A treasure to discover
Aquileia, 2200 years of history for the UNESCO World Heritage Site
Cristiano Tiussi - 13/07/2021
Aquileia is a city of a thousand lives: every era has left precious traces in its inhabited area, which today sound like an invitation to reconstruct its history in a fascinating journey through time. Those who love to get lost in the atmosphere of the ancient world will find the most complete example of a Roman city existing in the Mediterranean basin, while the early Christian testimonies tell us of one of the most important centers of Christianity in the North Adriatic area.
In the Middle Ages, the fortune of Aquileia shows no sign of waning: with the institution of the Patriarchate, ecclesiastical power was consolidated with the strength of an influential feudal lordship, giving the city prosperity and beauty. If between the fifteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth Aquileia falls under the dominion of Venice and the Empire of Austria, in times closer to us it regains a leading role. Among the first to return to national borders during the Great War, it will become a national symbol, as evidenced by the presence of the first military cemetery on the Italian North Eastern front. Here we still admire the monumental Tomb of the Ten Unknown Soldiers: the eleventh was sent to Rome in the Vittoriano shrine, after a solemn ceremony, the centenary of which this year.
However, the golden age of Aquileia coincides with the Roman Empire and has to do with its border position. Founded in 181 BC as a base for conquering the territories of the East, the city soon turned into a magical door open to the East. People from different places, of different cultures, religions and languages, made it a thriving and cosmopolitan center, where the arts - first of all that of mosaics - and trade with the European hinterland and the Mediterranean basin thrived.
The rich collection of inscriptions of the National Archaeological Museum and the Paleochristian Museum tells of a peaceful and fruitful coexistence between Greeks, Latins, Balkans, North Africans and Jews, in an increasingly extensive city which, from Augustus onwards, was a recurring stage of travel of the emperors. Now that Aquileia is a town of 3300 inhabitants, it is not easy to imagine that about 50,000 people lived here in the 4th century.
The theater, the amphitheater, the circus and a spa contributed to the well-being of the fourth most populous city on the Italian peninsula and the ninth in the whole Empire. Evocative places such as the Forum, the Domus of Tito Macro, the Sepolcreto, the Via Sacra that laps the ancient River Port, testify to the splendor of this period.
The National Archaeological Museum, on the other hand, traces the millennial history of the city starting from its foundation. In the recently refurbished rooms, marble statues, frescoes and mosaics of incredible beauty are flanked by furnishings, luxury and everyday objects, and an interesting gallery of portraits of the ancient inhabitants. In piazza Capitolo the Romanesque Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta is a real palimpsest where you can read the traces of history in superimposed layers. Here beats the most authentic heart of Aquileia, included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998.
Among the frescoes, decorated floors and characteristic architecture, we recognize the evidence of the original place of worship and the medieval structures that celebrate the greatness of the Patriarchate. The baptistery and a 73-meter high medieval bell tower counterbalance the largest floor mosaic in the Christian West. The imposing columns that rise next to the Basilica, once belonging to the Palazzo dei Patriarchi, and the frescoes of the suggestive underground crypt also belong to the Middle Ages, built to house the relics of the Aquileian saints Ermagora and Fortunato. In the bowels of the earth, refined mosaics decorate what remains of a domus from the first century AD, while on the upper floor we admire a splendid apsidal hall of the fourth century, probably part of the rich residence of the bishop.
Since the eighteenth-century excavations undertaken by the Austrians, Aquileia has never stopped exploring the subsoil: finds, buried architecture and surprising decorations continue to come to light, confirming the richness of an apparently inexhaustible archaeological heritage. German names such as that of the Südhalle - a beautiful mosaic room located next to the baptistery - tell us about the campaigns carried out in the nineteenth century by the Austrian imperial archaeologists, while contemporary installations enhance the latest findings, from the Südhalle to the Domus of Tito Macro, also visible in its original appearance thanks to augmented reality, and finally to the Domus and Episcopal Palace that allows you to admire the mosaics of the bishop's palace and pre-existing Roman houses