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Le Marche - History

The history of Le Marche stretches back over many millennia. Even in seemingly modern corners, scratch just below the surface and you'll find traces of the past.

Early Roots

The first traces of human habitation, found on Conero Peninsula, date back to around 20,000BC. Knowledge of these early peoples is hazy. The most important of the tribes who first inhabited the region were the Piceni, who lived on the coast. Up in the mountains their place was taken by the Umbri tribes who also dwelt in the neighbouring region now know as Umbria. Although both tribes have left few relics of their passage, there are some museums in Le Marche with fascinating finds dating back to this period; the best is the Archaeological Museum at Ancona.

Ancient Rome

From 400 BC, the new-born Republic of Rome gradually began to make its presence felt. Weakened by attacks from Greek colonists in southern Italy and Celtic inroads in the north, the early Italian tribes such as the Piceni soon came under the sway of Rome.

With the construction of the great highways such as the Via Flaminia, Roman dominion across Italy was consolidated. Under the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, Le Marche was divided - the northern stretches formed part of the Roman Umbria, while the south was known as Picenum.

The Barbarians

In AD 476, Rome, weakened by the split between the Western and Eastern Empires and the first forays by Goths and Vandals from the north, finally fell to the barbarian warrior Odoacer. His reign as the first King of Italy was short-lived, however, with the arrival in 489 of Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, who established a 33-year rule of relative tranquillity in Italy.

On his death, the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian in Constantinople tried to revive imperial power in Italy through his celebrated generals Belisarius and Narses. Although they finally managed to topple the Gothic King Totila in 552 - the final battle took place at the Furlo Gorge in northern Le Marche.

The Holy Roman Empire

Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as the first Holy Roman Emperor. Although at the time it was little more than an honorary title, the Holy Roman Empire thus founded was to last on and off for a thousand years and to become the focus of continual strife between the rival claims of successive popes and emperors.

Although Charlemagne's empire flourished, it depended too heavily on his guiding hand; on his death in 814, things rapidly fell apart.

Guelphs & Ghibellines

The rivalry between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire came to a head under the rule of the medieval German Emperor, Frederick II, the man who earned the title Stupor Mundi for his dazzling talents. If you visit Jesi, you'll be able to see the place where he was born in a tent. Although he almost succeeded in creating a united Italy under his banner, his death in 1250 marked the eclipse of German imperial power in the peninsular.

Le Marche, like the rest of central Italy, was deeply bound up in this conflict, with loyalties tied either to the Guelf or Ghibelline parties. The supporters of the papacy took their name from Frederick's rival for the empire, the Welf Otto, while the imperialists became known as Ghibellines from the Italianized Hohenstaufen battle-cry "Hie Weibling".

The Guelf cause can be said to have triumphed with the arrival of the French under Charles of Anjou in the middle of the 13th Century at the invitation of Pope Urban IV; from now on France rather than Germany was to be the dominant foreign power in Italy.

The Guelf and Ghibelline labels, however, lingered on for centuries. Long after they had lost their original significance, they remained as a cover for just about any difference of opinion, even as an excuse to settle old scores.

Despotism in Le Marche

The absence of the papacy in Avignon from 1305-77, the subsequent Great Schism which saw up to three candidates claiming the Throne of St Peter, and the arrival of the Black Death in 1348, all provided fertile soil for the flowering of local despotism across Le Marche.

The Renaissance

The apogee of the Renaissance in the middle of the 15thC was marked by a period of relative stability across central Italy. This was in no small part thanks to the Italian League, a defensive treaty between the major powers in Italy that held in check both the lesser Italian states and foreign invaders. It is against this background that many centres of art and learning flourished; perhaps, none better illustrates the splendour of these courts than that founded by Duke Federico of Montefeltro at Urbino.

As the 16th Century dawned and the Italian Renaissance took root across Europe, central Italy along with the rest of the peninsula became a battleground on which the rival claims to Italian hegemony between Francis I of France and Charles V of Spain were tested. And with the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis in 1559, over a hundred and fifty years of Spanish domination of Italy began.

With the Spanish holding the rest of Italy in check, the Papacy was free to consolidate its rule over its own possessions which included the Marche - while the centre of Italian culture moved to Counter-Reformation Rome, the Papal States were left to languish under the dead hand of ecclesiastical bureaucrats.

The Risorgimento

Under the Piedmont King Victor Emmanuel, his wily prime minister, Cavour and the heroic if maverick general, Garibaldi, United Italy became a reality. In 1859 the Italian tricolore flew from the Fortezza of Florence and the last Grand Duke, Leopold II, abdicated. A year later large parts of Italy opted to join the new Kingdom of Piedmont. The Papacy, however, proved more intransigent to the onslaught of the Risorgimento and it was only by force that Le Marche managed to break free from the Papal States in the same year. It was a full ten years later that Rome finally fell, in 1870. From here on the history of Le Marche is but part of the wider story of modern Europe.

Reproduced with the kind permission of Marche Voyager

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