caverns" was used for internal and collapsed structures, covered with vegetation, into which one penetrated as in natural cavities.
The tradition dating back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries has identified this complex as the family villa of Catullus, the Latin poet who died in 54 BC. Based on the testimony of the verses of Catullus it is certain that he had a residence in Sirmione, but that it was precisely in this area is only possible.
Sirmione belonged to the Veronese countryside and is also known in the ancient world for having been a rest stop (mansio) along the important road that connected Brescia to Verona. The first detailed representation of the remains of the villa is a relief from the early nineteenth century.
Extensive excavations were then carried out by the Veronese Girolamo Orti Manara, who published the results in a work that is still fundamental today.
The Superintendency began excavations and restorations in 1939-40 and in 1948 acquired the whole area, allowing the protection of the complex immersed in its natural environment.
Recent investigations have made it possible to ascertain the existence of a previous building below the rooms of the southern sector and to confirm that the construction currently in light was built with a unitary project that defined the orientation and distribution of the interior spaces , according to a precise criterion of axiality and symmetry.
The villa, which has a rectangular plan (167 x 105 m), with two foreparts on the short sides, covers a total area of over two hectares.
To overcome the inclination of the rocky bank on which the foundations of the building were placed, large construction spaces were created, while in some areas massive rock cutting works were necessary. The remains currently preserved are thus found on different levels: from the northern sector, for example, only the grandiose buildings remain, while nothing is preserved of the residential rooms, which already collapsed in ancient times.
The main floor, corresponding to the owner's living quarters, is the most damaged (the villa was a quarry for materials for centuries), while parts of the intermediate floor and the buildings, sometimes not accessible in ancient times, are best preserved. The conventional names of the rooms derive from a consolidated local tradition or from interpretations and names given during old excavations.
The entrance to the building was located in the southern forepart. The villa was characterized by long arcades open to the lake on the western and eastern sides, directly communicating on the northern side with the large terrace - belvedere located in the center of the north forepart. On the western side, under the portico was the cd. "double cryptoporticus",
The residential parts of the building were located in the northern and southern part, while the central part, now constituted by the "large olive grove", corresponded to an open space.
This is limited on the southern side by a herringbone brick floor covering a large cistern, nearly 43 meters long.
The large thermal sector, consisting of several rooms, probably obtained after the construction of the building, at the beginning of the second century AD, was located in the southern area.
The construction of the villa can be dated to the Augustan age (late 1st century BC-early 1st century AD).
The collapse of the structures and the consequent partial or total abandonment of the building are set in the 4th century AD, a period to which several burial tombs located in a part of the villa now destroyed can be attributed.
The archaeological area and the annexed Museum (Piazzale Orti Manara, tel. 0039- (0) 30-916157) can be visited every day, except Mondays, from 9 to 18, from April to September, from 9 at 4 pm, from October to March. From the historic center closed to traffic, the "Grotte di Catullo" can be reached with a short walk (about 15 minutes) or, in the summer months only, by an electric train that leaves from Piazza Piatti.