The Once Bustling Town of Aquileia

Nowadays, Aquileia is a small, relatively unknown town in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of north-east Italy. Yet, this settlement, with a population of about 3,000, was once a significant Roman city with perhaps as many as 200,000 residents. Although it is off Italy’s main tourist routes, Aquileia is an important archaeological site with UNESCO World Heritage status.Aquileia was founded in 181BC as a base for Roman power in this part of Europe. The town, strategically located for military and trading purposes, grew to be one of the most important cities in the Empire and the capital of a large area.

After the Edict of Milan introduced religious tolerance in 313, Aquileia became an important center of early Christianity, and its bishop was a powerful figure. Aquileia’s basilica dates back to the time of Constantine’s Edict, and features famous fourth-century Roman-Christian mosaics.

As the Roman Empire crumbled, Aquileia was threatened by invasion and destroyed twice, somehow surviving after being burnt by Attila the Hun in 452. After destruction by the Lombards a hundred years later, most of the remaining population, including the bishop, moved to the relative safety of the lagoon island town of Grado a few miles away. Aquileia still had some significance, evident in the preservation of its main basilica and the addition of Renaissance finery to the building’s trappings. Yet nothing that remains could compare with the vanished city. Aquileia today is an evocative site where scattered housing and fields now cover the site of once-busy urban streets. The ruined port is silent, and signs scattered throughout the city explain how the local residents built frantic defenses against Attila the Hun, constructing protective walls with any marbles and sculptures that came to hand.

The basilica of Aquileia with its imposing bell tower.

The basilica of Aquileia with its imposing bell tower.

As for the main attractions of Aquileia, the main square, Piazza Capitolo, is large and picturesque, dominated by the large basilica and its massive eleventh-century white stone campanile, or bell tower. The basilica is the surviving part of a huge complex built by Bishop Theodore for Aquileia’s early Christians, and is still used for religious services today. The interior features columns running towards the frescoed apse, yet the most striking feature is the huge fourth-century mosaic floor. Glass walkways run on both sides of the nave so visitors can admire the decoration without damaging it. The mosaic features early Christian iconography such as a contest between a chicken and a tortoise (good and evil), representations of the seasons and depictions of faces, perhaps members of the congregation who contributed money. Towards the altar is an illustration of the story of Jonah and the whale, complete with a range of swimming sea-creatures.

There are two separate crypts within the basilica worth a visit. The Cripta degli Affreschi, or Fresco Crypt, is close to the altar and contains some charming faded 12th century frescoes. The Cripta degli Scavi, or Crypt of the Excavations, features several levels of archaeology including geometric mosaics, terracotta flooring from the earlier stage of the basilica complex and fourth-century mosaics.

The Museo Archeologico Nazionale, on the main road a short distance south of the basilica, houses excellent collections of local archaeological finds, which are spread over three floors of the building and piled high in its gardens. There are displays of carved gems made in local workshops and of Roman jewelry including finery such as a necklace made of tiny gold shells, and little gold flies which once decorated clothing. Two fine bronze heads found at the forum give an idea of the grandeur of ancient Aquileia.

There are several outdoor archaeological areas dotted around Aquileia, and various sets of excavations in progress. The Roman river port is the site which offers most to the imagination, as a large area is uncovered and visitors can contrast the quietness today with the bustle that must have filled the area long ago. Goods from ships were unloaded at Grado, by the sea, and transferred to smaller vessels to be brought up the widened River Natisone to this spot.

While it is not a stop many plan when visiting the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, a trip to Aquileia, with its rich history and fascinating artifacts, is certainly worthwhile.

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