Palazzo Paradisi

I love to go back in time. Montalto delle Marche has been populated since time immemorial, with evidence of prehistoric tribes here since 6000BC.

As an amateur armchair historian, I needed to understand more about all the heavily fortified medieval hilltop towns in this region, and the close ties with the church. Once you start delving, you get the feeling just about everyone has had a go at ruling Italy. I am delighted to have found several connecting layers of unique ancient history here in Montalto delle Marche.

During the Middle Ages (5th – 15th centuries), and after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the peninsula of Italy was occupied by a series of Barbarian tribes who wreaked havoc. The Gothic Wars (535-554) were a true scourge for the people of Italy; with ensuing famine, violence and epidemics, and taking centuries to recover from such destruction.

Then came the Lombards in 578 who quickly carved out kingdoms for themselves. As the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) was then losing ground to the Ottomans, and unable to protect the Italian people, eventually the Church decided to step in. These times are now called the Dark Ages. (It’s no wonder the local flour mill had to be fortified, or the town’s people would have starved during winter). The Bishop of Rome subsequently became powerful, and central Italy became a region of Papal States.

In 1118 the Castello of Montem Altum is listed in documents as a confirmed asset of the order of Farfa ( a powerful Benedictine order). Montalto was referred to as ‘Montem Altum’ by the first Bourbon king, Enrico IV.

Montalto delle Marche was an important city in medieval times, with 15 municipalities under it’s jurisdiction. It governed from the majestic Sibillini mountains down to the serene Adriatic coast. There are many old palaces in Montalto, but Palazzo Paradisi, the original stronghold, is the most ancient. Seen through autumn fog, one’s imagination takes over.

Originally called Castello della Rocca, it was constructed by the Paradisi Aronne family, a wealthy family with strong ties to the Farfense monastic order. Security for inhabitants and supplies was assured, and access to the city was gained, via two fortified gates, Porta Marina and Porta Patrizia.

Nowadays you can drive into town through these splendid gateways unchallenged, but you can still see the battlements and iron hinges from which hung the heavy gates.

First time visitors are initially impressed on arrival with the imposing and beautiful 16th century Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, on the main Piazza Sisto V. However one’s gaze is soon drawn a short distance to the grand and elegant medieval palazzo dominating the centre of town with age-old eyes.

The original city walls are now incorporated into the palace complex.
(photo A. Monti)

Constructed in ancient times, long before the cathedral of Montalto, the original part is dated in documentation around the year 1,000 AD. Inside the palazzo, we now find an elegant staircase leading to the noble floor, and can admire the dozens of rooms, overlapping in styles from 16th to 20th centuries, beautifully decorated, and at least three large reception halls.

Subsequent additions over the years grew the complex, now comprising 3,500 square metres in area, and includes the fortified Porta Marina, the Palazzo Noble itself and the Church of San Pietro (once the family chapel).

The palazzo was privately owned since construction until fairly recently, by the Paradisi Aronne family. It was listed in documents as far back as 1027. The Paradisi family achieved a high degree of wealth and several documents attest to this. They are listed in the Books of Income and Outcome, and in a census for the focaccia tax.

Documented medieval titbits: A severe sanction was imposed on two thieves who entered the home of the Paradisi family and stole denari, wine, bread, fava bean flour and flax. (Life was hard, maybe they were just very hungry).

The rise of the Paradisi family continued and in 1537 Gianfrancesco Paradisi committed to pay 6 gold scudi ( a very large sum) to a Franciscan friar if he could heal with ‘ointment, pharmacy, medicine and other things necessary’ his daughter who suffered an unnamed evil (probably a tumour) of the throat. To this day, it is not known if this was accomplished. We hope so.

Numerous prelates of the family distinguished themselves to various degrees in the hierarchy of the Church, and the adjoining church of San Pietro was refurbished in 1606 to welcome the remains of the first Bishop of Montalto. In 1772 the Catastre lists all possessions of Count Pietro Paradisi who was one of the largest land-owners, by land and by evaluation.

The church of San Pietro, with frescoes by Martino Bonfini (16th century)

The complex of the palace also includes the ancient theatre of the Rocca, unfortunately demolished in the 1970s. It had been the centre of cultural, recreational and theatrical activities, especially in more recent times by the last family member Countess Francesca Aronne Coppi, affectionately called Fanny, whom many still remember.

Left by the family in total abandonment after Countess Fanny’s death in 1963, the complex was purchased by the municipality of Montalto delle Marche in 1990, and has now thankfully been largely restored and is being used for community and cultural events .

Acknowledgements: I sincerely thank Montalto Councillor Raffaele Tassotti for his expert help with my research, and Alberto Monti for the use of some of his excellent photos.

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Green Heart Montalto

Visitors to Le Marche often express their surprise at how green the land looks here. I guess people normally associate Italy with a tawny sienna colour, scorched and dusty. Further south this is often true. However the region of Le Marche is really the green heart of Italy, along with Umbria.

Here, the terrain is a patchwork, carpeted with cultivated crops, supported with plenty of protected waterways and forested areas. Here, the vines provide bright emerald green, even in high summer; olive trees give a bluish silver-green colour, the various crops and wildflowers add their wonderful hues.

The land in these sweet hills has a lot of clay in it, so it retains moisture, and crops still do well even in the long hot summer. It’s generally a dry summer, but we get a good amount of rain in spring and in autumn. We do get summer storms, like yesterday afternoon, with rolling thunder and spectacular lightning, and sometimes this even produces rain. All good for the land, and the farmers are happy.

Photo: L. Bartolini

July brings intense heat with temperatures of mid to high 30’s, however there is green everywhere. The many rivers and streams that course down from the mountains never run completely dry.

The surrounding countryside is a happy mix of tamed and well-cultivated land alongside rampant and untidy nature. A perfect combination for ensuring the healthy regeneration of humans as well as flora and fauna. Birds and wild animals abound, and with humans coexist peacefully. Except for during the hunting season, I suppose.

In high summer, it pays to take your long morning fitness walk before 8am, or it will be too taxing. The intense heat of midday summer makes it really ridiculous to wander about outside between the hours of 11am and 5pm. Mad dogs and Englishmen! A perfect time for a siesta with a good book. The small green paths are hard to resist, though, and if you must, you can always find a shady tree or stream to sit beside.

It must be time for a light farmhouse dinner, surely.

Long after-dinner strolls are simply wonderful, the breeze is light and warm, the piazza is a great place to meet for a gelato, the bars are busy. Montalto always looks stunning at this hour.

The San Ben market

Most smaller towns have a weekly market, and Montalto has hers every Wednesday. But this week I decided to go to the market in San Benedetto del Tronto. This is a larger coastal town and busy port, and the market there is much bigger, attracting huge crowds.

One has to steel oneself for the heavy traffic! It’s quite a bit of a to-do to find a free car park close by, and eventually I had to walk about 5 or 6 minutes, keeping to the shade whenever possible, as temperatures are quite high now.

Once you sight the large white sunshades covering the stalls, and hear the stallholders calling out loudly to attract attention, your legs hurry you along until you find yourself immersed in the thronging crowds, surrounded by all sorts of delightful merchandise! Goodness, where to start?

Shoes, perhaps?

Or handbags?

I am giddy already. And there are clothes! Acres of clothes! All very reasonably priced, and you can try things on right there.

Hats?

Swimwear?

My head is spinning, I need a nice bit of shade and a cool drink.

After 10 minutes of rest, I am hankering to get back into it again. The household wares are always interesting, you never know what you might find. Then there are the sheets, towels and tablecloths.

Sparkling jewellery and shady sunglasses.

Perhaps some potted colour for the balcony or the piazzetta?

It’s a good idea to leave the fruit and vegetables until it’s time to leave. It’s a bit of a drive back and you don’t want limp and warm produce, now do you?

Don’t forget the freshly baked cakes and biscuits…

Right, that’s it, my arms are heavy with bags now. Heading back to the car. Ciao, tutti! Wait!! One last look at the shoes?

No, no…next week perhaps. And off I trudge back to the car, feeling very much satisfied with my purchases today. Grazie, San Benedetto del Tronto. Alla prossima!

The Blue Hour in Montalto

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I think the most beautiful time here is at twilight, the blue hour or l’ora blu, when the sun has set, and now lies below the horizon and drops even further – and we have about an hour to witness the rich colour velvet-blue begin and deepen, eventually darkening to navy, then to black of night.

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In summer it happens during around 9pm – 10pm, and is the most tranquil and magical time of day. Interestingly, most religions conduct special rituals, vigils and prayers at this time.

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(L’ora blu happens before sunrise too, and one good thing about being jet-lagged from a long flight is that you will likely be up to witness that stunning time also).

It is the perfect time to go for a quiet walk around town. The streets are often deserted, as most people are indoors eating and spending time with the family.

When the sky is clear, the indirect sunlight tinges the sky yellow, orange, pink, red…

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And then to blue –  a rich cobalt blue, almost palpable, with the moon and stars just hanging there.

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The houses and piazzas begin to glow golden with the darkening sky, and eventually you look up and as quick as you like, the vivid cobalt blue has passed into deep navy and darker still.

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Night has fallen.

 

 

 

 

June in Montalto

Finally the heat has arrived, after a rather long, chilly and wet spring,  and the pretty flowers are now out and soaking up the sun.

Mid June, we honour Saint Vito – the patron saint of Montalto delle Marche, and thank him for his continuing protection.

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We also have a new mayor to welcome into office, we extend him all our best wishes in his new appointment. As is traditional here, the mayor presents the keys of Montalto to Saint Vito, a symbolic gesture conducted with great respect and celebration.

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foto: Laura Bartolini

Its summer now, and during the week honouring Saint Vito, we had a very enjoyable concert with food and drink to entertain us in the warm evening. The town looks so beautiful lit up at night, wandering down to the Belvedere to listen to the music, have a drink and say hello to friends and neighbours was just delightful.

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From the high platform of Belvedere, we have a stunning view of Piazza Sisto V at night.

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The last two Sundays have seen the religious ceremonies of Holy Confirmation and First Holy Communion, when each Catholic ritual has been a great honour to attend, with the town brass band playing enthusiastically; the day marked with devout processions in traditional and symbolic costume. These are important religious occasions, where the children are congratulated and valued as young, good and integral elements of our society.

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It is promising to be a long warm summer, so I am looking forward to more concerts and festivals, as well as spending long days at the beach. When it gets too hot, of course, I will head off to the mountains for a little cooler fresher air.

But for now the weather is perfect here in Montalto delle Marche and the surrounding countryside is doing well under the warm skies.

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foto: Cristina Cecmac.

 

 

My Eyes in Montalto

In Italy one gets used to sitting and just gazing…..there is just so much beauty to take in…

And from my Montalto house, gazing from almost 600m above sea level, the views across the countryside are stunning….

Sunrises, moon-rises and sunsets…..every day the colours of an artist’s palette

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a summer evening

It’s enchanting to watch the daily passing of the weather from my window……

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a foggy morning

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early evening rain in violet and pink

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photo by Laura Bartolini

The distinct seasons marking the unstoppable passage of time….

I never tire of these views, and often spend long periods just talking it all in…

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photo by John Allen

Winter scenes are particularly magical….

But the surrounding countryside is mesmerising….in any season

It’s all very restorative for the soul, and apparently even my long-distance eyesight is now much improved for it.

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I cannot imagine living long without this view in front of me.

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Santa Maria Assunta

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Concattedrale di Montalto delle Marche

The Church of Santa Maria Assunta (Our Lady of the Assumption) is the name of the Catholic Basilica Concattedrale of Montalto, and it is quite magnificent. It stands proud and imposing to one side of the main piazza, Piazza Sisto V. Even on an overcast day, its neoclassical portico facade leaves a definite impression on new arrivals to this town.

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One’s breath is taken away upon entering, and one’s gaze is lifted upwards to the wonderfully ornate ceilings and soaring dome.

There are marbled pillars and altars in green, orange, pink and grey. There are Orthodox-styled hanging oil lamps. There are frescoes and very old paintings. There is a golden tabernacle. There are candles, handmade lace altar-cloths, ancient relics and incense. It is calm and cool in summer, a perfect place to sit still and ponder. This beautiful church provides us welcome and ample space for quiet reflection and meditation. The lively piazza outside is generally the opposite.

The Feast of the Our Lady’s Assumption into Heaven is celebrated on 15 August, the national holiday of Ferragosto. Our Lady of the Assumption has long been highly venerated and celebrated in the Catholic church, as the perfect feminine principle. Particularly majestic for such a small town, Santa Maria Assunta cathedral was begun by Felice Peretti, who eventually became Pope Sixtus V, and had received his religious training in Montalto at the San Francesco convent.

The Diocese of Montalto delle Marche (with symbolic pennants of yellow and red) was founded in 1586 by Pope Sixtus V, who having levelled the land for the town, erected the first stage of the church, the present day crypt. This sits several floors underneath the cathedral’s massive nave and transepts. Many past bishops are interred in the crypt. It is appropriately sombre and pale. Architectural trompe l’oeil has been used here to stunning effect.

Here we can see behind the altar the sculptural group, ” The Deposition” by Giorgio Paci.

In the crypt, there is also a simple dimly-lit grotto chapel, for devotees of Our Lady of Lourdes.

There was much work to be done, however, and after Pope Sixtus died in 1590, successive bishops undertook the task. In following years each bishop built on, and contributed to improve and complete this sacred building. By the end of 1600, the Basilica Cathedral was in daily use.

Santa Maria Assunta has an octagonal bell-tower, with huge deeply resonating bells that peal across the surrounding countryside. A true pleasure to hear, as long as you’re not standing too close. The splendid ringing of these bells punctuates my days and my weeks.

After a while here, you get to differentiate the many bell peals and rhythms: announcing Mass, celebrating new life, congratulating milestone achievements, grief and mourning – after all, the Church is in the ‘hatch, match and despatch’ business. Wedding bells are particularly joyous. When someone dies, two long sombre bells toll twice; once on the day of death and then again at the funeral. With some familiarity, you get to distinguish the ringing; you soon get to know your ‘knockers’ from your ‘rockers’!

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The church is beautifully kept and a pleasure to visit, although there has been some damage over the years. The vault of the nave is frescoed in lovely panels, and there are 12 lateral chapels decorated with very ancient ‘dry’ paintings. The first chapel on the right as you enter is the baptistry, and the font dates back to 1652.

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The Diocesan Sistine Museum, formerly the seminary, sits directly opposite the cathedral on the piazza in the grand episcopal Palazzo. This building houses precious Sistine treasures dating from the 13th century and ancient religious reliquaries.

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Il Museo Sistino Vescovile

Previously I have mentioned our patron is Saint Vito, and the important and reverent ceremonies on his feast day bring together the civic and religious aspects of Montalto in rich colour.

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Esteemed parish priest Don Lorenzo Bruni in procession with the sacred relic of St. Vito.

The Cathedral is the religious, spiritual, and cultural anchor for the whole town community; not only churchy ceremonies are held here, also regular musical recitals, concerts and choral events.

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Local alpine choral group – La Cordata – (foto ilgraffio.online)

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E buonanotte!  A very good night from Montalto.