Publisher’s Tour 2016: Barletta
Part 5 – The Coastal Beauty of Barletta
About 70 miles to the north and east of Martina Franca lies the lovely coastal town of Barletta, the next stop on the Publisher’s Tour. The group was still in the region of Puglia and since one member of the group’s family came from Barletta, it was natural to include the town when the travel itinerary was planned. Lying along the Adriatic coast to the north of Bari, it is a larger town than one might expect. The population is over 90,000 and there are modern suburbs surrounding the town to the south, west and north.
Barletta developed long before the Roman era. The oldest finds in the area date an Apulian settlement to the fourth century BC. It appears that the town began as a trading post, where local people sold their goods – primarily wine to the Phoenicians, Etruscans and later, to the Greeks. So successful did the location become that it was known as the ‘Land of Wine.’
During the Roman era, the area near Barletta was the scene of a major battle. In 216 BC, Hannibal defeated the Roman army at Cannae, a city founded at roughly the same time as Barletta, but located on a hill near the Ofanto River. The entire town was destroyed many centuries later by the Normans, but a visit to the archeological site is one of the attractions when visiting nearby Barletta.
In the Middle Ages, Barletta became a stronghold of the Normans and Lombards and was an important staging post for the Crusaders, Templars and the Knights of St. John (Knights of Malta). The Archbishop of Nazareth took refuge in Barletta after the 14th century invasion of the Holy Land.
In the mid-18th century, much of the town was destroyed by an earthquake, but tough times continued for the town. During and after the Unification of Italy, the town was terribly poor, as was much of southern Italy. With poverty came disease and tens of thousands dying. Much of the population that could flee made their way to other parts of Italy and some left to begin a life in America.
There are several fascinating and historic sights to visit in Barletta and it is worth spending time wandering the narrow medieval lanes of the old town, the centro storico. Beyond these streets lie more open and elegant passageways with some time-worn palazzi, testament to the town’s past wealth and importance. But make sure to visit the ancient bronze ‘Colossus’ in the town center. There are numerous versions of how the statue came to Barletta. One popular tale is that it is a statue of the Emperor Marcian and once stood on a column in Constantinople, but was stolen by the Venetians who were then shipwrecked and was washed up on the shore at Barletta. Alternatively it could be a statue of another eastern Emperor, perhaps Theodosius II, brought from Ravenna by the Frederick II. Regardless of the true story, the 15 foot high statue is a powerful reminder of the later days of the Roman Empire and is said to be the largest surviving ancient bronze statue.
The massive castle in Barletta is a structure initially erected in the 10th century by the Normans. During the Crusade period, it was a used as a stopover for soldiers leaving for the Holy Land. It was enlarged substantially under the reign of Frederick II between 1225 and 1228. It was during this period that he launched the Sixth Crusade from Barletta. It was expanded again when the area was under Spanish control, creating its present form.
The nearby Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre dates from the 12th century. It was the former headquarters of the Knights of Malta. The Romanesque church has unusual influences, based on stylings from the Holy Land. The façade represents the later Baroque style.
The Cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore is another fascinating historic building. It occupies the former site of the Temple of Neptune and within its interior are grotticella tombs from the 3rd century BC. Above these tombs, a Christian basilica was built during the 6th century, with a major addition completed in the 9th century. The present 12th century building was erected in Romanesque style, but renovated in the Gothic style during the 14th century.
Another interesting structure is the Church of San Giacomo, dating from the 11th century. It was erected on the site of what had been the Temple of Isis in Roman times. It was restored and re-consecrated in 1751, shortly after the disastrous earthquake. The Castello Svevo is the seat of the town museum, the Museo Civico e Pinacoteca. Its prize exhibit is a bust of Frederick II.
Everyone on the Publisher’s Tour was happy that we had made a stop in Barletta. The town is laden with history and the beauty of the Adriatic along the Apulian coast must be experienced to be believed.