The prospect of a study visit to the Marche with Renaissance architectural historians from eleven countries seemed irresistible – that is, until the earthquake struck two days before our departure. The omens seemed strange: the quake occurred on the same date as the eruption of Vesuvius in 79CE, and at the same time of day as the disastrous earthquake that had destroyed L’Aquila in 2009.
Dutifully, in Ascoli, I paid my respects to the tomb of S. Emidio, the saint believed to protect the local people from earthquakes. He even survived martyrdom by decapitation, and was able to walk to his tomb carrying his own head.
We found the region deeply traumatised, but we saw little obvious sign of damage despite the numerous aftershocks. The landscapes glowed in the late summer sunshine, and the little towns seemed like film sets.
I will never forget my first glimpse of the Piazza del Popolo in Ascoli Piceno by moonlight, its bars alive with chatter and its polished paving stones glowing like mirrors. In Ascoli, we stayed in one of the most beautiful hotels I have ever visited, set in a fifteenth-century palazzo with an arcaded courtyard and a gracious open staircase.
From then on, little by little, the hotels became more and more ordinary, until we reached the nadir in the final night in a seaside hotel that claimed to be decorated like an art gallery, but felt like a primary school overfilled with pupils’ creations.
Moving from south to north, we visited Ascoli Piceno, Loreto, Recanati, Jesi, Mondavio, Orciano di Pesaro, Urbino, Urbania (Casteldurante), Sassocorvaro, Pesaro and Rimini. Because of the fragmented geography of the Marche, the local building materials gave each townscape its own palette, from the luminous white stone of Ascoli to the rust-coloured bricks of Urbania. Rome felt remote yet always powerful: we followed the traces of the Roman roads – the via Salaria and the via Flaminia – and noted the impact of papal politics. The ghosts of the Montefeltro, the Malatesta and the della Rovere still seemed to haunt the castles and churches of the lands they contested, as here at Mondavio.
To judge by the pious inscriptions and motifs on doorways and window frames, superstitions and beliefs in local cults infused daily life in the region.
In Loreto on a Sunday morning we mingled with the faithful seeking cures and had lunch in the pilgrims’ restaurant. I was intrigued to learn that the aggressive crossed cannons in the Doric frieze of the piazza’s arcade were originally papal keys, modified by the Napoleonic troops in the early nineteenth century.
In numerous museums devotional works helped to sharpen my understanding of the local practices of piety. Sometimes these seemed to open windows into local rustic life, such as this detail of an early sixteenth-century terracotta presepio attributed to Paolo Agabiti in Jesi.
Other works made their impression, instead, through aristocratic grandeur: who could fail to be overawed by Piero della Francesca’s majestic Madonna di Senigallia in Urbino? The Christ Child’s necklace recalls the practice of using coral jewellery to protect children against evil.
Yet it is the guardian angel on the left of the picture who directly engages the viewer’s gaze with a fearless stare, so that one can almost see one’s own image reflected in the huge crystal bead hanging around his neck.
Saddened by the melancholic late works by Lorenzo Lotto in the Museo diocesano di Loreto, the following day we admired Lotto at the height of his powers in the magnificent series of paintings in Jesi’s Pinacoteca in the Palazzo Pianetti.
Because of the mountainous terrain, the only easy way to travel between one centre and another seemed to be the coastal autostrada with its views of crowded beaches and seaside hotels. Yet I preferred the cross-country drives through dramatic gorges and across mountain ranges peppered with fragile little towns, still literally quaking in the aftershocks of the recent tremors. This was a poignant time to reflect on the ways in which the natural landscape of the Marche nourished local cults and deeply held beliefs in divine power.
26th August – 1st September 2016