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Area:
  • 36,45 sq. km
Altitude:
  • 5 m a.s.l.
Population:
  • 3,330
Town Hall:
  • P. Garibaldi, 7
  • 33051 - Aquileia (GO)
Neighbourhoods:
  • Belvedere
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Founded as a colony by the Romans in 181 BC to create both a bastion against possible barbarian aggressions and as a bridgehead for the conquest of eastern Italy, though giving Rome a valuable base for such conquest, Aquileia acquired greater and greater importance as a river port thanks to the large, at the time, River Natisone-Torre, a role which grew at the same pace as the rising Roman Empire, so much so that the colony became the favoured port for the Danube provinces that found here supplies of eastern products and could market their own goods here. A real crossroads of routes, Aquileia knew its prime in the first two centuries of the Empire, although the earliest symptoms of the deep crisis of the 3rd century were already felt. In 238 AD it was besieged by Maximinus the Thracian during a period of disorientation of the central government and the recovery was hard. Nonetheless, the following century saw a revival of the economic role of the city, which became a centre of power and of Roman and Christian culture: it was the ninth city of the empire and among the most important in Italy. It was just for this reason that the devastations caused by Attila’sHuns (452 AD) left the people of the time even more dismayed and terrified: it was the sunset of a whole civilization, a time of which marks have remained in the excavation sites and in the superb collection of the National Archaeological Museum, in spite of the heavy plundering Aquileia suffered. In the Museum, considered one of the most important in northern Italy, archaeological finds are numerous and well arrayed, coming from both public and private buildings but mainly from tombs, thus offering a detailed cross-section of the society of the time, its economy, crafts,religious rituals, everyday life, cooking, taste, and fashion, sometimes the result, as in the case of funeral traditions, of choices made on the need for self-assertiveness through one’s own sepulchre. The visit to the Museum leads visitors through a series of rooms organized by the type of materials, but remarkable for their descriptions. Roman history is introduced by the famous bas-relief of Sulcus primigenius (foundation of the city, 1st cent. AD) and by the careful chronological selection of stone or marble heads-portraits (1st cent. BC – 4th cent. AD), in which artistic choices are often the result of personal requirements. Then follow the rooms dedicated to public and private statuary (1st cent. BC – 1st cent. AD) with some extraordinary pieces. The finds concerning crafts are easily comprehensible and involving, while the Attic sarcophagi (2nd cent. AD) seem to have been a sort of status symbol. The rich room dedicated to religious items ideally extends to the first one on the first floor, where all types of documents show the co-existence of different religions and experiences which are sometimes difficult to fully understand in their complexity. Apart from a small showcase with small Christian items, this section displays a very rare bronze chandelier (4th cent. AD) with symbols hinting at salvation. Great attention has always drawn the collection of carved stones (half-precious stones) and ambers (fossil resins) arriving in Aquileia raw then transformed in highly valuable jewels and personal items to be worn or stored, either to propitiate the gods or keep disease away, or finally used as seals (gems). In the same way, the glassware exhibition shows that the highly developed techniques used in the Roman Age compare to today’s worldwide renown Murano production. The sections dedicated to metals, pottery and numismatics complement and enrich the museum archaeological offer, as well as two outstanding bronze finds: an applique portraying the head of a wind deity of Hellenistic tradition and the portrait of a 3rd-century emperor. Outside, the museum houses a series of lapidary galleries where the numerous stone findings are arrayed, among which the epigraphic collection must be remembered for its high historical value, one of the largest in Italy (4000 documented “tituli”), as well as the mosaic fragments (1st cent. BC – 4th cent. AD) representing, in their continuity, plenty, quality and variety, the best of the city’s elegant sobriety. A small section houses a Roman ship found at Monfalcone (2nd cent. AD). The Middle Ages experienced a revival of the city since the Carolingian age which saw the Patriarchate entrusted to highborn Patriarchs by the exceptional personality. Maxentius (811-817) ordered the old basilica to be enlarged in the shape of a Latin cross and the presbytery to be raised in order to create the Martyrs’ crypt (decorated with Venetian-Byzantine 12th-century frescoes with Stories of SS. Ermacora and Fortunato and from the New Testament); not only had he architectural elements and early medieval fittings added showing mysterious cosmic symbols and symbols of salvation, but he also ordered the Pagans’ Church to be built as well. Another Patriarch who greatly contributed to the growth of the Basilica Patriarcale was Poppone (1019-1042), who made structural changes both in terms of style (early Romanesque) and static quality, and added new liturgical items aimed at reminding men of the need for salvation from sin, as the first millennium of Christ’s Passion was drawing nearer (1031). Among Poppone’s new introductions are the capitals, part of the outside and inside walls, the apse frescoes and Patriarchs’ cathedra, the Holy Sepulchre, the colonnades, not least the imposing bell tower (73 m high). Poppone’s “jubilee” works were heavily jeopardized by the 1348 earthquake, which forced Patriarch Marquardo (1365-1381) to start restoration works in line with the new Gothic style clearly visible in the new pointed arches and the figurative capitals on of the cross vault pilasters. Gothic is also the style of the Chapel of St. Ambrogio. The wooden painted ceiling in the transept, cross and nave (the latter shaped as an overturned hull), the great tribune and ciborium are 15th-century, while the organ, in a neo-Renaissance transposition of the same style, was a present from Franz Josef to the Aquileia community, as the city was under Austrian rule until 1915; and it was an Austrian archaeological team that began, by chance, the excavations and carried them out from 1893 to 1912, which brought to light the so-called Theodorian complex (began by Bishop Theodore – as stated in the celebrative epigraph- after Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 which granted religious freedom) and the remains of later basilica: namely, the largest mosaic floor in the western world, designed for three connected halls that, step by step, gave access to catechumenal education (southern Theodorian hall), confirmation (?) (transverse hall with “cocciopesto” – a mixture of mortar and terracotta fragments- floor), and finally liturgy (northern Theodorian hall). The latter hall – see Excavation Crypt displays a sequence of animal figures in which a different technique is detected, probably due to different liturgical requirements either in terms of historical period or creed (gnosticism ?), in which the only figures reminiscent of the Christian creed seem to be the ram (the predestined sacrificial victim, Christ himself) and the fight between the cock and the turtle (symbolizing light and darkness, good and evil, salvation and damnation). Fragments of this hall were also found inside the bell tower built on the site. In the present-day Basilica the iconographic plan shows uniformity of purpose, as the primary aim was that of leading the converts to the complete awareness of gaining access to the new life after resurrection from death through conversion to Christianity, through adult christening by immersion; several images evoked the gradual path of converts making them feel as parts of a greater divine plan. The Good Shepherd (the symbol of divine forgiveness), the Winged Victory (probably symbolizing the defeat of death by the coming of Christ); the Fishing Scenes (symbolizing the spreading of Christianity for the salvation of men-fish); the Jonah’s Episodes (representing the path of conversion leading to a new catechumenal life). Archaeological excavations in Aquileia received a boost in the 1930s thanks to the Fascist exaltation of the Roman spirit and to the purpose of giving new light to Aquileia, the “redeemed city” which had just been returned to Italy. Such exaltation led to the excavation works in the forum (dating to the 2nd, 3rd and 5th centuries) and of the river port (dating instead to the 1st, 3rd and 5th centuries).The forum, a wide square with a remarkable colonnade supporting a covered promenade (56 x 139 m), was the scene where the city public and political life took place in an imposing, though well-equipped and functional space whose elements were reminiscent of Rome’s greatness (eagles, putti, plinths with Medusa heads and Jupiter Ammon). It was here that the notable met with merchants coming from all over the Mediterranean with their supplies of food, spices, wood, marble, precious stones, etc., to satisfy the demand of the Danube merchants who, in turn, thanks to the efficient Roman road network, sold here their metals, leather and amber. The River Natisone-Torre, with its 48 m of width, offered room enough for the port to operate and ships to sail up the river easily for about ten kilometres. The wharfs of strong Istria stone were equipped with two loading levels, moorings, ramps and easy access ways to the city centre. It is commonly thought that the area where in the Middle Ages an important abbey of Benedictine nuns was built, was in Roman times occupied by a district of Oriental people: this seems to be supported by certain names on the mosaic inscriptions in the Basilica of Monastero (4th, 5th and 6th centuries), which, completely incorporated in an 18th-century farm warehouse, was found and brought to light in the 1950s. Restructured, the warehouse became the Museo Paleocristiano: what makes this Early Christian Museum spectacular is the unusual possibility of viewing the whole mosaic floors and figurative parts (peacock and lambs grazing on vine-shoots) of the Basilica of Beligna from the height of two large balconies. Remarkable is also the lapidary collection of Christian epigraphs, rich in symbols and witnessing the existence of affections that go well beyond death, still capable of moving the visitors’ feelings. These epigraphs no longer boast the Roman monumentality neither of the Great Mausoleum (1st cent. AD), for example, nor of the five burial grounds found in the suburb west of the city (Sepolcreto, 1st-4th cent. AD). In such cases, the necropolises, running along the city roads, were an integral part of the urban plan and clients, being well aware of this, translated their will of socio-economic self-assertiveness in their tombs. Unfortunately, we have at present deeper knowledge of the funeral rituals than of the living habits of the times, since the systematic pillaging Aquileia suffered in the centuries has mostly jeopardized the conservation of higher buildings; however, the recovery of dozens and dozens of mosaic floor from the Republican Age at the end of the Empire makes amends, sometimes extraordinary amends, for that loss. In the excavations of the CAL and Cossar Fields private houses are often superimposed on remains of roads and other town planning elements or some probably private oratories where the figures of mosaic floors are often reminiscent of those in the Basilica Patriarcale.

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