Visit: 21st July 2015
Aquileia today is a small town in the northeastern Italian region of Friuli-Venezia Guilia. Prior to its destruction by Attila the Hun in the fifth century it was one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the Roman Empire. It is known today for its Romanesque basilica built upon the remnants of a once-opulent Roman villa.
It was another extremely warm day in Italy when we drove south from the Longobard town of Cividale del Friuli, about an hour to Aquileia. Whilst the basilica complex is concentrated in the centre, the Roman remains of the city are more spread out. The tourist information office gave us a map showing that the components of the World Heritage Site were all within easy walking distance. These columns, above, are the remains of a forum. Not far away are the foundations of an area of living quarters.
These aren’t the most exciting Roman ruins, but they are at least free to wander around. There is a fine mosaic just off to the right of the picture above. We stopped off in a local supermarket in search of water and PGI/PDO foods, but I was generally disappointed to find in Italy that they bother to label up very few of their undeniably exciting looking cheeses and hams with the prestigious logo that I make a habit of trying when I see.
We then headed toward the centrepiece of the town as it exists today: the basilica complex. The basilica itself is free to enter, as with all Catholic churches (take note of that, expensive Church of England cathedrals!). The crypts, bell tower and baptistry all required a ticket, however.
Of these, I found the crypts most impressive. The photo above shows the relatively primitive artworks on the walls and ceilings, but they had a powerful effect and a memorably vivid palate.
The view from the bell tower isn’t much to write home about, since the surrounding landscape is rural and flat. You can make out the Adriatic Sea and Trieste Airport, but otherwise there isn’t much going on.
The baptistry contains elements of mosaic that have been recovered from the town. This piece shows the ornateness the Roman mosaic artists were capable of. Look at the detail in the plumage of the peacock.
If you like that, however, you will certainly be impressed by the basilica’s showpiece: an enormous mosaic floor covering some 760 square metres.
The basilica was first constructed in the fourth century to serve as a missionary base for spreading the gospel throughout the Eastern regions. Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire in AD 313, and the mosaic floor as Aquileia is thought to have been laid shortly afterwards. The floor was covered over, probably when the basilica was rebuilt in the fourteenth century. It was not until restoration work in the twentieth century that the mosaic was rediscovered. Nowadays if you visit the building you will find a glass floor surrounding the edges of the mosaic, allowing you to view the many animal and angel depictions therein. Because it dates from a time when Jesus’s image was forbidden to be replicated by man, He is represented in the mosaic as a goat, with twelve eggs nearby thought to represent the Apostles.
After a drink in the sun we hit the road for the short drive to Trieste Airport, from where the adventure was to continue as we caught a domestic flight heading south to Puglia’s Bari Karol Wojtyła Airport.