Article by Eden Muir for le Tour Sutton, October 15, 2013... THIS ISSUE'S THEME WORD: "FRIVOLITY" Click images to expand...and download

Frivolity and Gravitas in the City of a Hundred Towers

frivolity It was with great anticipation that I arrived at the City of a Hundred Towers. I knew that Pope Sixtus V had lived in this town northeast of Rome and I was curious to see the walled city with its slim stone towers (1), intact Roman bridges, and mysterious seven portals (2). I had a hunch that the town's architecture and physical layout had influenced this famous builder-pope who later transformed Rome.

At first, Ascoli Piceno seemed a somber place, built of, and on top of, the travertine blocks that the ancient Romans had quarried. Every surface appeared to be of the same gray-streaked stone. This was a working town--the sparse daytime crowds walked with an industrious air--a far cry from the typical scenes of fun and revelry on the Italian tourist circuit.

That evening I checked into the hostel located in a vertigo-inducing stone needle (3) built by one of the noble families 900 years ago in an era of brigands, bandits and tower envy. In the Middle Ages there were 200 towers in Ascoli. The handful that remain seem impossibly slender, with a tendency to return to earth during earthquakes. If a word could sum up Ascoli Piceno, I mused, it would be "gravitas."

frivolity A bit later I heard voices growing louder in the street. I opened the tower's thick door and looked out to a crowd surging down the dark alley. They were laughing, singing and shouting out for all to join them.

Some of the revelers wore bizarre costumes and used torches to project giant shadows onto the travertine walls. Some carried large puppet figures, tossed firecrackers, or balanced on stilts so tall they had to duck to pass under the stone arcades. Whether it was a carnival, street theatre, initiation ritual or a new kind of walking tour, the merriment was contagious. I briefly considered the possibility that I was dreaming, then I jumped into the flow of humanity.

The giddy mob kept moving through the dark maze of the city, following some unspoken urban logic. Finally we emerged from the medieval streets, swept past a tall Roman bridge, veered around a leaning Longobardi tower, passed through one of the seven portals in the town wall, and followed a major artery to the large central piazza where unbridled frivolity continued into the night.

frivolity When I emerged from "my" tower the next morning, the town felt different, almost familiar. I had participated in an event that probably had its roots in ancient Roman Saturnalia celebrations. These proud and versatile streets were already clean and ready for market day, and later, the genteel strolling of the evening passeggiata (4). This was an urban model that worked. I decided I would stay in Ascoli for a while to research my papal hunch.

Pope Sixtus V (born 1520) would have been intimately familiar with Ascoli Piceno's charms since he spent his formative years there in the Franciscan order (1532-1540). In 1585 he was elected Pope and in an extraordinary five-year campaign, transformed Rome with new fountains, piazzas, churches and major avenues.

frivolity Sixtus laid out the dramatically long, straight Via delle Quattro Fontane from one end of the city to the other. He used Egyptian obelisks to mark key locations and provide order and clarity, a strategy reminiscent of Ascoli's spine-like street pattern punctuated by towers (5).

The Pope devised a plan to connect Rome's seven holiest churches to this axis with visual corridors, recalling the seven portals of Ascoli. He created the Piazza del Popolo in the trident shape of Ascoli's west entry. Numerous other comparisons suggest that the city-planner pope was drawing on impressions and memories of the urban plan of his boyhood home. When Sixtus V died in 1590, Rome had been changed forever.

Later, I returned to Rome and walked the entire network of Sixtus V's avenues. The visual logic was inescapable--each marker's sight lines revealed an important church, monument or urban connection. The monumental axes and obelisks defined distance and direction in a large and confusing capital city, enhancing the seat of power, as they would centuries later in Paris and Washington. But those who have been initiated into the magic of Ascoli Piceno will tell you this: no matter how grand the streets of Rome, one's thoughts always return to the City of a Hundred Towers.

© Tous droits réservés. Photos and text by Eden Greig Muir, Architect.