You may wish to see an introductory page to this section first.
August 4, 1843. A particularly horrid day, with no one redeeming quality, beauty, or novelty, to note down as a white mark in our journal: a mud-coloured sirocco atmosphere, whereby one felt as if in an air-pump; a burning sun to boot, and a long toil over a most wearisome country! (..) At Rocca San Stefano, a helpless-looking town, sticking against a mournfully bare hill-side, some respectable people hailed us from a large house near the road, and insisted on our refreshing ourselves and horses; so I should not have said that the day was destitute of its white mark. These good people regaled us with biscuits and limonata, and pressed us very much to stay; but we preferred spinning out our disagreeable thread all at once: so down we went, and up and down again, all hideousness and sirocco, to Barisciano, whence, to make bad worse, we had to follow the high-road to Aquila, twelve or fourteen miles of dust, and ineffable stupidity. Indeed, I was mightily disappointed in the Valley of Aquila, which, although full of cultivation, (more particularly of almond-trees,) is of so great a width as to be more like a plain; and its sides are enclosed by bleak, bare mountains, not very striking in form, though grand from their loftiness.Aquila itself, once so important a city, and yet holding its place as capital of the province of Abruzzo Ulteriore Secondo, stands on an eminence commanding the whole of the valley, and allowing a passage only for the river Aterno between its base and the mountains on one side. To this hill you ascend by slow windings; and, when the city was in its palmy days, it must have had an imposing appearance. Even now, the Castle overlooking all, the Cupola of San Bernardino, with various Campanili and Palazzi of a delicate-coloured stone, throw an air of magnificence over the first approach.
Edward Lear - Illustrated Excursions in Italy - 1846
Lear visited L'Aquila again in October 1843 and in October 1844. Read more about his first journey to L'Aquila at the end of this page.
On reaching the crest of the hills, the whole plain and the city of Aquila were visible; and Monte Corno, probably derived from the Cunarus of the ancients, showed itself towering at a great elevation above the opposite chain, and adding a very imposing feature to a prospect which, though extensive, is neither attractive nor even striking. This mountain, the highest of the Apennines, is usually designated by the more classical, and as appropriate, name of Gran Sasso d'Italia.
Keppel Richard Craven - Excursions in the Abruzzi and northern provinces of Naples - 1838
That evening, the 11th of October 1844, was the only very fine one I was so fortunate as to enjoy in Aquila. As I strolled to the Cappuccini, I thought I had seldom seen a grander prospect, overlooking the plain and castle of Ocre, and the vast Maiella beyond, dimmed by floating clouds. Over all the Gran Sasso reared its pointed head in perfect clearness. Lear
The Gran Sasso was glaciated in Pleistocene times and the steep, hollow-sided peaks and enormous masses of debris are evidence of this. The highest peak of the Apennines, Corno Grande (9.560 ft.), with a summit of steeply sloping limestones, rises near the centre of its northern part.
North-western view of the vale of L'Aquila seen from behind the church of S. Silvestro
The Aquila plain is aligned north-west to south-east. Unlike other basins of Abruzzo its sides are fairly gentle and almond trees flourish up to a height of about 3,000 feet. These trees are also characteristic of other sheltered valleys of Abruzzo owing to the relatively high summer temperatures.
A deep gorge (Gole di Antrodoco) connects the River Velino valley with this part of the plain of L'Aquila. The road and the railway from L'Aquila to Rieti go through it.
Tocco da Casauria with a ruining Renaissance castle and the Maiella massif behind it at the southern end of the vale of L'Aquila
A small brook, running from a village called Bussi to the north, here mingles with the Aterno.
About four miles farther, on a high cliff overhanging the road, stands the little town of Tocco, in a commanding and picturesque situation, with a carriage road to it, branching off up a steep hill. This place contains about three thousand inhabitants, and abounds with springs; which fertilise the elevated platform on which it rests, so as to copiously provide it with all the necessaries and even luxuries of life. The natives are considered industrious and enterprising and the community in a flourishing condition. Craven
At the southern end of the vale another gorge leads to the Valle Peligna which is commanded by the Maiella massif.
Castle of San Pio delle Camere in the eastern part of the Aquila vale
Many rills rush down these declivities, and on approaching their base, several large wellbuilt villages appeared, scattered along the whole line, many of which occupied very agreeable positions. (..) The ruins of old castles generally form an addition to most of them. The meadows are watered by different branches of the river Aterno, purposely divided and dammed up for the purpose of irrigation. Notwithstanding these rural advantages, and the clusters of villages which render it, for its size, the best peopled district in the kingdom, the general aspect of the plain is dreary from the want of trees, and the bleak and bare surface of the encircling mountains. Craven
In some of the castles, e.g. that of San Pio delle Camere, the villagers could seek refuge with their livestock.
The foundation of Aquila is attributed upon well authenticated grounds to the Emperor Frederick II. of the house of Swabia, who, by a diploma preserved in the collection known as Letters of Petrus de Vineis (Pier delle Vigne), ordained the construction of the city, and that it should be peopled by the inhabitants of no less than ninety small burghs, villages, and castles in the vicinity: among the former were comprised Amiternum and Furconium, places of great antiquity and some importance in the Sabine and Vestine territories, which had preserved their original names under the lower empire, and were honoured with episcopal rank.
The execution of Frederick's decree, which was promulgated but a few years before his death, appears not to have been completely fulfilled until the beginning of the reign of his son and successor, Conrad. Craven
Navelli, east of L'Aquila, is one of the 99 castles/villages which contributed to the foundation of L'Aquila.
Museo Archeologico Nazionale d'Abruzzo - Chieti (MANDA - the most important archaeological museum of the region): (above) bronze belt for a woman from Necropoli di Fossa (VIth century BC); (below) bronze votive statues from the environs of L'Aquila (Vth-IInd century BC); see a very interesting VIIIth century BC bronze brooch which was found at Pizzoli in the western part of the vale
Inscriptions at S. Vittorino (ancient Amiternum): one of them is curious, as the only relic that mentions the existence of Aveja, a town supposed to have stood near Fossa, a village to the south of Aquila. Craven
Aveia. A city of the Vestini and a Roman prefecture in the upper Aterno valley, today in the province of Aquila. The official name of the community, Aveintes Vestini, included indication of its ethnic makeup. Part of the city was in the area occupied by the modern town of Fossa on the slope of the mountain, and part was farther down in the valley.
The Princeton Encyclopaedia of Classical Sites
In the early 1990s a necropolis was discovered in the valley near Fossa. The findings shed light on the funerary rites of the Vestini over a long period of time. They confirmed that the vale of L'Aquila was inhabited by the Vestini in its eastern section and by the Sabines in the western one. Amiternum, the main town of the latter is covered in a separate page. A very interesting VIth century BC statue of a Vestine warrior was found at Capestrano in the vale of L'Aquila and it is shown in the introductory page.
MANDA: details of the bone decoration of Ist century BC funerary beds from Bazzano (left) and Navelli (right)
About 100 funerary beds have been found in Abruzzo since the end of the XIXth century, mostly in chamber tombs. Many of them had an elaborate bone decoration which is typical of the region and of the adjoining territories e.g. Aquinum near Cassino. The finest bed is perhaps that found at Fossa, which is shown in a page covering Roman funerary rites. The design of the bed is based on a Greek pattern which can be seen in many sarcophagi, e.g. at Beirut. You may wish to see some bronze bed decorations having a similar design in the museums of Marseille and Rabat. They were most likely made in Greece.
Museo Nazionale d'Abruzzo - L'Aquila (MUNDA): Inscription stating that public baths were repaired at Peltuinum, a Roman town near Navelli (IInd century AD)
Peltuinum was another town of the Vestini in the vale of L'Aquila. The community referred to itself as pars Peltuinatium (in the above inscription) or as civitas Peltuinatium Vestinorum. The Via Claudia Nova constituted the main axis within the urban area. It was a road built by Emperor Claudius to link the vale of L'Aquila to Via Valeria along an important existing tratturo (sheepwalk). Transhumance was a key sector of the economy of the region.
All agree that the union of the fugitive population of the ancient cities of Amiternum, Forcona, Foruli, &c. whose sites are in its immediate neighbourhood, was the first cause of the rise of the modern city. Lear
Forcona, perhaps Furconium was a town of the Vestini in a location which today is part of the municipality of L'Aquila. Its development is associated with the decline of Aveia. Excavations carried out in the 1990s found out that the site was occupied since the IInd century BC. In the VIIth century it became a bishopric see which was moved to L'Aquila in 1256.
L'Aquila: (left) Torre Civica; (centre) coat of arms of Emperor Charles V or of a Spanish Viceroy; (right) MUNDA: painting from the chapel inside the tower
Its name, as well as the eagle chosen as its crest, is supposed to denote its imperial origin; though, perhaps, the elevated position in which it was constructed may be looked upon as suggesting both the one and the other. Craven
A very high tower was built in the new city. Its height was such that it could be seen from all the 99 settlements which contributed to its foundation. Because of the earthquakes which struck L'Aquila through the centuries its current height is half of the original one.
The image used as background for this page shows a coat of arms of L'Aquila with the motto "Immota Manet" (It stands firm), which is perhaps an allusion to the fact that the city was rebuilt many times in the same place. A similar motto (Semper Immota) was adopted by the Colonna family.
The principal losses to the population of the town must be referred to the repeated shocks of earthquakes it has undergone; the last of which, in the year 1703, overthrew a great portion of the city, and destroyed or dispersed a large quantity of the inhabitants. Craven
In 1703 a most fearful earthquake occurred throughout the Abruzzi, from the 14th to the 21st of January, and great part of Aquila was again reduced to ruins: two thousand four hundred persons perished by the falling of houses in the city alone, and great numbers were wounded; above twenty thousand persons perished within the province. Lear
In April 2009 L'Aquila and its vale were struck by a major earthquake. 309 people are known to have died. Many historical monuments were damaged and required a lengthy reconstruction. In August 2016 an earthquake struck Amatrice and its effects were felt also at the very northern end of the vale of L'Aquila.
Earthquakes and a long process of depopulation had a major impact on the churches of the small towns in the vale of L'Aquila. In many cases their works of art were moved to the museum of L'Aquila. Earthquakes in particular destroyed most of the frescoes which decorated their walls and fresco painting was the most popular form of art in Italy for many centuries.
The fresco from Ocre shows the influence of Byzantine patterns, e.g. of the mosaics of S. Vitale at Ravenna, in the frontal depiction of the Virgin Mary and of a saint and in their elaborate clothes. Movable works of art suffered less from earthquakes; the triptych is attributed to a local painter, who is named after it (Maestro del Trittico di Beffi) and whose works have been identified in other locations, e.g. at Sulmona.
MUNDA: (left) Madonna dell'Ambro from Fontecchio (early XIIIth century - see a similar Nursing Madonna from Montereale); (centre) Madonna delle Concanelle from Bugnara (1262); (right) Madonna di Fossa (mid XIVth century)
Some of the works of art of the vale of L'Aquila can be associated with those in neighbouring Umbria and Latium. The Madonna di Fossa is attributed to a painter/sculptor who worked also at the decoration of S. Ponziano at Spoleto.
MUNDA: statue of St. Eustace and two wooden panels of its case from Campo di Giove (XIVth century); they depict the miraculous vision and the baptism of the saint
In 1902 the case which contained the statue in the church of Campo di Giove was stolen to sell its 16 painted panels. Eight panels were eventually acquired by the museum and five other panels were identified in private collections. In 2023 all the 13 panels were on display at L'Aquila for a temporary exhibition.
Appendix: A night at Santa Lucia on the road to Aquila by Edward LearFrom Cittą di Penne we went straight up the face of the mountain to a little village, Montebello, whence the view was vast and map-like, but by no means beautiful. (..) After a great toil to the summit, we struck into dark paths through wide beech forests broken by gray rocks, whence, at intervals, the view of the Gran Sasso, rising above an unbroken distance of wood, was infinitely grand. At length, long after the great prospect towards the Adriatic had been fairly shut out, we opened on a broad green valley encircled by rocky hills, and full of cattle of all kinds. It was near sunset; and yet two peasants, whom we met, declared that Villa Santa Lucia was "lontano assai," and there was not any habitation nearer. There was no remedy: we passed over the lonely, quiet Pianura, and proceeded to scale its boundary, a high and weary ridge of rock. At its summit, how different a view surprised us! that to the north had appeared as a vast plain, but tangled and cut up into a thousand gutter-like divisions: here, we came on a wild chaos of mountain-tops, ridge above ridge, peak above peak: the high line of the Marsic mountains, the noble Velino, an interminable perspective of Apennines-all seemed below our feet; a dark purple world, still and solemn, outlined with the utmost delicacy against the clear sky, where the daylight yet lingered along an horizon of golden red. These unexpected effects of beauty constitute one of the chief charms of such methodless rambles as ours. Immensely below us was the deep valley to which our course was to be directed; and there, about the second hour of the night, we arrived well tired with our long day's journey. Villa Santa Lucia, a poor village, but our home for the night, did not look especially inviting; neither did the house of Don Domenico Nunzio, to whose care we had been recommended by our anonymous friend at Citta di Penna. Yet this, though dark and small, was not nearly so unpleasant an abode as our first at Citta di Penna, inasmuch as the poor people who received us here offered all they had with the greatest cheerfulness nor were the rooms so irretrievably filthy. But what a stable! How often, on opening the door, did startled hens dash wildly against the candle and leave us in darkness! How often, when we had effected an entrance, did misguided calves, and eccentric goats, pigs, and asses, rush against us to our utter discomfort ! And, having settled our steeds, how queer a place was shewn us for our supper and sleeping-room! a sort of granary, holding one diminutive bed, and a table to match; all the rest of the space being choked up with big sacks, barrels, baskets, hams, &c. &e. But the apologies made for all these inconveniences were profuse, and attention was shewn us far more than could have been expected: so we congratulated ourselves on being once more in the province of Aquila, whose bounds are defined by the mountain-wall we had so recently climbed. Having tossed up who should have the bed, it fell to me, and directly afterwards fell wader me, because it had but three legs, and one of those but feeble. As for K., he took up his quarters upon the small table, and we talked and slept as much as we might, till day broke. Choe! choc! choe! pervaded the room, and forthwith numbers of little chanticleers rushed from all corners, and, mounting the table, were astonished to find their accustomed crowing-place already occupied.
Introductory page to this section
Atri - the Town
Atri - the Cathedral
Borgocollefegato and the Cicolano
Chieti - Roman memories
Leonessa - The Town
Leonessa - The Churches
Luco and Trasacco
S. Benedetto dei Marsi and Pescina
XVIIIth century Sulmona
Sulmona: Easter Day Ceremony (La Madonna che scappa - The Fleeing Madonna)