Ascoli’s “Piazza del Popolo” : a square that should not be missed
Known as the “Living Room of Italy”, Piazza del Popolo is the heart of the historic center of Ascoli Piceno and its best open-air monument.
“There is no other place in Italy where one can perceive the square as a social place and, at the same time, architectural level as the Piazza del Popolo in Ascoli Piceno. This is – as it is said – the heart of the city … “(Mario Tozzi, “Journey to Italy”).
The famous Piazza del Popolo in Ascoli Piceno – also known as “Salotto d’Italia” – owes its undeniable beauty to the restyle made in the early years of the ‘500 by Lombardy workers on the probable design of Bernardino di Pietro da Carona for the will of Governor Raniero De ‘Ranieri. In order to give a harmonious and uniform appearance to the place, a travertine colonnade with brick vaults was built to cover the irregular medieval shops that were overlooking the square. The work continued for two years (1507-09) and public and private funding was used. The owners of the workshops had the opportunity to build their own locals in accordance with strict rules: use the same materials (travertine and bricks); raise the structure of a single floor, thus maintaining the same height as the other buildings; follow the same window style. However, these precautions did not suffice to create a perfect “Renaissance Order”: the width of the arches, in fact, turned out different because the magnitudes of the pre-existing lots were different. The Ghibelline laces are a further addition. Before to the fortunate Renaissance placement, the square was also the workplace of the stonecutters that cut the travertine blocks to obtain bricks useful for the construction of the Church of St. Francis. The square was later renamed “Piazza delle Scaje” because of the stone chips produced in the stonecutting process.
At other times it was also called “Platea superior” to distinguish it from the “inferior”, the current Piazza Ventidio Basso. From recent studies and after the fortunate finding of remains under the façade of Palazzo dei Capitani, it can be said that in Roman times there was a large open and public place, perhaps the square of the macellum.
Piazza Arringo: Ascoli Piceno’s main square
Piazza Arringo has been for centuries the centre of power of the city and it is one of the first things you have to see once you have arrived.
Over the centuries, Piazza Arringo, probably home of one of the squares in Roman times, has its name for the popular gatherings held in the Middle Ages, the “herrings” or “arenghi”. Its rectangular shape is bordered by public and private buildings of various ages but all perfectly matched with white local stone: travertine. In addition to the Duomo di Sant’Emidio and the Baptistery of San Giovanni, the Bishop’s Palace, Palazzo Panichi (current seat of the State Archaeological Museum) and Palazzo dell’Arengo are overlooking on the square. In medieval times at its center a great elm was implanted, symbolizing the life of the city. As such, every time the plant died it was replaced. Under the tree, politics and justice were discussed. But Piazza Arringo was also the venue for chivalrous tournaments, linked to the patron saint celebrations. Here, in medieval times, the Quintana and the Giostra dell’Anello were held. In 1882 a monument to Vittorio Emanuele II was erected, created by Nicola Cantalamessa, now located at the public gardens of Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Two years later, in 1884, two elliptical travertine fountains were inaugurated, with sea horses and bronze putti by Giorgio Paci and they are still in the same place.
In Ascoli Piceno, Palazzo dei Capitani: a building rich of history and culture
Among archaeological findings and spaces dedicated to the city’s institutional life, the Palazzo dei Capitani del Popolo of Ascoli Piceno is one of the must-see places to be in the “Picena” city.
The palace rises on the west side of Piazza del Popolo and is built in its original core between the end of the 13th and 14th centuries, from the unification of three medieval buildings. Born as a seat of artisan delegates, it is called “Palatium Populi” but when the people, strong of their corporations, formed a free municipality, the building becomes “Palactium Communis et Populi” and headquarters of the “Captain of the People”. In the second half of the 1900s it was changed by stretching it to the south and getting a new floor between the first and the second. In 1520 the architect Cola Dell’Amatrice is asked to realize the back of the building, in fact a second façade visible from Cardo, today’s Via del Trivio: it rises by overturning the three architectural orders and culminating with guelfa cross-windows. The signature of the great architect is still legible in an attic. On the night of Christmas in 1535 the building goes on fire. It is the papal governor Giovan Battista Quieti to order the fire to make the political rebels who took shelter there flee. Damage will be considerable, in addition to the loss of all documents of the time. The building will have to be radically restored. In 1546 Lazzaro di Francesco, the Ferrone, created the new portal overlooked by the statue of Paul III, the Pope who had managed to bring some castles of the valley under the control of the city , guaranteeing peace. In 1549 the splendid courtyard on three orders of vaults ,following Camillo Merli’s design, and the internal staircase were built. Due to the new political conditions, in 1563 the Palazzo was the seat of the Pontifical Governors and remained so until 1860 when, with the passage of Marche to the Kingdom of Italy, it became property of the State. Since 1902 Palazzo dei Capitani is part of the Municipality of Ascoli Piceno, which cares for the renovation works (1982-87). The new long intervention leads to the recovery of the “Sala della Ragione” – the past seat of the Council of the Hundred – and the arrangement in its countertop of twelve painted wooden panels (XVIII-XIX centuries). In the nearby Hall of the Coat of Arms, the frescoed walls recall the Pontifical Governors here in the nineteenth century. Currently the building is the headquarters of the Department of Culture and hosts temporary exhibitions. The Municipal Council convenes in the Sala della Ragione.
Porta Solestà’s Bridge in Ascoli Piceno: a wonderful architectural piece
Among the bridges to see and to cross in Ascoli Piceno, the Augustan one of Porta Solestà is definitely unavoidable if you are staying in the Città delle 100 Torri.
Among the bridges that the Romans erected throughout their Empire, the one in Porta Solestà is surely one of the most interesting and the best preserved of all the other bridges. Built to connect the two shores of the Tronto river and more generally two roman provinces, Ascoli and Fermo, the bridge was wanted by the Emperor Augustus as part of his Empire’s policy of settlement, which included, among other things, the creation of a dense road network with an excellent level of maintenance. The length of the bridge reaches 62m and the width is 6,50m, allowing the travelling wagons to cross. The bricks used are squared, entirely in travertine. Large stone blocks are placed on each other in such a way that all are positioned neatly and that the point of adhesion between each other is resting on the bottom of the block below. For this reason the structure was built “dry” without the use of cement mortar. The big, single arch has a light of over 22m, a sign of great Roman engineering ability. During 1929-30 and 1937-38, works of restoration and consolidation were made. For this reason, the bridge has been completely emptied of all the filling material (soil, river stones, construction waste) used to support the Roman road cover and the cracks were filled. Inside, a reinforced concrete walkway has been created to support the structure and endure the vibrations of car traffic. Do not forget that the bridge never denied its service, so we must think that it has been crossed at all times, from the Roman, to the medieval, to the Renaissance to this day.
Rua delle Stelle: Ascoli’s romantic side
Charming and romantic street, Rua delle Stelle in the historic center of Ascoli Piceno keeps traces of the medieval history of the city.
Rua delle Stelle is perhaps the most evocative road in Ascoli Piceno, almost an “agrarian trail” that runs along a shore of the river Tronto. It winds through the Porta di Borgo Solesta and, through the medieval district of Porta Romana, reaches the former church of Santa Maria delle Stelle, now a private studio. In dialect it is called “Rrète li mierghie”, literally “Behind the battlements”. The characteristic landmark serves to remind the ancient aspect of the road: that being the medieval walls of the city that were obviously crenellated. On the battlements, the handicrafts were dried up: tanned leather, lint, silks and dyed brocades. Today the walls have been replaced by a parapet wall that allows you to enjoy the view of the flowing river and all the lush vegetation that covers the high shores. The other part of the road, however, is a succession of small houses, remains of ancient shops and towers that are traces of the medieval city.
The Theatre: Roman influence in Ascoli’s entertainment
One of the peculiarities in Ascoli Piceno is the Roman Theater, a place that tells the history of the city from the Roman era.
Located at the foot of Colle dell’Annunziata, just outside the historic center of Ascoli Piceno, the Roman Theater is one of the most fascinating monuments that a vacationing tourist cannot miss. It is built above a preexistent Italic theatre used by the Piceni for their rites, the same one in which the Roman proconsul Quinto Servilio, with his speech, sparked the rebellion that led to the Social War of the 89 B.C. and the destruction of the Picena capital. The repeatedly carried out excavations, between 1932 and 1959, bring to light the implantation of the hemicycle on which the staircases for the spectators were placed. The fact that the theatre was oriented towards the north allowed viewers to enjoy the show without ever having the sun in the eyes. The travertine seats marked by the place number (today’s numbered stands), often by the name of the lucky subscriber are a very interesting feature the theatre had. They are preserved inside the Archeological Museum in Piazza Arringo. Other remains are related to the “orchestra”, the place where the chorus was seated, and to an “esedra” of which a part of the wall in “opus reticolatum” remains but which had to be presented as an apsidal environment enriched by marble columns and mosaics, used as a gathering and waiting place between the acts of the show. Unfortunately, the part of the scene which was undoubtedly impressive and rich in polychrome marbles, placed on several orders (similar to the facade of a large building) typical of the Roman theaters is missing. It was almost definitely dismantled and spoiled of its most precious materials. The history of the theater ends with the Longobard sack of 578 and the need to recover material for new buildings. The imposing structure was used as a quarry and the furnaces found all around are numerous. They were meant to cook the travertine and to produce lime. Earthquakes and landslides have contributed to cover this wonderful monument for centuries.
Porta Romana, Ascoli’s most wonderful set of Roman and medieval ruins
Among the points of interest of Ascoli Piceno that tell the Roman and medieval history of the city Porta Romana stands out.
In the western zone of Ascoli Piceno, Porta Romana, there are the same three layers of the fortification of the other parts of the city: the oldest pertaining to the Picena civilization consists of square blocks of sandstone above which the new wall was built in “opus quasi reticulatum” style. On the other hand, the monumental “Porta Gemina” or “Porta Romana”, about six meters tall and double (the name Gemina came from the Latin “gemina”, which stands for “twin”), is in “opera quadrata” . Built on the one of the Piceni, which was destroyed by Pompeo Strabone in 89 B.C., consists of two large arches sustained by three massive pillars. Almost seven meters high and 9.47 meters wide, it allowed entrance into the city for those who had come from Rome through the Salaria, the consular road connecting the Tyrrhenian Sea with the Adriatic Sea. The furrows inside the forks testify to the remarkable engineering level reached at that time: they were used to slide open and closed the shutters that restricted access to the city. In the Middle Ages a church was built above the door, brought to light only with the demolition interventions of the nineteenth century. These ancient walls, however, are not enough to stop Frederick II who, in 1242, destroys the defensive system of Asculum, which is then forced to build new ones. Today the medieval walls are still visible ,built for the first four meters high by large travertine blocks certainly re-using of the remains of great Roman monuments; the rest is formed by smaller blocks, easier to lift. They connect the Fortezza Pia, which rises on the nearby Colle dell’Annunziata, to the medieval gate demolished in the early twentieth century.
Ascoli and music: the Ventidio Basso Theatre
In Ascoli Piceno, the Teatro Ventidio Basso, among velvets, frescoes and paints, witnesses a millennial tradition.
In Ascoli Piceno, in the immediate vicinity of Piazza del Popolo, in front of the Cloister Major of St. Francis, the most important theatre of the city is erected. Entitled after Ventidio Basso, old republican glory of I Sec A.C. from Ascoli, with its 842 seats, it is the largest historic hall in the province and the third in the Marche Region. The theater, reopened after some renovations in 1994, consists of an oval room with a hallway and four box orders, each with 23 cozy boxes and a gallery tunnel designed by architect Giovan Battista Carducci. Its colors conquer us: from the carmine red of the curtain and velvet coverings to the green of the plaster, illuminated by golden finishes and warm lights. The faces of the frescoes are painted by Pietro Carbonari da Jesi and the ceiling, illuminated by a large chandelier, was painted by Ferdinando Cicconi. “Il trionfo di Ventidio Basso sui Parti” by Vincenzo Podesti was the first curtain replaced later with the one depicting Piazza del Popolo, recently restored and still admirable. Through the 3 front doors on Via del Trivio, you enter the theater lobby, enriched by niches with statues by Giorgio and Emidio Paci. Upstairs there is a precious foyer with original stuccoes that retains our eyes and becomes space for the conviviality between the 1st and 2nd acts. This theater is the continuity of an old theater tradition that began in the early 1900s. In 1827 the project for the construction of a new theater space suitable for citizenship was entrusted to Ireneo Aleandri, author of the Sferisterio di Macerata, who followed the first steps of the theater Ventidio Basso between 1840 and 1846. However, he gave up on his work because of incomprehensions with the commission and his place was taken by Marco Massimi, Gabriele Gabrielli and the architect Giambattista Carducci, who made numerous modifications and innovations to the original lines of the drawing. The neoclassical travertine façade, which we can still photograph, has a central colonnade consisting of six Ionic-style columns added by Gabriele Gabrielli. The theater is open on show days and, for groups, upon reservation.
For information: www.ilteatroventidiobasso.it
An hall of frescoes: the Cola Dell’Amatrice Hall in Ascoli
Beside to the Cloister Major of St. Francis of Ascoli Piceno, the Cola dell’Amatrice Hall has had various functions, including religion, folklore and city life throughout history.
Set in the historic center of Ascoli Piceno and adjacent to the monumental complex dedicated to St. Francis, the Major Cloister leads directly to the Cola Dell’Amatrice Hall, located in the east arm of the former convent. What came to us is a large room (but certainly smaller than the original one) that had welcomed the Hall of the Chapter in the Middle Ages and then the Oratory of Corpus Christi. When the site passes into the hands of the Italian state and is used as barracks, the Oratory is used as an armory. Once the barracks are dismantled, it becomes a municipal fishmonger’s. All these changes of use had erased the importance which that place had in the past from popular memory . Cola dell’Amatrice had been called by the Franciscans to fresco their Oratory and he had painted on the walls the episodes from the Old Testament related to King Nabucodonosor and other characters, remembered for having lived lives or experiences similar to Christ’s. When the original ceiling had been lowered and covered over time, the frescoes, which were no longer visible, were forgotten. In 1872 Giulio Cantalamessa, inspecting the inter-space between the old and the new ceiling, understands the importance of the paintings and suggests their tearing. After being kept in the parish hall of the convent, the Cola frescoes returned to the place they were conceived for. Since March 2012, after careful restoration, the five works are visible to the public.
Piazza Ventidio Basso, Ascoli’s past centre of society
In the historic center of Ascoli Piceno, framed by monumental churches, San Pietro Martire and Ss. Vincenzo and Anastasio, Piazza Ventidio Basso, recently restored, is one of the most fascinating places in the city.
In Ascoli Piceno, Piazza Ventidio Basso, the medieval “Platea inferior“, so called to distinguish it from “Platea Superior“, today’s Piazza del Popolo, was once the site of the manufacturing market. The neuralgic point of the ancient city was the natural entrance for those who came to Ascoli Piceno after passing through the Roman Bridge of Porta Solestà. A stone on the north wall of the Church of St. Peter Martyr, indicating the “gabelle“, that were the taxes on the products, remembers that there was the market for textile crafts. In the centre of the square is the Church of “Ss. Vincenzo and Anastasio“, dedicated to two saints remembered by the Church on the same day (January 22) but lived in different areas and ages: San Vincenzo, a Spanish martyred in the 4th century, and Sant’Anastasio , a Syrian martyred in the 7th. Both witnesses of the universality of Christianity.
The inscription on the main entrance reminds us that the building was rebuilt in 1306 at the time of Priore Bonaventura. This made the new façade, divided into sixty-four squares (typical of Umbria and Abruzzo medieval architecture), which incorporates the tower. This, originally external, stood at the base as a covered square porch; today it’s used as a sacristy. Also in 1306 the left flank of the new church was built. Another epigraph on his right side concerns the construction of his side several years later (1389) by the will of another prior, Saladin di Matteo. The interior is divided into three aisles of round arches supported by square pillars and the ceiling has retained the roof cover. The presbytery is raised with respect to the plan of the church. The central nave, ends with a circular apse inside and polygonal outside. From the two stairs that open at the beginning of the apse you enter the crypt. This is divided into two environments: the main room has an “a cappuccina” ceiling, originally completely decorated by a pictorial cycle about the “History of St. Silvestro among lepers” (now largely torn and preserved in the Diocesan Museum); it has a small well with a step entrance used to immerse the feet in what was thought to be miraculous water. The same water sprung up in the adjoining ambience, lower and divided by a severe travertine column.