Located on a flat area above the confluence of the rivers Tronto and Castellano, Ascoli Picenois an extraordinary city.The father of existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, wrote that “a walk through the streets of the old part of Ascoli is like leafing through a book on the history of art and having the good fortune to find the most representative and expressive illustrations of the various periods of Italian art.”
Close to the Adriatic Sea, Ascoli Piceno is surrounded on three sides by Monte dell’Ascensione, Colle San Marco, and Montagna dei Fiori.
The Via Salaria crosses the Apennine chain and links it to Rome, crossing two National Parks – the Monti Sibillini and the Monti della Laga.
The origins of Ascoli are shrouded in the mists of time.
One legend has it that the first settlement was founded by Aesis, king of the Pelasgians.
According to an ancient Italic tradition, however, the city was founded by a group of Sabines who, guided by a woodpecker, a bird sacred to Mars, later blended in with the native peoples, giving rise to the Piceni, for whom Ascoli became the main centre.
The importance of the city was due to the Via Salaria, a strategic and military road used for trade in salt, a precious commodity for the preservation of foodstuffs.
In the third century BC, Ascoli was a Roman colony and an important commercial centre: after troubled times, brought about by the indomitable nature of its inhabitants, it was incorporated definitively by a process of Romanisation, becoming the capital of the Augustan Regio V and later (3rd cent.) of thePicenum Suburbicarium.
During the imperial age, the city was adorned with fine constructions, including the Porta Gemina, a monumental entrance on the Via Salaria, the Ponte Augusteo bridge over the Tronto, which is one of the few still in use 2000 years later, the Theatre, and the Amphitheatre.
With the fall of the Roman Empire and the invasion of the Longobards came the domination of the Duchy of Spoleto, which lasted two centuries.
This was followed by that of the Franks, who came down into Italy in the wake of Charlemagne, and then by the bishop-counts.
A free municipality after 1183, it was sacked and partly destroyed by the imperial armies of Frederick II.
In the 14th century, it was ruled by signiory of Galeotto Malatesta of Rimini and, in the fifteenth, by that of Francesca Sforza.
In 1482 the tyranny was overthrown, but Ascoli was forced to recognise the sovereignty of the Church.
In 1860 the city was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy and thereafter shared its destiny.
In September 1943, Ascoli Piceno was one of the first cities in Italy to rise up against German domination: the fight of the Resistance earned it the Gold Medal for Military Valour.
Part of the provincial territory has been claimed for over a century by its historic rival, nearby Fermo, which lost its title as provincial capital after the Unification of Italy.
One of the distinctive characteristics of Ascoli Piceno is its uninterrupted use of local travertine stone.
For two thousand years it has been used for most buildings, from the lowliest to the great centres of power and churches, and for paving its squares.
The old part of town owes its compact, harmonious appearance to this material.
It could be said that travertine stone has accompanied the passing of history and of architectural styles, creating the urban fabric and making it absolutely unique.
Already in the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance, the magistri de preta had become an important part of the city economy and culture.
The history of Ascoli unfolds before visitors who strolls through its streets and squares, because the city has such a large number of historic buildings.
One place that cannot be missed is Piazza del Popolo, the city’s salon, film set, and historic meeting place for the people of Ascoli and for visitors alike.
The Piazza, which has arcades on three sides, with 59 arches, is one of the most beautiful in Italy and it offers the visitor a veritable kaleidoscope of emotions.
Originally the Roman forum, the square bears the symbols of civic power (the sixteenth-century Palazzo dei Capitani del Popolo), of religious power (the splendid basilica of San Francesco), and of social life (the historic Caffè Meletti).
Another architectural complex is Piazza Arringo, with civic buildings (the ancient Palazzo Comunale) and religious (the huge cathedral of Sant’Emidio, with its façade designed by Cola dell’Amatrice in the sixteenth century) and the octagonal baptistery of San Giovanni.
The rooms of the sumptuous Pinacoteca Civica art gallery and of the Museo Archeologico e Diocesano give onto the square.
On the other side of the city, high up above the Castellano torrent, stands the Forte Malatesta, a symbol of the tyranny of Galeotto Malatesta.
Below it is the Roman bridge, known as the Ponte di Cecco.
Despite is real origins, legend has it that it was built in a single night by the poet Francesco Stabili, Cecco d’Ascoli, with the help of the devil.
Another construction that recalls Roman times is Porta Gemina, the monumental entrance to the city for those arriving from Rome along the Via Salaria.
With a twin barrel vault, it served its purpose for over a thousand years.
Modern buildings include the nineteenth-century neoclassical Teatro Ventidio Basso, dedicated to the victory of Ventidio Basso of Ascoli Piceno over the Parthians.
This is one of fifteen historic theatres in the province of Ascoli (there are sixty-three in the Marche).
Ascoli Piceno has preserved many delightful corners where time appears to stand still – this is the world of the rue, narrow paved streets between ancient houses.
Those who wish to experience the atmosphere of the age of city-republics need only walk through these little streets or along the romantic Via delle Stelle, an enchanting path still paved with its original stones along the outer walls of Ascoli, which the local people call the Rrete li merghie (“behind the battlements” in their colourful dialect), in memory of the crenellations along the medieval city walls.
As in Ascoli, the history of Fermo unfolds in the streets, squares, and buildings one comes across while strolling through the town.
Right by the Adriatic, the city stands on the slopes of Colle Sabulo, which is dominated by the Girfalco and the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta.
The hill has been inhabited since the Bronze Age and it later expanded during the Piceni civilisation.
The so-called “megalithic walls” (9th cent. BC) are outstanding.
The actual founding of the city came with the Sabines, and later it acquired the dignity of a Roman colony (264 BC) to control the rebelliousAsculum: it was probably at this time that its rivalry with the Piceno city began.
Ever faithful to Rome (“Firmum firma Romanorum colonia” states the scroll on the municipal crest), it fought on its side during the Second Punic War (209 BC) and obtained full Roman citizenship (Municipio optimo jure).
Evidence of the Roman period can be seen in the cisterns, the piscine epuratorie – filter beds for collecting water for the city – part of which now form the Museo Archeologico and which can still be visited.
In the Middle Ages it was the largest city in the Marche and the capital of Marchia Firmana, which was set up by the Franks and which reached all the way to what is now Vasto, in Abruzzo.
In the Middle Ages (13th-14th cent.) the lovely cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta was built in Istria stone on Colle del Girfalco.
On the façade it has a magnificent portal and an elegant rose window.
Under Swabian domination, the city acquired jurisdiction over a number of castles in the area and expanded considerably in terms of population and buildings.
This was followed by even greater expansion, brought about by trade agreements with Venice and Dalmatia.
A free city as from 1199, in the thirteenth century it was endlessly in conflict with its rival city, Ascoli.
The Egidian Constitutions of 1357 recognised Fermo as a civitas magna, to which sixty castles were attributed.
After this, formidable fortification works were built to protect the port and city.
Under the Sforza signiory in the fifteenth century, great town-planning works were carried out.
In the sixteenth century, Pope Sixtus V created the archbishop’s see of Fermo, increasing the prestige and importance of the city.
In the following century, the library – one of the most important in the Marche – was built, thanks to donations from Cardinal Decio Azzolino.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, radical town planning rationalised its layout.
Under Napoleon, it was the capital of the Department of Tronto, governing important centres like Ascoli Piceno and Camerino.
With the constitution of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, Fermo lost its position as the provincial capital, which was taken over by Ascoli.
While Ascoli Piceno is known as the “city of stone”, Fermo is the “city of brick” for, like other towns on the Adriatic, its buildings are indeed made of this material.
The old part of Fermo is uniform in appearance, with steep, narrow streets that radiate down from the main square towards the beautiful churches and the foot of the hill.
Building development has taken place further out, without affecting the uniformity of the older part.
The centre of the city is Piazza del Popolo, beneath Colle Sabulo.
The configuration of the square reveals its mediaeval origins, even though it was definitively laid out in the fifteenth century under the signiory of Francesco Sforza.
The Palazzo dei Priori and the adjacent Palazzo del Vescovo, which are joined by an arcade of rounded arches, both give onto the square.
The building has two flights of steps that lead up to the entrance porch, which is surmounted by a bronze statue of Sixtus V.
The Renaissance Palazzo del Governatore, which was also used by the Papal delegates, has a fine portal that leads from the square to one of the city districts.
The former University premises, known as the Palazzo degli Studi, has recently been restored and is now home to one of Italy’s ten leading libraries.
The historic Teatro dell’Aquila is one of the biggest in the Marche, with a 350-square-metre stage and perfect acoustics.
Opened in 1791, it has recently been restored and reopened.
A number of stylistically consistent aristocratic residences give onto the main avenue in the old city.
The churches include San Zenone (12th cent.), with its magnificent portal, and the Gothic oratory of Santa Monica and San Francesco.