Take your seats, the performance is about to resume

It looked like curtains for the beautiful theatres of Italy's Marche region, says Philip Sweeney, but a cultural revival is in motion

For the masses of Ancient Rome, bread and circuses were to die for. Two millennia later, their upwardly mobile descendants swore by ice-cream and theatres. Alexandre Dumas wrote of the impoverished southern Italian nobility who scrimped by, living in crumbling houses, in order to afford their private box at the theatre and ice-cream at the most fashionable café. Sitting on the terrace of the Caffé Meletti in Ascoli Piceno, you can understand why.

For the masses of Ancient Rome, bread and circuses were to die for. Two millennia later, their upwardly mobile descendants swore by ice-cream and theatres. Alexandre Dumas wrote of the impoverished southern Italian nobility who scrimped by, living in crumbling houses, in order to afford their private box at the theatre and ice-cream at the most fashionable café. Sitting on the terrace of the Caffé Meletti in Ascoli Piceno, you can understand why.

The Meletti is a jewel of art nouveau marquetry, tall windows looking out over the cream marble surface of the Piazza del Popolo. In the early evening, the piazza fills with strolling crowds. Great black bells peal out of the campanile of the church of San Francesco, announcing mass, another prime social activity.

A couple of streets away, the neo-classical façade of the Teatro Ventidio Basso hides a lavish interior; eau-de-Nil, scarlet, cream and gold, with faux-marble pillars, crystal chandeliers and extravagantly ornate painted ceiling and safety curtain. You can imagine the upper classes leaning out of their boxes to wave to each other during the latest hit by Donizetti. Tonight in Ascoli it's The Full Monty and it's sold out. Regional theatre is flourishing, it seems, and Anglo-American adaptations are big – we've got tickets for Bulli & Pupe (Guys & Dolls) in over in Fermo.

By comparison with the palazzi, churches and fountains, Italy's theatres are neglected, touristically. But, if you want to study Italian theatres – or piazza life – the Marche is the place. Known as the region of a thousand squares, it is also the home of the greatest number of theatres – 73. The rest of the country south of Rome contains only 52.

The theatre as town-entertainment centre started with the Romans; churches took over for a time, before the cardinals decided that profane entertainment would be better off at a distance from God's premises. In the 18th century, municipalities began to build the first permanent theatres, usually near, sometimes in, the town hall. Often they were financed by "co-ownership societies", consortia of nobles, and later the middle classes.

At the same time, owing to its remoteness from the various seats of central authority, the Marche developed as a region of many competing, highly autonomous towns, and "campanilism". The idea that if your neighbours had a bell-tower you had to extended into theatres: during the 18th and 19th centuries, 113 were built. Many closed or were converted to cinemas after the Second World War but lately there has been a restoration movement, of which our hostess in Ascoli is an energetic supporter.

Principessa Giulia Panichi Pignatelli runs a stratospherically upmarket b&b operation on her ancestral estate, the Borgo Storico Seghetti Panichi, near Ascoli. Thanks to the Panichi intro, we were shown every detail of the theatre's 1994 restoration – from the four great curving rows of boxes and the statuary in the atrium, to the canvasses of Ascoli noblesse in the reception rooms and red plush seats.

We moved on to a theatre under renovation. The old walled town of Recanati was the birthplace of the tenor Beniamino Gigli, and his massive Aida-themed pyramid mausoleum rises out of the cypresses in the cemetery. The foyer of the 1840-built Teatro Guiseppe Persiani, just off the monumental town hall square, bears a plaque commemorating the last occasion Gigli's "angelic voice" graced the stage in 1939. At present, it is a building site. We checked into another aristocratic b&b, the tall palazzo of the Marquesa Anna Maria Biondo, née Dalla Casapiccola, with its tiny wedding chapel and magnificent cannucciato ceiling.

Within hours, I was clambering through the roof cavity of the Persiani theatre, inspecting its similar ceiling, a great concave canvas supported by curved canes. The marquesa's family lost their part-ownership of the theatre when it was taken over by the town council, but a phone call still had the site manager showing me over the huge wooden stage machinery, the old Dalla Casapiccola family box and their servants' box up in the gallery, and, in its traditional place in the middle of the second row of balconies, the mayor's box.

We continued on a wide sweep across the Sybilline foothills, pausing at the spa of Acquasanta Terme, which did not acquire its theatre, a rare Fascist-modified art nouveau 150-seater, until 1928, on the proceeds of a national lottery win. On through winding, oak-shaded roads dotted with puttering moto-carros and farm women selling water-melons, down to Penna San Giovanni, a hilltop comune of 1,400 inhabitants clustering round a walled medieval centre, where the mayor was waiting in the piazza to show us the smallest theatre in the Marche.

In a barn-like stone building nearby, through a little velvet-curtained vestibule, was the Teatro Flora, a dolls' house version of La Scala, its 99-seat wooden horseshoe auditorium resplendent in pale grey-blue and exquisitely adorned with gold scrolls and plaques, but silent. Penna San Giovanni stages the occasional amateur production, and is looking at co-operative deals and invitations to theatre schools. It is also planning to open the theatre regularly to visitors, but for now you have to ask at the town hall.

Finally, some real opera action. The Marche's major opera festivals – Macerata, Pesaro and Ascoli – were over, but Jesi's was in progress. Jesi is an important industrial town, and the great arched, brick façade of the Teatro Pergolesi, with its huge marble clock, reflects this. Princess Giulia tracked down tickets for a rare production of Mirra, by the local composer Domenico Alaleona, a story of doomed love in ancient Cyprus. We joined the showily dressed middle-aged couples sipping espressos in the foyer and then shuffled into the exquisite cream, gold and burgundy interior. The beautifully restored building went to work. The reflections dimmed on the crystal chandeliers and gilded eagles as the lights went down. The huge Renaissance tableau of a curtain rose and the orchestra struck up. Gigli was in his heaven, the mayor was in his box, the ice-cream was waiting, and everything seemed right with the world.

The Facts

Getting there

Philip Sweeney visited the Marche courtesy of Ryanair and Le Marche Segrete.

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies to Ancona from Stansted from around £83 return in April.

Le Marche Segrete is represented in the UK by The Owners Syndicate (020-7801 9801; www.ownerssyndicate.com), which offers rooms in the Borgo Storico Seghetti Panichi near Ascoli for £135 per night and in the Palazzo Dalla Casapiccola Recanati from £65 per room per night. The Owners Syndicate also arrange car hire, which costs from £169 for seven days.

Further information

Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it).

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