The one described by the archaeologist Luca Villa, who peeling Aquileia of its different layers, excites us by offering us an exclusive view of the Middle Ages of a decidedly unique city is an itinerary sewn between surprising stages. The history of the refined metropolis of the Christian church gallops between excavations still in progress and fascinating discoveries, which houses one of the oldest and best preserved bishop's complexes of the fourth century, a treasure trove of the very first Christian mosaics and exclusive architecture. Huddled among the vestiges of its different eras, Aquileia searches in the fourth century - perhaps the most prosperous for the city - and finds there a good part of its heritage and its original architectural schedule.
«The medieval itinerary of Aquileia - explains Villa - can only start from the basilica of Santa Maria Assunta which offers a very important cross-section of the entire history of the city. In the shadow of the bell tower, the Crypt of the excavations shows traces of the Roman city on which the basilica complex developed from the beginning of the 4th century.
The episcopal complex, which preserves the remains of a cultural structure from the early Christian period, is one of the oldest and best preserved of this period. "The archaeological area is in fact dominated by the remains of the Theodorian complex and the early Christian mosaics also recall the name of Bishop Theodore. "Next to the floor mosaics still visible in situ - explains Villa - it is possible to appreciate the frescoed decoration of the walls and ceilings, typical of 4th century churches, characterized by an important chromatic vivacity".
But the great novelty of this important complex lies in its structure. "The Christian building had a rectangular non-apsidal hall with rectilinear termination, an architectural feature so widespread in many religious buildings in Aquileia that it laid the foundations of a true Aquileian style that characterized the first Christian architecture in the city" explains the archaeologist . Changes, additions, demolitions have affected the basilica, built between the fourth and fifth centuries, in its subsequent phases.
From the Romanesque period, for example, inside the apse is preserved "an exceptional cycle of frescoes, recently restored and which leads back to the imperial commission, as the emperor Conrad II was represented". The Romanesque church has also been enriched with a new crypt which, from the 12th century, houses a well-known cycle of frescoes, with stories of the Passion of Christ and traces of Byzantine influences. Important pieces of this extraordinary basilica are, in the southern chapel of San Pietro, the Polyptych of Pellegrino da San Daniele, and, in the left aisle, one of the oldest copies of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, made with marble shards around the 11th century .
The chat with Luca Villa - whose curriculum, particularly rich in studies and research on early Christian and early medieval art, includes numerous excavation campaigns in the Friulian territory - is a passionate and unstoppable journey to discover the early Christian centuries through an exciting treasure chest of surprises. Like the bell tower, built by the patriarch Poppone probably in conjunction with the basilica or immediately after, which stands out, massive, on the Friulian plain, wrapped in its limestone shards from some Roman monuments of the city, or the baptistery, dated to the end of 4th century.
But the real mecca of medieval art lovers, as Villa explains, is the Paleochristian Museum located in the small hamlet of Monastero. The early Christian basilica built extra muros, which later became the church of a Benedictine monastery, abandoned in 1782 to create a productive environment for winemaking, was literally incorporated, with its extraordinary mosaics, into the museum. «The museum complex of Monastero - explains Villa - preserves important remains of the early Christian, early medieval and medieval times of the city». There are mosaics from other city churches, funerary epigraphs from the early Christian era that tell the life of the Christian society of the time, and still the figurative graffiti with the dead in the center, a beautiful sculpture that portrays the embrace between the apostles Peter and Paul, a rich repertoire of liturgical furnishings in marble and stone from the early medieval and late Lombard periods, as well as elements from the Carolingian period. «The setting is fantastic - assures Villa -. In this area we can observe two levels: the upper one houses a balcony that allows you to look out over the remains of the basilica, admiring them from above ». Yet there must be a secret behind these jewels perfectly preserved centuries later, probably like in no other part of Italy.
Between the floor of the fourth century and that of the end of the fourth century there was a jump in height of one meter which allowed the walls to be preserved with their frescoes. The rise was reused, filled with debris from the demolition of the church in the early 4th century. When the structure was demolished, the fragments of the ceilings fell onto the mosaic floor, allowing it to be perfectly preserved ». The medieval walk continues towards the Byzantine Walls, "which we hope - Villa is hoped - to be able to be visited as soon as possible".
Their particular pattern, called "sawtooth" or "zig zag" is the product of a very advanced fortifying technique, which would have allowed the imposing structure to withstand assaults with war machines. Developing east-west, this fortification, one of the best preserved of that period, cuts the city in half. Although it is not possible to follow the Walls in their entire path, it is possible to admire them, in their eastern termination, along the path of the Via Sacra. And then there are the Domus of the 1st century AD and the Episcopal Palace, where you can scrutinize the precious mosaics of the floor of what in the 5th century was the residence of the Bishop of Aquileia, part of the enhancement structure of the archaeological area built in Piazza Chapter from the Aquileia Foundation. Or Casa Bertoli, with a system dating back to the thirteenth century, and with its Renaissance frescoes. And the itinerary could still continue, in this forge of art and history, which time has generously preserved and which archeology has restored, almost intact, beautiful.