Nestled behind its more celebrated neighbours of Emilia Romagna and San Marino to the north, and Lazio, Umbria and Tuscany to the west, the Marches are further hidden away from the beaten path by the Apennine Mountains which straddle its western border. This relative remoteness, while seen as isolating by some, has in fact allowed this central Italian territory to evolve on a human scale. The result is a region whose territory is dotted by a myriad small towns – but no large cities – where the pace of life is manageable and enjoyable.
As if to complement the territory’s deliberate pace, much of the terrain of the Marches is characterized by low, rolling hills which stretch from the Umbria-Marche Apennines and slope gently towards the Adriatic Sea – a feature that distinguishes the Marches from the rest of Italy, where the coastline is often characterized by abrupt cliffs.
Ancona, both the region’s capital and its largest city, has a population of a mere 100,000 – 400,000 with its suburbs. Founded by Greek settlers from Syracuse in the fourth century BCE, the city has survived the vicissitudes of time. Greeks mixed with Gauls in the north and Piceni tribes in the south to shape the territory’s early history. The Romans conquered Ancona, and the entire region, in the third century BCE, subduing its various populations and maintaining control until their decline in the fifth century.
The Lombards overran the territory in the sixth century, settling near Ancona and points south, while the Exarchate of Ravenna, part of the Byzantine Empire, controlled areas to the north. The Franks’ turn came two centuries later, when they expelled the Lombards, and eventually donated the Marches to the Papacy. The Papal Authority administered the Marches intermittently for the next one thousand years.
Although not particularly extensive, the Marches plains are intensely cultivated. The areas near the coast are covered by a bright mosaic of agricultural fields – the colourful appearance of the land reflecting the various crops. No less enticing are the Marches’ long, sandy beaches and the warm, shallow azure waters of the Adriatic Sea.
This rich palette of natural colours is captured in the architecture of the towns and the products fashioned by the people – from ornate jewellery to suggestive ceramics to evocative edifices.
The region is still relatively unspoiled by the uber-tourism that characterizes many other regions of Italy – with the commensurate benefits for visitors in the countless discoveries, culinary delights and breathtaking vistas.
Offida, Town of Museums
The Marches multi-faceted cultural history is undoubtedly best exemplified by the town of Offida in the province of Ascoli. Surrounded by hills, west of San Benedetto del Tronto, the town is home to three distinctive museums. The pillow lace museum (merletto a tombolo) encapsulates the town’s reliance on this form of artistic expression, which is believed to have begun in the late Middle Ages. Early on, patterns were a heavily-guarded secret, as families (especially women) relied on their originality for greater income. Lace objects ranged from decorative doilies to full-fledged items of clothing. Lace production reached its peak at the end of the nineteenth century though, even today, local women of every age sit outside and “work the bobbins.”
Also found in Offida is the Archeological Museum, which captures the millennial history of the Marches, exemplified by its wide variety of pieces from the Paleolithic, Neolithic, and Picene Ages, as well as the Roman and Lombard periods. Its founder, archeologist Guglielmo Allevi, carried out much of his archeological explorations of the area in the second half of the nineteenth century. Some pieces discovered by Allevi have found their way to museums in Rome and London.
A fascinating trove is the more recently established Folk Tradition Museum, which offers a very evocative environment of underground passageways and vaulted rooms containing implements used in preindustrial times for cultivating, cooking, winemaking and weaving – a reminder of what life was like not long ago.
Another must-see is the Church of Santa Maria della Rocca, a Benedictine church dating back to the fourteenth century. Its location, on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Marchigiana countryside, gives it an even more spectacular aura.
Highs and Lows of the Accordion
It may not have been invented in the Marches, but the accordion has become most synonymous with this region of Central Italy, and more particularly with the town of Castelfidardo, where mass production of the instrument began in the 1860s. The instrument, it is believed, was brought into the region by French soldiers or traders from Austria, where it had been patented three decades earlier. In 1863 Paolo Soprani, a farm worker, saw its potential and, after adapting the instrument to his standards, began to market it. Within a short time orders were coming in from all over Italy and Soprani began manufacturing on an industrial scale. By 1900 more than 50 accordion manufacturing shops were producing thousands of accordions per year which were sold throughout Europe and beyond. By 1914, accordion exports had risen to more than 14,000 units.
In 1929 accordions were Italy’s second-largest export, after Fiat cars. Production rose to 51,000 units at the outbreak of World War II. The war had a devastating effect on the industry. However, production resumed after the war, to reach a peak of 192,000 units in 1953. That year the industry generated revenues of 80 billion liras, which translates into approximately 1.5 billion in today’s dollars. By this time, the town of Castelfidardo, population 9,000, employed more than 10,000 people in the accordion manufacturing industry. The advent of rock and roll in the mid-1950s spelled the end of the accordion as an instrument with mass appeal.
The decline of the accordion continued throughout the 1960s. Still, the industry responded to the early threats by trying to literally re-invent itself. Electronic accordions were manufactured and marketed, but with limited success. A more enduring outcome was the invention, in the Marches, of the Farfisa organ – a staple sound of 1960s music. This sound, too, eventually fell out of favour. Only a handful of accordion manufacturing plants are in operation today, most of which remain in Castelfidardo. The accordion’s 150 year history is captured at the Museo Internazionale della Fisarmonica (International Museum of the Accordion) in Castelfidardo.
First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 18.