On the fifth centenary of his birth, the city of Fermo celebrates Sixtus V, “the tough Pope” as he was known in Rome, with an itinerary that visits the city’s most symbolic sites.
After becoming Bishop of Fermo in 1571, in September 1585, just five months after he was elected Pope Sixtus V, the pontiff bestowed the city of Fermo a long-awaited document: a Sistine Bull that reconfirmed the Studio Generale Fermano (centre of learning), thanks to which the city’s university enjoyed a revival. In fact, a century of in-fighting and war had persuaded many local citizens to attend and graduate from other universities. Although it had in fact, been founded many years earlier, thanks to this official document issued by Pope Sixtus V, the University of Fermo enjoyed its most eminent and prestigious season. The city’s State Archive still boasts the original copy of the Sistine Bull, which bears the intact seals of Sixtus V.
Born in Grottammare on 13 December 1521 as Felice Piergentile, at thirty years of age he adopted the name Felice Peretti, from his father’s nickname. When he became a cardinal, he was known as Cardinal Montalto, a name he adopted as a sign of affection towards his family’s village of origin. As Sixtus V he was the 227th Pope of the Catholic Church from 1585 until his death in 1590.
The fourth of seven siblings, Felice had a very poor childhood. His family, originally from the village of Montalto delle Marche, had sought refuge in Grottammare after his father was exiled by the ecclesiastical authorities, losing everything he owned.
At the age of just 9, thanks to an uncle who was a monk and lived there, he entered the Franciscan monastery of San Francesco delle Fratte in Montalto and was initiated as a novice of the Franciscan Order at the age of 12.
As a child he appears to have survived a number of dangerous situations; he was seriously burnt in his cot, one of his brothers died of the plague and he was saved from nearly drowning in a pond by an aunt.
He died of malaria on 27 August 1590 and despite his very brief papacy, he brought about changes that were extremely significant from a historical, social and cultural point of view.
Today, the ancient Palazzo degli Studi, historical seat of the university, overlooks Piazza del Popolo and is adjacent to Palazzo dei Priori: here, it is possible to visit the city’s ancient library, whose original nucleus is the magnificent Sala del Mappamondo (World Map Room).
The fate of the Municipal Library over the years has been linked to the city’s flourishing intellectual life. It was founded in 1688, thanks to the intervention of Cardinal Decio Azzolino; in 1671 he had asked the local General Council for a venue where books from the collection of the nobleman Paolo Ruffo could be housed and made available to the general public. The library and the quality of its collections continued to grow, thanks also to subsequent donations and tax incentives.
The most prestigious collection was donated by Romolo Spezioli, who the library was subsequently named after. Born in Fermo, he was the personal physician of Christina, Queen of Sweden at the court of Rome, where he had moved to in 1655. Romolo Spezioli donated his large collection providing it was managed and curated by the figure of a “librarian” and a local man, Nicola Cordella, was immediately appointed to that role by the General Council.
The Prints and Drawings Room section, which is almost entirely dedicated to a collection owned by local architect Giovanni Battista Carducci (1806-1878), displays some of the splendidly-decorated and painted degree certificates issued by Fermo University; each degree certificate celebrates the figure of the benefactor Pope Sixtus V who did so much to support the university he too graduated from.
Piazza del Popolo is Fermo’s main square; 135 metres long and 34 metres wide it is often called the city’s “parlour”. Enclosed on its long sides by two rows of loggias with terracotta porticos and on the short sides by some of the most important historical buildings in the city’s history, the square, formerly known as Piazza di San Martino after the eponymous church built there, has been refurbished many times over the centuries. At the end of the 14th century, it presented the current extension and was closed in the northern sector by the ancient Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo (now Palazzo dei Priori) and on the opposite side by Palazzo del Podestà (now the Town Hall), whilst there was a row of Gothic townhouses (now the arcade overlooking the Municipal Library) along the side at the foot of the Girfalco hillock. Over the years, a row of wooden workshops opened in the heart of this area, with the square thus acquiring a dual political and commercial role. In 1438, under the Sforza seignory, the wooden buildings were finally demolished. The square adopted its current aspect in the last refurbishment work completed in 1659.
The current seat of the Municipal Library is in ancient Palazzo degli Studi, a building that hosted the University of Fermo for centuries. The façade portrays the Popes who contributed to its fortune: Pope Boniface VIII, Pope Eugene IV, Pope Sixtus V and Pope Callixtus III.
The façade of Palazzo dei Priori, which was completed in 1585, is instead adorned by a huge bronze statue of Pope Sixtus V, created in 1590 by Sansovino. The people of Fermo have always greatly admired Pope Sixtus V given that, as the city’s bishop, he founded the seminary in 1573, he commissioned the building of a wool factory (Stabilimento dell’Arte della Lana) at Fonte Fallera in 1574 and he continued to hold the city in special consideration even after being elected Pope.
The State Archive of Fermo became a branch of the State Archive of Ascoli Piceno, in 1965. Although an annex was not envisaged by law at the time, the solution was approved by the Municipality of Fermo that also committed to sustaining all costs. In November 1958, the Italian Ministry of the Interior granted its authorisation and the branch opened in May 1959, with an agreement drawn up between the State Archive of Ascoli Piceno and the Municipality of Fermo. Establishment of branches was subsequently validated by archive law no. 1409 of 1963 (Art. 3), thus making the Fermo branch the first to be established in Italy. The Province of Fermo was set-up in 2004 and the city’s State Archive was promoted to the status of an independent institute in 2007.
The documentary material archived here is very rich and of great historical significance, mirroring the extremely important role Fermo played in the region’s historical events.
Fermo’s Studio Generale (university) was founded by Pope Boniface IX on 16 January 1398. In the early 16th century, the city suffered from the tensions determined by continuing internal battles and serious political crisis, further aggravated by famine and pestilence. For this reason, the university gradually lost the insightfulness and figures of its early years. Housed in the archive, the Sistine Bull of 1585, which referred to confirmation of the Studio Generale, intended to restore the efficiency of the university in Fermo. In September 1585, just five months after his election, Sixtus V finally granted the long-awaited document. From that moment on, a fact noted in both municipal and episcopal archive documents, the university’s activity began to flourish again, fostering a more intense scientific and educational life.
The Metropolitan Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Cielo is the mother church of the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Fermo.
The early-Christian Basilica, remains of which are still visible in the cathedral hypogeum, was extended at the time of Bishop Lupo (826-844), but was subsequently destroyed in 1176 by Cristiano di Magonza, by order of Frederick Barbarossa.
Fifty years later, the cathedral was reconstructed by Giorgio da Como, as a plaque on the façade indicates; the sculptor has signed and dated his “work” 1227. All that remains today of the ancient Gothic building are the elevation and the bell tower. Around 1781, Archbishop Andrea Minucci had the rest of the church demolished before reconstructing it, in about eight years, in neo-classical style, based on a design by Cosimo Morelli, an Imola-born architect who also designed the new Teatro dell’Aquila theatre.
Building the Metropolitan Cathedral was the culmination of the interest Pope Sixtus V showed towards his diocese, which he had also been bishop of. The initiative represents the final act and coronation of his work to reorganise and consolidate the ecclesiastical buildings in Fermo. On 24 May 1589, Sixtus V sent a Papal Bull to Fermo promoting the diocese to an archdiocese and at the same time, commissioning the building of the Metropolitan Cathedral to make the Church of Fermo the centre of a new ecclesiastical province. On that occasion, the dioceses of Montalto (of 1586), Ripatransone (of 1570), Macerata, Tolentino and San Severino were also allocated to Fermo as suffragan dioceses.
The Diocesan Museum, which was inaugurated in 2004, is housed in the premises adjacent to the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica, once occupied by the now-extinct Fraternity of Suffrage.
The works displayed there are a selection of those housed in the cathedral itself, with the addition of others from the episcope, the other churches of Fermo and the Archdiocese. The items it houses date from the early-Christian period right through to the 20th century, covering the various construction phases of the church and narrating the presence and importance for the territory of celebrated bishops, three of whom were elected to the Papacy, relations with the Papacy, the liturgy and finally, devotion.
The Sala del Tesoro (Treasure Hall), thus named because it houses the most precious items of the Cathedral’s collection, is the first hall of the Diocesan Museum; it is here we find the beautiful De Firmonibus Missal, an illuminated codex created by Giovanni di Ugolino from Milan in 1436 and commissioned by Giovanni de Firmonibus from whom it takes its name. The hall also houses the pastoral staff or crozier belonging Sixtus V that was donated to the diocese of Fermo. It is a tortoiseshell pastoral staff with mother of pearl inlay and with four rock crystals set in the node.
During the time of his apostolic administration from 1571 to 1577, Cardinal Felice Peretti gifted the city two items; his tortoiseshell pastoral staff and a processional cross.
Dating from 1572, the pastoral staff is cylindrical, covered in tortoiseshell and with a fine spiral-shaped mother of pearl inlay. Four rock crystals, outlined in silver lamina, are set in the tortoiseshell node that links the staff and crook.
It has been suggested that staff, which is unique in terms of the very fine quality of its workmanship, was made by an artistic Sicilian workshop that, in the mid-16th century, were still influenced by Hispanic-Moorish and Islamic styles that had a taste for ornate geometry and favoured the use of materials like tortoiseshell and mother of pearl (ps. cit. “Atlante dei beni culturali”. Oreficerie, 2006)
The museum develops into an art gallery that occupies two floors; a lower floor housing 15th-16th century panels and an upper floor with canvas paintings dating from the 17th-18th centuries.
It boasts one of the official portraits of Pope Sixtus V, recognisable thanks to his hooked nose and thick beard, painted by an anonymous artist and displayed on the first floor of the museum.