Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as the first Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800. An honorary title, at that time, but the Holy Roman Empire, but for a thousand years the focus of continual strife between the rival claims of successive popes and emperors. Charlemagne's empire flourished during his short reign but it depended too heavily on his guiding hand and on his death, in 814, things rapidly fell apart and Italy was once again plunged into anarchy.
While successive popes and emperors argued over who should rule, many of the cities of central Italy, the Marche included, set themselves up as independent city states, paying lip service to one side or the other. Trade began to flourish once again and many towns in the Marche entered a new period of prosperity and stability. This Late Medieval economic boom during the 11th and 12th centuries brought with it a renewed interest in building.
The period also saw the establishment of many new monastic orders, most notably the Franciscan, Cistercians and Camaldolese, who built abbeys and monasteries throughout the Marche.
The Romanesque style of these years was both the sum of these new influences and a harking back to distant memories of Roman architecture. Churches were built in the form of Roman basilicas with rounded arches often supported on pillars recovered from the ruins of early Roman buildings.
Many magnificent examples of Romanesque churches have survived in Marche, including :
- The Pieve di San Leone and Cathedral at San Leo
- The Cathedral of San Ciriaco, Ancona
- The Church of Santa Maria di Portonovo, just south of Ancona
- The Church of Santa Maria a Pič di Chienti, near Macerata
- The Monastery of Fonte Avellana
- The Abbey of Chiaravalle at Fiastra
Just as Romanesque architecture was reaching its peak in central Italy, northern Europe was being gripped by the new Gothic style. The solid walls and low round arches of Romanesque were being swept away by soaring pointed arches and flying buttresses that allowed walls to become simply frames for glittering panes of stained glass. The Gothic label was invented by Renaissance Italians as a term of abuse for a style so barbaric it could well have been created by the Goths. But for all that, Gothic style proved to have a potent effect upon central Italian architecture and in the Marche it was to have a strong influence on many of the great civic buildings of the 12th and 13th centuries.
As the conflict between the Guelph supporters of the Pope and the Ghibellines (who supported the Holy Roman Emperor) deepened, so did local patriotism and fierce rivalry between neighbouring city states. Hundreds of new fortified hill towns and villages throughout the Marche were established by inhabitants who had fled from the exposed valleys to securer ground. Each place became a symbol of the power of their ruling lords who built impregnable castles and enclosed the surrounding houses with sturdy battlements.
Many of them have changed little over the centuries and include such fine examples as Gradara Castle.
The new Gothic style thus proved to be a vital force in medieval Marche architecture and many modern city streets and civic centres throughout the region still bear the mark of this period. Among the earliest and finest surviving town halls from this time is the Palazzo del Podestā in Fabriano.
Gothic style was also to have an important influence upon art with the founding of the International Gothic school, whose leading exponent was the Fabriano painter Gentile da Fabriano (click for works). This style was to influence many other Marche painters of the period, including the Salimbeni brothers (Lorenzo and Jacopo) from San Severino Marche and later painters such as the Venetian born Carlo Crivelli , whose work was to have a profound effect upon Marche painting up to the early years of the Renaissance. His many masterpieces in the region include:
Another early masterpiece of this period is the frescoed Cappellone di San Nicola in the Basilica dedicated to St Nicholas at Tolentino.