A simple plan of L'Aquila from "Karl Baedeker - Italy; handbook for travellers - 1900"
It would be difficult to enter the precincts of Aquila without feelings of interest and curiosity. The scene of factious dissension during the times of Guelph and Ghibelline, and for centuries, one of the most important cities in southern Italy. (..) The cold look of desertion in its well-paved streets struck us forcibly as we passed through them; and we
acknowledged that its title, "la Roma degli Abruzzi," was well merited by its character of departed grandeur, its fine palaces, gloomy and uninhabited; its splendid convents and churches, and its extensive walls enclosing vineyards where once were flourishing quarters of the town. A scanty population, and the total absence of bustle in so large a place, increased its resemblance to the eternal city (in order to understand this comparison you may wish to see an 1841 map of Rome); and this melancholy magnificence is well supported by the harsh line of mountains, unadorned with vegetation, that bounds the view on every side.
Edward Lear - Illustrated Excursions in Italy - 1846
Walls and towers opposite the Railway Station
Two major earthquakes (in 1703 and 2009) and many minor ones damaged the walls which surrounded the town. The section near Porta Rivera was carefully restored after the last earthquake in order to bring it back to the aspect it had when it was built in the late XIIIth century.
Its name is most frequently supposed to be an allusion to the Imperial Eagle of Frederick II, under whose support it was first brought into power, as a check to the Roman Pontiffs, on the very borders of their dominions. In spite of its Ghibelline origin, Aquila seems early to have become a partisan of the opposite faction; and it was destroyed by Manfred, and set up again by the Popes accordingly. It was stedfast to King Charles I. of Anjou during, and long after, the endeavour of Corradino to regain the kingdom; yet we read of its having formed itself into a republic under one Nicola dell'Isola about 1281, which state of things seems to have continued until Nicola was poisoned by some of the nobles, whose oppression he had controlled. Lear
Porta Rivera is one of the four gates which gave access to the town when it was founded; it was most likely protected by towers or other fortifications. It is situated in the south-western and lowest part of the town and it gave access to mills and wool and leather factories along the nearby River Aterno (today a railway line separates the gate from the river). Fontana delle 99 Cannelle, the largest fountain of L'Aquila was built near Porta Rivera as early as 1272.
Porta Tione is a minor gate which was opened in the eastern part of the walls inside a tower.
The city was constantly torn by internal dissensions during the interregnum of the Popes, and the absence of Charles II. in 1292; but peace and order reigned, for once, during the short time that Pope Celestine V. wore the tiara, during which he resided in Aquila. Lear
Porta Bazzano, thus named after a nearby small town is another of the four historical gates of L'Aquila. It is located in the south-eastern part of the town and it acquired importance when the Basilica di S. Maria di Collemaggio was built at a short distance outside the gate. Pope Celestine V, alias Peter of Morrone, the hermit, was consecrated and crowned in this church in the year 1294. The upper part of the gate was redesigned after the 1703 earthquake and the reference to St. Bernardino is a tribute to the Franciscan preacher who died at L'Aquila in 1444 and who is buried in a Basilica dedicated to him.
(left) Porta Castello; (right) its 1769 "coat of arms", similar to that at Porta Bazzano
In 1299 and 1315, the city is recorded to have been almost totally destroyed by earthquakes; and as soon as it was rebuilt, with greater splendour and strength, the unquiet Aquilani were again at their old work of destruction among the rival towns near them, for which delinquencies heavy fines were imposed upon them. (..)
The Aquilani declared for Queen Giovanna II. on her deposition by Pope Martin V. in 1419, and, in consequence, suffered a siege of thirteen months
from the partisans of the House of Anjou; during which the city held out against the celebrated leader, Braccio da Montone, who was killed on its walls in 1424.
After the death of Giovanna II., until 1441, when Alfonso conquered the whole of the kingdom, and when there was a short interval of quiet, discord seems to have claimed Aquila as her favourite abode. Rebellions in 1460, the war of the Barons in 1484, the expedition of Charles VIII. of France (for whom the Aquilani openly declared), are among the principal events affecting Aquila until the possession of the Regno by the Spanish dynasty; events each fraught with years of disturbance and misery. Lear
About a mile and half from Aquila, which at that distance has a very imposing aspect, the Aterno is crossed, and the road I had followed joins that from the capital, which soon after is conducted up the hill on which the city is placed. (..) No town in the whole kingdom has suffered so repeatedly from the scourge of external war and intestine feuds ever since its first construction. Its local position, contiguous to the Roman states, and on a road which forms one of the principal inlets into the realm, has generally rendered it one of the first points of attack for every invading enemy; and the valiant, but little known and fruitless resistance it has frequently opposed on such occasions, has, in the lapse of ages, greatly contributed to diminish its population.
Keppel Richard Craven - Excursions in the Abruzzi and northern provinces of Naples - 1838
In the XVIth century the walls became obsolete as a defence, but their gates retained a function as points where tax were collected and new gates were opened to facilitate trade.
Palazzo Margherita and Torre Civica in Piazza Palazzo
There are several public buildings of a magnitude amounting to magnificence; among which the ancient governor's palace and the citadel stand foremost, both erected in the reign of Charles V.
The former was the abode of his natural daughter, Margaret of Austria, who, after the death of her two husbands, Alexander of Medici, and Octavio Farnese, was appointed governess of these provinces, great portions of which had been granted to her and her descendants as personal property.
She divided her time between these domains and the city of Rome, where the Palazzo and Villa Madama still retain the name derived from this circumstance.
She died at Ortona, a sea-port on the Adriatic, which, on account of its milder temperature, she had selected as her winter residence and where she likewise had erected a princely dwelling.
Tradition has preserved a peculiar, but not very attractive, description of the disposition and person of this princess in maturer years, and an unfavourable recollection of her mode of governing: she is described as having been harsh in her manner, fidgetty in her habits, which led her to be always riding (not on a side-saddle) about the country, and masculine as well as ordinary in her form and visage; which aspect was considerably aggravated by a huge pair of bushy yellow mustachios. Craven
The old Palazzo del Governo built also in the time of Charles V., is remarkable as having been the residence of tbe king's natural daughter Margaret of Austria. (..) It is still a large building, with a lofty tower at one angle; but a portion of it was thrown down by the earthquake of 1703, and has never been rebuilt.
John Murray - A Handbook for Travellers in Southern Italy - 1853
It would be unfair to close all description of Aquila without some mention of its castle or citadel, which, though now become insignificant in a military point of view, exhibits a not uninteresting specimen of a fortress of the time of Charles V, constructed with all the skill of which that age could boast, and at an expense which even its present appearance may account for. It is situated just outside of one of the gates, somewhat above the level of the city, but commanded by other hills on all sides but that. Craven
If we follow the Via del Castello we reach the Citadel, a massive square edifice with low towers, constructed by the Spaniards in 1543, and surrounded by a moat. This point affords the best View of the Gran Sasso, the town, and the mountainous environs.
Karl Baedeker - Italy; handbook for travellers - 1900
Its outward aspect is more imposing than picturesque, being a regular square surrounded by a deep fosse, and flanked by towers immensely broad in proportion to their height. This ponderous mass of stone has withstood the ravages, or rather the neglect, of centuries, and the shocks of earthquakes; and shows itself exactly under the same form as that bestowed upon it under the viceroyalty of Peter of Toledo, in 1543: the solidity of the materials, the care displayed in the manner of connecting them, the immense subterraneous passages it contains, and the numerous embrasures now but scantily provided with artillery, show what efforts were made to secure to it the means of able and protracted resistance.
Several runs of water, supplied from the same. aqueduct which, furnishes the town, provide it with that most essential requisite; and if these were cut off, four deep wells, one at each angle, in an underground circular vault, added to several cisterns of rain-water, would still make up the deficiency: a small military force is stationed in it, and one portion is used as a prison. Craven
In 1951 some facilities of the castle were adapted to being used as halls for Museo Nazionale d'Abruzzo. Because of the effects of the 2009 earthquake the museum was closed and in 2015 some of its exhibits were moved to a former municipal slaughterhouse which had not been greatly damaged by the earthquake.
Spanish Castle: bridge leading to the entrance (the passageway in origin was made of timber)
The Citadel built during the vice royalty of Don Pedro de Toledo in 1543, by the well-known Spanish engineer Pedro Luis Escrivá, is one of the most massive and imposing fortresses of the 16th century in Italy, though it is of course useless as a defence against the modern system of artillery. It is a regular square flanked by low towers; its curtains are 24 feet in thickness, and the fosse which surrounds it is 70 feet broad, and 40 feet deep. The walls are built with extraordinary precision and strength, as indeed is proved by the fact that they have been unaffected by any of the earthquakes from which the city has suffered. A portion of the fortress is now used as a prison, and a small garrison is maintained in it. Strangers are not allowed to enter without permission from the governor. Murray 1853
Spanish Castle: portal decoration, a detail of which is shown in the image used as background for this page
In 1528 this restless city rebelled against the authority of the Emperor Charles V., and was fined one hundred and twenty thousand scudi by Philibert Prince of Orange, and, it is said, levied farther exactions to the amount of above three hundred thousand dollars. Lear
An inscription states that the fortress was built to ensure Securitati perpetuae regnorum gentium, i.e. the perpetual safety of the inhabitants of the kingdom, but it had also the objective to prevent rebellions of the citizens of L'Aquila who in 1528 sided with the French during one of the wars between Charles V and Francis I. The construction of a state-of-the-art fortress was an alternative to a more expensive upgrading of the medieval walls to the impact of the development of modern artillery. Although L'Aquila was not near the sea a raid by Ottoman corsairs could not be ruled out and to prevent their landing on the coast of Abruzzo a fortress was built at Pescara, at the mouth of the River Aterno-Pescara.
Spanish Castle: coat of arms of Emperor Charles V surrounded by the Collar of the Golden Fleece; in addition to the heraldic symbols of Castile, Leon, Aragon and Granada (upper left quarter), it shows those of Navarra, Jerusalem, Hungary, Austria, Flanders, Brabant and Burgundy
The gateway is surmounted with a rich escutcheon within a carved scroll, bearing the quarterings of the Imperial arms, executed in marble with a degree of minuteness and finish that might grace more delicate labours; while the well-known emblem of the Herculean columns, and the enterprising motto Plus ultra, adopted by Charles V, are in perfect keeping with the style and character of the whole edifice. Craven
Monument to Charles II, King of Spain (ca 1675) behind Palazzo Margherita
During the rest of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries Aquila seems to have been fast sinking to that secondary position which it now holds: nor is it worth while to record more of its history in detail. Lear
In 1703 the city was laid waste by an earthquake, a great part of the city was overthrown, and from its effects neither the city nor the inhabitants have ever recovered. Murray
Charles II was the last of the Spanish Habsburg kings as he died without direct heirs in 1700. In 1702 the Spanish Succession War broke out and when L'Aquila was hit by the earthquake its reconstruction was hampered by the effects of the conflict which ended in 1713.
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)
Appendix - Other excerpts and illustrations from Lear's book covering minor towns and sites