Inferno in Montalto

A night of drama and magic in Montalto delle Marche.

At the very end of summer 2019, we were treated to a walking evening dramatisation of Dante’s Inferno, performed by an itinerant theatre group of actors, who, in the historic centre, presented this stunning journey of the human soul into the various depths of Hell. Many townspeople attended, the streets were lit with candles, the atmosphere was palpable and I was simply spellbound.

The Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia) is a long Italian narrative poem by Dante Alighieri, begun in 1308 and completed in 1320, a year before his death in 1321. It is widely considered to be the pre-eminent work in Italian literature and one of the greatest works of world literature. It comprises three major ‘cantiche’ – Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. All Italian schoolchildren study this stunning work.

a smouldering late summer scene set in Montalto delle Marche

While Inferno can be read as a straightforward story about Dante’s journey through Hell, it is also a long allegory for man’s descent into sin. 

The nine Circles of Dante’s Hell:
Limbo, lust, gluttony, greed, anger, heresy, violence, fraud, treachery.

Dante represents everyone. He loses the path of salvation in a shadowy world of sin. He travels the path through Hell trying to find his way back to God’s grace.

“My thoughts were full of other things when I wandered off the path. In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself within a dark woods where the straight way was lost.” 

Those approaching Inferno for the first time, as I did, might benefit from a brief structural description. This is Dante’s journey through the nine circles of Hell, guided by the poet Virgil. At the beginning of the story, a woman, Beatrice, calls for an angel to bring Virgil to guide Dante in his journey so that no harm will befall him.

An unquestionably significant part of Dante’s aim in writing Inferno was to offer a large-scale commentary on the political nightmare of fourteenth-century Florence, from which he had recently been exiled. Being as he was embroiled in the Guelph–Ghibelline conflict, he condemns political figures with whom he disagreed by scattering them ruthlessly throughout Hell. 

“As in the autumn-time the leaves fall off, first one and then another, till the branch surrenders all its spoils to the earth; in similar fashion did these evil seeds of Adam throw themselves from the group, one by one, into the boat at Charon’s signal, as a bird is called to its lure.”

“There is no greater sorrow than to recall our times of joy in wretchedness”.

Dante draws on classical Greek themes and imaginative comparison between a soul’s sin on Earth and the punishment he or she receives in Hell. “The Sullen choke on mud, the Wrathful attack one another, the Gluttonous are forced to eat excrement”, and so on. Wonderful!

“For she doth make my veins and pulses tremble.”

the lovers – Paolo and Francesca

“Through me, you go into a city of weeping; through me, you go into eternal pain; through me you go amongst the lost people” 

He comments on people who have never experienced success nor failure.
“Master, what is it that I hear? Who are those people so defeated by their pain?” And he says to me: “This miserable way is taken by the sorry souls of those who lived without disgrace and without praise.”

Allegorically, the Inferno represents the human soul seeing sin for what it really is, and the three beasts represent three types of sin: the self-indulgent, the violent, and the malicious.

“Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.
Justice the founder of my fabric moved:
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Most supreme wisdom, and primeval love.
Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I shall endure.
All hope abandon, ye who enter here.” 

“They now co-mingle with the coward angels,
the company of those who were not rebels
nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.
The heavens, that their beauty not be lessened,
have cast them out, nor will deep Hell receive them —
even the wicked cannot glory in them.” 

“So bitter is it, death is little more;” 

Understanding begins to evolve.

“Salvation must grow out of understanding, total understanding can follow only from total experience, and experience must be won by the laborious discipline of shaping one’s absolute attention.” 

“As little flowers, which the chill of night has bent and huddled, when the white sun strikes, grow straight and open fully on their stems, so did I, too, with my exhausted force.” 

It was a fantastic evening, I am smitten and intrigued by my new friend Dante, and I look forward to more delicious Divine Comedy outdoor theatre next summer in Montalto delle Marche.

Many thanks to my brother Jon. God rest his soul.

Autumn break in the Sibillini

Autumn is a perfect time for a short excursion to the mountains, before the snow arrives, and the lovely town of Amandola is only a 35 minute drive away. It is one of 18 municipalities located within the beautiful Monti Sibillini National Park.

During the drive there, you begin to see some of the solid massifs of this part of the Central Apennines as you travel through the pretty farmed countryside. Ten of them tower above 2,000 metres. Here you can see Mts Sibilla, Priora and Castel Manardo.

Nestled in a forested area just below these massifs, Amandola was founded in 1248, a fortified town which has seen plenty of battles. However, the most recent disaster to touch Amandola was the 2016 Central Italy earthquake, which damaged it quite heavily. There are 3,500 people now living here, still trying to adjust. 

Famous for the precious white truffle, there is a festival in October called “Diamanti a Tavola” (‘Diamonds at the Table’). There are ski-fields nearby too for winter enthusiasts, as well as horse-riding and cycling excursions. However, many people just come to trek in the mountains. There is a 9-day trek, staying at ‘rifiugi’ (refuges) along the way, but you can do many shorter walks too. There are rivers, caves, canyons and gorges to explore. Keep an eye out for bears and wolves, birds of prey and the hundreds of mountain flowers, including many types of wild orchids. You’ll need boots and a stick.

Following the road along the way up to the start of your walk, you see how the heavily forested areas are basically untouched. The air now is crisp and pure, and once you get above the tree line, the views are stunning.

I have yet to do the 9-day Grande Anello trek, but I’d love to. ‘Maybe next time’, she says, ever optimistic. One day walking is my limit at the moment. Heading back down to town, I look forward to warm bath, a home-cooked meal and a comfy bed.

I am staying at a little hotel, run by a wonderful family who were hit hard by the last big earthquake. Their livelihood was destroyed, but after a hard decision and couple of years of restoration, they now run their own home as a boutique 5-bedroomed hotel. An historic building, originally owned by the Marchesa Ferranti, pretty ‘Villa delle Rose’ was built in 1920’s Liberty style and is set in lovely grounds. Oreste, the owner, is friendly and very helpful with great advice on what to do and see locally; his mother Enrica, a delightful 83-year old, does the cooking; Manuela, Oreste’s wife, takes care of the beautiful children as well as working in the hotel. Even Lily the dog is a treasure. 

Villa delle Rose has a large rooftop terrace, where you see spectacular views of the Sibillini mountains, forged through ancient glacial periods. Although younger than the Alps, these mountains are still millions of years old. The balcony is also a wonderful place to sit and gaze at the starry night sky. The longer you look, the more you’ll see. Even better if you have downloaded a Night-Sky app on your phone.

After breakfast, a short trip onwards to explore the town of Sarnano, a little further into the park and a good place to stop for a caffe’, before heading back home. Or you could try the Sanctuary of Madonna Dell’Ambro, for a riverside picnic, the stunning Lame Rosse near Lake Fiastra, or perhaps the Gola dell’Infernaccio for another day of trekking. There really is plenty to do here. 

The snows will come soon enough.

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.

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.



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

alba Montalto con gru

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.


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.


(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…


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


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.


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.


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.

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.


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


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.


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.

wheat and sunflowers
foto: Cristina Cecmac.