History and Art
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.
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.
(CCIAA Ascoli Piceno: Piceno Promozione)
Most important events in Ascoli Piceno:
- Quintana – This is one of Italy’s most famous medieval festivals, and for good reason. Expect thousands of locals dressed in typical medieval garb: knights in armour, flag-throwers and ladies in flamboyant velvet robes. Processions and flag-waving contests take place throughout July and August, but the big draw is the Quintana joust, when the town’s six sestieri (districts) face off.
- Fritto Misto all’Italiana – This four-day festival of fried food aims to ‘debunk the prejudice that it’s unhealthy’. After a few hours spent grazing stalls packed with heavy-duty treats – cannoli from Sicily, panzerotti from Puglia and, of course, fried stuffed Ascoli olives – your body may not agree, although your taste buds will have had a blast.
- Carnevale Storico Piceno (February-March) The Carnival of Ascoli Piceno is an event that involves the entire population. In the days of Thursday, Sunday and Fat Tuesday of this special week people of all ages perform sketches that are almost always satirical in nature, with important local personalities or facts taken from current events as the stimulus. The city is populated with individuals who make the atmosphere of the manifestation almost surreal in their costumes realized with slim budgets and a good dose of irony.
- Ascoli Piceno’s Antique Market (the first weekend of the month) offers to the curious as to the opportunity of a real and figurative journey through history and art.
For further information on the events and itineraries please visit: