Ancona through the centuries: 10 must-see landmarks

Explore Ancona through its historic landmarks

If you love history, this itinerary is for you!
From the Roman Empire to World War II, you’ll travel through time and retrace the most important events in the history of Ancona.

Ready to go? Our journey begins in Porto Antico (Old Port).

Old Port - Before
Old Port - After

Ancona as seen from the port.

If you’re standing on Guasco or Cappuccini Hill, you can see the void left by the bombings. The entire port district, which used to the be bustling core of the old town, was destroyed by 178 air, sea and land raids that took place between October 16th, 1943 and July 18th, 1944.

Clementine Arch, Trajan’s Arch

Ancient Rome and Emperor Trajan.

On June 4th, 105 AD, Emperor Trajan sailed from the port of Ancona for his second campaign against the Dacians. He would eventually defeat of King Decebalus. A representation of this event can be seen on Panel 58 of Trajan’s Column in Rome, which commemorates the Emperor’s conquest of Dacia (present day Romania). It depicts military ships, triremes and biremes with lowered sails, featuring at the stern the chiefs’ and helmsman’s cabins, the labarum (a military standard) and Roman insignia, and at the bow the rostrums and decorations such the apotropaic eye.

The ships must have sailed at night: in the top left corner, two men hold torches; the rippling waves suggest that the winds must have been strong. The scene appears quiet and calm. Emperor Trajan is on the ship in the center of the frame, lit by a lantern, wearing a heavy military chiton. He addresses the sailors, who listen carefully to his speech.

In the left side of the frame, you can see the city and the port. There is a stretch of water, a pier or a strip of land, and at the end of it, an arch topped by three statues of naked males, which according to some represent Neptune at the center and the Dioscuri at his sides. There are also two temples, one to the left of the arch, the other on a hilltop. The latter houses, between the two columns at the center, the statue of a female divinity.

Other features of the representation include a colonnade and a building with arches near the port, probably a warehouse or a shipyard. Based on these elements, especially the Roman arch and the hills, scholars claim that this is indeed the port of Ancona.

Cathedral of San Ciriaco

The Late Middle Ages. The Crusades and Pope Pius II.

On August 14th, 1464, Pope Pius II died in the bishop’s residence next to the Cathedral of San Ciriaco. The Pope had arrived in the city in June to organize the crusade against the Turks that he had declared in 1463.

The port of Ancona was the meeting point of the Christian ships that were to set sail for the Holy Land to seize it from Muslim rule. The Catholic states which had given their support, however, did not keep their promises. The Pope waited in vain for a fleet that would have never arrived.

On the other hand, thousands of volunteers flocked to Ancona, who also brought with them the plague. The Pope was infected and died. His body was transported to Rome, while his precordium is was buried behind the high altar of the Cathedral.

la Cittadella priva di vegetazione a cavallo tra Otto e Novecento
Pietralacroce, vintage photo

The Cinquecento. Fall of the Commune of Ancona and beginning of Papal rule.

On September 19th, 1532, Bishop Bernardino Castellaro, known as “Della Barba”, entered Ancona from Porta Calamo with three hundred infantrymen; meanwhile, Count Luigi Gonzaga, commander of a group of mercenaries employed by the Pope, occupied the squares and main streets of the city. The garrison then took the fortress on top of the Astagno Hill, designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, which was built at the behest of Pope Clement VII, who increasingly feared the Turks.

Control of the Citadel meant control of the city: so on that day, the Republic of Ancona, which had been autonomous for centuries, fell directly under the Pope’s rule.

On October 5th, 1532, Cardinal Benedetto Accolti solemnly entered Ancona as the first legate (administrator) of the city. The Pope had “sold” Ancona to him for 19,000 ducats. The Cardinal was a greedy and cruel man who dismantled the city’s institutions, levied taxes and eliminated the magistrates by imprisoning and executing them.

Thus began a long series of Papal Legates (representatives of the Pope) who governed the city for centuries, until September 29th, 1860, when the troops of the Kingdom of Sardinia freed Ancona.

Madonna del Duomo

1796: the French invasion. The miracle of the Madonna del Duomo.

On June 25th, 1796, while Napoleon’s troops were marching towards the city, a fearful crowd gathered in the Cathedral of San Ciriaco. Two days earlier, a treaty had been signed in Bologna, according to which the city port of Ancona had been officially ceded to France.

The crowd, fearing looting, had turned to the Madonna del Duomo, portrayed in a sacred painting. It was then that some worshipers claimed that the eyes of the Madonna had moved. The news spread quickly among the people, and everybody rushed to the Duomo to witness the miracle, which happened again. The painting, which was venerated by local sailors, has since then been worshiped by all the people of Ancona.

You can find the painting in the left transept of the Cathedral of San Ciriaco, placed in a marble niche designed by famed architect Luigi Vanvitelli.

Portella della Dogana

1832, the French burst into Ancona through Portella.

On the night of February 22nd, 1832, a French naval squadron composed of two frigates, a ship of the line and a brig dropped anchor in the harbor of Ancona. The following night, a contingent of four hundred men, forced the Trionfi gate and entered the city. The soldiers took the Papal Delegate and the Commander of the garrison prisoner, then they surrounded the Citadel and demanded the surrender of the Pope’s troops. Ancona was the victim of a larger conflict: the Austrians had occupied Ferrara, so the French responded by occupying Ancona. The city was governed by the French military; then the Papal Delegate was reinstated, as the troops remained to defend the city from Austrian interference. Finally, on December 30th, 1837, the French contingent left the city, after the Austrians had abandoned Ferrara.

At that time, the port was separated from the city by a wall that stretched from the Arsenal to Porta Pia – this was Ancona’s first line of defense. The wall had seven gates, called “portelle”. The Trionfi gate through which the French troops pierced used to be the near the current headquarters of RAI, the national broadcasting company. Today, only four of gates remain: Toriglioni, Panunci, Santa Maria and Loggia.

Pietralacroce seen from Forte Altavilla

Ancona becomes part of the Kingdom of Italy. 1860: The siege of Pietralacroce.

On September 25th 1860, the troops of the Kingdom of Sardinia (the State behind the Unification of Italy), which had emerged victorious from the battle of Castelfidardo, attacked a Papal redoubt at Pietra La Croce. This was the prelude to the assault on the Papal stronghold, which had been under siege by land and sea since September 18th.

Three bersaglieri (light infantrymen) were killed. A memorial to them was erected on the site of the battle, next to Fort Altavilla. General Lamoricière, Commander in Chief of the Pope’s Army, had barricaded himself inside the city walls, willing to resist until the arrival of reinforcements from Austria. Which never came. On September 29th, he surrendered and the Sardinian troops marched triumphantly into the city.

After 328 years of papal rule, Ancona was free and became part of the new Kingdom of Italy, which was proclaimed on March 17th, 1861. The village of Pietralacroce, on the edge of the Strada del Conero, is rich in historical heritage from the Risorgimento era.

The Synagogue

1876, Jewish Ancona. The Synagogue

The new synagogue was inaugurated on September 14th, 1876 (25 Elul 5636 of the Hebrew Calendar). The temple was built in what is now called Via Astagno, in the heart of the Ghetto. Since Ancona had become part of the Kingdom of Italy, the new laws banned segregation and established equal rights for Jewish citizens.

The chief rabbi, David Abramo Vivanti, who unfortunately died only two days before the inauguration, had strongly pressed for a new synagogue. The former temple, located in present day Piazza della Repubblica on the site of the Vittorio Emanuele rail yard, had been demolished by General Lamoricière during the siege of Ancona in 1860.

The old lighthouse known as "of Pius IX"

1904. Marconi’s Experiment.

On August 6th 1904, Guglielmo Marconi arrived in Ancona aboard the RN Sardinia. He had been studying wireless telegraphy and had made important breakthroughs which lead to the first radios being built.

The future Nobel Prize laureate came to Ancona to carry out an experiment, for which the site of Monte Cappuccini was the perfect location. Apart from a lighthouse built in 1859, on the hill stood a Royal Navy radiotelegraph station, which, in the night of August 8th, was scheduled to receive signals from the station of Poldhu in Cornwall, 1,750 km away.

The signals came loud and clear: the experiment was a success. In the following days, other transmissions were broadcast, and it was clear that signal strength varies depending on weather conditions.

The Red Week Begins

June 7th, 1914. The Red Week begins in Ancona.

On June 7th, 1914, during celebrations for Constitution Day, the Armed Forces were parading in the streets of Ancona. Demonstrations were forbidden by the government, who feared social unrest, especially in cities such as Ancona, considered a hotbed of “subversive” activity. In fact, Ancona was home to many anarchists, socialists and republicans, who had to be kept under strict surveillance.

These anti-monarchist groups gathered at the headquarters of the Republican Club of Villa Rossa in Via Torrioni. At the end of the meeting, when the participants left, they were met by the police.

As the crowd grew larger, shots were fired. The rioters barricaded themselves inside Villa Rossa, and threw objects at the policemen, who opened fire again. Two demonstrators were killed and one was seriously injured.

A general strike was called, and unrest spread in the country. Twenty thousand people joined in mourning at the funerals of the victims, which ended in clashes with the police. The government declared a state of emergency and eventually managed to quell the revolt on June 13th.

The Lazzaretto

April 1918. Attempted sabotage by the Austrians.

On the night of April 5th, 1918, a commando composed of 61 sailors of the Royal and Imperial Habsburg Navy landed on the beach of Marzocca and headed towards Ancona. They had planned to blow up the submarines moored in the harbor and capture some MAS (torpedo-armed motorboats), then return to their base in Pula, in present-day Croatia.

Owing to some luck, the enemy squadron was not intercepted by the Italian soldiers; the Austrians managed to hide during the day, and the following evening they arrived at the Lazzaretto, where the MAS were moored. These motorboats, which had sunk the battleship Santo Stefano under the command of Luigi Rizzo, were much feared by the Austrians.

However, the MAS flotilla was out at sea on a mission, and there was only one moored MAS, moreover undergoing maintenance. The two policemen on guard (Carlo Grassi and Giuseppe Macanugo) spotted the Austrian saboteurs. Their commander, realizing that the surprise attack had failed, and that there was no possibility of escape, surrendered to the military.

Commemorative plaque of the carnage

November 1st, 1943. Carnage at Rifugio delle Carceri.

In 1943, Ancona had been occupied by the Germans. On November 1st, the Allied Air Force decided to bomb the marshaling yard and the shipyard. At 12:16 pm on All Saints’ Day, six American B25-Mitchell bombers flew over Ancona and dropped thirty 500-pound bombs on their targets, which also hit the nearby Porto and Guasco districts.

It seemed over at 12:55 pm, when thirty-seven bombers dropped seventy-two more bombs, which completely devastated the Guasco district, the heart of the old town.

That day, 1,065 people died; 724 of them inside a shelter (“rifugio”) under Cappuccini hill, in present-day Via Birarelli. It was called “delle Carceri” (of the prisons) because it was also used for the prisoners of a nearby penitentiary.

It was one of the deadliest raids in history.

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