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L'Aquila

Cities and Towns in Abruzzo and Molise

High in the highest part of the Appenines, at an elevation of over 650 meters (2100 feet), L'Aquila sits on the banks of the Aterno River.   The Gran Sasso and Monte Velino-Sirente, the highest peaks in the Appenines, loom nearby.  The winters can be cold and long (great for skiers!), the late autumn rainy and dreary. However, spring, summer and early fall are moderate and delightful.

Today, L'Aquila's economy is based on its role as the co-capital (along with Pescara) of the Abruzzo Region and capital of the Province of L'Aquila, and on electronics and chemical manufacturing as well as agricultural activity in the surrounding area. Increasingly, the city is enjoying the economic fruits that come with being a "newly discovered" and interesting tourist destination, a short 100 kilometers or so from Rome.

The City is the seat of an Archbishopric, the home of a major Italian University, an illustrious musical conservatory, and an important arts academy.  It also boasts a strong regional theatre, concert society, the National Museum of the Abruzzi and the preposterously old Santa Tommasi library.

There were perhaps, early italic tribes who had settled in the area, but the construction of the city didn't begin until the 13th century as a result of the demands of Frederick II, King of Sicily, who wrested control of the area from local feudal lords.  It's high walls were constructed later, under orders from Charles II of Anjou, who had conquered the Kingdom of Sicily.

The original gates to the City are still in use today (Santa Giusta, Santa Maria Paganica, San Pietro a Coppito, San Marciano) as are newer gates, built in the 15th century.

There are a number of interesting, and sometimes compelling sites: the Castello di L'Aquila, the city walls and gates and the Fountain of 99 Spouts, as mentioned.  There are many churches, but the most important are the Basilica of St. Bernardine done in the Renaissance style, at the city's highest point, and Basilica di S.Maria di Collemaggi in the Romanesque style.

Other churches of interest include: San Silvestro (14th century), Santa Maria del Soccorso (15th century), Santa Giusta (12th century), and Santa  Domenico.

There are also a number of piazzas that have survived, and which you will encounter on your perambulations through the city:  Dragonetti (15th century), Franchi-Cappelli (16th century), Branconio (16th century). Carli (16th-18th century), Centi (18th century), Benedetti (18th century), Rivera (18th century),  De Nardis, Palazzatto dei Nobili, Ardinghelli (18th century), and Quinzi (18th century).

During Medieval times, L'Aquila was organized into several quarters, each of which had a complement of Knights with their own colors and standards.  During the more important annual festivals, such as the Procession of Holy Friday citizens in the various quarters break out their "colors", and compete with one another in an array of medieval games.

One fascinating aspect of L'Aquila is the way in which the city was built with the "cooperation" of the feudal lors in the surrounding territories.  Each of the ninety nine (99) lords (probably more like 70 or 80) were to settle an area within the city with a group of homes, and a church around a piazza.  A fountain in the city - Fontana delle 99 Cannelle (Fountain with 99 spouts) commerates this historical oddity, along with the numerous churches and piazzas that remain extant.

The size and importance of L'Aquila grew during the 13th and 14th centuries, to the point at which it was semi-independent within the Kingdom of Sicily and later of Sicily and Naples. It waged war, negotiated treaties and alliances, coined money and became a center of textile manufacturing and trade.  In 1482 (ten years before Columbus "discovered" America),a printing press was setup by a pupil of Gutenberg.

All was not to remain so peaceful.  The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, laid siege to L'Aquila, and sacked it in 1529.  To assert his power over the city, he built a massive castle, in the Spanish style, which is one of L'Aquila's major attractions now.

And, Charles was not the only Emperor who visited his wrath on L'Aquila.  Napoleon's forces invaded in 1799, seizing as much gold, silver and precious artworks and artifacts as he could.

A long period of decline had already begun, long before Napoleon's forces arrived, due in part to the growing strength of the Papacy in Rome, which sucked economic resources from the area (as it did in Umbria).  So, while there are Romanesque and Gothic influences in the architecture and art of the city, there is scant evidence that the area was influenced by the Renaissance.

L'Aquila also endures (and will continue to endure) a series of earthquakes, some of them, as in 1703, profoundly devastating. Othe quakes hit in 1315, 1349, 1452, 1501 and 1646.

Politically, L'Aquilans always seemed to have had a strongly independent mindset.  They were strongly committed to the movement for Italian independence in the 19th century, harboring, among others, such key players in the Risorgimento  as Giuseppe Mazzini.

During World War II, the Nazis dug in, drawing destructive allied bombing raids .  A local anti-Nazi resistance movement sprang up in the area, resulting in severe reprisals against the town, whose martyrs are now commemorated by the monument in the Piazza IX Martiri.

Those of you who are looking for "out-of-the way" Italy, will find L'Aquila of immense interest.  Spring and summer visits are recommended for most, but for those who like winter travel a journey into the high Appenines can be splendid, particularly if you enjoy  skiing.  There are a couple of good ski resorts close by L'Aquila. Campo Felice and Campo Imperatore which, in combination with the city, will give you a chance to restore body and soul!

 

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