We begin with Solimo and Aeneas escaping from the burning city of Troy. Leaving the Trojan hero on the banks of the Tiber, Solimo explored inland, into the lands of the Marsi and Peligni, looking for a new homeland. He finally came to the Peligna Valley – an area rich in water and forests and protected by the high mountains surrounding the valley. There he founded the city of Sulmo. This is the story told about the birth of Sulmona by the writers of old, the first of whom was the great poet Ovid.
It is possible that the ancient fortified settlement was originally built on the nearby hill of Monte Mitra. Traces of megalithic walls, of the type built to protect dwellings, are still visible there.
In Roman times the city of Sulmona was rebuilt on the site where it is today and it then became a centre of one of the Peligni governments, together with the cities of Corfinium and Superaequum. In his impressive history of Rome, Titus Livius tells the story of how the Italian fortress of Sulmo closed its gates to Hannibal.
This great military commander had just conquered the Roman army in the battles of Trasimo and Canne and was summoning up the courage to attack Rome. The most famous and important person of Sulmona was born there in 43 B.C. - the poet Publia Ovidio Nasone (Ovid). He wrote “Sulmona is my birthplace (Sulmo Mihi Patria Est), a land rich in ice-cold streams, ninety miles from Rome... a fertile land of grain and even more fertile in grapes.’ There was great development in the Middle Ages, thanks to Frederick II of Swabia. Nicknamed ‘Stupor Mundi” (“Wonder of the World”), Frederick promoted Sulmona to become the capital and seat of Curia, one of the largest provinces in his kingdom. He undertook major civil works including construction of the aqueduct , still seen today as one of the symbols of the city.
There was a strong economic boost to the city with the Statutes of Melfi, which stipulated that the first of seven exhibitions, to be held in different cities in his kingdom, would be held in Sulmona. It is sadly ironic that the “Piazza Maggiore” is named after Guiseppe Garibaldi, the conqueror of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, instead of Frederick II, who having done so much for the city, has a parking area dedicated to him.
After the fall of the Swabians at the hands of the Angevin, Sulmona lost its administrative powers but the seed of development had already germinated. In the following centuries, Sulmona extended the city walls and built six city gates. Another symbol of the city, the Holy House of the Annunciation was built. Paper factories were built on the banks of the Gizia river. The famous Sulmona School for Goldsmiths was born and trade in precious textiles brought new wealth. Still important today is the production of ‘confetti’, now famous on all continents. The convent of the Clarisse nuns was the first place to create this delicacy, very much like the sugared almonds produced today. Their production will now always be linked to Sulmona.
In 1706 an earthquake caused damage to the ancient buildings, many of which collapsed and have never been rebuilt. A quarter of the population perished under the rubble. The Cathedral of San Panfilo, the patron saint of the city, suffered considerable damage and was rebuilt in the baroque architectural style of the time. Today, the cathedral has been partially restored but still retains architectural styles from several overlapping periods, including remains of the ancient Roman pagan temple which once stood on the same site. Vestiges of opulence can be seen everywhere in the alleys of the old town. The compound of the Annunciata is representative of this wealth, with the palace displaying the evolution of Abruzzese art through Gothic, Rennaissance and Baroque styles. This building now houses the Civic Museum, rich with the history of the whole Valley Peligna.
Two events in particular attract many people to Sulmona during the year. The first takes place during Easter, beginning on Friday with the Procession of the Dead Christ. 120 singers walk with a unique gait called ‘struscio’, singing different versions of ‘Miserere’.
The festivities continue on Easter Sunday morning when the meeting of the Madonna and the resurrected Christ is re-enacted. The statues of St. Peter and St. John tell the disbelieving Virgin, whose statue has been locked in the church of St. Filippo, that Jesus is arisen. After the third announcement, the Madonna comes out of the church between two wings of a silent crowd. She is moved toward the center of the Piazza Maggiore, walking slowly and in disbelief.
The risen Christ is standing under the arches of the aqueduct. Suddenly he is seen and the people carrying the statue of the virgin break into a run while the black outer robe of the Virgin falls, freeing a flock of doves. This is the famous enactment of the ‘Madonna running in the square’. These few words cannot convey the passion, the involvement and the excitement of the people in the crowded square. At one time, the occasion was superstitiously regarded as providing omens and indicators for the harvests, all depending on how the Virgin’s coat fell, how high the doves flew and what happened during the run.
The other event is in July, attracting many tourists to the town of Sulmona. This is the ‘Giostra Cavalleresca’ – ‘Jousting Knights’. The jousting tournament dates back to the time of the Swabians and Angevins who held the games twice a year. It was stopped in ‘600 for a lack of participants.
However the competition was revived a few years ago with great success. The tournament is held in the Piazza Maggiore where a course is created in a figure of eight shape around the square. Riders from different villages, districts and countries compete, trying to pierce one of three rings, all of differing diameters, with a lance in the shortest possible time. The cheering audience is like that in a football stadium, chanting and singing and teasing opposing teams. During the daytime, the streets of Sulmona are filled with parades of standard bearers and musicians from all over Europe, wearing costumes from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. In April, Sulmona hosts the International Contest of the Latin language – ‘Certamen Ovidianum Sulmonense’ – where contestants compete in the translation of a passage written by Ovid, the poet of erotic writings such as ‘Amores’ and ‘Ars Amatoria’ and of such epics as Metamorphoses and Fasti.