Near Montecosaro, the bare-brick Romanesque church of Santa Maria a Pié di Chienti, flanked by a smoke-filled café teeming with men playing cards, has veined alabaster windows that look like abstract stained-glass designs and bathe the interior in pale golden light. En route to Fiastra, we passed the Marchigiano designer Diego della Valle's immense new shoe factory. Shoes constitute the chief industry of Le Marche, aside from tourism.
At the abbey of Fiastra it occurred to me that cloisters might have been the draw, or at least the consolation, of a monastic life. Fiastra is one of the most serene, with a shaded portico and an ample courtyard that has a well at the center. The windows of the monks' cells line the story above the arches. Fiastra is surrounded by a large park and a nature preserve of some 4,000 acres; in their private yard by the abbey the monks could be glimpsed tending to the plants and trees.
We went to Monte San Giusto to see Lorenzo Lotto's Crucifixion, the altarpiece in a tiny church, Santa Maria in Telusiano. At the top are depicted three crucifixes, Christ and the two thieves; then soldiers on horseback, holding lances poised at all angles; and below, Mary, wrapped in a dark blue veil, collapsing to the ground at the dark heart of the painting, her arms flung out, a man holding her up on one side, a woman on the other, as though she, too, were being crucified. The thieves, their white loincloths flapping in the wind, seem about to fly off their crosses.
In Fermo, we stopped briefly to see the late archbishop, Don Gennaro, who had grown up in the north, by Lake Iseo, and was the neighbor of an old friend of mine. I made a faux pas by inquiring whether Loreto came under his jurisdiction. It doesn't; as one of Italy's most important sanctuaries, along with Assisi, it has its own see. Pilgrims flock from all parts of the world to worship the Madonna of Loreto, who appears black because the original statue was made of dark wood. She is wrapped tightly in a brocade cone decorated by horizontal crescents, with the baby Jesus swaddled so that his smaller head protrudes next to hers. She looks a bit as if she had materialized from another planet, and her house is reminiscent of a Hindu temple—dark, the bricks blackened by time and candles, and packed with so many faithful you can barely find a place to stand. Legend has it that the Madonna's humble dwelling in Nazareth flew itself, or was carried by angels, all the way to Loreto from the Holy Land. Actually, according to more recent findings, it was built next to a cave, then moved to Italy by ship at the time of the Crusades. The Holy House, one of the most beloved Catholic shrines, was encased in sculpted marble panels by the architect Donato Bramante, as it seems the original construction was thought too "rural." Those are, in turn, contained in a basilica, so it is a shrine within a shrine within a shrine.
The Madonna of Loreto and Saint Joseph of Copertino, whose sanctuary is in Campo Cavallo near Osimo, about 12 miles to the north, are both said to protect fliers, or aeronauts, as they used to be called. Apparently Saint Joseph could float off the ground; the current monks at the saint's former convent say he "took God so seriously he could literally fly." Flying is an appealing prospect from the cliff of Conero or from the walled ramparts of Recanati.
Recanati is a pilgrimage site for writers. Its glory is the 19th-century poet Giacomo Leopardi, who railed against his native town and the straitlaced atmosphere of Le Marche. His only distractions were the extraordinary library (which can be visited) assembled by his father, Count Monaldo, the sweeping views, and a hill he immortalized in "The Infinite," Italy's most celebrated sonnet. Now one ventures out to see Lorenzo Lotto's Annunciation at the small Colloredo-Mels museum in the historical center of town. It is a thrilling interpretation of the event: a muscular, wild-eyed, blue-winged angel lands bearing a tall white lily, a tabby cat leaps out of the way, arching its spine, and the Virgin Mary—a brunette for a change and apparently no older than 16—throws up her hands and ducks, as though the angel had landed with a crash, taking her by surprise. Lotto, who was born in Venice around 1480 and lived in Le Marche early in his career, moved back there toward the end of his life, becoming a lay brother at the monastery of the Holy House in Loreto. He was poor and, by most accounts, racked by religious doubt. As for Leopardi, he fled from his chilly parents and his father's library, where in seven years he had taught himself everything from the classics to astronomy, and died of typhoid in Naples, possibly after eating a gelato. Gelati are no longer lethal, and an attack of melancholy in Le Marche can be cured by a two-hour drive to Rome, or a 10-minute one to the sea.
Even in the fall and winter, except perhaps over the Christmas holidays, one can go to a wonderful fish restaurant like Uliassi in Senigallia, run by the chef Mauro Uliassi and his sister, Catia, and on a sunny day have lunch on the terrace and look out onto the sandy beach and a limitless expanse of gray-green Adriatic. There we tasted a fritto—assorted fried fish and vegetables—that had the best aspects of tempura and Italian frying combined: tiny tender octopus, sticks of zucchini and eggplant, a zucchini flower splayed out in a fan shape on the wooden tray it all came on. The delicious squid-ink strigoli—a tubular pasta—came with clams, octopus, and cherry tomatoes.
The previous evening, Enzo Cucchi had arranged for us all to have dinner at La Madonnina del Pescatore, in Senigallia's Marzocca area. There is a statue of the Madonna that fishermen pray to before setting out to sea—hence the name of the restaurant. That's where the quaintness stops, since the place, which opened in 1984, is a minimalist concrete box with a glass façade. The waitresses dress in beige. As soon as we sat down, they brought us Parmesan sorbet in crisp cylindrical wafers. We had eight light-handed courses in all, including raw shrimp marinated in orange sections, fried whitebait (bianchetti) as small as paper clips, and a Senigalliese brodetto, or fish soup. It was a kind of culinary magic show.