We spent the second half of our trip in Le Marche, near Ascoli Piceno. This area takes its name from Picus — the woodpecker. Somewhere in the mists of time a group of hardy souls traversed the Apennines (remarkably rugged mountains) and followed a woodpecker who had perched on their banner.
Today, this area of the Marche is a land of steep mountains, beautiful rolling terrain, and Adriatic beaches — all within a distance of 60 miles. The landscape is dotted with a wealth of immaculate hill towns of distinctly medieval character. This is not a heavily touristed area, and the people who live here are intensely proud of their land and particularly helpful to strangers (at least in our experience). Good wine is made here too!
We spent 6 days in Ascoli Piceno, a town in the Marche where a friend of ours has a house. Ascoli is the perfect Italian small city — large enough to have everything you need for urban life, small enough to get around easily. It’s so nice, in fact that we probably should shut up about it.
While we were in Ascoli, we visited several Marche towns. Tolentino featured churches with 14th C frescoes of astonishing quality – and hardly any tourists. Having a good guidebook is a must here — in one church, the only evidence that there might be something interesting was a hand-lettered sign saying “affreschi” (frescoes) pointing to a side chapel that was pitch black. Fortunately, smartphones also act as pretty good flashlights (and there was a light switch inside the chapel).
We also visited Fermo, a quiet little town with few tourists. Its major attraction is the Duomo, whose interior features a trompe l’oeil (optical illusion) dome. The Diocesan Museum next door features the chasuble of St. Thomas Becket, one of the oldest pieces of embroidery in Europe. It is believed to have been made in Moorish Spain in 1116. St. Thomas gave the garment to his friend Presbitero, a fellow student from Bologna University, when Presbitero was made bishop of Fermo, Italy. Presbitero gave it to the city of Fermo, where it was kept in a box for some 700 years (which explains its remarkable condition). The garment was removed from the box, carefully, in the 1920s, when scholars translated the Arabic inscription and date. It’s now in the Fermo Cathedral museum. It is unknown how Thomas came to possess the garment or what its original intended use was (the hunting theme suggests it was not liturgical).
We were also able to reconnect with the Italian branch of the DeMelis family. My grandfather, the second of six boys, came to the US about a century ago. One of his brothers followed him to America, but the others all made lives in Italy. A few years ago, one of my cousins located Lucia DeMelis, the daughter of one of my grandfather’s younger brothers. That visit went well, and Lucia welcomed us as well. She, along with her three children and 9 grandchildren, live in Pescara, a town on the Adriatic about an hour’s drive from Ascoli. She doesn’t speak much English, but fortunately her granddaughter Leonora speaks pretty good English. We spent a day driving in the hills around Pescara, visiting the town where my grandfather was born and where he spent his childhood. We were immediately welcomed as cousins, which I was not expecting, and which touched my heart.
We spent our last couple of days in Orvieto, a town we like a lot that we hadn’t had the chance to visit during our last trip to Italy in 2012. Orvieto’s cathedral is one of my favorites — stunning architecture without over-the-top decoration.
The cathedral was originally built to commemorate the “miracle of Bolsena” — a bishop who found himself having a crisis of faith while celebrating Mass, suddenly realized that the host he was holding was bleeding — an indication of the truth of transubstantiation. The chapel of the Blessed Sacrament commemorates the miracle, and houses the holy relic. But in the nature of things, the cathedral today is better known for the other chapel, which includes a depiction of the Last Judgment by Luca Signorelli. The chapel’s three walls are decorated with Signorelli’s conception of the Last Days, from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse raining down death, to the preaching of the anti-Christ, to the separating of the saved souls from the damned. Many of the images seem to spring more from the fertile imagination of Signorelli than the literal words of the Bible. My favorite scene is the Resurrection of the Dead, where the souls of the saved are pushing their way out from the graves where they have been interred. For reasons unclear, some have bodies, and some are just skeletons waiting around for their new ones. It’s impossible not to think of these guys as the Grateful Dead.
Signorelli’s girlfriend, often used as a model for his paintings of the Madonna or Mary Magdalen, left him while he was working on the chapel. In retaliation, he painted her face on a damned soul being rushed to hell on the back of a grotesque demon. Never get an artist mad…..
Wandering around town, we stumbled in to the church of San Giovenale, which somehow we had missed on prior visits. The church featured frescoes from the 13th and 14th C, some of them in a highly-unusual Byzantine style.
Italy is full of such discoveries. I guess that’s why we keep going back.