mercoledì 19 giugno 2024

Medieval Aquileia

The Basilica, the fulcrum of the resurgence in the Middle Ages.

The architectural and artistic complex of the Basilica of Aquileia leads the visitor to the discovery of extraordinary fresco cycles that date back to various periods of the Middle Ages.

Those wishing to retrace the complex evolution of Aquileia over the centuries will find a strategic observation point in the medieval walls. The majestic zigzag fortifications built by the Byzantines in the sixth century, in the aftermath of a bloody war against the Goths, cut the ancient town in half and tell of the downsizing suffered by the city in the early Middle Ages. Invaded by the Huns, the Lombards and the Hungarians, Aquileia tries in every way to be reborn: new beauties will be added to its rich artistic heritage, but the greatness of the Roman city, fourth in Italy and ninth in the Empire by extension and population, is now lost.

In this period emerges the figure of the patriarch Poppone (1019-1042), who will go down in history for having promoted illustrious and impressive works. Scion of a noble Bavarian family and strong with the support of Emperor Henry, Poppone links his name to the renovation of the Basilica, which has always been the heart of Aquileia's life.

Visiting this place with a thousand-year history, we recognize the mark of the patriarch in the Romanesque façade, in the twenty sculpted stone capitals that mark the naves and in the splendid murals of the apse. Created after the earthquake of 988, this spectacular cycle of frescoes represents a unicum in the art of northern Italy. Behind the main altar, an almond with the Virgin and Jesus enthroned dominates the scene from above, among the symbols of the evangelists and a double procession of saints and martyrs. Among them we recognize some characters of the imperial house and Poppone himself, who brings a model of the new Basilica as a gift to Mary.

Among the merits of the Germanic patriarch there is the construction of a bell tower which is now 73 meters high but originally lower. Each of its stones tells a story: we still recognize the squared and regular blocks that the builders of the eleventh century detached from the Roman Amphitheater of Aquileia to erect a monument that fully represented their time. It is just an example of how, from time to time, this city has been able to renew itself starting from more ancient resources, transforming places, reusing materials, building new architectures on existing ones, which in many cases are still clearly visible.

If with the bell tower the Basilica extends towards the sky, another extraordinary work projects it towards the bowels of the earth. This is the so-called Crypt of the Frescoes, built in the 9th century under the main altar to house the relics of Saints Ermagora and Fortunato and restored by Poppone even before intervening on the upper levels.

Beautiful murals adorn the walls and the cross vault with scenes from the Passion of Christ and stories from the lives of the saints. The Pagan Church, which connects the Basilica to the Baptistery, also dates back to medieval times.

The episode of the Annunciation, the figures of San Giovanni Battista and San Nicolò animate the walls of the eastern room in fourteenth-century frescoes, but to make these paintings interesting are above all the graffiti engraved on the surface by the faithful: names, dates and sacred formulas tell how intensely these places have been experienced by the local population over time.

Leaving the Basilica, two majestic columns to the south represent the only evidence of the Palazzo dei Patriarchi, while in via Poppone the facade of Casa Bertoli retains characteristic medieval decorations painted in lozenges. Inside this ancient Aquileian residence survives a great variety of frescoes painted starting from the fourteenth century.

Not to be missed are the Giotto-style Madonna, the Venetian-influenced Pietà and a surprising cycle of trompe-l'oeil paintings, which together offer a glimpse of the taste of the wealthy classes of Aquileia over the centuries.

A few steps from here, the arcades of via Roma indicate one of the most important arteries of the medieval city. Numerous artisan shops overlooked the mighty reddish brick arches, while the upper floors were occupied by houses.

Further on, near the southern stretch of the Natissa river, the last ruins of the medieval walls of Aquileia survive. Here the fortified walls spanned the watercourse with an arch known as the Ponte di San Felice, incorporating the early Christian basilica of the same name and the surrounding village. The church, which at the time kept the relics of San Felice and San Fortunato, was demolished at the end of the eighteenth century, while the bridge stands, jutting out over the water in a picturesque natural setting.