Dwight Peck's personal website

A return to Italy after too long away

November 2022

You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

We're not based in Europe anymore, and we've struggled through the covid-19 lockdowns like everyone else, so we haven't set foot in Italy since February 2019. Now we're making up for lost time with mad sightseeing, but missing the cats even more sorely as the days fly by.

Ascoli Piceno's neighbors: Ripatransone

Still giddy with excitement after our visits to Offida and Acquaviva Picena, we're arriving at our next target that's been recommended to us, Ripatransone, still in the hill country overlooking the Adriatic Sea (not in this fog, of course) a bit farther to the north.

Ripatransone is a small hilltop formerly fortified village, presently of something like 4,000 inhabitants including the suburbs that have spread out down below in more recent times. We're told that's about half the population that the town sported in the early 1950s, but as it has retained its medieval street plan and a lot of that is unsuitable for cars, there has been a gradual movement out of the upper town at least, and possibly out of the area.

[The Città del Sollievo designation, or City of Relief, is a network of Italian cities, sponsored by the Foundation Gigi Ghirotti and the National Association of Italian Municipalities, that have undertaken to promote a 'culture of relief' through support for social-health organizations, volunteer associations devoted to the 'care and acceptance of the suffering person', and humanization of care, especially home and hospice care for terminally ill patients (as the journalist Ghirotti was).]

The Provincial Route 23 has led us round the village to the northern entrance, and this is one of the surviving gatehouses, the Porta Agello. The other surviving medieval gateway, the Porta Monte Antico, is at the far end of town, overlooking the rest of it from the highest point.

Tourist-friendly signage has led us up into the central piazza near the Duomo, and we just need to find a place to park. That's the Condivi house with its cute little loggia ahead of us, which we'll get a better look at later.

This is the main thoroughfare north-south all the way through town, for over 800 meters, the Corso Vittorio Emanuele (of course there's also, as usual, a Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, just one block up on the left).

We've found our parking spot here front of the 18th century Palazzo Massi Mauri.

Ripatransone is understood to have nearly the largest historical centre in the province of Ascoli Piceno, second only to Ascoli itself, but nonetheless it's not an easy town to learn about, in English anyway. The Wikipedia article is slender and summary and not entirely accurate, so some of our background info here comes from Roberto Piperno's extraordinary website, in English, filled with knowledgeable articles about an uncountable number of Italian villages and more. The article on Ripatransone comes from his section called 'A Sea of Hills' devoted to this area of the Marche.

The area here was inhabited from prehistoric times, then by the Piceni and later with Roman oversight. But during the times of the Gothic Wars and the Lombard-Byzantine Wars, people were reestablishing their communities away from the coast and up to the more defensible hilltops.

Looking from the arcades, we're staring up the hill at the Ripatransone Cathedral, or Basilica Concattedrale dei Santi Gregorio Magno e Margherita; it's uncommon for such a small town to be the seat of an episcopal see, but the bishops' range was once wider in the area than it is presently and it's now apparently a co-cathedral in the Diocese of San Benedetto del Tronto-Ripatransone-Montalto.

The name of the town is apparently recorded from the 9th century when it was a fiefdom of the Transone family; 'ripa' refers to the rock or cliff upon which the Transones had set up shop. On the five hills that make up the upper town, four had been furnished with castle towers, and by 1096 it seems they were being unified with a surrounding wall to make a single town.

That's a glance farther along the main drag, the Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The town was a free commune by 1205 through to the 15th century, administered by a Council of representatives of the main families with a smaller subset charged with daily administration. As in such towns and cities all over Italy in that time, family rivalries and feuds made the regular appointment of a Podestà necessary, a neutral foreigner to supervise the town's affairs.

The same, but with another portico to be admired. In the High Middle Ages, Ripatransone was caught up in the various regional wars, particularly as a rival of Fermo, some 20 crow-fly kilometres to the north. Quoting Roberto Piperno, 'Powerful families of the region, i.e. the Malatesta of Rimini and the Sforza of Pesaro, built upon this rivalry to seize Ripatransone with the help of troops from Fermo.The walls were strengthened in the XVth century, but this did not prevent the sack of the town by disbanded Spanish mercenaries in 1515.'

Umbrellas out! Run for it! In the 16th century, however, the church was dragging towns back under the control of 'St Peter's Patrimony', the pope's temporal authority over the 'Papal States'. In 1571, Pope Pius V (the pleasant holy fellow who excommunicated the English Queen Elizabeth and called for her assassination) granted Ripatransone the status of a City and an episcopal see, which required the construction of a cathedral, and . . .

. . . there it is, begun in 1597 and finished in 1623, and updated from time to time since, like the Neoclassical façade in 1842, while the replacement belltower was built from 1884 to 1902.

Happily, the rain has stopped. Brollies folded up.

The Ripatransone Cathedral. Let's go.

Here we are, the traditional three naves in a Latin cross, the pulpit from 1625 on the right, and . . . what's that behind the altar?

It appears to be a vastly disappointing plaster statue of Gregory the Great, by Fedele Bianchini in the mid-19th century. Not much to look at, to be honest. (Though he's described as a 'pupil of Canova'.)

This in one of the chapels is an altarpiece featuring the Madonna and Child with John the Baptist and St Francis of Assisi, here attributed to Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647), known as a pre-eminent painter in Rome of the circle round Pope Paul V Borghese.

The Madonna and Child with St Somebody and St Lucia (with her eyes on a plate)

This young person is labeled as St Agnes, but is not shown with any of her usual iconographic props (lamb, olive branch, dagger, or flaming pyre).

But we can certainly attest that St Agatha is shown with her special identifiers held before her on a plate. These two matching thought-provokers are clearly modern.

That fresco is certainly not 20th century! Probably it's the better for that.

There's somebody loitering near the main altar. (-- It's a polychrome wood Crucified Christ from the 16th century.) (-- Oh, okay.) Descriptions of the cathedral always mention that there's an altarpiece here by Orazio Gentileschi, 'Madonna and Child with St Gregory', but we can't say that it leapt out to find us.

That's a tribute to the angels ferrying the Virgin Mary's house at the end of the Crusades over from Nazareth to Croatia, then to Loreto in the Marche, just up the coast a ways from here; a major pilgrimage site since at least the 14th century.

That one's hard not to like.
(It's planted onto a door to something, the next week's eucharist wafers, maybe, or the wine, or the Sunday's tithing proceeds; or perhaps there's a little coffeemaker in there.)

-- Who are you? What do you want?
-- Give him a couple of bucks, he'll leave us alone.

That's just our Wooden Jesus (Polychrome) again.

We're back out onto the Corso Vittore Emanuele now, and . . .

. . . looking farther up the street, first at . . .

. . . the Museo Vescovile di Arte Sacra. Originally a 14th century church, apparently, dedicated to St Catherine and then to St Augustine, the building was modernized several times by the Augustinians, ceded to the state in 1810, then turned over to the local clergy in 1874 who used it was an episcopal residence. Later turned into a cinema in 1932, it subsequently was abandoned until a recent restoration for this museum. It's evidently got some great stuff inside, most notably a 15th century statue of Mary Magdalene and a 1532 glazed terracotta altar by one of the della Robbias, but was closed during our visit. It also includes a picture by Ascanio Condivi, which leads us to . . .

. . . Ascanio Condivi's house. Condivi (1525-1574) was born to a wealthy family here, but in 1545 he went off to become an assistant to Michaelangelo. He was said to be an indifferent artist, but he took the opportunity to write an authorized biography of the master, which is said to correct inaccurancies in Vasari's. He returned to Ripatransone where he settled down, held public office and continued painting religious subjects, and added this marvelous little loggia to the 15th century building. According to Roberto Piperno, the family was prominent in town until the 1940s.

It's time for a casual though drizzly walkabout.

Cathy and an interesting doorway

The interesting doorway

This is surely the skinniest main street of any town we've been in heretofore.

-- Hey you, wait up! Oh, sorry, wrong umbrella.
We've nearly reached the end of the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, only 75m from the 'Panoramic Viewpoint' from the high point at the southwestern edge of town, with views of the Adriatic not so far off -- that would be beside the point in this weather, and in any case we didn't know it was there and had already turned round. Back downtown now.

We've returned to the central square by the Duomo, passed it, and hustled farther out Vittorio Emanuele to the Piazza XX Settembre, the other main square.

A small park sporting a Veduta Panoramica.
-- Oh, great, let's go have a look!

We're now in the Piazza XX Settembre -- it's a common place name recalling the day that the Italian army was able to retake Rome in 1870, end the papacy's temporal controls, and complete the unification of a secular Italy. (The French garrison of Rome, guaranteeing the Pope's person and agenda for many years, had had to be recalled to France to resist the Prussian invasion.)

That building is the Palazzo Municipale, medieval originally but much transformed in the 17th and 19th centuries. It also houses the Justice of the Peace and the civic archaeological museum, which has (we've read) a noteworthy collection of Piceni artifacts.

This is the commodious Piazza de Tharolis, more expansively, it seems, the 'Piazza Donna Bianca Tharolis'.

Donna Bianca Benvignati Tharolis is said to have been a Ripani noblewoman who, a few years after the 1515 sacking of the city by a rogue band of demobbed Spanish mercenaries, was disheartened when the men of the village proposed negotiating with another band of Spaniards gathering outside the city in 1521, so she organized the noble and peasant women of the town and rushed the enemy, capturing their battle flag, thus emboldening their own menfolk ('Bianca, with the enemy banner, her long hair in the wind, incited [them] to battle by setting an example'), and the Spaniards backed off. [Google Translate] The old story's captured in a poem or play by Mercantini.

Lots and lots of room to park their cars. But not much room round here to drive them anywhere.

In the centre of the square is a Monumento ai Caduto, a monument to locals who'd fallen in the two World Wars, festooned with a World War One cannon, just in case.

The Corso Vittorio Emanuele is a one-way street throughout the town, leading in opposite directions away from the Duomo, and it continues from here down to the Porta Agello where we tried to come in but got routed right the way round to a preferable way in.

Our party seems captivated by the war memorial (war memorials can do that to people -- that's why we've got so many of them).

Probably it's time to start for home soon.

This, facing the Palazzo Municipale across the Piazza XX Settembre, is the Teatro Luigi Mercantini.

We're told that in the 18th century the Ripani (the local demonym) recognized the need for a sumptuous municipal theatre to compete in prestige with the other cities of the region, and, with little room in town to build a new one, the former Palazzo del Podestà from 1304 was commandeered and transformed -- badly at first, so it was then thoroughly renovated and the theatre was inaugurated in 1824 as the 'Teatro del Leone'.

In 1894 it was renamed for a local poet, Luigi Mercantini, a friend of Garibaldi and author of famous patriotic poems. It was closed in 1956 and later restored to reopen in 2000, and the same again, reopening in 2012. (It's apparently pretty safe now.)

The charming interior of the Mercantini
(Photo by Paolo Rocchetti, 2008, under it.wikipedia Creative Commons)

Raining again; we're on our way past the Palazzo Municipale and the Teatro, with a side-on look at the façade of the Chiesa di San Rocco near the far end of the piazza.

An attractive map of the town, with the remains of surviving medieval city walls winding round below (which is actually the eastern side of town), enclosing a small amphitheatre.

-- Where'd we leave the car again? We're really going to need it.

There it is, hiding badly.
(The Coal markets seem to be everywhere in the region -- there are two or three in Ascoli Piceno.

Bye bye, Ripatransone, and thanks.

Back in Ascoli, Oscar's helpfully locking up the car.
(Our Mitsubishi battle-tank is safely sequestered outside of town, but useless.)

Now back to our early favorite restaurant in the old Franciscan cloisters (it's their last night of the season, as we recall).

A festive occasion in the Osterie e Botteghe Francescane, in an atmosphere of hilarity.
(Photo by our favorite serving person)

What adventures await us tomorrow?
(Photos by us, in alternation)

Home again, as it were.

On deck: More Ascoli Piceno, including the Forte Malatesta

Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 17 February 2023.

Back in Italy
Nov. 2022

Ascoli Piceno