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Finding the Hidden Italy in Sassoferrato

■ 12 September 2011 by James Martin

These are bad economic times in Italy. But there’s always good in bad—even beyond the fact that the dollar is rising against the Euro (finally!). Tourism is important in Italy, and regions you’ve probably never considered (and probably know nothing about) are primed and pumped to show you that Italy has interesting cities besides Rome, Florence and Venice—and interesting regions besides Tuscany.

Take le Marche, for example. What the heck, let’s even drill down to a town with which you are perhaps not at all familiar: Sassoferrato, a town whose symbol is a bunch of rocks wrapped with a band of iron, as the name implies. A town of fewer than 8000 people. Now you know why you’ve never heard of it.

What’s in Sassoferrato? An important Roman archaeological site called Sentinum, on the Via Flaminia road system, historically important because the Romans defeated the combined forces of the Samnites and Gauls here in 295 BC, allowing the Romans to unify central Italy right up to the Adriatic coast.

In Sassoferrato there are 12 churches and a castle, along with the usual palaces. There are ethnographic, archaeological, and mineral museums. There is an ancient book cover in the museum with a micro-mosaic picture made out of the tiniest tesserae you’ve ever seen, many of them in gold.

In Sassoferrato. Population 8000.

The folks are friendly here. You’ll see things you wouldn’t see in other places even if they existed there. Why? Because this is a small town, a village, where people don’t have to pretend that everything they are going to show you is precious beyond belief.

chiesa di san francescoOk, so we’ve all looked through the thick grate in which a church’s relics were to be found. In the murky darkness we may have seen a fragment of holy phalanx (finger or toe bone). What if your guide marched you behind the big reliquary and, with particular relish, flung open the rear access door to where you could really see the scatter of saintly bones?

They probably don’t do that in Rome.

church archives book pictureOr maybe your guide ushers you out of the church and through another unmarked door. You’re now in a place the church uses for its records. There are handwritten diaries from the 18th century. Your guide grabs one and flips it open.

“Guarda!” he implores, “look! There’s not a single error, not a cross-out.” He flips through the pages like they were from a fifty cent comic book.

And he’s right. Written in a steady hand, the account of the writer is without apparent mistake.

And you touch the book. On a corner. Lightly. And you remember all the books you’ve seen in other museums open to the cover page under a glass that’s wired so that if you press too hard, people with guns and rabid dogs will descend upon you in an instant.

Not in le Marche. Not in Sassoferrato. Here history lives. Here history has texture you can feel.

toilet pictureBut there’s more. You notice a tiny window leading to a small room. Your guide explains it’s a jail.

But it’s not just any jail. It’s not for townspeople who’ve violated some statute or another—it’s for errant priests.

Your guide takes you around the corner, where there’s a heavy door that opens upon a tiny room. In one corner there’s a box with a cover. It’s the toilet. It still works. It doesn’t, of course, flush—but the depth of the “plumbing” below is over 3 meters. I wonder if anyone has tried it?

priests message sassoferratoThe walls of this little cell are covered in writing. You can’t read it, of course, but your guide can. It turns out that one priest had been turned in for doing something unpriestlike, and blamed…the “bitch” that snitched. He was innocent, of course. It was written in 1792. Evidently this particular priest couldn’t contain himself, because he got turned in a second time, and his dated response, written on a different part of the wall, again proclaimed his innocence.

I love these little slices of life from way back. Religion hasn’t always been the staid practice we’ve been lead to believe. Or maybe it never was.

circumcision paintingThen your guide takes you to the Church of San Francisco, Chiesa di San Francesco. In it he points out yet another unique visual element. One of the rich families of Sassoferrato once commissioned a huge painting. Its subject is circumcision. Its graphic subject, that is.

Turns out, according to the guide, that this is the only representation of its type in a church in Italy. The Vatican evidently has one, but somewhere in history they’ve erased the evidence by painting pants in the inappropriate place.

Yes, there was lots of circumcision art, but evidently none of it is currently on display in a church.

So, you want to see this? Without the glare that seemed to get in my pictures of it?

Well, you’ll have to come to little Sassoferrato in le Marche.

What will your friends say? Probably “Sasso…what?”

If you’re worried about that, then I’m sorry you got all this far in reading. Get thee to Florence. See the things other people insist you see.

As for me, I won’t deny it: I meant to lead you astray. It’s the meandering path to the best stuff in Hidden Italy and it’s my job.

(I visited Sassoferrato with the help of the Pro Loco, who have a Facebook page with contact information. Get your guide through them and have fun in Hidden Italy.)

Finding the Hidden Italy in Sassoferrato originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Sep 12, 2011, © James Martin.

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