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.
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 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.