The Abbeys Of The Chienti Valley

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The Chienti Valley is surrounded by gently rolling hills in the center of the Marches. Since this region used to be part of the Papal States, and since it was a major route linking the Adriatic Sea to Rome (and still is today), numerous abbeys where built by the monks that inhabited the area. Many of these are still in use today; many are just ruins; some have been rebuilt as stylish, residential homes.


Beginning at Porto Civitanova (1 - click on the numbers to see a map), take what Italians call the "superstrada," a four-lane, non-toll road that begins at this seaport and heads inland. Exit at "Montecosaro" to visit Santa Maria a Piè di Chienti (2). Built in the 9th Century, the abbey is in Romanesque style. The somber façade encloses two floors with three aisles. But the real architectural value of this abbey is in its apse, found at the rear of the church and visible from the outside, with three smaller apses positioned like rays from the main one.

Continue along the S.S. 485, a two-lane highway (S.S. stands for "State Highway") to San Claudio (3). It is not difficult to miss the road that leads to this abbey since it is totally lined on both sides with cypress pines. San Claudio was built between the 5th and 6th centuries on top of the ruins of an ancient Roman city, Pausulae. Rebuilt between the 11th and 12th centuries because of a fire, the abbey has two structures, one on top of the other, of equal dimensions. Its façade is between two cylindrical towers in which can be found the circular staircases that lead to the terrace and the portal of the upper church. The lower church has a large portal as an entrance and frescos from the 1400s in its center aisle.

Return on the superstrada and exit at "Macerata-Sforzacosta". Turn right and drive four kilometers to the Abbey of Chiaravalle di Fiastra (4), the best maintained 12th-century church in Italy. In 1142 the Cistercian monks that came from Logaredo in the province of Milan built the abbey on a plot of land donated to them by Guerniero III, Duke of Spoleto and Grand Marchi of the Marche. The abbey played a prominent role in the life of the local people until the 16th century, when it was attacked and ruined by the mercenaries of Braccio da Montone. In 1581, it was restored by the Jesuits, who remained until their break with the Pope in 1773. Since that date, the property passed into the hands of the Bandini family who founded the Giustiniana-Bandini Foundation and gave the church back to the Cistercian monks. The church itself has a plain façade with a Romanesque portal. The style of architecture is between the Romanesque and the Gothic. Inside, there are three aisles with wooden-vault ceilings and frescos from Giovanni Boccati. One can also visit the grottos and the olive oil deposit, which are home to an archeological museum. The fabulous cloister, built in the 15th century, forms the natural passageway between the church and the Palace of Prince Bandini, which dates back to the 18th century and which, today, is used as a convention center.


W
hile there, take a few hours to walk through the "Selva" (the Wilderness), a 1500-acre plot of land with nature trails. It is all that remains of the forests that once covered the Marche until the 1700s.


Six kilometers from the abbey, on a hill overlooking the S.S. 78, is the city of Urbisaglia (5). Although not an abbey, this fortified city was cited in Dante's The Divine Comedy and has fortifications that date back to the Roman era. A visit to the Roman Theatre, built in the 1st century BC, is a must.



The Abbey of Saint Nicholas from Tolentino (6) is the last on this itinerary. Built between the 13th and 15th centuries as a church for the adjoining monastery, it is the only abbey found in a city, namely Tolentino. The single aisle has walls that are totally covered with frescos, while the cupola has historical scenes. In a silver urn on top of the alter of the crypt are found the spoils of Saint Nicholas. While there, visit the Castle of the Rancia, just outside Tolentino, along the S.S. 485. Built in the 1300s as a Benedictine Abbey, the castle was the site of numerous battles between the Austrians and French in the 1800s. There are various rooms that preserve historical remnants inside the castle.

These are just a few of the numerous abbeys found in the Marche. Virtually all four provinces of the Marche have abbeys that are worth visiting and that can be done with one-day excursions.

by Vincent Vicoli



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