The origins of the town can be traced back to ancient “Koukoulon”, which was cited in documents from the Roman era, but archaeological evidence found just south of the town, in Casale and Triana, indicates that people inhabited the area as early as the protohistoric period. Although the orography of the site shows no indication of ancient fortifications, it suggests the presence of a very ancient settlement, a conclusion supported by the discovery of Iron Age artefacts in the area. Scholars have long debated the identity and location of the ancient city of Cuculum, but there is now little doubt that it was a settlement located on the site occupied by present-day Cocullo.
Ancient Cocullo was situated in the high valley of the Sagittario River, in territory controlled by the Peligni, the Italic peoples who inhabited the nearby Peligna Valley. The first historical evidence of this community dates from pre-Roman times; it consists of numerous bronze votive statuettes of Hercules and a vast burial site containing trench tombs (dating from the 4th to the 1st century BC), and indicates the presence of a well-organized pagus (village). We also know from the Greek historian Strabo, who lived in the 1st century BC, that “the city of Koukoulon” was located near the Via Valeria, a consular road built during the republican period that linked Rome to the Adriatic coast. A narrow fissure in the vicinity of the present-day village of Casale may have served as an alternative route south for those wishing to avoid passing through steep-sided gorges known as the Gole del Sagittario. During the reign of Augustus, the city was part of the territorial division known as Regio IV. In the last century, traces of buildings from the imperial period were uncovered in areas where evidence of earlier settlements had also been found, suggesting that life had continued without interruption from the time of the original village. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that some ancient materials were “recycled” in buildings in nearby Casale. The ancient settlement was probably abandoned between late antiquity and the high middle ages, and a new one built on higher ground, at its current location, for strategic reasons. Political upheavals, barbarian invasions, and general economic decline made it necessary to move to a more easily defended location that could provide refuge to the population of the entire area. This medieval settlement was fortified in the 12th century, and significant remnants of the oldest part of the town can still be seen near the tower.
Cocullo was initially included in the diocese of Valva, established around the 5th century in the nearby city of Sulmona, but in the medieval period it gravitated, for administrative purposes, into the orbit of the Marsica region. The town’s administrative status continued to change over time. It became part of the feudal territory (contea) of the Marsi, created during the period of Longobard rule; then it was transferred to the contea of Celano, which the Aragonese rulers assigned to Antonio Piccolomini in 1463. In 1591, the entire territory was sold to Donna Camilla Peretti, who held it only a short time and profited little from its ownership. In the two centuries that followed, the territory was ruled by a series of families, including the Peretti, Savelli, Cesarini, Cesarini-Sforza, Barberini, Colonna, Giustiniani and Bodavilla. In 1806, when Joseph Bonaparte abolished the feudal form of land ownership, the property was divided among the various heirs.
Cocullo is located about 900 m above sea level in the valley of the Rio Pezzana, a stream that flows into the Sagittario River. It is part of an area that over the centuries was considered sometimes part of the Marsica region, sometimes part of the Peligna Valley. From its elevated position, Cocullo has, since medieval times, spread in all directions along the sides of the hill. It is clearly visible from the motorway viaduct, which crosses the valley just below the town. The central and oldest part of the town is easy to spot, especially from a high vantage point. It is coeval with and grew alongside the fortifications, of which the most imposing feature is the square medieval tower. The original fortified nucleus, which is clustered around the tower and the baronial palace, can be identified by the streets that line its perimeter, by the gates that give access to its interior, and by its many covered passageways. Some of the buildings along the outside of the fortified centre have retained their defensive appearance and contain openings that look out onto the valley.
Those with a knowledge of art and architecture will find much to interest them in Cocullo, but even the casual tourist will have an enjoyable time strolling along the streets and alleyways and under the ancient archways, stopping now and then to admire the impressive tower or an elegant fountain. A walk through town could roughly follow the route taken for the procession on May 1, the Feast of San Domenico, with the occasional detour to look at a building or monument worthy of interest.
The heart of the religious festival is the Church of San Domenico, which was built on the site of an older, smaller church dedicated to Saint Egidio. All that remains of the older building is a richly decorated 18th century portal that now serves as a side entrance; it is fitted with a beautifully carved wooden door.
The façade, the cupola and the bell tower were built in the first decades of the 20th century. The single-nave interior was restored and decorated with frescoes in the decades that followed; the richly carved wooden pulpit is quite a bit older.
The side chapel dedicated to San Domenico, which houses the statue of the saint, plays a key role in the religious festival. At the back of the chapel is a small cavity in the rock; there, the faithful can gather up earth that has been blessed, then take it home with them for use in worship. On the wall to the left of the chapel hangs a small bell that they can pull with their teeth to ward off toothaches. The church used to possess three large silver crosses, crafted in Sulmona in the 15th century, as well as numerous reliquaries and other sacred objects; regrettably, all were stolen some years ago.
Next to the church is the Marano house, an elegant upper-class residence that still has its original doors and windows, all decorated with simple floral designs.
Other interesting examples of private architecture can be seen along the Rua Santa, a narrow street that runs downhill along the right side of the church, where one can admire doorways decorated with carvings of plant and floral motifs. At the end of the Rua Santa is Porta Renovata, a small covered passageway that was recently restored and looks out onto the valley.
If instead of going downhill we go uphill from the Church of San Domenico, we can turn right and go up Via Porta Ruggeri, a street that rises until it is level with the cupola of the church. At the top of the street, to the left of the church, is a small building with an arched doorway and two side parapets, features typical of medieval and Renaissance-era shops. Above the doorway are barely discernible traces of a bas-relief in the baroque style, depicting two cupids holding up a coat of arms and surrounded by a swirling floral design.
The back of this small building, which retains part of the ancient wall as well as traces of the original doorways and windows, can be seen from Rua del Sacco. This street, like all other streets at the south end of town, winds down the slope in the direction of the valley. It has retained its original character and is lined with many old buildings, including the Squarcia house, a small, stylish upper-class residence built in the 18th century and recently restored.
Porta Ruggeri takes its name from a family of counts in Celano who held Cocullo as part of their feudal territory. The high outside arch of this passageway still has its imposts and one of its piers. Part of the interior walls, which have a vaulted ceiling, are built directly onto the rock of the hillside.
Immediately before the passageway, on the left, is a narrow alley that climbs steeply up toward the Rione San Nicola. The alley is lined with dwellings that were built directly into the medieval walls and were part of the fortified centre. Many are in their original state and display the original decorations. Embedded in the wall to the left of Porta Ruggeri is a beautiful 16th century portal with carved imposts.
After going through Porta Ruggeri, we find ourselves in the heart of the fortified nucleus. On the right, several narrow side streets lead down toward the valley; some are framed by long archways, like Via Arco Sant’Orsola.
On either side of the street rise imposing buildings that may have been part of the original baronial palace. An impressive feature is the 15th century mullioned window located on the top floor of one such building.
Via Porta Ruggeri continues uphill, winding through one of the oldest parts of town. Here the buildings display interesting architectural features – remnants of arches, internal passageways and alleyways, and beautifully decorated portals – that serve as reminders of a past during which the town enjoyed a richly textured urban life.
At the top of the street, just before the Porta di Manno gate, we see on the left Rione San Nicola, the district that constituted the heart of the ancient town. It is named after the former church of San Nicola, for which there are records dating back to the 14th century. The church was destroyed in the 1915 earthquake and was never restored. What little remains of the building is at the foot of the tower. The remnants include the original façade, with its horizontal roof line and side pilasters; a rectangular doorway surmounted by a lunette displaying the remnants of a fresco of the Virgin and Child, and fragments of an inscription; and a small rose window. Some features, such as the sculpted portal and window openings on the left, were added later. Above the rose window is a small stone with the carving of a coat of arms; in Cocullo, this is believed to have been the coat of arms of the duca Sarchia, a nobleman of legend who is said to have exercised the jus primae noctis on the newlywed girls of the town. Legend has it that the town’s inhabitants laid an ambush for the infamous duke and murdered him.
The tower, which dates to the 12th century, is no doubt the best preserved and most important architectural element of the entire fortified centre. Erected at the highest point in town (for defensive and observation purposes), it is square in cross-section and built of large, squared blocks of stone. At the top of the structure there is still some corbelling, mostly on the sides facing away from the church, suggesting the presence of a projecting upper level. The large side openings were created to accommodate the church bells when the tower, no longer required for defensive purposes, began serving as the bell tower for the adjoining church of San Nicola.
Many of the buildings in the area retain their original masonry and structure, sometimes recycled or repurposed during successive renovations, but always easily traceable to the fortified nucleus. It is quite likely that some of the buildings in the immediate vicinity of the tower were part of the baronial palace. If we look carefully at the walls of the houses in the nearby alleyways, we discover some very old doorways and windows, some with unusual ornamentation. Porta di Manno is the only gate to feature a pointed arch, retains not only its original imposts and piers, but also a large internal hinge made of stone.
Once through Porta di Manno, we arrive at Piazza Aracella, a square from which we can admire the best-preserved side of the tower, on which the clock was later installed.
Leading down from the square is Via Orto Magliocco, a street somewhat larger than the others on which there are notable examples of private architecture.
On the north side of the square is a renovated building that has retained its original structure, including arches, small interior steps, and a beautiful window with a carved frame. A peculiar feature is ramp (leading to a door no longer visible) made of large, rough stone slabs made smooth over time.
As we walk along Via Aracella and Via San Domenico in the direction of Piazza Madonna delle Grazie, we can observe buildings with elegantly decorated portals and windows or with curious ornamental features, such as the epigraph above the doorway of No. 4 on Via Aracella, which is decorated with a coat of arms whose central heart-shaped motif is reproduced in the plaque immediately above it.
If we continue our walk, we arrive at the town’s main square, which takes its name from the Church of the Madonna delle Grazie (Our Lady of Grace), located just opposite. The original building dates from the 13th century, but considerable modifications were subsequently made, especially to its interior. The church may previously have been dedicated to Saint Panfilo, but this is not clear. The flat-roofed façade is divided into three horizontal sections by projecting cornices. The rectangular portal is surmounted by a lunette with a pointed arch (on which faint traces of a fresco are still visible) and, in the middle section, by a small rose window. The portal rests on a small protruding stone socle. The architrave is decorated with an agnus dei sculpture in relief; one of the side corbels and the left side of the arch are ornamented with anthropomorphic carvings. The pilasters on either side of the portal are topped by statues set inside rectangular niches; these are 16th century additions. On the right side of the church, toward the back, is an attractive rectangular portal bearing the date 1552, with a small animal sculpture above the architrave.
The single-nave interior features large segmental arches that break up the vertical space. The church décor is from the 18th century, but there are significant remnants of 16th century frescoes on the right side. Especially noteworthy are those located to the right of the entrance, which were uncovered only recently and have been restored. They depict the crucifixion and deposition of Christ. However, the fresco that presents the greatest iconographic interest is the one located next to the side entrance; it is arranged as a triptych, and portrays Saint Amico flanked by Saint Anthony and Mary Magdalene. The records tell us that in the 14th century there was a church in Cocullo dedicated to Saint Amico, but unfortunately there is no evidence to indicate its location. Next to the side entrance is an attractive holy-water font. Once there were also two stone lions, which originally must have decorated the façade or a pulpit. Regrettably, these were stolen some years ago, along with a painting of Saint Anne and one of the Madonna of Pompeii that decorated the side altars.
From the Piazza Madonna delle Grazie, we can make our way back to the Church of San Domenico by taking either Via San Domenico or Via Aralizza. Both streets have interesting architectural features, and building fronts that show clear evidence of intensive stratification over time. On Via San Domenico, a 16th century epigraph has been set into a modern wall; in the centre is the outline of a chalice, and at the sides an inscription that is difficult to decipher.
Not far from the Church of San Domenico is the medieval fountain, which is reached by taking Via della Fonte.
The fountain is well preserved, with its original structure almost intact. It has three pointed arches at the front, but only one of the parapets remains, the others having had some of the stone blocks removed. The top is decorated with a moulded cornice, and at the extreme right is a stone with a coat of arms carved in relief. The inside of the fountain is divided into three sections that correspond to the three arches. The top of each section is made of stone using a false vault construction.
On the outskirts of Cocullo are various pleasant spots where one can enjoy the natural surroundings and discover additional features of interest, such as the Fonte Canale, a long watering trough located just above the town, about 800 metres from Piazza Madonna delle Grazie. It is of simple design, ornamented only by a carving with a plant motif just above the spout. The fountain is beautifully situated at the foot of Mount Curro.
Just south of Cocullo is Casale, a village administered by Cocullo that has retained its architectural charm and continues to rely on an agricultural and pastoral economy. Remnants of Roman buildings have been discovered in its vicinity, as well as a necropolis with tombs made of stone slabs.