Ascoli Piceno: Old Marble Giants

To get to Ascoli Piceno, you have to really, really want to see Ascoli Piceno. By public transport it’s an awfully long trek from any airports, and it’s in a fairly secluded spot within Italy that entails a significant detour from any of the well-worn routes. Yet its history is very old and very proud; Roman Asculum was the capital of Picenum (after the Piceni, contemporaries to the Etruscans and Sabines whose town is much older than Rome). Emperor Augustus boasted that he found a city of brick and left a city of marble, and quite a lot of the marble came from around here; so much of Ascoli’s city centre still consists of this luminous, ethereal white stone and at night-time the effect is dramatic. Perhaps because it was a sleepy outpost of the undynamic papacy for so long, its links to the classical world are as palpable as anywhere in Italy. Wander the oldest quarter and you will find streets named after Apollo and Pompeii, while the streets themselves do not follow the medieval norm of snaking, twisting alleys; the town has never deviated from the grid street pattern laid out by SPQR. Today Ascoli Piceno is a low-key, provincial town with a fairly small centre, but one that had fascinated this Italoholic for long enough that I was finally roused into making the journey and seeing for myself. I am happy to report that the effort was well rewarded.

Ascoli is in a region called Le Marche; in the lunatic days when Brits still referred to Livorno as ‘Leghorn’, I think we called it The Marches. People seem to think that if Italy is divided into North and South (which they think it is), Le Marche would be northern, although Ascoli is right on the border with Abruzzo. Le Marche flies comparatively under the radar as it’s neither one nor the other; too far north to have been touched by the Normans or the great empire of Frederick II, too far south to have come within the orbit of Venice or Milan, and separated from Florence and Rome by a vast range of mountains. Pre-unification it fell within the Papal States, a theocracy that still banned street lighting and vaccination into the C19th, and that in towns like Perugia still seems hated to this day.

Most of Europe is cloudy and we fly over the Adriatic, looking away from Italy; but we do see the peaks of the Alps poking through clouds -making me ponder what life is like in the clustered habitations in the highest valleys- and it’s not all cloud; I manage to identify Bruges and Venice. As we land we get a good look at Ancona, shoddily rebuilt after earthquakes; the Old Town is a steep, small peninsula jutting out from the coast with a Romanesque cathedral looking down over what is very much a working port; there are shades of Bari. Le Marche appears, as promised, as wave after wave of rolling green hills behind a narrow and overdeveloped coastal strip. The Raphael aerobus drops us off at Ancona station, and to get around the region we will largely be riding trains up and down the coast. Sometimes there is a kilometre or so of housing or campsites between us and the sea, sometime we are right up against a forlorn winter beach with redundant palms, dog-walkers and strips of wave-breaking rocks in the sea. The apartment blocks vary between jolly and grim; when they coagulate into a small town there are sometimes odd houses designed in a classical baroque style which nevertheless look like they were built yesterday. The only celebrity we pass is the basilica at Loreto, something of an Italian Lourdes. With an admirable lack of shame, the locals claim that the house of the Virgin Mary & the Baby Jesus was lifted into the skies by four angels who carried it directly, like some celestial Chuckle Brothers outfit, from Palestine to Loreto.

These trains are not even Regionale Veloce, but straight Regionale, meaning that they stop at every conceivable place, and you have no alternative but to look out the window and enjoy a slow journey. You change for another train at the mouth of the large Tronto river, at the helpfully-named Porto d’Ascoli, and head into the hills, the train crawling through the valley created by the river. Having been looking forward to some pretty scenery, we find it’s pitch black by the time our second train leaves and the hills are only illuminated by the occasional blue neon crucifix on a hilltop. Ascoli station, when we get there, is just outside the old centre. There is a modest amount of suburban sprawl on the outside but the heart of the city is a sort of inland island, sat on a pocket of land where the Castellano tributary tucks inside to join the Tronto. The delightful creation myth of Ascoli has it that the Piceni were led to this spot by a woodpecker. The bridge that connects the station to the centre takes you past a tall fortress built by the Malatestas, Rimini-based warlords and one of the sword-for-hire condottiere families who enjoyed the run of renaissance Italy.

A city surrounded by rivers makes it sound like everyone is sipping prosecco on the banks of the Arno, but the topography of Ascoli is much more rugged and wild than this. The edge of the town centre looks down into a deep ravine that would break every bone in the body of anyone unlucky enough to fall over. The Tronto itself, when you peer down, is a raging torrent carrying the occasional log. Beyond the city limits, the horizon is hemmed in by dark mountains. It is windy and harsh and the slopes are lined with trees and thick bushes; strolling around, your instinct draws you towards the centre of the old town, and especially to Piazza del Popolo.

I have remarked before that it is common for Italian towns to have an immaculate piazza, usually with the cathedral -generally kept in reserve for special occasions- and a cosier, more informal piazza which is used as a communal living room. In Ascoli Piceno the functions are fulfilled by Piazza Arringo and Piazza del Popolo, and I was magnetically attracted to the latter from the moment I first saw pictures of it. If there is a more pleasing and perfect square in any town in Italy, I am yet to find it. I caught it out of the corner of my eye on the Saturday night when we were trying to find our flat and couldn’t resist making a detour; finally walking under its porticoes, I felt like a child in Disneyland.

Why do I love Piazza del Popolo so much? I think it’s like Goldilocks’ porridge; the proportions feel just right. It’s spacious and cosy at the same time; any bigger or smaller and you would feel exposed or cramped. Likewise, the surrounding buildings never overdo it. Their diversity should be outright eccentric, but instead gives the piazza a certain lightness; on the western side, the alpha building is the Palazzo dei Capitani with its bellower, clock-faces in Roman and Arabic numerals, and various scatterings of bric-a-brac, the most prominent of which is a statue of the Farnese Pope Paul III.

This thumping fist of authority comes, however, with a velvet glove. At its right-hand side is Caffè Meletti, a former post-office building in salmon pink which houses one of the most celebrated cafés in Italy. All the guide books send visitors here largely on the basis that Hemingway and Sartre were visitors, which does the establishment a disservice. Meletti offers the full Viennese coffee house experience, right down to a restrained art nouveau interior where the immaculate white blazers of the waiting staff matches their immaculate grace and poise.

The northern side is given over to San Francesco church; it is quite common for a church facade to occupy one side of a piazza and rather steal the show. But San Francesco’s front door is concealed around the corner, and the piazza sees the translucent travertine nave side on, topped by a lovely green dome and twin towers. The result is that a great big church is placed here as a discreet suggestion, rather than a bellowed command.

Around the remainder of the piazza are cafés and shop units within round-arched porticoes, offering shelter Bologna style, and just one or two floors above. The combination of light pink brick and green shutters is particularly pretty, as are the v-shaped Ghibelline battlements, and the icing on this cake is a lustrous checkboard floor of travertine marble in criss-crossing light greys that looks more like a skating rink than a pavement.

None of this was a disappointment in the flesh, but only when I visited did it register with me that the most crucial ingredient of all, the one which makes the piazza a living organism, is the people of Ascoli Piceno who put it to use. People mutter that Meletti is pricey, but Ascoli’s idea of pricey is still half the going rate in Venice or Rome, and Meletti is very much the meeting place for families and old folks. As we had our morning coffee at the bar, one pensioner about to leave spotted a friend coming in. He slammed another Euro on the counter and pointed out his friend to the barman, shouting “Hey, beautiful blonde! A coffee for this poor little boy, please!” before sauntering out with a cackle. It was that sort of place.

If the Old World stylings are not to your taste or mood, Bar Centrale is less formal and caters to a younger crowd. On a Saturday night, the young Ascolani who work elsewhere in Italy come home for mamma’s Sunday lunch, and the quiet town becomes briefly boisterous. I didn’t once notice another foreign tourist here, and on our first night in Italy we found ourselves the object of great curiosity around the tables of Bar Centrale. Most of the kids just wanted to practice the English phrases they knew or to ask why the hell we had come to their town, but the friendliest was a young man called Lorenzo, who introduced himself by gesturing to his friends and saying “As you can see, you have chosen the worst bar in the entire city to drink in”. Even though his mates were sniggering at him for doing it, Lorenzo showed us some of the secrets of the piazza; such as the big phallus stuck onto one of the twin towers of San Francesco. Remembering the symbol of Priapus that Romans placed in their gardens to threaten prospective burglars with rape, I expected to hear that this was a co-opted pagan fertility symbol- but instead was told that it was a fuck-you from the builders, after they were not paid in full.

Around on Via del Trivio is the front door to San Francesco, whose framing columns are heavily eroded at around shoulder-height to the point where they look like organ pipes. Our guide demonstrated that this is because anyone running their palm across the columns with sufficient speed and force produces an extraordinarily deep pluck-plop noise that sounds vaguely like steel pan drums. Facing the piazza again, he also pointed out the sign on the church wall (1568) with hollows of various brick sizes. Neither Lorenzo’s English nor my Italian covered the jargon of building sites, but I think this showed the bricks on sale during a spate of Papal rebuilding and/or the ‘golden section’ recommended templates for anyone putting up a house.

Inside, San Francesco’s high nave is austere and relatively bare stone, and the one feature which startles is the post-war stained glass, which depicts Nazi concentration camps and saints that appear to have been rendered as Warholian pop art.

One girl, who spoke fluent English because she had lived in Godalming (you couldn’t make it up), told us the piazza was known as ‘the sofa of Italy’, which sums it up beautifully. Most of the shopping and nightlife is to the east of the piazza but the oldest and most atmospheric area is to its north-west, where a bridge from the era of Augustus is one of the oldest entrances into the city. It is this area that gives Ascoli its nickname of ‘city of the 100 towers’; far fewer than a hundred remain today, but there are enough of these defensive boltholes to remind us that Renaissance Italy was as dangerous as modern-day Aleppo. It’s one of those areas where few of the ancient churches are open, but it can be fascinating just to walk the streets, each of which opens onto an exquisite view and whose old doorways are cluttered with intriguing details.

One church that was open was San Pietro Martire (a murdered C13th priest, not the chap with the keys). Regular readers will cheer to learn that this church contains Christ’s crown of thorns. The church is a funny mixture of dazzling over-the-top baroque and frescoes that look as old as the hills. One of St Sebastian beside the exit door could pass for a near contemporary of the saint himself.

Via delle Torri runs through the heart of the old district before the medieval gate and Augustan bridge across the river, where there are good views of the Ascoli skyline, and Via delle Stelle with its views down onto the Tronto. It looked very picturesque but was a popular spot for snogging teenagers; not wishing to look like some creepy voyeur, I didn’t loiter.

You do not expect to encounter any history on the other side of the Tronto, outside the old boundaries and dominated by unremarkable new-ish housing, but you have reckoned without the city’s patron saint, Sant’ Emidio. He was a man from Trier who lived during the persecutions of Diocletian; the story goes that he converted, went to Rome and performed miracles. The Pope sent him to be Bishop of Asculum, where the local governor offered Emidio his daughter’s hand in marriage should he worship Jupiter. Emidio instead baptised the daughter in the Tronto and the Romans beheaded him, at which he is said to have picked up his head and marched off to the catacombs. Emidio’s remains are now in the cathedral but two key locations from his life are across the river. The Tempietto Rosso sits on the reported spot of his execution, with the very stone underneath a small altar. Sant’ Emidio alle Grotte is a small cave church in the naturally occurring tufa caves used by early Christians for surreptitious burial and prayer beyond the Roman city limits and, like the San Gennaro catacombs in Napoli, was the saint’s original resting place. The church was built after Ascoli was spared by a 1703 earthquake that devastated Norcia and L’Aquila. If you are around on a weekday it is worth ringing the bell of the office next door and asking to see inside; the man who works there is very generous with visitors and with his time, and gave me most of the above information. His organisation rent out the church for weddings, and arrange the paperwork for pilgrims wishing to do the Camino de Santiago. They also have a few beds for pilgrims wishing to follow St Francis’ route over the mountains from Assisi to Ascoli.

The cathedral itself is in Piazza Arringo which, although well worth seeing, feels a bit more chilly and Abruzzese than lovely Piazza del Popolo. It is large and long, with the cathedral and an octagonal baptistery marking off its top, and two grand palazzi housing museums along the sides. The only bit of architectural levity is offered by a jaunty fountain with seahorses and eccentric gaping-mouth drainpipe ends.

However, the people of Ascoli bring the surroundings down to earth with their everyday use of them. The empty thrones in the niche of the cathedral facade are a popular spot for loitering and canoodling, whilst the piazza itself improvises as a canine playground.

Having taken in a few quite austere churches in Ascoli, the interior of Sant’ Emidio comes quite a surprise; colours splashed around with abandon, and golden side chapel mosaics of ecclesiastical characters wearing glasses. It’s all done in a recognisable old Italian style, but looks very recent. Behind the altar was not illuminated during our visit and so my snaps are rather dark. I imagine that, as with St. Mark’s, you have to attend a service to see the full picture.

A separated-off chapel contains an excellent altarpiece by Crivelli, a Venetian who died here and is considered the local big hitter for painting. The curves in the nave wall are topped by carved fan shapes and contain decidedly Islamic patterns; one wonders if these have been installed with Europe’s imminent conversion in mind.

The theme of a familiar form given modern replication reaches its apotheosis in the crypt, a classic forest of columns facing towards the saint’s tomb. The crypt’s central columns have been clad in a deep vermillion marble, and the walls around the tomb feature post-war mosaics in a Roman/Byzantine style, right down to peacocks in the arches. At the centre is a statue of Sant’ Emidio and the governor’s daughter, by a follower of Bernini, that the nice man at the cave church told us to look out for. The mosaics show recognisable views of the town piazzas, with people tending to Allied soldiers and the saint appearing above his cathedral and a panicking populace to spare the city in 1703. Behind a locked gate, you can peer past the crypt to the former burial site for citizens of Ascoli.

The city’s pinacoteca is mentioned as a must by all the guide books, with a collection that punches far above the weight of this small town. It is €4 to get in, and I found it disappointing. The pleasant garden has that favoured Italian motif of busts representing eminent men with facial hair to out-hipster Hackney, whilst the building is a municipal palace with lavishly decorated rooms.

There is a great deal of bland, badly executed C18th painting and not quite enough of the earlier stuff, as well as some inexplicable additions like a series of acoustic guitars made in the 1950s. The bulk, and the best, of the early collection comes from a student of Crivelli’s called Pietro Alemanno, or Pete the German. As is often the way in these provincial museums, the underemployed staff watch to make sure you see everything in the order you are Supposed To and the woman on the ticket desk is simply awful. I was tickled by how each hall had an extensive text in Braille; do many blind people visit painting galleries?

The collection gets a bit better when it covers the C19th and early C20th, and there are some good sculptures.

If I’m honest, my main gripe with the museum is that we felt conned by our having paid an extra €8  each for the temporary exhibition. St Francis in Art: from Cimabue to Caravaggio was nowhere near as good as it sounded. There were two or three excellent medieval paintings but the bulk of offerings in this solitary room were in the style of a bad Guido Reni; sentimental, soft-focus offerings of a Disney Francis posed next to a bonny Baby Jesus and no blood, guts, or sense of any visceral spiritual struggles; in a word, no art. What is worse, if you visit the permanent collection first, you get an overview of this rubbish and learn that some tantalising-looking old masters are invisible behind the partition walls of the temporary show.

So much for the art, then, but I could not sign off without mentioning the real art of Ascoli Piceno; food, glorious food. Most of what they eat is fried, which as a Brit conjures up images of stodgy fare swimming in oil. This could not be further from the truth; the food is fried, but as light as air; the batter does not leave a trace of oil on the kitchen roll their mixed platters are served on. They are particularly big on truffles; truffle honey to go with sweet cheeses, truffle oil for your bread, and truffle rind on the most flavoursome cuts of ham. Not once did we need to eat dinner, so generous were the aperitivi; order for a glass of wine or a spritz, and your €4 will invariably also buy you a vast platter of prosciutto, salami, bresaola, cheeses, bruschetta, sottolio, and olive all’ ascolana. These olives are ubiquitous, and ten in a take-away paper cone is the Ascoli answer to a bag of chips; they are plump, green and juicy, their stone replaced by a coarse pate of minced meats and spices before the olive is lightly fried in egg, flour and breadcrumbs. We did of course ask Lorenzo who made the best olives in town: “Everyone in Ascoli will give you the same answer: their grandmother”.

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One thought on “Ascoli Piceno: Old Marble Giants

  1. Well, it should be “Italy’s drawing room” rather than “the sofa of Italy” but that’s what you can expect from most fluent English-speakers in Italy. Fluent they are but no vocabulary to speak of, apart from the mandatory 400 words. (And they are just as bad in English as in Italian, alas…).

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