So, if the likes of Rome and Florence, awash with jaw-dropping architectural and artistic treasures, are akin to a top-end antiques shop, then I would say that Ancona (40 minutes up the road from us and Le Marche’s capital) is probably more akin to a sprawling and slightly shabby collectables emporium. The glamourous antiques shop is filled with artfully displayed period furniture, glass-fronted cabinets full of delicate porcelain and crystal, and artworks with ostentatious gilt frames hang from the tastefully painted walls; every which way you look, your eye falls upon one beautifully lit artefact after another. The untidy collectables emporium, by contrast, is crammed to the roof with every conceivable variety of knick-knack and bric-a-brac. Stacks of second-hand books lean lazily on dusty shelves, one-eyed dolls sit propped up against floral table lamps with wonky, faded shades, and you have to squeeze through a forest of mis-matched, cobweb-draped dining chairs to reach some interesting-looking glassware almost hidden in a distant, dingy corner.
A brief canter through Ancona’s two thousand years of tempestuous history, however, will explain why the city has had neither the time, the resources, nor the energy to dust the bookcases, polish the crystal or tidy the furniture. This resilient, gritty and strategically important seaport on the Adriatic coast was founded in the 4th century BC by the Greeks to facilitate maritime trade in the eastern Mediterranean. About 400 years after the Greeks came the Romans, for whom the port also provided a valuable military bridgehead to the imperial outpost of Dalmatia just across the Adriatic. In the 7th and 8th centuries the Goths, Lombards and Saracens came and went, leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake. In the succeeding centuries, it managed to keep the forces of the Holy Roman Empire at bay, sent its ships to the Crusades and later threw its lot in with the Guelphs. As a consequence, it was absorbed into the Papal States in the 15th century, and during the Renaissance enjoyed its heyday as a prosperous centre for trade and banking. In the 18th century it was held under siege by the Turks, Russians, Austrians and the French, and in the 19th century, the city made a major military contribution to the Risorgimento which resulted in the final defeat of the Papal States and the unification of Italy in 1861. The city was bombed by the navy of the Austro-Hungarian empire in WW1 and again by the Allied Forces in WW2 as part their operations to liberate the city from Nazi occupation. Oh, and in the post-war period Ancona has also suffered two major earthquakes and a deadly landslide. And yet, for all the chaos, this unpromising-looking emporium somehow draws you in; there is an energy to all the jumble, a human drama behind every battered piece, and you soon find yourself happily rummaging around among the clutter. Then suddenly you stumble across a real treasure that first piques your curiosity then demands your attention.
Take the other week, for instance. We went for a poke about in the maze of streets on the slopes of Monte Guasco that rears up to the south of the city centre and on the very top of which stands the Romanesque Cathedral of San Ciriaco. Looking out over the Adriatic on the site of the city’s ancient Greek acropolis, this relatively modest church built from local white stone dates back to the 10th century but has been extended, altered and rebuilt many times since. We had always sensed, though, that in such a prominent location right above the harbour, there must be more layers of history in the area than just the cathedral. And as we wandered up the hill among the hotchpotch of squat, post-war apartment blocks jostling against slightly down-at-heel neo-classical palazzi, we did indeed come across a real treasure.
We had noticed the tell-tale, large oval space set back from the cathedral amongst the tightly packed buildings lower down the hill when we had taken our first post-lockdown visitors up to San Ciriaco’s a few weeks earlier. And having followed our noses slightly inland as we climbed, the sections of thick crumbling wall and half-buried archways came into view confirmed our hunch: that distinctive gap was, as we had suspected, a semi-excavated Roman amphitheatre. It turned out to have been built in the 1st century AD during the reign of Augustus and then enlarged by Trajan a century later when he was also re-building and expanding the port that still lies just a few hundred metres away at the bottom of the hill. It was abandoned three centuries later, however, and over succeeding centuries was used as a burial ground, then plundered for building materials, and later used as foundations for building work. It was re-discovered in the 19th century, but formal archaeological excavation of the site didn’t begin until after WW2. But from the remains unearthed so far, it is known that the arena could accommodate up to 10,000 spectators, seated over 20 terraces and featured separate gateways for soldiers and gladiators to enter through and for the dead and wounded to leave through. There is also substantial evidence, including a fully intact bath tub decorated with mosaics, of a comprehensive bath complex complete with hot water system. Unfortunately, it was very much a case of ‘do not touch’ with our latest find, though: since excavations are ongoing, the site is closed to the public and so can only be viewed from the street through the metal fencing across the front, with just a couple of sun-bleached interpretation boards to help us make some sense of these fascinating remains and provide a tantalising glimpse into this important chapter of the city’s past.
Still musing on what further Roman treasures may yet lie hidden beneath our feet as we turned back down the hill, my eye was caught by a small commemorative plaque high on a section of blank, imposing brick wall that looked as if it might be the buttress of some ancient fort. Another unlikely find among the dusty shelves of this fascinating emporium? Yes. In barely twenty metres, we found that we had travelled forward through nearly twenty centuries. That imposing wall was actually a part of a 19th century prison that had been used as an air raid shelter during WW2, and the plaque, which only dated from 2015, was in remembrance of the 700 citizens who lost their lives on that site in an allied bombing raid on 1st November 1943. Beneath the plaque was a poster: to mark the anniversary of the raid the shelter was going to be opened for a couple of days of guided tours. The very next day I called the number on the poster to book our places…