History of L'Aquila
History of L'Aquila

L’Aquila History Travel Guide

L’Aquila rises in the heart of a wide valley in Abruzzo’s Apennines and on the left bank of the Aterno River. Part of Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga National Park, the city is the regional capital of Abruzzo and the chief town in the homonymous province.

The history of L’Aquila begins in the thirteenth century, and the old town still preserves the original structure. The characteristic city walls, which stretch and adapt themselves to the morphology of the territory, were built between 1272 and 1316, and they remained almost intact until World War II. Severely damaged by the earthquake of 1703, the city was almost completely rebuilt according to the original plan, and the municipality saw intense urban development during the eighteenth century. Experiencing further expansion after the Unification of Italy, L’Aquila was damaged again during World War II.

Starting with the post-war period, the city rose from its ashes; an intense construction activity inside and outside the city walls led to new residential districts and industrial areas. The city became an important university seat and a bishopric center.

On the night of April 6, 2009, the city was once again hit by a strong earthquake that caused the death of nearly 300 people and the collapse of many residential and industrial buildings. Nevertheless, in the same year, the city hosted the G8 summit, and today it remains one of the most vibrant cities in Central Italy.


According to the chronicles, L’Aquila’s history begins in 1254, when the city was officially founded by King Corrado IV of Swabia, son of Emperor Frederick II. But the city’s territory is full of historical and archaeological evidence of earlier civilizations.

One of the most interesting archaeological findings and a symbol of the region is a mammoth fossil discovered in 1954 in Scoppito, a small village located about nine miles from L’Aquila. Dating back 1.3 million years ago, the artifact does not bring evidence of human civilizations, yet it shows that the region was inhabited nonetheless.

Mammoths apart, L’Aquila has been a territory of passage between the north and south since the earliest times, making the city pivotal for various peoples and different cultures. Scattered throughout the territory, evidence of a transhumance pastoralism and the development of cultures strongly related to breeding have been discovered.

The first population to establish permanently in the region was probably the Sabines, an indigenous people from Central Italy. The Sabines colonized the area, erecting the first settlements on the slopes of Gran Sasso, and then conquering the whole region in their expansion towards new territories.

Testimonies from the Bronze Age are also present in the territory, and the Roman times are also well-documented. The necropolis of Fossa and the Sabine-Roman city of Amiternum are two places that show evidence of the presence of ancient civilizations in L’Aquila before its official founding.


The founding of the city is linked to the fight for independence of the territories at the Northern border of the Kingdom of Sicily, with the situation accentuated after the death of Emperor Frederick II. Part of the inhabitants of the territory, seeking to proclaim their freedom, moved from the surrounding castles and villages to a new territory, establishing L’Aquila towards the mid-thirteenth century.

The particular circumstances surrounding the founding of the city are reflected in the urban planning of the city – each castle was assigned an area to build habitations, the church, and a public square. This is how the first districts were born and, at the same time, some of the jewels of the sacred Romanesque architecture in the city emerged.

In fact, the characteristic churches established themselves in the city, including Santa Maria Paganica, San Pietro di Coppito, Santa Giusta, and San Silvestro. The famous Fountain of Rivera was also built, which is a symbol of the traditional number of castles in the area. But L’Aquila did not become a municipality until 1254 when it was officially recognized by King Corrado IV. This event profoundly changed the political and military strategies of the city, located on the border with the Papal States.

Since its earliest times, the city constituted an important pole of trade as a supplier of agricultural products. The territory became especially famous for its precious saffron production, while transhumant pastoralism and breeding supplied abundant raw material destined to be exported. All this trade laid the basis of a strong economy, which attracted artisans and merchants to the region.

Within a short time, L’Aquila became a crossroads between the various trade routes, establishing commercial relationships with other cities of the Kingdom. The Via Degli Abruzzi was then built, which is an important commercial route linking Florence to Naples passing through Perugia, L’Aquila, Sulmona, Isernia, and Capua.

Establishing itself as an important commercial pole, L’Aquila drew the attention of Edmund, son of King Henry III. During his negotiations for the succession of the throne in the Kingdom of Sicily, the city became subject to the interests of the papal curia and the King of England.

As a result, King Manfred razed the city to the ground, yet under Charles I of Anjou the city regained its fame, which spread well beyond the borders of the kingdom. In 1924, the city was chosen as a seat for the consecration as pontiff of hermit Pietro del Morrone. As Pope Celestine V, the hermit contributed to improving the economic and cultural position of the city and built one of the most imposing Romanesque churches in the city, the Church of Santa Maria di Collemaggio. Its imposing façade is decorated with alternating red and white motifs and three large rosettes, a symbol of the Romanesque style.

In 1311, King Robert of Anjou granted trade privileges to L’Aquila, a decisive event for the subsequent development of the city. In particular, all activities related to sheep breeding became protected and exempted from the payment of duties on imports and exports.

This decision attracted the Tuscan merchants, and their arrival in the territory marked a profound political renewal. In 1355, the city government established Camera Aquilani, with the artisans, merchants and writers well-represented within the body. However, the general European crisis of the mid-fourteenth century struck the city. In 1363, L’Aquila was hit by plague epidemics, and an earthquake in 1349 destroyed much of the city. Razed to the ground once again, L’Aquila began to rebuild itself.

Toward the beginning of the fifteenth century, the city became home to many Jewish families, while the generals of the Franciscan Order decided to establish their seat here.

These additions were decisive for the development of the city. Urban interventions linked to the initiative of the Franciscan monks were realized by Lombard architects in an underdeveloped area in the north-east of the city. Under their initiative the imposing convent and Basilica of San Bernardino emerged. The edification of the convent and Basilica was a long and troubled process, mainly due to the seismic crisis of 1461 which caused the collapse of the structure. During the earthquake, the whole city suffered serious damage.

Nevertheless, the second half of the fifteenth century corresponded to the most flourishing period of the municipal economy, and King Ferrante of Aragon granted L’Aquila the honor to establish its first university seat, in conformity with those existing in Bologna, Siena, and Perugia.

The privileged location of L’Aquila also encouraged foreign merchants to establish themselves in the city, and draw the interest of important Florentine families, such as the Medici. Due to these events, L’Aquila entered a period of true cultural and artistic flourishing.

With the beginning of the sixteenth century and under the Spanish domination, L’Aquila entered a period of depression. The decay of the city was accentuated even more by the epidemics of 1503 and 1505 that caused a demographic crisis while the depression took its toll on the city’s economy. The crisis was accentuated even more when the Spanish rulers assigned the lands to captains in an attempt to punish the locals who rose up against their domination. As a result, L’Aquila lost its economic hegemony and the merchants lost interest in inhabiting the territory.

To punish the city even more and to reaffirm their rule in the region, the Spanish forced the municipality to provide sufficient land for the construction of a fortress. The process involved the demolition of many buildings and churches and the erection of the Castle of L’Aquila, a mighty fortress with four bastions surrounded by a deep moat. The building reflects the most advanced military techniques of the time and it currently houses the National Museum of Abruzzo.

In the second part of the sixteenth century, L’Aquila witnessed subsequent interventions that changed the structure of the old town. Some of the most important works were the reconstruction and expansion of the ancient palace by Margaret of Hapsburg, the new governor of the city. Many other urban changes happened throughout the first part of the seventeenth century.

In 1657 the city was hit by the plague, which took its toll on the population. Almost half of the inhabitants died, which led to further crisis. Things got even worse at the beginning of the eighteenth century when L’Aquila was hit by an earthquake in February 1703.

Most of the medieval and renaissance buildings were destroyed by the quake, including residential edifices, churches, and palaces, while the fortress was severely damaged. The city lost even more of its inhabitants and the end of the first decade of the eighteenth century found L’Aquila in profound misery.

But the terrible events did not bury the city. On the contrary, the nobles and the clergy united their forces and started a slow but steady process of reconstruction. The buildings and urban spaces were profoundly changed, and the interventions of the era explain the characteristic lay-cleric dualism of the public buildings and urban organizations.

The restoration works involved the reuse of medieval structures, rebuilding them in accordance with the culture of the time, while new palaces and edifices were built from scratch. These works included almost all religious buildings, and many churches were enlarged and rebuilt, gaining Baroque façades. However, in the twentieth century, the municipality carried out numerous restoration efforts in an attempt to bring the façades back to their original splendor, restoring their primitive Romanesque architecture.

In 1799, L’Aquila suffered the invasion of the French and was ravaged by the foreign troops. In the following century, patriots from
L’Aquila participated in the revolutionary movements that involved all of Italy.

The Unification of Italy caused L’Aquila to lose its character as a border settlement, and the new central positioning within the national territory did not bring many benefits. The city was excluded from the projection of a railway line linking the two seas, with important economic consequences.

Moreover, as part of a new unitary state, L’Aquila became subject to transformations aimed at adapting the city to the new infrastructural, economic, and administrative needs. The interventions, which underwent a strong acceleration in the twentieth century, irreversibly altered the ancient structure of the city with the emergence of new construction within the city walls in areas that have not been urbanized since its founding.

On April 6, 2009 a new earthquake shook the city, causing enormous damage and claiming 309 victims. Today, L’Aquila primarily focuses its economy on tourism and services.


Archaeology in L’Aquila is well represented. Numerous artifacts from the region, including the mammoth fossil discovered in the outskirts of the city, are exhibited in the National Museum of Abruzzo housed in the Castle of L’Aquila.

Many open-air sites bear evidence of human presence in the territory since the earliest times. An important site is the archaeological area of Amiternum, a Sabine settlement conquered and colonized by the Romans. Necropolises are scattered throughout the region, with one of the most important being the necropolis of Fosso, located within easy reach of the city.

Temples, sanctuaries, and Roman villas are also present in many areas of the Abruzzo region. Noteworthy is the Temple of Hercules and the area of Vasto. Moreover, L’Aquila houses many other museums, including the Archaeological Museum of Santa Maria dei Raccomandati.