History, Arts and Culture
...discover extraordinary art treasures scattered
throughout the region, making the Marche a cultural paradise
Notes of History
The history of the Marche stretches back in a seamless web over many
millennia and few regions in the world are infused with such a strong sense of historical
continuity. Even in seemingly modern corners, scratch just below the surface and you'll
soon find ample traces of the past. Here are some signposts to help you over the
The first traces of human habitation, found on the rocky Conero Peninsula, date back
to around 20 thousand years before Christ. But our knowledge of these early peoples of the
Marche is hazy. The most important of the tribes who first inhabited the region in any
numbers were the Piceni, who lived down on the coast. Up in the mountains their
place was taken by the Umbri tribes who also dwelt in the neighbouring region now
know as Umbria. Although both tribes have left us relatively few relics of their passage,
there are a number of museums in the Marche with fascinating finds dating back to this
period; the best is the Archaeological Museum at Ancona.
From the 4thC BC, the new-born Republic of Rome gradually began to make its
presence felt. Already weakened by attacks from the Greek colonists in southern Italy and
by Celtic inroads from the north, the early Italian tribes such as the Piceni soon came
under the sway of Rome.
With the construction of the great
highways such as the Via
Flaminia, Roman dominion across Italy was consolidated. Under the first Roman Emperor,
the Marche was divided - the northern stretches formed part of the Roman Umbria, while the
south was known as Picenum.
Arrival of the Barbarians
In AD 476, Rome, already weakened by the split between the Western and Eastern Empires
and the first forays by Goths and Vandals from the north, finally fell to the barbarian
warrior Odoacer. His reign as the first King of Italy was short-lived, however,
with the arrival in 489 of Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, who established a
33-year rule of relative tranquillity in Italy.
On his death, the Eastern Roman Emperor
Constantinople tried to revive imperial power in Italy through his celebrated generals
and Narses. Although they finally managed to topple the Gothic King Totila in 552 -
the deciding battle took place at the Furlo Gorge in the northern Marche - central
Italy was in no fit state to resist yet another invasion from the north, this time from
the Lombards in 568.
For 200 years these warriors from the Danube valley held loose control
over much of central Italy, ruling from Lucca and Spoleto. Only in the northern Marche and
part of Umbria did the Byzantine powers manage to keep a toe-hold under the
protection of the Exarchate of Ravenna.
The Holy Roman Empire
Although converted to Christianity by Pope Gregory the Great, the Lombards were
regarded as unwelcome guests by later popes. It was Pope Stephen II who first hit on the
idea of calling in foreign help to oust the Lombards and in 754 Pepin the Short
entered Italy at the head of his Frankish army.
The expulsion of the Lombards proved difficult and it was only under
Pepin's son, the great Charlemagne, that the work was completed.
As a reward to his Frankish champion, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne
as the first Holy Roman Emperor. Although at the time it was little more than an
honorary title, the Holy Roman Empire thus founded was to last on and off for a thousand
years and to become the focus of continual strife between the rival claims of successive
popes and emperors.
Although Charlemagne's empire flourished, it depended too heavily on
his guiding hand; on his death in 814, things rapidly fell apart.
Central Italy was again plunged into anarchy with imperial officials
setting themselves up as local despots. Increased security only returned with the revival
of the power of the Holy Roman Empire under the Saxon King, Otto I. Trade and
industry began to flourish and, while Emperor and Pope argued over who should rule, many
of the cities of central Italy, those in the Marche included, had their first taste of
Although they paid lip service to one side or the other, in truth they
found themselves able to decide their own future. Bereft of effective central government,
these early city states bred fierce local patriotism and ceaseless rivalry with their
Guelphs & Ghibellines
The rivalry between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire came to a head under the rule of
the brilliant medieval German Hohenstaufen Emperor, Frederick II, the man who
earned the title Stupor Mundi for his dazzling talents. If you visit Jesi, you'll
be able to see the place where he was born in a tent. Although he almost succeeded in
creating a united Italy under his banner, his death in 1250 marked the eclipse of German
imperial power in the peninsular.
The Marche, like the rest of central Italy, was deeply bound up in this conflict, with
loyalties tied either to the Guelf or Ghibelline parties. The supporters of
the papacy took their name from Frederick's rival for the empire, the Welf Otto, while the
imperialists became known as Ghibellines from the Italianized Hohenstaufen battle-cry
Behind the simple struggle between the two powers lay a deeper
political battle between the new middle class of merchants and artisans, who allied
themselves with the Guelfs, and the old feudal aristocracy who saw that the tide of
democracy could best be held in check by the Emperor's Ghibelline faction. Into this
fundamental struggle all the warring factions of central Italy poured their energies.
The Guelf cause can be said to have triumphed with the arrival of the
French under Charles of Anjou in the middle of the 13thC at the invitation of Pope
Urban IV; from now on France rather than Germany was to be the dominant foreign power in
The Guelf and Ghibelline labels, however, lingered on for centuries.
Long after they had lost their original significance, they remained as a cover for just
about any difference of opinion, even as an excuse to settle old scores.
Despots and Republics
The absence of the papacy in Avignon from 1305-77, the subsequent Great
Schism which saw up to three candidates claiming the Throne of St Peter, and the
arrival of the Black Death in 1348, all provided fertile soil for the flowering of
local despotism across the Marche.
The careers of these petty tyrants were briefly interrupted by the
arrival of the ruthless Cardinal Albornoz, sent by the Avignon popes to reimpose
their rule over the Papal States, and finally went into decline with the restoration of
the papacy in Rome in 1421 under the determined Pope Martin V.
Peace before the Storm
Foreign Domination and the Papal
The apogee of the Renaissance in the middle of the 15thC was marked by a period of
relative stability across central Italy. This was in no small part thanks to the
League, a defensive treaty between the major powers in Italy that held in check both
the lesser Italian states and foreign invaders. It is against this background that many
centres of art and learning flourished; perhaps, none better illustrates the splendour of
these courts than that founded by Duke Federico of Montefeltro at Urbino.
But the days of this prototype of a united Italy were numbered. The individual interests
of the leading states soon took priority over the common good, and the arrival of Charles
VIII from France in 1494, at the invitation of Milan in their quarrel with Naples, marked
the dissolution of the League and the opening gambit in the Wars of Italy. Although
the French invasion convulsed central Italy, two years later Charles was back in France
with his Italian conquests lost.
But the French intervention had turned the thoughts of another great
European power towards Italian conquests - Spain. As the 16thC dawned and the
Italian Renaissance took root across Europe, central Italy along with the rest of the
peninsula became a battleground on which the rival claims to Italian hegemony between
Francis I of France and Charles V of Spain were tested. And with the Treaty of
Cateau-Cambresis in 1559, over a hundred and fifty years of Spanish domination of Italy
With the Spanish holding the rest of Italy in check, the Papacy was
free to consolidate its rule over its own possessions which included the Marche - while
the centre of Italian culture moved to Counter-Reformation Rome, the Papal States
were left to languish under the dead hand of ecclesiastical bureaucrats.
Napoleon & The Risorgimento
The shock waves of the French Revolution of 1789 were felt in Italy and helped to fan
the first flames of libertarianism that were to culminate in 1860 with the birth of United
Italy. But first it had to submit to the Napoleonic invasion of 1796.
Across Italy, Bonaparte first set up client republics - with the Papal
States transformed into the Roman Republic - then the more draconian Kingdom of Italy. The
collapse of the regime with the fall of Napoleon was as rapid as its arrival. But, despite
its brevity, Napoleonic rule awoke central Italy and the rest of the country from its long
slumbers and fostered the rebirth of nationalism.
Under the Piedmont King Victor Emmanuel, his wily prime minister, Cavour
and the heroic if maverick general, Garibaldi, United Italy became a reality. In
1859 the Italian tricolore flew from the Fortezza of Florence and the last Grand Duke,
Leopold II, abdicated. A year later large parts of Italy opted to join the new Kingdom of
Piedmont. The Papacy, however, proved more intransigent to the onslaught of the
Risorgimento and it was only by force that the Marche managed to break free from the Papal
States in the same year. It was a full ten years later that Rome finally fell, in 1870.
From here on the history of the Marche is but part of the wider story of modern
Art & Culture
For many Italy is synonymous with some of the greatest art and architecture that
the Western world has ever produced. And the Marche has these artistic treasures in
abundance. From world renowned works such as Piero della Francesca's Flagellation at
Urbino to the lesser-known but ravishing paintings of Lorenzo Lotto dotted across the
region, here you can witness close-up the results of the great cultural explosion that was
But unlike the more well-trodden areas of Italy, here in the Marche culture comes
in more digestible portions. Instead of endless museum corridors stuffed full of
canvasses, the small local pinacoteca with just a few choice works is the order of the
Even more delightful - and rare anywhere else - are the noble works that
still stand in the places for which they were first created. The many paintings by the
great Carlo Crivelli scattered throughout small parish churches in the southern stretches
of the region are an example of this phenomenon.
As well as the many great figures of the Renaissance who spent large parts of
their working lives in the Marche such as Piero della Francesca, Lotto and Crivelli, the
region was also the birthplace of numerous leading artists, the greatest of whom was the
divine Raphael, born in Urbino in 1483. Others include the architect Bramante and Gentile
da Fabriano, the celebrated master of the International Gothic school.
From monumental works of ancient Roman
engineering to the Late Renaissance flourishes of the Basilica of Loreto, the Marche also
has some of central Italy's finest architectural monuments. Perhaps the greatest of them
all is Urbino's Ducal Palace, the model of the Renaissance princely palace - latter copied
but never equalled in its balanced, elegant beauty.
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Amongst the architects who helped Duke Federico da Montefeltro build his
palazzo at Urbino was Francesco di Giorgio Martini. And it is this Renaissance genius of
both civil and military architecture who has left his mark on many of the Marche's finest
buildings - the lofty walls of the impregnable fortress at San Leo in the north to Jesi's
perfect Palazzo della Signoria are just two examples of his work.
But centuries before the Renaissance, Marche builders were creating splendid
monuments, mostly to the glory of God rather than local princes. The greatest of these
were the Romanesque churches built between the 11th and 13th
centuries. Of the many to be found today, the most outstanding include Ancona's Cathedral
of San Ciriaco, the "double-decker" church of Santa Maria a Piè di Chienti near
Macerata, and the beautifully-sited church of Santa Maria on the beach at Portonovo on the
The flowering of monastic orders in Medieval times also left its mark on the
Marche and a visit to some of the monasteries they left behind is well worth while.
Perhaps the most evocative is the Monastery of Fonte Avellana standing in breathtaking
mountain scenery below Monte Catria - it has little changed since Dante stayed here; pure
"Name of the Rose". Others include the two Cistercian abbeys at Chiaravalle and
Remember when enjoying the artistic treasures of the Marche that the delights
are not always the work of the world's celebrated masters. Often you will find yourself
spellbound by artists that few outside the region have ever heard of. Leave your
prejudices at home, use your own eyes, and enjoy the often moving brilliance of these
local masters. In Urbino hunt out the Oratorio di San Giovanni Battista to
see a small church entirely decorated with earthy 13th century wall-to-ceiling
frescoes by the brothers Jacopo and Lorenzo Salimbeni; and at Tolentino admire the
anonymous Giotto-like frescoes in the Basilica dedicated to the town's own San Nicola.
Art and architecture are by no means the region's only cultural achievements.
The region boasts a rich musical heritage and was the birthplace of the great operatic
composer Rossini. The annual Rossini Opera Festival in the composer's home town of Pesaro
celebrates his genius with world-class productions from his extensive repertory. The
region was also the birthplace of the Baroque composers Pergolesi and Gaspare Spontini.
Other musical highlights in the Marche include the annual open-air opera season in the
massive arena known as the Sferisterio in Macerata, second only to Verona in Italy's
summer open-air opera calendar.
The Marche's breathtaking countryside also inspired some of the Italy's
greatest poetry, the 19th century Romantic verses of Giacomo Leopardi. Visit
his birthplace at Recanati to understand the powerful hold this charming town had on his