The golden age of Aquileia: between the early Christian Basilica and the Museum, a treasure trove of masterpieces.
The main document of the birth and development of the new civilization is the Basilica, a unique place where history has been deposited in superimposed layers.
In the fourth century, Aquileia experienced one of its moments of maximum splendor: valuable architecture, inscriptions, frescoes and mosaics hand down its memory in one of the most interesting and extensive early Christian sites that have come down to us. The main document of the birth and development of the new civilization is the Basilica, a unique place where history has crystallized in overlapping layers.
Its first nucleus already arises the day after the Edict of Milan, the historic provision of 313 by which the Emperor Constantine ensures freedom of worship for Christians. The small size and the marginal position of the building, which was accessed from a hidden road close to the walls, testify to the isolation of the first faithful from the lively society of Roman Aquileia.
Nonetheless, the Basilica is an authentic jewel: divided into two parallel classrooms connected by a corridor, it is surprising for the spectacular mosaic floor of the southern hall, which with an extension of 760 square meters is the largest in the Roman West.
In the presbytery of the southern hall, a sea full of fish recalls the story of the prophet Jonah: it is only part of a complex story in images that traces the way to eternal salvation. Clearly, an inscription celebrates Bishop Theodore, who was responsible for the construction of the Basilica.
The surprises continue in the so-called Crypt of the Excavations, just below the bell tower. Here, just before the Great War, the mosaics of the north hall were found, where figures of birds, hares and goats intent on jumping, winged horses, lobsters and turtles peek out among geometric and plant decorations, in a rich plot of allegories.
Numerous frescoes visible in the lower part of the walls are also preserved from the first Basilica: it is one of the most extensive cycles of mural paintings found in an early Christian place of worship.
Less than fifty years after Theodore's undertaking, the situation changes radically in Aquileia: the number of Christians is growing visibly and the church halls prove to be inadequate for the needs of an ever-growing community. A new, large Basilica will already be built in the middle of the 4th century, this time perfectly integrated into the urban fabric thanks to a large four-sided portico opening onto the city.
To welcome the faithful who convert en masse, a monumental Baptistery was built at the beginning of the fifth century, the scene of one of the most solemn moments of the Christian year. On the sides of the hexagonal monument, two large rooms welcome the catechumens: these are the Nordhalle (North room) and the Südhalle (South room), so named by the Austrian archaeologists who discovered them at the end of the nineteenth century.
Here is another treasure of Christian Aquileia, a splendid mosaic floor decorated with elaborate geometric and animal motifs. Among the scenes not to be missed is the famous peacock mosaic, coming from the nearby narthex of the basilica: tesserae in glass paste in shades of blue and ocher, brown and green wisely reproduce shapes, shadows and volumes, giving shape to the volatile emblem of immortality. It seems that once the feathers of its proudly unfolded tail were covered with very thin sheets of gold, a symbol of divine light. Although it was discovered more than one hundred and twenty years ago, the Südhalle mosaic can only be visited since 2011 in an evocative setting of contemporary conception.
Also in the area of the Basilica, the spectacular, recent construction of the Domus and Episcopal Palace, opened in 2017, allows you to admire the ancient residence of the bishops of Aquileia. Above a Roman house from the Augustan age, the splendid apse hall of a 4th century Domus and the remains of the sumptuous 5th century Episcopal Palace stand out on two superimposed levels, both adorned with mosaics.
Originally the ceiling and walls of the Domus were covered with frescoes, which we can now imagine thanks to the numerous fragments unearthed during recent excavations. Vine shoots and leaves, bunches of grapes and birds painted on a red background climbed up to the vault of the apse, the most elegant room in the house which in all likelihood was intended to host banquets and receptions. In the Domus as in the Episcopal Palace, the richness of the architecture and decorations testifies to the prestige and power achieved in this period by the bishops of Aquileia.
The arrival point of our trip is the Paleochristian Museum, an essential stop to get an idea of the origins of Aquileia. Here the idea of a museum and that of an archaeological area meet in a perfect symbiosis. If in ancient times the building was part of the Basilica, in the Middle Ages it became a Benedictine monastery, only to be converted into a private residence, cellar and agricultural warehouse.
The past is still clearly visible in its architecture: together with the finds unearthed in the various sites of Aquileia, we can observe some mosaics of the early Christian Basilica integrated into the flooring of the rooms. Art and daily life of the late ancient city are revealed room after room, while an interesting collection of inscriptions brings back to life characters and events of that time, as in the pages of a newspaper.
We meet Restutus, who came from Africa on purpose to see Aquileia, and the citizens who "sponsored" the floors of the Paleochristian Basilica of Monastero: a colorful gallery of individuals from North Africa and the East, from Rome and the Holy Land, which shows how composite and cosmopolitan was the population of the city.