Catullus and the Sirmione Caves

The beauty, the transparency of the waters and the enchanting landscape of Lake Garda have captured the fancy of artists and writers since Roman times. Catullus chose these lake landscapes to live in and even today the ruins of the villa of Lesbia’s lover are visited by tourists from all over the world.

Gaius Valerius Catullus was born in Verona in Cisalpine Gaul. The date of his birth and death is uncertain; it is generally believed that he was born in 84 and died in 54 BC. His was an affluent family; Suetonius tells us in The Life of Caesar that the poet’s father hosted Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celerus and Julius Caesar in his own home at the time of their proconsulship in Gaul. Catullus moved to Rome around 61-60 BC and began to associate with prominent politicians and intellectuals such as Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, Gaius Memmius, Cornelius Nepos and Asinius Pollonius.

During his prolonged stay in the capital, he had a troubled relationship with Clodia, the sister of the tribune Clodius, whom the poet called in his poems under the pseudonym Lesbia. It was during this period that he left Rome several times to take refuge in his villa in Sirmione on Lake Garda, a place he particularly loved and celebrated for its delightful charm.

On the southern coast of the lake, almost at the end of the Sirmione peninsula, you can see the ruins of one of the grandest private buildings in northern Italy: the Roman villa known as Grotte di Catullo (Catullo’s Caves), used to indicate collapsed structures covered in vegetation into which people entered as if into natural cavities. The legend – dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries – has identified this complex with Catullus’ family villa. It is certain that the poet had a residence in Sirmione, but it is not certain that this was it.

The Soprintendenza began excavations in the late 1930s and began restoration in 1948, acquiring the entire area. Recent investigations have ascertained the existence of an earlier building below the southern sector rooms.