L'Aquila is a city of central Italy. Laid out within medieval walls on a hill in the wide valley of the Aterno river, and surrounded by the Apennine Mountains, with the Gran Sasso d'Italia to the north-east, it is both the capital of the Abruzzo region and the seat of the province of L'Aquila. Sitting a hillside in the middle of a narrow valley, tall snow-capped mountains of the of the Gran Sasso massif flank the town. A maze of narrow streets lined with baroque or renaissance buildings and churches, opening onto elegant piazzas, L'Aquila is a lively university town and as such has many cultural institutions: a repertory theater, a symphony orchestra, a fine-arts academy, a state conservatory, and a film institute.
History - The city construction was begun by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily out of several already existing villages (ninety-nine, according to local tradition; see Amiternum), as a bulwark against the power of the papacy. The name of Aquila ("Eagle" in Italian) was indeed chosen after the heraldic eagle in the Hohenstaufen arms. The construction was completed in 1254 under Frederick's son, Conrad IV of Germany. The name was switched to Aquila degli Abruzzi in 1861, and L'Aquila in 1939.
After the death of Conrad, the city was destroyed by his brother Manfred in 1259, but soon rebuilt by Charles I of Anjou, its successor as king of Sicily. The walls were completed in 1316.
It quickly became the second city of the kingdom of Naples. It was an autonomous city, ruled by a diarchy composed of the City Council (which had varying names and composition over the centuries) and the King's Captain. It fell initially under the lordship of Niccolò dell'Isola, appointed by the people as People's Knight, then killed when he became a tyrant. Later, it fell under Pietro "Lalle" Camponeschi, Count of Montorio, who became the third side of a new triarchy, with the Council and the King's Captain. Camponeschi, who was also Great Chancellor of the kingdom of Naples, become too powerful, and was killed by order of Prince Louis of Taranto. His descendants fought with the Pretatti family for power for several generations, but never again attained the power of their ancestor. The last, and the one true "lord" of L'Aquila, was Ludovico Franchi, who challenged the power of the pope by giving refuge to Alfonso d'Este, former duke of Ferrara, and the children of Giampaolo Baglioni, deposed signor of Perugia. In the end, however, the Aquilans, always fond of their freedom, had him deposed and imprisoned by the king of Naples.
The power of L'Aquila was based on the close connection between the city and its mother-villages, which had established the city as a federation, each of them building a borough and considering it as a part of the mother-village. That is also why number 99 is so important in the architecture of L'Aquila, and a very peculiar monument, the Fountain of the 99 Spouts (Fontana delle 99 Cannelle), was given its name to celebrate the ancient origin of the town. The City Council was originally composed of the Mayors of the villages, and the city had no legal existence until King Carlo II of Naples appointed a "Camerlengo", responsible for city tributes (previously paid separately by each of its mother-villages). Later, the Camerlengo also took political power, as President of the City Council.
City Centre - From its beginnings the city constituted an important market for the surrounding countryside, which provided it with a regular supply of food: from the fertile valleys came the precious saffron; the surrounding mountain pastures provided summer grazing for numerous transhumant flocks of sheep, which in turn supplied abundant raw materials for export and, to a lesser extent, small local industries, which in time brought craftsmen and merchants from outside the area.
Within a few decades L'Aquila became a crossroads in communications between cities within and beyond the Kingdom, thanks to the so-called "via degli Abruzzi", which ran from Florence to Naples by way of Perugia, Rieti, L'Aquila, Sulmona, Isernia, Venafro, Teano and Capua.
Negotiations for the succession of Edmund, son of Henry III of England, to the throne of the Kingdom of Sicily involved L'Aquila in the web of interests linking the Papal Curia to the English court. On 23rd December 1256, Pope Alexander IV elevated the churches of Saints Massimo and Giorgio to the status of cathedrals as a reward to the citizens of L'Aquila for their opposition to King Manfred who, in July 1259, had the city razed to the ground in an attempt to destroy the negotiations. The denuus reformator was Charles I of Anjou, but the city really became known beyond the borders of the Kingdom as a result of the exceptionally important event that took place on August 29, 1294, when the hermit Pietro del Morrone was consecrated as pope Celestine V in the church of S. Maria di Collemaggio, in commemoration of which the new pope decreed the annual religious rite of the pardon, Perdonanza, still observed today on August 28 and 29: it is the immediate ancestor of the Jubilee Year.
The pontificate of Celestine gave a new impulse to building development, as can be seen from the city statutes. In 1311, moreover, King Robert of Anjou granted privileges which had a decisive influence on the development of trade. These privileges protected all activities related to sheep-farming, exempting them from customs duties on imports and exports. This was the period in which merchants from Tuscany (Scale, Bonaccorsi) and Rieti purchased houses in the city. Hence the conditions for radical political renewal: in 1355 the trade guilds of leather-workers, metal-workers, merchants and learned men were brought into the government of the city, and these together with the Camerario and the Cinque constituted the new Camera Aquilana. Eleven years earlier, in 1344, the King had granted the city its own mint.
The middle of the 14th century was a period of great crisis for L'Aquila, as for the whole of Europe. The city was struck so frequently by plague epidemics (1348, 1363) and earthquakes (1349) that it gave the appearance of having been abandoned. Reconstruction began soon, however. Many are the signs of the importance L'Aquila had reached by the turn of the 14th-15th century: Jewish families came to live in the city; the generals of the Franciscan Order chose the city as the seat of the Order's general chapters (1376, 1408, 1411, 1450, 1452, 1495); friar Bernardino of Siena, of the Franciscan order of the Observance, visited L'Aquila twice, the first time to preach in the presence of King René of Naples, and in 1444, on his second visit, he died in the city.
The Osservanti branch of the Franciscan order had a decisive influence on L'Aquila. As a result of initiatives by Fra Giovanni da Capistrano and fra Giacomo della Marca, Lombard masters undertook, in the relatively undeveloped north-east of the city, an imposing series of buildings centring on the hospital of S. Salvatore (1446) and the convent and the basilica of S. Bernardino. The construction work was long and difficult, mainly because of the earthquake of 1461, which caused the buildings to collapse, and the translation of the body of S. Bernardino did not take place until May 14, 1472. The whole city suffered serious damage on the occasion of the earthquake, and two years went by before repairs on the churches and convents began.
This period ended in the 16th century, when Spanish viceroy Philibert van Oranje destroyed L'Aquila and established Spanish feudalism in its countryside. The city, separated from its roots, never developed again. It was destroyed, for the third time (the first was in 1258, by King Manfredi of Sicily, while still unfinished), by an earthquake in 1703. Successive earthquakes have repeatedly damaged the city's large Duomo.
Main sights - Although less than two hours' drive from Rome, and a popular summer and winter resort with Romans hiking and skiing in the surrounding mountains, the city has not yet been heavily affected by foreign tourism.
The Cathedral (Duomo) was built in the 13th but crumbled down during the 1703 earthquake. The current façade is from the 19th century.
The church of San Bernardino di Siena (1472) has a fine Renaissance façade by Nicolò Filotesio (commonly called Cola dell'Amatrice), and contains the monumental tomb of the saint, decorated with beautiful sculptures, and executed by Silvestro Ariscola in 1480.
The church of S. Maria di Collemaggio, just outside the town, has a very fine Romanesque façade of simple design (1270-1280) in red and white marble, with three finely decorated portals and a rose-window above each. The two side doors are also fine. The interior contains the mausoleum of Pope Celestine V erected in 1517. Many smaller churches in the town have similar façades (S. Giusta, S. Silvestro and others).
The town also contains some fine palaces: the municipality has a museum, with a collection of Roman inscriptions and some illuminated service books. The Palazzi Dragonetti and Persichetti contain private collections of pictures. Outside the town is the Fontana delle novantanove cannelle, a fountain with ninety-nine jets distributed along three walls, constructed in 1272. The source of the fountain is still unknown.
A well-known city landmark is the Fontana Luminosa ("Luminous Fountain"), a sculpture of two women bearing large jars, built in the 1930s. The local cemetery includes the grave of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a 19th‑century German gay rights pioneer, who lived and died at L'Aquila: every year, gay people from all over the world meet at the cemetery to honour his memory.
The surrounding area boasts Roman ruins (the important Roman city of Amiternum), ancient monasteries, and numerous castles. The best-known of these is Rocca Calascio (used in the 1980s as the location for the movie Ladyhawke), which is the highest castle in Italy and one of the highest in Europe. Also nearby are several ski resorts for Gran Sasso d'Italia, the highest of the Apennines.
Sport - The city is the home of L'Aquila Rugby, five times Italian champion.