Abruzzo History II
Back Home Up Next

 

This history of Abruzzo is a translation into English from Italian, author and translator unknown. 

 

The historic pre-Roman age

The geomorphological features of the territory, which are estremely varied, have allowed the constant and uninterrupted presence of Man in Abruzzo for about 700.000 years when the first nomadic populations of hunters harvesters of the Palaeolithic period lived in those valleys of the region which opened up towards the sea.


With the Neolithic period, about 6.500 years ago an essentially agricultural economy was present in the small villages according to the autochthonous cultures of Catignano and Ripoli.

At the beginning of the Metal Age sheep-farming developed progressively with the arrival of peoples of oriental origin who subsequently took over from the Neolithics, thus generating the new cultural world that was made up of elements of agricultural and pastoral extraction and which provided the basis for the Italic civilisation.

The Italics were divided up into numerous tribal groups amongst which there were the Marsi, the Samnites, the Aequi, the Vestini, and those of the Peligna valley. The most important finding of this period that we still have today is the statue of the Warrior of Capestrano, a funeral stele of the 6th century B.C. which is preserved in the Archaeological Museum in Chieti, and represents a warrior with all his offensive and defensive weapons. Other significant testimonies to the pre-Roman period are visible, in particular, at the Archaeological Museum in Campli (Te) which has preserved objects discovered in the Picenian necropolis at Campovalano. However, the whole region is rich with ruins and findings belonging to this era. Remains of megalithic walls and buildings have been recovered at Alfedena (L'Aquila) which were probably from the ancient Samnite centre of Aufidena, well-known from the 7th to the 2nd century B.C. and destroyed by the Romans in 298 B.C. A huge Samnite necropolis has also come to light with more than six thousand tombs datable from the 7th to the 3rd century B.C.

 

At Montenerodomo, outstanding remains of polygonal walls, attributable to an Italic settlement of considerable size, have been unearthed, whilst a little way outside Tornareccio the ruins of the megalithic walls of Pallanum, an ancient Frentani centre, can be seen. The ruins of an Italic temple, datable as the 3rd to 2nd century B.C. have been discovered at Castiglione Messer Raimondo, in the Colle San Giorgio area. Its clay decoration, partly reconstructed, is preserved at the Archaeological Museum in Chieti together with the decorative parts in brickwork which carne from the two Italic temples in Schiavi d'Abruzzo, as well as other archaeological findings from all over the region.

 

 

The Roman age

Right from the era of the first Kings, the "peoples" of Abruzzo did not enjoy a pacific relationship with Rome. Tarquinius Priscus clashed with the Aequi and the expansionist intentions of his successors were tenaciously curbed by the federal alliances drawn up by the Italic peoples. In all attempt to set up a unitary' state along the Adriatic coast, the Samnites were particularly indomitable adversaries of the Romans, the former inflicting heavy defeats on the latter, including the humiliation of the "Caudine Forks". After alternating outcomes, the Italics were finally subdued at the end of the social war (91-88 B.C.), but not without first being promised Roman citizenship. With pacification and the division of Italy into regions, at the wishes of Augustus, Abruzzo and Molise became the Iv region of Rome and given the name "Sabina et Samnium".

The Roman presence soon made itself felt. Road networks were improved and new settlements built, whilst existing towns were provided with spas, amphitheatres, theatres, temples and other important public works.
The partial draining of the lake Fucino took on a great importance with the construction of an artificial outlet which, initiated in 41 A.D. by the Emperor Claudius, was inaugurated in 52 A.D. and functioned until the 6th century. The remains of the drainage works can be seen today in the archaeological area of Incile near Avezzano.

Among the numerous testimonies to the Roman era one must not forget the theatre and amphitheatre in Arniternuni near L'Aquila; the remains of the town of Alba Fucens (where digging work has not yet been completed), near Avezzano; the centre of Juvanum in Montenerodomo (Ch),with tempie buildings, theatre and forum; the Sanctuary of Ercole Curino in Sulmona; Peltuinum at Prata d'Ansidonia (Aq) and Corfinium, the present-day Corfinio (Aq), built on the via Valeria and capital of the Italic League, with the name of Italy, at the time of the social war. Further important remains of the Roman era have also been found at Teramo, Atri and Chieti.

 

The Middle Ages

The fall of the Roman Empire brought to a halt any building activity worth mentioning. This was also due to the involvement of the region in the Greek-Gotho war (535-553). The arrival of the Longobard peoples in the 6th century, who colonized the territory on a massive scale with their settlements, emphasized the already gloomy economic conditions of the region, dividing it between the Duchies of Spoleto and Benevento. It was in this period that the term "Aprutium" began to be used to refer to most of the territory. With Carlo Magno, in 843, administrative unity was restored, at least nominally, under the Duchy of Spoleto, even though, by now, the large feudal families were dominating the political and administrative scene.

The resumption of construction work took the form of buildings of great importance which still exist today, though mostly altered in one way or another. In fact, between the 8th and 10th century, the abbatial churches of San Giovanni in Venere near Fossacesia (Ch), San Pietro a Campovalano (Te), San Clemente a Casauria, San Clemente al Vomano, close to Guardia Vomano, a hamlet of Isola del Gran Sasso (Te) and San Bartolomeo of Carpineto della Nora (Pe) were all built. Furthermore, the churches of San Pietro ad Oratorium near Capestrano (Aq), Santa Giusta in Bazzano, a hamlet of L'Aquila, Santa Maria a Vico near Nereto (Te) as well as many others scattered throughout the regional territory were founded.

Around the year 1000 the Normans began advancing, and after a century, in 1143, they took over control of the whole region, dividing it up into counties and putting it under the Regnum Siciliae (later that of Naples), of which it would be an integral part for seven centuries. Subsequently, in 1233, Frederick II of Sweden administratively reorganized the region making the Iustitieratus Aprutii of it (in 1233), and establishing Sulmona as its main town. In 1254 L'Aquila was founded which, under the Angioini dynasty and for the following two centuries, became the principal city in the kingdom after Naples. All the cultural and political life of the region flourished in these three centuries before the arrival of Spanish domination

 

The alternating political events, the absence of a central power which could unify the criteria for a "defence policy" and the struggles between the large feudal families were the main factors that prevented the building, between 1200 and 1400, of an organic system of castles and fortresses according to any unified plan. Nevertheless, the numerous defensive structures that were set up at that time presented such great typological variety that they made up "an exceptional indicative synthesis of almost all the aspects of fortified architecture" (Perogalli). Unfortunately, today most of these buildings have fallen into decay, but, because of the surroundings and background in which they can be found -often in isolated places which are difficult to get to -, they still manage to hold a certain fascination for the occasional visitor.

Next to political events, the presence of the Benedictines came to be of great importance for Abruzzo from the 11th century onwards. As spreaders of civilisation and culture the monks have left innumerable testimonies to their presence in Abruzzo, amongst which, the Abbey of San Liberatore a Majella, near Serramonacesca (Pe), which is outstanding. Between the 11th and l2th century, the most important artistic trends spread from here into the region: the Valvense and the Casauriense. The former was centred on the Basilica of San Pelino in Corfinio (Aq), and the latter spread from the Abbey of San Clemente a Casauria (Pe).

 

Both held a determining importance for the development of a particular kind of sculpture, rich in animal and vegetable ornamentation taken from popular symbology and applied to the creation of highly-decorated ambones and ciboria that are still visible today in many churches of the era. The presence in Abruzzo of the Cistercian Benedictines was a decisive step towards social and economic developments as well. As clever and energetic entrepreneurs, colonizers and improvers, they soon developed a network of economically-integrated convents, which, in the absence of economic and productive structures at that time, were autonomous and able to provide for themselves.

Most of their establishments were built on pre-existing pagan temples (S. Maria di Casanova, S. Spirito d'Ocre, S. Maria Arabona, S. Giovanni in Venere, S. Maria del Monte, and others too), and the Cistercians provided the populations of Abruzzo with a wonderful example, encouraging the development of new productive classes and giving the region an impulse that was fundamental to the agrarian revolution and consequent demographic growth. A most interesting testimony to the economic vitality of the Cistercian monks is represented by the convent, or rather "Grancia" (ancient name for a monastery) di Santa Maria del Monte, isolated on the vast pastures of Campo Imperatore at an altitude of more than 1600 metres. The building, which was set up at the beginning of the 13th century, was equipped with storehouses, stalls and enormous open air enclosures so that the large flocks that belonged to the Order, could be collected together and moved out to pasture.

 

The Renaissance and the Baroque period

The Angioini dynasty was followed by that of the Aragonesi when, in 1442, the Kingdom of Naples fell into the hands of Alfonso d'Aragona. L'Aquila's resistance was inefficacious in trying to impede the transition of power, and it was subdued in 1492. After a brief period of French domination, Abruzzo followed the fate of the Kingdom of Naples which had passed into the hands of Ferdinando the Catholic in 1504. The struggles between Ferdinando's successor, Carlo V, and the King of France, involved Abruzzo in numerous serious military clashes. The cities of Abruzzo, and L'Aquila in particular, sided with France but were drastically punished by the Spanish monarch who, by splitting up the rural areas around the city and subjecting the latter to harsh repressive measures in 1529, ordained a decline which was then impossible to stop.

Under Spanish domination numerous fortification works were built. These were a testimony to the strategic importance that Abruzzo had in the dispute between France and Spain. The Spanish entrusted the plans for such works, amongst which there were the Castle of L'Aquila, and the Fortress of Pescara, to the architect, Pirro Luigi Scrivā, who was also responsible for the Castel Sant'Elmo in Naples. Furthermore, the ancient castles were transformed from simple defensive building into residences which were architecturally more complex. One of the most significant examples of this is the Celano Castle (Aq), which has a squared plan and a precise geometric structure built around an arcade decorated with open galleries; however one must not forget either the Balsorano Castle (Aq), the Piccolomini Castle of Ortucchio (Aq), and that of Gagliano Aterno (Aq)..

 

During the 15th century the slow introduction of Renaissance forms affected sacred and civil buildings as well as castles. Building work that was more airy and open was grafted onto medieval forms as in the case of the church of the Annunziata in Sulmona (Aq) or in many noble palaces in Sulmona, L'Aquila, Popoli and Tagliacozzo. These were enriched with spacious courtyards, flights of steps and arcades which were of a scenographic nature. The Tuscan Renaissance style was so widespread in Abruzzo that the church of S. Bernardino in L'Aquila (1415), is planimetrically reminiscent of the church of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence; whilst San Flaviano in Giulianova (Te) and Santa Maria del Tricalle in Chieti are likewise examples of the attention that was given in Abruzzo to the temples with centre plan of the Tuscan Renaissance.

The Baroque period, which developed after the plague of 1656 and the two earthquakes of 1703 and 1706, took the form of a time of reconstruction and developed both in the construction of new buildings like the churches of Santa Caterina and Sant'Agostino in L'Aquila, and - more often-in the internal decoration of antique medieval churches. Nearly all of them were enriched with costly Baroque ornaments, and, thanks to the strong artisan tradition of carved wood, made precious with valuable furnishings and ligneous ceilings as well as spectacular and imposing organs. Amongst the most prominent Baroque achievements there are the Badia Morronese, (Morronese Abbey), near Sulmona (Aq), the church of the Annunziata in Penne (Pe), and that of Sulmona, the church of the Suffragio in L'Aquila, that of Santa Maria Assunta in Castel di Sangro and the church of Santo Spirito in Teramo.

 

The Modern Age

The Spanish domination, which lasted until 1707, was followed by that of Austria until 1734 and, until the occupation by Napoleon of the Kingdom of Naples in 1806, that of the Bourbons, restored by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. In the Napoleonic period administrative, judicial and economic reforms were carried out and, above all, feudalism was abolished. From then on political and cultural life, as well as the economic life of flourishing Abruzzo was transferred to the coastal strip. This process was more and more concentrated on Pescara. It was here that, during the Risorgimento, the main episodes of uprising against the Bourbon monarchy were recorded, like, for example, the heroic resistance of the fortress of Pescara when the Parthenopean Republic was eliminated in 1799 and the rebellions in Penne in 1837.

Whereas, inland, in the mountainous Abruzzo, widespread episodes of civil struggles against the new political direction were evident. These events resulted in the ultimate loyalist resistance of the Fortress of Civitella del Tronto and then developed to take the form of brigandage after 1860, harshly put down by the unified State During the decade following Unification the region was witness to the main event of an economic nature: the draining of the Fucino Lake.
This was initiated in 1852 by a French company but then administered by Alessandro Torlonia who secured the ownership of the land as compensation for the expenses incurred.

 

During World War I, after the retreat of Caporetto, Abruzzo offered hospitality to the refugees and to the military command which moved into the Abruzzo territory hit by a disastrous earthquake in 1915. Fascism found favourable ground on which to spread in Abruzzo because of the large gap which existed between the social classes, especially between the land-owners and the farm-labourers, the latter survivors of a war which had seen their already miserable way of life deteriorate even further.

The conditions were so favourable that the regime chose to hold the Matteotti trial in Chieti. In the winter of 1943-44, during World War II, the region suffered the devastation left by the retreating Nazi army and the slaughter it carried out amongst the civilian population although Abruzzo and its Brigata Majella participated actively in the liberation struggle.

Post-war reconstruction work was late in getting started. Though it happened slowly, the development of the region started to take place only at the beginning of the Sixties to then reach the height of its expansion between the mid-Seventies and Eighties, the expansion was such that Abruzzo reached the same level of economic development as the Centre and North. The Neoclassic period did not leave any valuable testimonies in Abruzzo apart from the funeral monument to Matteo Wade in Civitella del Tronto, defender of the fortress in 1805, at the wishes of Francesco I of Bourbon. It was only after Unification that there was a notable cultural revival: the scene obviously being dominated by Gabriele D'Annunzio, though the painters Francesco Paolo Michetti, Teofilo Patini, Filippo and Giuseppe Palizzi and the sculptor Costantino Barbella were all important too. As far as architecture is concerned, it is worth remembering the interesting liberty forms which were widespread at the beginning of the 1900s in many residences, especially in the coastal towns such as Pescara, Giulianova, Francavilla and Ortona, many of which are still well-preserved.

 

The old villages

Almost all the mountain centres of Abruzzo, sitting tight and protected on the peaks, were wise in their geographical setting and their own morphology for two reasons: the extreme danger of the Middle Ages, a period in which the majority of these villages arose, and the business (but it could be said mono-culture) of sheep farming, that has its kingdom in the mountains.

Built entirely out of live stone and mud, with a total, phobic absence of wood, all the old villages of the Abruzzo mountains express the obsessive attachment to stone, which is typical of the Mediterranean civilization. These houses of bare stone, built close, one to another, to form a compact, protective mass in guise of a wall (therefore called "case-mura", wall-houses), are communicating their never-ending, anguishing need of defence in a world of extended, feudal anarchy, of the critical evasion of the central powers and therefore, the lack of organized systems of defence. The outside perimeter of the houses enclosed the village in a civilian (none the less effective), defensive circle.
On the outside there are few windows, almost as narrow as slits, placed in the upper floors. A direct consequence of the dangerous times, the so called "defence barriers" represented the only solid system of self-defence for the local population. Real, fortified villages more than just castles, these allowed a prolonged, defensive retreat for the people, if necessary.

 

For a very long space of time, going from the XI century to the French revolution, this type of urban plan formed a typical model of a civilized settlement in the Abruzzo mountains. Nevertheless it is difficult to understand the sense of these human settlements, often pushed to the limits of habitability without putting them back in their place in that system of economic production that organizes, in its entirety, all life in the mountains: sheep farming.

In actual fact, as an economic activity predominant in Abruzzo for almost three millenniums, therefore the origin of a particular condition of life, the sheep farming has made an impression on the territory not just limited to prints left in the pastures and sheep tracks. The great majority of the sheep, the huge flocks that periodically moved from the upper pastures in the mountains to the coastal plains of the Peninsula, are completely unconnected with the inhabited centre: the transhumant sheep always live out in the open. They represented, however, a sort of additional capital that never became directly part of the life or urban plan of the mountain villages. The actual style of each single house reflects this economy tied to a type of breeding which is based on large herds of small animals. The impossibility of moving this patrimony to the centre of the village, the need of defence which tended to limit the extension of the centre to be protected, and the steepness of the slopes, made a particular housing structure necessary in the shape of buildings with three, four, or even five or six rooms, one on top of the other.

 

The religious nature of the Abruzzo people through places of worship

Many of the sacred places in Abruzzo today are witnesses to an extraordinary continuity in worship which has involved the whole region since earliest times.
This is the case, for example, of some of the grottoes. The sacred nature of grottoes dates from ancient times and is associated with the entire history of Man's culture.

Before Man became physically at one with the earth, through farming cultures, it was the ancestral adoration of the earth element which prompted him to make of the grotto a sanctuary, more than just a refuge.

The Grotta dei Piccioni

The slopes of the Majella are studded with grottoes but there is one in particular, the Grotta dei Piccioni near Bolognano, which is able to transport the visitor into a dimension where human life Seems to be completely at one with Time. In the Grotta dei Piccioni the first traces of Man date back to about 6500 years ago. The uniqueness and fascination of this grotto lie Particularly in the testimonies that have been preserved in it. It was not, in fact, a "habitat" as such of the ancient neolithic populations, people organized into tribes who lived in hut villages Nor was the grotto a temporary refuge for hunters or for those already involved in agriculture a place to keep their crops nor even a place for those who worked in ceramics, it was instead, a sanctuary.

In fact, inside the grotto, in a shallow ditch, it is still possible to see a little heap of small bones; according to archeologists they are the remains of a child of about 10 years old sacrificed about 6500 years ago during sacred rites in honour of the goddess Earth. A further testimony to the sacred nature and to continuity in worship in the region is the Grotta di S. Angelo, not far from Palombaro, still on the Majella.

 

The worship of Bona and Ercole Curino

The cave is thought to have been a sanctuary dedicated to the worship of Bona, goddess of fertility. According to the legend, women who bathed their breasts in the water that flowed

inside the grotto would have an abundant supply of milk. With the arrival of Christianity, that particular cult was taken over by the devotion to Sant'Agata, still in the hope of an abundant supply of milk. The sacred nature of the place is further witnessed to by the surprising remains of an extremely ancient church built between the 11th and l2th century in the innermost part of the grotto where a rocky ledge juts out thus elevating a kind of irregular-shaped platform. For more than a thousand years, both during the Italic and Roman era in Abruzzo, Ercole (Hercules), was one of the most venerated gods.

The Abruzzo peoples worshipped him in a way that was almost reminiscent of that of the ancient shepherd warriors or metal-prospectors from the Orient, whose impact with the native neolithic populations provoked a sort of cultural revolution. The most important and famous temple, both in ancient times and today, is definitely the one near Sulmona dedicated to the worship of Ercole Curino, a god of whom the pre Christian shepherds were particularly fond. During the great revolt of the Italic populations against Rome, the temple became the most important religious centre for the rebels who, joined together, formed the Italic League.

 

The worship of S. Michele Arcangelo

As Christianity spread, Ercole, the favourite divinity among the shepherds of central and southern Italy, was replaced by the Arcangelo Michele. In popular belief he was portrayed as a young holy warrior who killed the dragon and was therefore a defeater of evil forces. Basically, he too was a cultural hero, just as Ercole had been in pre-Christian times. The very close iconographical analogy which links the two divinities shows how popular religious belief was almost completely preserved simply by transferring it into the new Christian ritual framework and bestowing the Arcangelo Michele with the attributes of the previous deity. Spreading up from the grotto-sanctuary of Monte Sant'Angelo on the Gargano which had been in existence since the 5th century, the worship of the Arcangelo Michele probably arrived in Abruzzo via the transhumant shepherds and, like the original religious centre frequently visited by the shepherds, selected places of worship subsequently became grottoes.

There are scores of grottoes spread along the Apenine ridge in Abruzzo dedicated to the worship of S. Michele Arcangelo, or S. Angelo. The widespread diffusion that the worship of the Arcangelo achieved in the region was, without doubt, sustained by the continuity that the said cult established with previous rites in pagan grottoes. In fact, it was by no coincidence that the cult took over in many grottoes which popular tradition had already established as "sacred" because of their connection with other cults. Testimonies of fertility rites, adoration of rocks and water as in the case of the very important and equally fascinating Grotta S. Angelo of Ripe di Civitella del Tronto - also traces of human sacrifices and ritual cannibalism are proof of thousands of years of uninterrupted religious ceremonies and rituals in surroundings such as these. All in a picture is one of grandiose, mysterious and fascinating continuity in worship.

 

The Hermitages

To the timeless sacred nature of the rocks, water and grottoes, one associates the most typical example of Abruzzo religious culture since early medieval times: hermitage life. Completely cut off from the world and in search of an alternative austere way of life, the hermits lived in grottoes and shelters under rocks; following this, proper entrances to their places of worship were created either because of the expansion of the hermitical community or due to the devotion of the faithful. A building was finally arrived at a chapel leaning against and almost penetrating the rock.

The hermitage thus provides an ideal stage towards the transition from the primitive grottoes as a place of worship to the church set on its own foundations. Among the most important hermitages: the hermitage of S. Onofrio al Morrone known also as the Eremo di Celestino V, which, mounted like an eagle's nest on an enormous rock face, dominates the Valle Peligna and the temple of Ercole Curino beneath; the Grotta-Eremo di S. Michele in Pescocostanzo, situated near the tratturo (sheep track); the Eremo di S. Onofrio in Serramonacesca, to be found under a huge cliff at the heart of the wood, with narrow tunnels running into the rock-face; the Eremo di S. Bartolomeo di Legio completely camouflaged in the rock-face of the valley of the same name dose to Roccamorice.