Passions & Places



 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 historical hurdles.

Early Roots
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.

Ancient Rome
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, Augustus, 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 Justinian in Constantinople tried to revive imperial power in Italy through his celebrated generals Belisarius 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 independence.

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 neighbours.

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 "Hie Weibling".

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 Italy.

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
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 Italian 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.

Foreign Domination and the Papal States
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 began.

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 the Renaissance.

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 day.
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.
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 Conero Peninsula.
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 Fiastra.
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 literary output.

© 2001 Liberation Ventures Ltd.

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