When the poet Shelley stayed in Rome in 1819, he wrote of his evening walks when he saw the radiant Orion through the columns of the Temple of Concord (in actual fact, he was referring to the Temple of Saturn with its distinctive row of pillars outlined against the sky at the northern end of the Roman Forum). Shelley was fascinated by the romantic combination of ruins and stars. Being able to see the constellations in the night sky was something that was taken for granted in his day. He would probably have been dismayed to think that, almost two centuries later, it would be extremely difficult to see Orion at all from the centre of the city.

The problems of light pollution have forced astronomical observatories all over the western world to close or relocate. In Rome, there is serious debate about the future of the landmark Monte Mario observatory, which may be transferred, along with its priceless collection of historic instruments, to the Monte Porzio Catone observatory in the Castelli Romani (currently not open to the public). The Monte Porzio observatory, however, has its night-sky problems as well, due to the population boom of nearby Frascati and Grottaferrata.

Ten years ago, a group of passionate astrophiles belonging to the Associazione Tuscolana di Astronomia (ATA) began to hunt for a suitable site to plant their telescopes. They wanted a place where they could count on darker skies and better visibility. The choice eventually fell on a spot in the vast volcanic crater known as Campi dAnnibale (Hannibals Fields) in the territory of Rocca di Papa, where they were able to take over a primary school building in 1999. Funding for the project came from the European Union and private contributions. ATA member Paolo Saraceno of the Centro Nazionale di Ricerca (CNR)s Istituto di Fisica dello Spazio Interplanetario gifted the four-metre diameter cupola; Cesare La Padula, also of ATA, put together the bulky Newton telescope, with its 41 cm primary mirror that captures images from the far reaches of the universe.

The ATA observatory was inaugurated in December 2000 and named after the late Franco Fuligni, a well-known scientist and director of the Frascati chapter of the CNR.

From the outside, it has quite a modest appearance. The ex-school building is small, tucked away in a lane just off the central square of the hamlet of Vivaro, which lies in the heart of the green paddocks and meadows of Italys federal equestrian centre. However, what it lacks in size it makes up for in enthusiasm. The ATA is one of the most active and dynamic amateur astronomers associations in Italy. As well as regular weekly lectures and viewing sessions at the observatory, which are open to the general public, it organises courses, exhibitions and various events throughout the year.

During the winter months, the observatory is open on Friday evenings, when members take visitors on a fascinating journey that begins in the garden, around the meridian that points due north towards the Pole Star. After an introduction to the most prominent planets and constellations visible with the naked eye at this time of year (Mars is particularly large and bright at the moment), you are conducted up the stairs to the observation chamber where the big Newton telescope sits on its cradle, nose pointing star-wards.

One of the beauties of the Franco Fuligni Observatory is its size. Not many more than a dozen people can be admitted at a time. Visitors stand lined up against the circular walls, waiting their turn to clamber up a ladder and put their eye to the lens near the mouth of the telescope. Operated by a computer, the cannon-shaped telescope swivels up and round, searching for each particular spot in the night sky. With a creaking sound, the cupola also revolves until the aperture is aligned, while visitors gingerly pick their way over the dark strip of floor. Any inconvenience, however, is more than compensated for by the thrill of being able to observe celestial bodies that would otherwise be invisible.

ATA vice president Luca Orr focuses on several planetary nebulae, including the spectacular M42 under the belt of the constellation of Orion the Hunter a sparkling mass of millions of stars somewhere between 1,600 and 1,900 light years away. The Hunters left foot is marked by Rigel, a brilliant double blue-white star, 770 light years from the earth, while Betelguese, a gigantic red star 427 light years distant, shines on his right shoulder. In comparison, Aldebaran, the red star that forms the eye of Taurus the Bull, seems comparatively close at a mere 65 light years away. Within Taurus there is also the M1, a nebula 6,500 light years away, which is actually the remains of a supernova that exploded in 1054. Rotating round the winter sky are constellations harking back to the dawn of civilisation, which still carry the names given to them by the Greeks and the Romans.

Taurus leads into Auriga, the Chariot, spearheaded by its brightest star, Capella. Orion chases behind Gemini, with its twin stars, the dark gods Castor and Pollux. In another part of the sky, the flying horse Pegasus is linked to Andromeda and Perseus, who featured in the same myth. Next to the Great Bear, which most people can pick out, the easiest constellation to identify is Cassiopeia, with its distinctive W shape, set high up in the sky. There are also some shooting stars.

For the past three years, the association has organised a series of courses in astronomy for ATA members on subjects ranging from The Life of the Galaxy to Introduction to the Telescope. Anyone interested can take part by joining the association and paying the annual subscription fee of 30 (15 for students). In addition, stargazing theme nights throughout the coming months include: The Fridays of the New Moon on 30 December and the monthly 9 and a 1/4 of the Moon when the focus will be on the moon and various constellations that are prominent in the winter sky.

lFor information about courses and the future programme see the website www.ataonweb.it. To visit the Franco Fuligni Observatory, prior booking is essential. For information and bookings: tel. 069419979. For the Observatory tel. 0694436469. Entry: 5.

lHow to get there: take Via dei Laghi after Ciampino airport in the direction of Velletri. After the road fork for Nemi, turn left at Prati di Vivaro. Follow the road for 6 kms, then turn left for Vivaro. The observatory is well signposted from Prati di Vivaro onwards.