Although L’Aquila is in a captivating setting, it has never been a priority for tourists. It is a discreet, traditional and very provincial Italian city between Rome and the Adriatic sea about an hour’s drive east of the capital.
A city rich in history, art and culture. It is built on the same plan and layout as Jerusalem. Both are on a hill, both are located at the same height above sea level and there are many other similarities. When walking around L’Aquila and looking into open doorways, one would discover beautiful hidden renaissance courtyards.
The majority of these courtyards have been destroyed by the earthquake.
In the Middle Ages L’Aquila was on the road between two extremely powerful, important trading towns, Naples and Florence. It was famous for its rich fair where sheep, wool, milk, cheese, cattle, leather, cloth, almonds and saffron were traded. Later important noble families from Tuscany came to Abruzzo to take advantage of its produce and so it became the rich hinterland of Tuscany.
This main road connecting south and central Italy, called Via degli Abruzzi, was the safest road between Tuscany and the powerful kingdom of Naples and Sicily. The only other route was through the Vatican States, where dangerous outlaws populated the roads.
From at least 300 BC the open space on the hill where the basilica of S. Maria di Collemaggio would be built was the meeting point for the annual transumanza, the long trek of tens of thousands of sheep and hundreds of shepherds from the hot plains in the south to the high plain of Abruzzo and back. In those days sheep, with their by-products of cheese, milk and wool, were of utmost importance for survival.
When the summer heat started on the bare plains of southern Italy, the transumanza would begin – sheep, dogs, shepherds and butteri, the only men on horseback. These were the men who would milk the sheep early in the morning and make the cheese that would be sold along the way. Together they would make their long 15-day walk across the mountains and hills up to the cool plain in Abruzzo, to Campo Imperatore 1,900 m above sea level, one of the largest plains in Europe, where the aquile (eagles) fly high. They were allowed on the plain after 5 June and had to be gone by 15 September each year. These regulations were established in Roman times.
The shepherds were given a flask of olive oil before they left and a loaf of bread every day but they were not allowed to indulge in fresh sheep’s milk or cheese along the journey. They were paid according to the number of sheep they had been assigned before setting off and the number they delivered alive.
The outstanding beauty of the basilica of S. Maria di Collemaggio. It was built in 1287 by Pietro da Morrone, a hermit living in the Morrone mountains in Abruzzo in the days when the region was known for its hermits and witches. Originally on a hill to the southwest of L’Aquila, but now in the centre of the city, it is a masterpiece of Abruzzo Romanesque, with a pink and white façade and 14th-century frescos. It has a most beautifully sculptured rose window above its main entrance and a majestic pure Gothic interior. A Holy Door, similar to the one in St Peter’s in Rome, was added to the church at the beginning of the 14th century.
Only the façade and side walls stand today as they were protected by scaffolding being used for restoration. The Holy Door was not touched and is still standing.
The Templars, known for their white flag with a red cross, started off as guards who escorted and protected pilgrims to the Holy Land. They financed the building of the basilica of S. Maria di Collemaggio, supplying Pietro da Morrone with a team of expert artisans and architectural plans, which meant that the basilica was built in record time.
Pietro da Morrone, later Pope Celestine V. Pietro da Morrone was crowned pope on 29 August 1294 in the basilica he built. They say 200,000 people attended his coronation, a very large number for those days. One hundred and seven days later he resigned and went back to being a hermit in the mountains. He was eventually arrested by his successor and long-time opponent, Pope Boniface VIII, and imprisoned near Anagni, south of Rome. He died there nine months later, possibly murdered. Pietro da Morrone was canonised in 1313 and several years later his body was transferred to the church he built in L’Aquila.
His body was not destroyed by the earthquake and is in safekeeping in the basilica of S. Maria di Collemaggio.
Perdonanza Celestiniana. This is a historical pageant evoking the extraordinary indulgence declared by Celestine V in L’Aquila on the night of his coronation as pope, which established that: “Whoever entered the basilica sincerely repentant and confessed one’s sins between the nights of 28-29 August would be absolved of all sins since baptism.” This ceremony has been repeated in the basilica of Collemaggio for 714 years.
Work has already started to restore the church so that the feast of Celestine’s indulgence can be repeated in August 2009. This objective will be achieved . . .
by Fabrizio G. Scalabrino