“OK, you’re familiar with the ‘boot’ of Italy, yes? With its toe looking as if it’s kicking Sicily? So, now think of the slight bulge of the calf of the boot. Well, it’s at the outermost point of that bulge.” It’s my tried and tested means of locating Ancona for first-time visitors who will in all likelihood being flying into its modest airport that lies at the north-western edge of the city.
“Our place is about forty minutes to the south-west,” I typically continue, and round off my brief orientation with “Don’t bother about detouring via Ancona itself; it’s really not much to write home about.” Well, until recently I did, anyway. For over the last few months I have discovered that I had been doing the city a great disservice and owe it an apology: it is a surprisingly beguiling place that Mr Blue-Shirt and I are becoming really rather fond of.
Admittedly, the messy sprawl of post-war concrete that forms an arc around the city is not immediately encouraging: faceless trading estates, criss-crossed by a tangle of flyovers and underpasses, mingle with clumps of low-rise cream and ochre apartment blocks. It is this undeniably ugly first impression that for years put us off visiting the place properly, and consequently, discovering its long history that turns out to be as fascinating as it is turbulent. And that helps put the ugliness in context. I now realise, for instance, that in World War I the Navy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on whom Italy had declared war only the day before, subjected the city to sustained naval bombardment that inflicted heavy damage on the port and surrounding areas. Then in World War II, it endured extensive bombing during its liberation from Nazi occupation by Allied Forces (in the form of the Polish 2nd Corps) who, as part of their advance north, needed a seaport closer to the front line. And fewer than thirty years later, it suffered a series of earthquakes in 1972 and then a landslide in 1982. All of which makes it much easier to forgive the apparent disregard for conservation principles and the seemingly insensitive urban development: the city’s beleaguered and exhausted residents needed housing and jobs – and fast.
And once you look beyond its concrete exterior, you will be warmly greeted by a vibrant, gritty, and proud maritime city with two thousand years of tempestuous history as a strategically important seaport on the Adriatic coast. It was founded by the Greeks in the 4th century BC to facilitate the expansion of trade from the Greek peninsular. Indeed, it was the Greeks who gave the city its name. Ancona derives from the Greek word ‘ankon’ which means ‘elbow’ and refers to the way the harbour is cradled in the crook of the protective arm formed by Monte Astagno to the north and Monte Guasco to the south. These are the twin extremities of the distinctive Conero Promontory whose forested bulk rears up behind the city.
Three centuries later came the Romans, and shortly after he crossed the Rubicon, Julius Caesar took possession of the city because of its harbour’s proximity to the Roman province of Dalmatia on the other side of the Adriatic. Emperor Trajan subsequently enlarged the harbour, in gratitude for which the Senate erected a triumphal arch in his honour in AD115 – and the Arch of Trajan still stands in splendid isolation on the north quay today.
In succeeding centuries, it was attacked by Goths, Lombards and Saracens, who sacked and burned the city in the 7th and 8th centuries. A couple of hundred years later it became a semi-autonomous maritime republic, during which time it built its cathedral on the summit of Monte Guasco, sent ships to the crusades, and was devastated by fire and by the black death. Two centuries after that, it became part of the Papal States, and the main architectural legacy of this period is the imposing citadel that still keeps watch over the city from its position high on Monte Astagno.
By virtue of its position as the gateway to the eastern Mediterranean, the city has long been a melting pot of creeds and cultures: towards the end of the Renaissance it was home to a large community of important Greek merchants, and also to a substantial Jewish community that had been established in Roman times. In fact, Ancona was the only city within the Papal States that tolerated Jews, thanks to the wealth they brought to the city via their banking and trading activities, and even welcomed Jews escaping persecution elsewhere in Europe. The city still has two synagogues, and the 16th century Monte Cardeto cemetery, one of two in the city, is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe.
During the Napoleonic era, the city briefly fell to the French, became the Anconine Republic, and was incorporated into the short-lived Roman Republic following Rome’s invasion by one of Napoleon’s generals. After a couple years’ to-ing and fro-ing, however, Ancona returned to the Papal States which were restored in 1799. But only sixty years later, the Papal States were defeated once and for all in the Battle of Castelfidardo (which lies just 20km to the south of Ancona), this time by the forces of the Risorgimento that brought about the unified Kingdom of Italy in 1861.
There followed a brief period of peace and prosperity, during which the railway came to the city, linking it to Bologna to the north and Pescara to the south, a tram service started operating, the southern quay was built, and the population grew to just shy of sixty thousand. But within barely fifty years, the continent was at war again and those Austro-Hungarian battleships out in the bay had the city in their sights…