The Marche region of Italy has a lot to offer in terms of small towns with medieval architecture and perfectly proportioned piazzas. Ascoli Piceno is no exception.
We had taken the train from Grottammare to Ascoli Piceno on a Friday morning as students made their way back from the university at Macerata to home for the weekend; some with pets in travel cages, all with a week's worth of laundry in their bags. The train stations were small, many unmanned and usually covered in graffiti as we trundled along the coast before turning inland.
From the train station the modern town leads uninspiringly past the Porta Maggiore, the town's mascot - the woodpecker - and a statue of Cecco but once you squeeze along the narrow cobbled streets and into one of the old town's squares you are transported. There are signs of modern life - cars zip along streets not much wider than themselves and helpful brown tourist plaques are stuck on walls - but the feeling is definitely of past times. First for us, and for any who wish to get information on the town was the Piazza Arringo, so named as the square held public assemblies after the founding of the free city-state. The tourist information office is through a driveway, which in turn leads to a pretty courtyard up the stairs from which is the Pinacoteca Civica.
The Pinacoteca is home to a number of art works from thirteenth century triptychs to nineteenth century secular pieces as well as sculptures. My favourite saint, Sebastian (who I adopted during my journey from Venice to Rome), was much in evidence and it was interesting to see how his depiction - particularly his hairstyle - changed through the ages. The sculpture of the Sleeping Shepherd in the Shepherd's Room was incredible. Not since I'd first met Bernini in the Piazza Navona had I been so struck by the detailing created in marble. The shepherd boy's belt looked as if it had just been tightened, the loose ends curving over his waist. The lacings and soles of the footwear were realistically tied around socks that gaped baggily at the knee. The boy's slightly open mouth seemed more than capable of gentle snoring as he slept. The softness of the boy contrasted with the harder elements of his clothing reflecting the harsh reality of shepherding work for such a young child - no wonder he slept.
We had purchased a three part ticket which covered the Pinacoteca, the Museum of Ceramics and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Our route took us through the Piazza del Popolo, one of the best proportioned piazzas in the central part of Italy. The piazza took on its rectangular appearance during the 1500s when the porticos were added to keep the artisan shops out of sight. I have little doubt that the proportions are pleasing and that the colonnades, church, Palazzo dei Capitani and Caffe Meletti go to create a wonderful ambience but sadly these were lost to me amidst the construction of an ice-rink. This made photographing equally difficult despite the boyfriend climbing as high as he could.
At one time Ascoli had two hundred patrician towers in its environs. King Frederic II ordered the destruction of ninety of them in 1252. Around fifty remain though many have been absorbed into other buildings or turned into bell towers. The Torres Gemelle (twin towers) in the Plaza S. Agostino are a perfectly preserved example of how the many towers would have been. Twenty-five metres high and with a slight lean to them (must be an Italian trait) they are annexed to the house of the Merli family.
The Ceramics Museum is a place to be enjoyed by those with a specific interest in said art. There are few exhibits and I was disappointed with the selection, but then my interest does not lie there. The most interesting display I found was that which consisted of modern work designed to celebrate the 150 years of Italy's unification. One piece in particular I thought summed up how the rest of the world sees Italy...
I was not, therefore, holding out much hope for the Galleria d'Arte Contemporanea (Gallery of Contemporary Art) and to start with it felt as if my fears were going to be met. Then we turned a corner, literally, and met with Ernesto Ercolani. Humour abounds in his work and it made the visit to the gallery worthwhile. A native of Ascoli, Ercolani was also the curator of the Pinacoteca for twenty years but his work is quite removed from that you would find there. Ercolani's work is a humourous look at some of life's events and type of people. 'Poet with Blue Dog' was amusing but the large 'Welcome' had so much going on that we could have stood there for hours continually finding new nuances.
Weaving our way back through the town we returned to the Piazza Arringo and entered the Cathedral which dominates one end of the square. Saint Emidio, after whom the cathedral is named, was a native of Trier in Germany and the first bishop of Ascoli. Emidio was beheaded by the Romans, too effective in his preaching by all accounts, but the miracle attested to him is that he picked up his head and carried it off for proper burial. Whatever the circumstance, Emidio is the patron of the town and protector against earthquakes. In 1703 earthquakes destroyed many cities in central Italy but Ascoli Piceno remained untouched. There is further 'proof' of Emidio's protectorship in the story of the earthquake that caused fleeing Germans to leave the town before they had finished destroying all the bridges in the town, at the end of World War II. The highlights of the Cathedral that bears this saint's name are the the crypt and the baldacchio over the altar. I found the crypt too well-lit to provide any atmosphere, and the statue of Emidio and some other areas were undergoing restoration work but it was an interesting chapel with burial chambers leading off of it. The golden baldacchio was also well-lit and so shone brilliantly making it a focal point of the church. At times the lighting overpowered areas and it was only afterwards, when looking at pictures that I realised how well decorated the area above the altar was.
I left Ascoli Piceno with a feeling of contentment. I had seen some wonderful art and a beautiful old town that had retained its Medieval and Renaissance architecture whilst not seeming like a living museum. As we neared the train station with the sun setting and the chill creeping upon us I had made my first successful and enjoyable foray into the Marche region of Italy.