Local heroes

So, that selection of noteworthy Marchigiani I spoke of last week; those local heroes whose achievements have entitled them to the honour of having streets in towns and villages throughout the region named after them: I certainly hadn’t even heard of most of them before moving here, and I knew barely anything of the achievements of the few I had heard of. But more to the point, I am unlikely to have found out anything about them had I not had my curiosity piqued by seeing these names on a daily basis on my way to the post office, to the vet or to the pizzeria, to the beach, friends, or to work. So, who exactly are they?

Well, should you stroll down a Via Raffaello Sanzio – or indeed if you arrive in the region by air since Ancona’s airport also bears his name – I can now tell you that this is in honour of the painter better known simply as Raphael.  He was a famously prolific artist and many of his works can be found in the Vatican Palace, and together with Michelangelo and Da Vinci, was one of the artistic ‘holy trinity’ of the period. And his local connection? He was born in Urbino, a picturesque medieval town in the north of the region that in the fifteenth century became a microcosm of High Renaissance culture thanks to the patronage of Federico da Montefeltro, and that is now World Heritage Site.

Then again, if your route includes a Via Giacomo Leopardi, this is a nod to who I now know to be Italy’s greatest poet of the Romantic period; up there Shelley, Keats and Byron. His work is said to have found its greatest expression in L’Infinito, the centenary of which is being celebrated this year, especially in his home town of Recanati. This dignified and handsome town is spread along a high ridge just a few kilometres from us and forms our view to the north at the start of any trip into the village. Superficially, Leopardi’s masterpiece expresses the poet’s desire to escape the rigid discipline of life in deeply conservative Recanati, which at the time was still under papal rule, and to travel to the exotic-sounding places he knew of only from his studies. However, it is also understood to be a meditation on both the potential and the limits of human understanding and the attendant frustrations.

Another son of Recanti popular with town planners in these parts is Beniamino Gigli, a name that I confess was completely unknown to me.  It turns out, however, that the reason for his commemoration in local street names is that he was one of the country’s foremost operatic tenors from the 1920s to the 1940s who spent the early part of his career in the shadow of the mighty Caruso – which is probably why I had never heard of poor Benjamin. The various examples of Via Pergolesi, by contrast, commemorate someone who I had at least heard of.  I have now learnt though that his last name is in fact a demonym that indicates his forefathers’ origins in the town of Pergola, which lies some fifty kilometres to the west of Jesi where Giovanni Battista Pergolesi was born in 1710. A violinist and organist as well as a composer, his best-known sacred work is probably his Stabat Mater, which he completed only weeks before he died from tuberculosis aged just twenty-six, although he is also celebrated as one of Italy’s premier exponents of ‘opera buffa’ – comic opera.

Pergolesi is eclipsed only by Gioacchino Rossini as Le Marche’s pre-eminent musician (whom I had definitely heard of, having actually performed some of his music in my youth). Consequently, any tour of the region is bound to take you along a Via Rossini or two, especially if Montecosaro, Macerata or Corridonia feature in your trip. And certainly if it includes Pesaro, the region’s most northerly coastal city where he was born in 1792. Rossini wrote his first opera aged just eighteen and went on to write a further thirty-eight, best known among which are Il Barbiere di Siviglia (the Barber of Seville), Gugliemo Tell (William Tell) and Semiramide.

Even though I had had no idea that Pergolesi and Rossini had hailed from Le Marche, at least I had a passing acquaintance with their achievements.  When it came to one of the region’s most celebrated scientists, however, I knew neither his name nor anything of the achievements that have earned him the accolade of having streets and schools named after him: Via Enrico Mattei is the street that forms the north-western boundary of Montelupone’s historical centre; it is also the name of a secondary school in Recanati (I have even taught there). And I am pleased to say that I now know that he was a chemist by training and came from Acqualanga in Pesaro e Urbino, the region’s most northerly province, and later became an industrialist. He became an active member of the anti-Fascist resistance shortly after Mussolini’s forced resignation in 1943, with responsibility for organising the supply of weapons to the local resistance cell in the mountains around Matelica (now better known for its white wine made from the Verdicchio grape). More significantly for street-naming purposes, however, was his role in transforming the Fascist-run national oil company (AGIP, a name which still exists today) into one of the country’s principal economic assets, and also for the development of Italy’s natural gas reserves, which helped drive the country’s post-war economic resurgence.

And finally, although immortalised in street, school and airport names less frequently than Pergolesi, Mattei, Raphael et al, if you pay a visit to Chiaravalle where she was born, to Ancona, to Jesi or to Castelfidardo, you may find yourself in Via Montessori, a small memorial to one of the few women (other than saints and martyrs) recognised in this time-honoured fashion. To my shame, I had completely failed to realise that this was in recognition of the early twentieth century physician and educator who developed the educational philosophy based on autonomy and self-motivation that is followed in the schools around the world that bear her name – Maria Montessori.

So, yet another fact about Italy that I probably would never have come across but for this peculiarly Italian street-naming tradition. For visitors and incomers alike, it is an insightful and serendipitous way of learning things about Italy that few guide books will include. Better still, though, by this simple celebration of the people and events that have shaped its history, it bestows even the tiniest, remotest village with a powerful sense of place in a way that boring old High Street, North Road or Oaktree Avenue can never do. So next time you wander along Via Somebody-or-other, or find yourself in Piazza Never-Heard-of-Him, just look them up. For you are sure to find a nugget of information every bit as tasty and quintessentially Italian as the pizza or the cappuccino or the aperitivi you are just about to tuck into…

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