Ascoli Piceno: Frederick II's king of verses and the privilege of the Port

During the 11th century, the Cathedral of Ascoli Piceno marked the flourishing of a new era of magnificence. The episcopal power was protected by the emperors and extended on a vast territory from the Tronto valley to the Apennines.

The creation of the city's episcopal school paved the way to the cultural education of men who held important positions with the Swabian emperors, such as Berardo da Ascoli, a chaplain and Henry VI's renowned family doctor, and Gualtiero d'Ascoli, grammar magister (teacher) at the recently-born University of Naples founded by Frederick II. Guglielmo Divini da Lisciano was probably a pupil of this prestigious school, too. He composed a 100-verse commendation poem in vernacular for the official visit to Ascoli Piceno of the recently-married couple Henry VI and Constance I in 1187. His literary talent found its way into the hearts of the sovereigns so much so that they wanted him with them at the court of Palermo where, a few years later, the fifteen-year-old Frederick II nicknamed him "the king of verses". Guglielmo's role at the Sicilian court was so significant that Queen Constance personally signed a diploma confirming all the past privileges to the bishop of Ascoli Piceno. The concession was suggested by Bernardo, the bishop of Messina, and Guglielmo di Lisciano, whom the empress defined fidelis noster (faithful to us).

The historian Benedetto Leopardi from Monte San Pietrangeli created a fanciful legend, which sounds like a medieval rumour, narrating how Queen Constance and Guglielmo were secretly in anything but a platonic love, which would even give birth to Frederick II himself.

There is no trace of Guglielmo's works or the reasons why he left the Sicilian school to go back to Marche where, according to some sources, he met San Francesco in San Severino Marche around 1212. The Saint renamed him Pacific – pacified with the world – after his conversion. Guglielmo had a deep friendship with Saint Francis, and was probably involved in the drafting of some parts of the Canticle of the Sun both for his well-known literary skills and for the severe health conditions of the saint of Assisi at that time.

In the dispute between pro-imperialist and pro-papal groups, the city of Ascoli sided with the pope, but the troops of Frederick II left no way out. The first (unsuccessful) siege ended in 1240, with the emperor encamped outside the walls with his son Enzo and a group from the army led by the faithful Rainaldo d'Acquaviva, who also tried to subdue the castles of Ascoli. One of these, the castle of Montedinove, managed to resist the attack, and the entrance to the town was therefore renamed Porta della Vittoria (Gate of Victory).

In 1242 the second siege took place, and Ascoli Piceno fell under the domination of the Swabians. The army sacked and burned the city – according to traditional stories, out of Ascoli's 200 towers only 90 remained.

The forced loyalty to the emperor opened a golden period for the city, which experienced an important demographic and economic growth with the building of 15 churches, Piazza Arringo, Palazzo del Comune (City Hall), and the noble towers.

Frederick II also granted Ascoli the construction of the "port and the shore of the Tronto river's mouth, up to the border with San Benedetto", the castle of Monte Cretaccio (today in the municipality of San Benedetto del Tronto), and Monteprandone with the related adjacent lands. The construction of Ascoli's port was at the origin of the unceasing dispute with Fermo, which held exclusive power over the coast. Thanks to Frederick's privileges, Ascoli built a majestic fortress of which only one tower remains today, known as the Guelph and incorporated into a private villa. However, according to the memories of Fermo chronicler Antonio di Nicolò, the fortress originally had two major towers and 7 fortified towers with more than 70 merlons. In 1348 Gentile da Mogliano, in command of Fermo's army, razed it to the ground leaving only the main tower.

A curiosity about the Swabians: in Castel Trosino, a hamlet of Ascoli Piceno, the story goes that Manfredi, Frederick II's son, had his own residence. In the centre of this small and charming village, a stone house with a loggia on the first floor is still called "Casa di Re Manfrì", and there are two versions of the same legend. The first goes that he stayed there for a few months, the second claims that the house was the home of a beautiful girl with whom Manfredi had passionately fallen in love and had a short but intense love affair.

A journey through Ascoli Piceno’s history and art

Ascoli was an important capital of the Roman Picenum, with remains including the single-arch Solestà bridge, the Porta Gemina, and the theatre. However, it is mainly the Romanesque architecture that makes this austere and fascinating white-travertine city special. In the Middle Ages, the city experienced an unparalleled splendour and grew on typical Roman structures with tall and square noble towers, to which severe and essential Renaissance buildings were then added in perfect balance. The complex architecture of the Palazzo Comunale which incorporates two buildings, Palazzo dell'Arengo Nuovo and Vecchio, smoothly combines Romanesque and Renaissance forms. It hosts the Civic Art Gallery, a real treasure trove of ancient and modern art sections, with the works of Cola dell'Amatrice, Guercino, Simone de Magistris, Carlo Maratta, Pietro da Cortona, Guido Reni, Turner, Morelli, Palazzi, Celentano, Pellizza da Volpedo, De Carolis. The finds in the Archaeological Museum of Palazzo Panichi range from prehistory to the Roman age. In the same square, Piazza dell'Arringo, there is also Palazzo Vescovile with the Diocesan Museum and famous works by Carlo and Vittore Crivelli, Pietro Alemanno, and Cola dell'Amatrice. The Duomo Cathedral, dedicated to Sant'Emidio, was built in the 5th century, and its majestic façade designed by Cola dell'Amatrice incorporated two previous Romanesque towers. It has three naves inside divided by octagonal pillars and houses a polyptych by Carlo Crivelli. The symbol of Ascoli is the white Piazza del Popolo with its Renaissance sequence of arches in the Loggia dei Mercanti with the famous Caffè Meletti and its liberty charm since 1907.

Palazzo dei Capitani, renovated by Cola dell'Amatrice in 1535, and the church of Saint Francis from 1300 are also here, with three Venice-inspired Gothic portals. The 13th-century church of San Gregorio Magno was one of the most remarkable with its Romanesque style on the haughty façade.

The Palazzetto Longobardo with its Ercolani tower represents the typical palatium-torris structure of the Middle Ages. Just outside the centre, there is Forte Malatesta, a fort renovated by Antonio da Sangallo il Giovane in 1549. Impressive and majestic in its squared shape with an irregular star diagram, it houses the Museo dell'Alto Medioevo (Museum of the Early Middle Ages) with historical evidence from the cities of Ascoli, Acquasanta, and Castel Trosino, where a Lombard necropolis with refined grave goods was discovered. Last but not least, the famous Ponte di Cecco with its two asymmetrical arches. Legend has it that this bridge was built in just one night by astrologist and philosopher Cecco d'Ascoli, yet the real author was another Cecco: Mastro Cecco Aprutino.

The IME - The Marches Food and Wine Institute recommends:

Ascoli-style stuffed olives

The big and meaty PDO Tenera Ascoli olive has its stone removed and is then stuffed with a mixture of meat (beef, pork, and chicken) and fried. It is the culinary symbol of Ascoli Piceno and knows how to win everyone over.

The history of Ascoli-style stuffed olives began in ancient Rome, when olives were made in brine as the daily meal of Roman legionaries who brought them on long journeys. Catone, Varro, Martial, and Petronius mention Ascoli-style stuffed olives in brine. Petronius, in his Satyricon, places them on the famous tables of Trimalchio.

Even Pope Sixtus V acknowledges their delicacy in a letter sent to the Elders of Ascoli.

Garibaldi, after tasting them on 25 January 1849, in Ascoli, decided to cultivate some olive trees in Caprera to be able to reproduce the recipe of the Ascoli-style stuffed olives by himself. According to Benedetto Marini's studies, the recipe was born in 1800 when the cooks who worked in the service of the nobility invented the stuffing of olives to consume the considerable quantity and variety of meats they had at their disposal. Farmers who lived in sharecropping actually had to pay taxes "in kind" to the owners of the land.

Wines and Anisetta Meletti

Among white wines, Passerina di Offida DOCG has been cited since the 17th century and is a perfect match for shellfish, aged cheeses and dry pastries.

Falerio dei Colli Ascolani DOC is named after the Roman city of Faleria Augusta, which used to send excellent wine, wheat and oil to Rome. Perfect with fish soups and fried dishes like Ascoli-style stuffed olives.

Among red wines, Rosso Piceno DOC and Rosso Piceno Superiore DOC seem to be very ancient wines which are described by the Latin poet Polibius, who tells how Hannibal, on his way to Rome, had his tired horses massaged with local red wine. A firm wine that deserves to be matched with meat and truffle.

The mistrà is a must in Marche. It is an anise-based distillate including the exclusive Anice Verde di Castignano grown in Castignano and Offida. A sweet seed introduced in the second half of the 19th century by Silvio Meletti, who produced the famous Anisetta. The distillate gives flavour to Marche as it is added to almost every sweet dough, ice cream, and coffee. Today it is also used for marinating some fish.