Frasassi Tour: Osimo and Loreto, from under the ground to up in the sky
We thought it was “strange” to walk around Sirolo knowing there was a maze of underground tunnels under the pavement – but Osimo was even more striking in that way. We were lucky enough to visit the beautiful town on June 17th, on the second day of the 2016 “#frasassitour: discover the Frasassi Caves and surrounding area” tour. Under our feet, a myriad mysterious galleries were kept by the earth with fascinating ancient stories: a real underground city, with a history of its own.
But we stood outside in the open, where Osimo offers a visit to a wonderful village built on two hills, and embraced by the sun on the day we were there.
It is indeed a bright little town, with dazzling beauties such as the Romanesque-Gothic Cathedral of San Leopardo (Osimo Cathedral), which among other beautiful works of art has a 13th-century wooden crucifix that is very important in the history of the ancient town, where an annual celebration is held to commemorate a miracle linked to the ancient artifact. According to tradition, on July 2nd 1796, the Crucifix came alive and moved his eyes and mouth!
Another beautiful sight is the medieval Basilica of Saint Joseph of Cupertino, which protects the remains of the patron saint of students, invoked by generations of Italian children and young adults before tests and exams. Another yet is the 14th-century church of San Marco, with its 17th-century altarpiece by Guercino and beautiful 15th-century fresco of the “Madonna and Child between Saint Dominic and Saint Peter Martyr”.
We visit the Fonte Magna, a 1st-century-BC nymphaeum that, with the city walls, represents a phenomenal testimony to Roman presence in ancient Auximum.
One of Osimo’s most important buildings is its Town Hall (Palazzo Comunale), an imposing structure with red brick façades, built between the 15th and the 17th century. This is where we discover the first traces of Osimo’s underground life, because interesting archaeological finds have recently been discovered right in the 19th-century portico of the Palazzo, on Piazza Boccolino.
We get closer to the excavations (which originated from repaving works that begun in 2015), and see the experts at work in the open trenches, scalpels and shovels in hand. The remains of human bones and of walls emerge, the latter probably belonging to the baroque Church of Santa Maria del Mercato, also known as Church of Death (named after the Brotherhood entrusted with the bodies of the deceased in the city), demolished in 1866.
In these days, archaeologists have brought to light a precious female statue that probably depicts the empress Plotina, wife of Trajan, who lived between 70 and 120 AD.
Inside the magnificent Town Hall, in its entrance hall to be precise, we visit the “Lapidarium”, a collection of Roman and medieval finds – mostly steles and friezes – that have been discovered under Osimo over the years.
First of all, we are welcomed by twelve headless statues of the Roman period. Twelve sculptures that have “lost their mind”, becoming the source of the epithet that badgers Osimo’s residents, known as “senza testa” (“headless”).
The unflattering nickname provided local historian Don Carlo Grillantini with the opportunity to pen some ironically apologetic verses to praise the beauty of Osimo, bouncing any offense back to its senders: “And we’re supposed to be / ‘Headless’ according to outsiders? / Let them talk! If we stay here, / it’s a sign that we have more brains than them!”
We approach the beautiful Romanesque-Gothic Cathedral (or Duomo) that we mentioned earlier, which according to tradition was originally built in the 4th century under Osimo’s first bishop, Leopardus, over a pagan temple dedicated to Jupiter. However, so far the oldest architectural structures that have emerged are from the 8th century.
Even part of the Duomo is underground: the 12-th century crypt, scattered with altars dedicated to saints and martyrs tied to the city’s history such as Sisinio, Fiorenzo, Massimo and Diocletian, and, of course, in Leopardo.
We climb back out into the light to visit the monumental Palazzo Campana, where the “Le stanze segrete di Vittorio Sgarbi” exhibition is being held. Until October 30th, the Ferrara-born art critic and historian will present to the public 120 works from his eclectic private collection, which grew over the years also thanks to his mother Rina Cavallini, a lively, intelligent and curious woman who bought a large part of his art estate at international auctions. Apparently, behind every great collector is a great woman…
The walls are covered in paintings by Titian, Artemisia Gentileschi, Lorenzo Lotto, and more. Numerous Italian schools of painting and sculpture from the 16th to the 19th century are represented: from the Venetian school of Rosalba Carriera and Simone Brentana to the Tuscan school of Pietro Balestra and Giovanni Dupré; from the Neapolitan school of Andrea De Leone and Jusepe De Ribera to the Emilia-Romagna school of Nicola Pisano and Guercino…
As always, an ancient and mysterious life flows beneath our feet. Indeed, the “strangest” caves of Osimo’s underground city are situated in this very building’s sandstone hypogea (which, by the way, were seat of a famous College where two future popes studied: Leo XII and Pius VIII).
In unknown times, the walls and vaults of these underground spaces were decorated with bas-reliefs depicting hard-to interpret esoteric symbols. Obviously, many – often amateur – exegetes have let their imagination run wild in front of this enigma (with the Templars and Freemasonry involved in the largest part of hermeneutical theories). These are complex aspects that we probably have no reason to dwell on too much. Also because it’s time for us to move on to Loreto, some fifteen kilometers south-west of Osimo.
The afternoon has begun by the time we arrive in the Marche town that the whole world knows for its Holy House, the Virgin Mary’s abode that according to tradition was miraculously transported here in 1294.
The story goes that angels took on the prodigious “shipping” because Mary’s humble home was not safe in her native Nazareth, once the Crusaders had finally been expelled, as from all of Palestine, in the 13th century.
So, after many adventures – along a journey that had started in 1291, with intermediate stops in Illyria, the current Croatia – the old building reached Loreto. Of course we assume it was the endeavor of more terrestrial “angels”: the aristocratic Angeli family who ruled Epirus, and who took charge of the transportation by boat of “the holy stones taken from the House of Our Lady the Virgin Mother of God,” as reported by a document of the time.
We enter the Basilica of the Holy House in the early afternoon, through one of three bronze doors from the late 16th century (the one on the left, one of the Holy Doors of the Jubilee of Mercy).
The structure harmonizes the late Renaissance style of its white Istria stone façade with the late 15th-century Gothic of the volumes at the sides of the brick section of the apse. It is an impressive building, which holds a number of art masterpieces by Pomarancio, Melozzo da Forli, Luca Signorelli and Federico Zuccari, among others.
And there at the end, right below the dome, is the magnificent marble encasing where the Holy House is preserved. We slowly approach this sculptural masterpiece of Renaissance art. In 1509, Pope Julius II commissioned its design to Donato Bramante, who imagined the bas-reliefs of the “Glories of the earthly life of the Virgin Mary” that Vasari described as “divine sculpture.”
Producing such a treasure trove of beauty – with a surface of some 600 square meters – took as long as the next seventy years, with notable contributions by Andrea Contucci Il Sansovino, Ranieri Nerucci and Antonio da Sangallo the Younger.
But the real treasure is what we find upon entering into the sumptuous marble shell: a humble building, three low brick walls of sandstone, within which Mary received the angelic announcement of her divine motherhood.
The Holy House is a simple, small building of stone, coherent with the most widespread customs in Galilee in Jesus’s age; on the stones, graffiti similar to others found in Nazareth are visible. The fourth wall is replaced by an altar – or rather, it was never there to begin with because in the house’s original location that side had an opening leading to a cave (which is now inside the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth).
With the image of Mary’s little house still vivid in our mind, we climb 80 steps to the top of the Basilica, towards the so-called “patrol walkway” – a name taken from military architecture, surprisingly enough for a sacred building. But this Basilica was also meant to defend the small, great treasure it guards. After all, many churches of the time were threatened by attacks from Barbary pirates or the Ottoman army.
From the outside, the walkway – designed in the late 15th century by Baccio Pontelli – can be recognized from the overhanging structure that crowns the building.
It is simply astonishing to walk along this corridor, with windows that open on beautiful wide views, from the Gran Sasso to Mount Conero – our quiet and majestic travel companion, today just as much as yesterday.
Restaurants: Agriturismo Casale San Filippo, in the hills near Osimo.