Walking around the massive fortress perched on a rock 1,600 feet above the Tronto river valley you can see why the small town of Civitella del Tronto achieved fame over the centuries for withstanding invading armies. It held out against the French in 1557 and again in 1806 it stood firm for four months in defiance of the Marshall of the Empire and Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, who shortly afterwards was to become King of Naples.
With an Irish mercenary named Matthew Wade as their commander, 300 men stood against the might of Napoleon. At the end of the siege Wade survived years of imprisonment and after the final defeat of France in 1815 when the Bourbons were restored to power he earned himself a promotion, a comfortable retirement and a neoclassical marble monument in Civitella del Tronto that remains today.
Half a century later the town’s steadfast loyalty to its Bourbon rulers ensured that it became the very last part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies to surrender to the Piedmontese after a five month siege that didn’t ultimately end until March 20 1861, three days after the Unification of Italy had been formally ratified.
This magnificent structure was then bombarded by the army of King Vittorio Emanuele II to dissuade further resistance, proving once again that Italian Unification was not the popular uprising mythologized by its political architects as akin to the American revolution, but rather a Piemontese invasion and subjugation, especially with regard to of the people of the mezzogiorno. The actions taken over the following decades were to prove that the instincts of the stubborn Abbruzzesi of Civitella del Tronto to resist the King of Savoy had been correct in 1861.
After the surrender of Civitella the monument to Matthew Wade was stolen by the Piemontese troops to take back to Turin, believing it to be the work of the famous sculptor Antonio Canova, but on discovering their error on their return journey they abandoned it in Ancona where it languished for 15 years before being restored to its rightful place in Civitella.
The fortress towers over Civitella del Tronto and the sheer scale of it is surprising for such a small town, in fact it is one of the largest in Europe covering about 6 acres which places it just behind Edinburgh Castle. However it has a much flatter profile on the skyline than most forts of its size because its natural elevated location didn’t require a typical castle construction and also because of the unnecessary bombardment it suffered in 1861.
However there is a lot left to see today and the panoramic views also make it well worth the steep uphill walk to get there; as you pass through the deliberately narrow alleyways (above right) you realize how difficult it was to assault the fortress without losing soldiers one by one as they emerged from these passages.
There is one alleyway in Civitella, Via della Ruetta, that claims to be the narrowest in Italy at under 16 inches wide but this seems to be a very competitive category these days in Italy and two other towns not far away, Ripatransone in le Marche and Termoli in Molise, both also lay claim to this title. I'll let someone else measure them all.
The original structure of the fortress from 800 years ago was expanded upon to include everything required to survive a long siege including five water cisterns, large underground storage rooms for food and ammunition, stables, embattlements with clear sight lines over the approaches to town, three separate parade grounds and lots of accommodation including the Governor’s palace which is now just ruins. There is also a military museum in the fort containing weapons and maps dating back to the 15th century.
Below the fortress the town of Civitella is quite compact and as with just about all the other places in Abruzzo I’ve written about, it too has seen its population halve since WW2 to less than 5,000 today. It may seem remote due to its location on the edge of the Gran Sasso National Park but in fact it is only 12 miles south of the cosmopolitan city of Ascoli Piceno and a similar distance north of the provincial capital of Teramo, both of which have populations of around 50,000.
The plaque below speaks of the nobility of the cause of the defenders of Civitella where their loyalty, allegiance and honor was paid for in bravery and blood. The quotation marks around "condemned by history" make it a real statement of defiance and it echos the same sentiments written on the Tavola dei Briganti high up on the Majella Massif.
The Tavola dei Briganti is a large flat area of engraved rocks at almost 7,000 feet at the foot of Monte Cavallo where shepherds and brigands left their names and thoughts.
The best known of the inscriptions attributed to the brigands reads “nel 1820 nacque Vittorio Emanuele II re d’Italia. Prima era il regno dei fiori ora è il regno della miseria". Translated as "in 1820 Vittorio Emanuele II, king of Italy, was born. Before it was the kingdom of flowers, now it is the kingdom of misery".