L'Aquila is situated in the heart of the mountainous region of the Abruzzi at a height of 721 metres above sea level. The city is flanked on the one side by the Velino and Sirente mountain ranges, on the other by the Laga mountains and the Gran Sasso range. The original site was on the hill dividing the territory of Amiterno from that of Forcona.
The foundation of L'Aquila was closely associated with agitation for self-government on the northern borders of the Regnum Siciliae, which became increasingly turbulent after the death of the Emperor Frederick II. Round about the middle of the 13th century about 70 of the inhabitants of the castles, lands and villas of Amiterno and Forcona moved to the new city. The peculiar circumstances under which L'Aquila was founded determined the essential character of the city: each castle was assigned an area of land on which to build houses, a church and, in the church-square, a public fountain. It is to this that we owe the famous “Fountain of 99 spouts”, whose name alludes to the number of the castles which, according to tradition, took part in the founding of L'Aquila. The fountain was built, the inscription tells us, by Magister Tangredus de Pentana de Valva. The newly-established city, which profoundly modified political and military strategy on the border with the Papal State, was granted official recognition by King Conrad IV in 1254.
From its beginnings the city constituted an important market for the surrounding countryside, which provided it with a regular supply of food: from the fertile valleys came the precious saffron; the surrounding mountain pastures provided summer grazing for numerous transhumant flocks of sheep, which in turn supplied abundant raw materials for export and, to a lesser extent, small local industries, which in time brought craftsmen and merchants from outside the area.
Within a few decades L'Aquila became a crossroads in communications between cities within and beyond the Kingdom, thanks to the so-called "via degli Abruzzi", which ran from Florence to Naples by way of Perugia, Rieti, L'Aquila, Sulmona, Isernia, Venafro, Teano and Capua.
Negotiations for the succession of Edmund, son of Henry III of England, to the throne of the Kingdom of Sicily involved L'Aquila in the web of interests linking the Papal Curia to the English court. On 23rd December 1256, Pope Alexander IV elevated the churches of Saints Massimo and Giorgio to the status of cathedrals as a reward to the citizens of L'Aquila for their opposition to King Manfred who, in July 1259, had the city razed to the ground in an attempt to destroy the negotiations. The denuus reformator was Charles I of Anjou, but the city really became known beyond the borders of the Kingdom as a result of the exceptionally important event that took place on 29th August, 1294, when the hermit Pietro del Morrone was consecrated as Pope under the name of Celestinus V. In 1287 Pietro was to initiate the building of St. Maria di Collemaggio, L'Aquila's most imposing Romanesque church: with its alternating stripes of red and white and its three great rose windows, the facade dominates the grassy square in front.
The Celestinian pontificate gave a new impulse to building development, as can be seen from the city statutes. In 1311, moreover, King Robert of Anjou granted privileges which had a decisive influence on the development of trade. These privileges protected all activities related to sheep-farming, exempting them from customs duties on imports and exports. This was the period in which merchants from Tuscany (Scale, Bonaccorsi) and Rieti purchased houses in the city. Hence the conditions for radical political renewal: in 1355 the trade guilds of leather-workers, metal-workers, merchants and learned men were brought into the government of the city, and these together with the Camerario and the Cinque constituted the new Camera Aquilana. Eleven years earlier, in 1344, the King had granted the city its own mint.
The middle of the 14th century was a period of great crisis for L'Aquila, as for the whole of Europe. The city was struck so frequently by plague epidemics (1348, 1363) and earthquakes (1349) that it gave the appearance of having been abandoned. Reconstruction began soon, however. Many are the signs of the importance L'Aquila had reached by the turn of the 14th-15th century: Jewish families came to live in the city; the generals of the Franciscan Order chose the city as the seat of the Order's general chapters (1376, 1408, 1411, 1450, 1452, 1495); friar Bernardino of Siena, of the Franciscan order of the Observance, visited L'Aquila twice, the first time to preach in the presence of King Rene' of Naples, and in 1444, on his second visit, he died in the city.
The Franciscan order of Observance had a decisive influence on L'Aquila. As a result of initiatives by Fra Giovanni da Capestrano and Fra Giacomo della Marca, Lombard masters undertook, in the relatively undeveloped north-east of the city, an imposing series of buildings centring on the hospital of S. Salvatore (1446) and the convent and the basilica of S. Bernardino. The construction work was long and difficult, mainly because of the earthquake of 1461 which caused the collapse of many buildings, and the translation of the body of S. Bernardino did not take place until 14th May 1472. The whole city suffered serious damage on the occasion of the earthquake, and two years went by before repairs on the churches and convents began.
The second half of the 15th century represents the most flourishing period in the economy of L'Aquila. In 1456 King Alfonso I authorised the friars of S. Pietro Celestino and S. Bernardino, lasting from 11th to 27th May; King Ferrante of Aragon gave his placet for the establishment of a Studium equivalent to those already existing in Bologna, Siena and Perugia.
The advantageous geo-political position of L'Aquila attracted merchants of various nations (Germany, Savoy, Catalonia) as well as representatives of the Florentine companies of the Bardi, Ardinghelli, Strozzi, Medici, Gondi, the Pianelli of Venice, the Papone of Pisa, and the Spannocchi of Naples. On his way from Venice to Naples, Adam Rotweil, a disciple of Gutenberg, made a stay in L'Aquila and on 3rd November 1481 the Camera Aquilana gave him permission, and exclusive rights, to pratice the art of printing in the city.
Economic decline set in from the first three decades of the 16th century, when Spain took control of the city. Other contributing factors were the epidemics of 1503 and 1505, which brought about demographic crisis and economic depression. In 1529 the crisis worsened when Philip of Orange punished L'Aquila for rebelling against him by imposing feudal tenure on the surrounding countryside and assigning it to the captains of his army in reward for their services. In one swift blow L'Aquila saw herself deprived of the land which constituted its economic base. As a result, an ever-decreasing number of merchants attended the fairs. The structure of the city too underwent substantial change: in 1529 the city was forced to build a large fortress, which involved demolishing a large number of buildings and churches. Construction of the fortress went on for over a hundred years, though its present aspect owes much to restoration carried out after the Second World War. Square in shape, with four great bastions at the corners and surrounded by a deep moat, it reflects the most advanced techniques in military building of its time. It housed the Museo Nazionale d'Abruzzo, whose collection of works of art is particularly rich in paintings and sculptures of the region from the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
The 1570's saw the beginning of another important building project, which modified the civic centre of the city: the rebuilding and extension of the ancient Palazzo del Capitano for Margaret Hapsburg of Austria, life-governor of the city and, on her retirement as Governor of Flanders, wishing to retreat to the Abruzzi (after her death in 1587, the building became the Magistrate's residence and the seat of the local government). In Margaret's train came the Bolognese military engineer Francesco de Marchi, who on 19th August 1537 completed the first ascent of the Gran Sasso on the side of L’Aquila.
During the last years of the 16th century and throughout the 17th century the civic centre underwent further transformation. In the year 1657 the city was again hit by the plague and 2,294 of its 6,000 inhabitants perished.
Much of the ancient, medieval and Renaissance face of the city was destroyed by the earthquake of 2nd February 1703: houses, churches, palaces and the fortress all suffered serious damage. Nine years later the population numbered a mere 2,468. Recovery was aided by tax exemptions conceded by the government in Naples, where in 1707 the viceroy of Spain was replaced by that of Austria, who was in turn succeeded by Charles of Bourbon in 1734. Slowly, L'Aquila rose from the devastation caused by the earthquake, but both structures and urban spaces underwent immense change. The two social classes competing in the reconstruction of the city, the clergy and the nobles, conferred on the city a dualistic character, church against palace. On the one hand the clergy salvaged remnants of the medieval city and adapted them to the needs of new cultural conditions; on the other the nobles constructed new, palatial buildings, such as the Quinzi, Antonelli and Centi Palaces. Almost all the churches in the city were refurbished, extended and re-built with new Baroque vaults. Restoration work carried out in the 1960s and '70s have in many cases obliterated these developments and restored the Romanesque state. The churches of St. Maria Paganica and S. Domenico have, however, retained their 18th century aspects.
In 1799 L'Aquila was invaded by the French and the city devastated by pillage and killing. In the following century Aquilan patriots took part in the revolutionary events of 1833, 1841, and 1848.
The unification of the Kingdom of Italy in 1860 caused L'Aquila to lose the advantages it had enjoyed as a frontier city without enabling it to take advantage of its centrality in the peninsula: the fact that it was crossed by the new railway lines running the length of the two coasts had obvious economic repercussions.
With entry into the new, unified state came consciousness of the need for modernisation to meet new administrative and economic demands. These developments, which have progressed at even faster pace in our own century, have altered the face of the ancient city once and for all; many of the open spaces within the old city wall, where nothing had ever been built had to yield to the demands of urban development.
On 6th April 2009 L’Aquila was hit by a devastating earthquake causing widespread destruction and taking the lives of 309 people.