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The Aquileia Basilica – Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta – in northern Italy played an important role in spreading Christianity from as early as the fourth century. Originally constructed in 313 AD by Bishop Teodoro, much of Aquileia’s Basilica was destroyed by Attila and his Huns in 452AD.
Today’s Aquileia Patriarchal Basilica underwent a series of constructions and reconstructions over the centuries, with the current incarnation consecrated in 1031. Yet the evidence of its long history is not erased. Indeed, visitors to the stunning Patriarchal Basilica can still see its fourth century mosaics.
History of Aquileia Basilica
Aquileia is an ancient Roman city in Italy, located at the head of the Adriatic Sea. During classical antiquity it was one of the world’s largest cities, with a population of 100,000 in the 2nd century AD. It is believed to be the largest Roman city yet to be excavated, and was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1998.
The basilica and bell tower were commissioned by the Patriarch Popone, and were completed in 1031. It constituted a radical restoration of an ancient religious complex dating to the 4th century BC on the same site, which had been damaged by earthquakes and barbarian invasions.
There are other remains from the 4th century BC on the site, including the Paleochristian Complex, built by Bishop Theodorus, and the famous floor mosaic, which depicts scenes from the Old Testament.
The collection of mosaics on the floor is one of the largest and best-preserved in the Christian world. It was only discovered at the beginning of the 1900s after flooring that had been laid in later centuries was removed. The use of mosaics was both social and political, with the scenes in the basilica depicting religious stories such as Jonah and the Whale, as well as incorporating a number of pagan symbols.
Other remains and mosaics are found in the so-called ‘Slaves’ Crypt’ which is accessible from inside the Basilica. The Crypt of Frescoes also holds Byzantine-style frescoes from the 1100s.
Aquileia Basilica Today
Though less well known than nearby Venice, Aquileia has much to see. Today, visitors can enjoy seeing the Romanesque-style basilica with its few Gothic details which were added in 1348, and the later Renaissance details which, when combined, characterise the building as radically unique and ancient.
In the basilica, a clear elevated platform allows visitors to walk above the mosaics and see them in great and clear detail.
Getting to Aquileia Basilica
From the centre of Aquileia, the basilica is a three minute walk via Via dei Patriarchi/SP91. By car, it takes around 5 minutes, via Via Roma/SP91 and Via Enrico Curiel.
Aquileia Basilica - History
Aquileia is found to the south-east of the Veneto-Friuli region, between Gorizia and Trieste. 2000 years ago, Aquileia was a large and thriving Roman town - it is now a much quieter place, but contains important ruins and monuments that remain from its heyday.
Unfortunately much of the city was destroyed by Attila in the 5th century then pillaged and used for building materials during later centuries, and there are fewer Roman ruins to be seen than you would expect.
The major highlights in Aquileia include the Roman Forum, the basilica and the Archaeology Museum - the Archaeological Area and the Patriarchal Basilica of Aquileia is now a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site
The “decumanus maximus” was the main street of the Roman city, on the south side of the forum next to the Basilica. It was a very important route for Aquileia, because it leads from the forum and the city centre to the port. The Forum itself was an important trading centre with many shops, and using this road the merchants could easily access the port to transport their goods.
The aqueduct that supplied water to Aquileia arrived from the north and crossed the forum underground.
The Patriarchal Basilica of Aquileia, dedicated to Saints Ermacora and Fortunato, was built in 1031 by Patriarch Poppone on the site of an existing paleo-Christian basilica dating from the time of Bishop Theodore (4th century).
The history of the Basilica is one of continuous renewal: it suffered severe destruction due to the passage of Attila, after which it was rebuilt with three naves, but without apses.
The mosaic floor of the Basilica of Aquileia is an imposing work of 700 square meters, dating from the fourth century AD. In the mosaic floor there is also an inscription that recalls Bishop Theodore, the founder of the Basilica.
The theme of the mosaic is one of the most important examples of "Biblia pauperum" (or "the Bible of the Poor", 'poor' meaning those who could not read and write and therefore could only understand the sacred story with pictures).
The main basilica entrance was probably located in the South Hall where there is a mosaic depicting the achievements of Jonah, while the North Hall was reserved for the catechumens. The south room was richly frescoed and the floor was a mosaic depicting a sea full of fish and the cycle of stories of Jonah. The floor was divided into nine panels and reflected the division of the ceiling into nine bays.
The rest of the room is enriched with decorations in the form of plants and faces, presumably of the commissioners. There is also a figure of the "Good Shepherd" with a deer and a gazelle, the Christian symbol of the soul towards God.
Your visit to Aquileia can continue to the south of the Basilica, along the banks of the river port on the river Natissa. Although no longer navigable you can still see rings for moorings vessels on the western bank.
The Roman Forum of Aquileia was built with a very elongated shape. It is huge and rectangular, measuring nearly 200 meters long and about 80 meters in length. The 'Platea' is the central part of the forum. It is not covered, and presents a large area paved with large flat stones although unfortunately only a small part of the original floor now remains.
Inside the Platea there are no large buildings remaining today, but you can still see traces of the original impressive buildings.
The portico was the covered part of the Forum. It was 6 meters wide and surrounded by the Platea. The portico had a wooden roof, supported on one side by the buildings surrounding the forum, and on the other side by columns. Blocks of stone covered the entire wooden structure of the roof.
Along the length there were originally 50 columns, and about 20 across the width, each about 3 metres apart. The columns holding up the big lintels were decorated with carved garlands of flowers. The columns were about 7 meters high.
Above the lintel were further large slabs of stone, called “plutei” and decorated with garlands supported by cupids and eagles. The smaller slabs of stone, which are located above each column (the "plinths") depicted the faces of deities like Jupiter or Medusa.
Around the “Forum” were located several buildings with different functions (political, religious and commercial purposes), and the shops or “tabernae”.
The building used for popular assemblies was called the 'Comitium' and located on the north side of the Forum. It was a covered building, the outer walls of which were square, although inside it had four very large circular steps the outer one had a diameter of 30 meters.
The Roman shops, called "tabernae", were found on the east side of the Forum. They were all of equal size, narrow and very long. Their work was interrupted by the burning of Attila in 452 AD, when most of the city was destroyed and all that now remains of these shops are the floors and some parts of the back wall.
The "Forensic Basilica" closes the area to the south of the forum. This large building, according to ancient writers, served as shelter for the merchants during the cold season and poor weather. It was very large, about 80 meters long and 30 wide. The “Forensic Basilica” was also burned by Attila in 452 AD and its remains were then used to build the great walls of the city.
Aquileia archaeology Museum - a brief guide to the highlights
The Archaeological Museum in Aquileia exhibits artefacts of the Roman period that have been found in the territory of Aquileia. On the first floor you can see mosaics from private homes, numerous portraits and statues. The Lapidary Gallery is also very impressive, with a highlight being the tombstone of Lucius Manlius Acidinus (2nd century BC), one of the triumvirate that founded the city in 181 BC.
On the upper floors there is a vast collection of artefacts of the minor arts, such as glass, jewellery, coins, cameos and lamps.The first room shows some very realistic examples of Roman portraiture. In the second room are some funerary statues, which come largely from the necropolis outside the city such as the great statue of Claudius, the "navarch" and a child's head crowned with ivy.
The third room holds funerary reliefs with lively depictions of the occupations practiced by the deceased. The fourth room is devoted to sacred sculptures and copies of Hellenistic originals. Upstairs there is the important collection of cameos (with portraits of the Julio-Claudian dynasty), ambers, a late antique silver helmet, many ceramics, bronzes, and a bronze chandelier with early Christian symbols (fourth century).
The lapidary is located outside where mosaics with scenes depicting "The abduction of Europe", the “Triumph of Neptune” and figures of athletes have been incorporated in the floor. See also history of Aquileia
Aquileia Basilica - History
"St. Mark's basilica majestically symbolizes the lagoon and enshrines the city's history. Possession of the saint's relics enabled the Republic to establish its authority, from 828 onward, over Grado and Aquileia. In 1063, under Doge Domenico Contarini, it was decided to rebuild the church on the same Greek cross plan as the previous one. In 1096 it was finished, but the decorative work continued until the beginning of the 19th century. The model had been furnished by the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople (536-46) five domes covering the crossing and each of the arms, supported by large piers linked by arches. The light was thus directed towards the centre of the basilica, leaving the side aisles in comparative shadow."
John Julius Norwich. The World Atlas of Architecture. p204.
Howard Davis. Slide from photographer's collection. PCD .0218. PCD 2260.1012.0218.
Otto Demus. The Church of San Marco in Venice . Washington, D.C.: The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection Trustees for Harvard University, 1960. NA5621.V5D4. plan drawing of the crypt, plate 20.
Sir Banister Fletcher. A History of Architecture . London: The Butterworth Group, 1987. ISBN 0-408-01587-X. LC 86-31761. NA200.F63 1987. transverse section drawing, fig g, p295. The classic text of architectural history. Expanded 1996 edition available at Amazon.com
G. E. Kidder Smith. Looking at Architecture . New York: Harry N. Abrams, Publishers, 1990. ISBN 0-8109-3556-2. LC 90-30728. NA200.S57 1990. photo of horses sculpture, p25. photo of square and campanile from archway, p61.
John Julius Norwich, ed. Great Architecture of the World . London: Mitchell Beazley Publishers, 1975. photos, cutaway drawings, p90-91. Reprint edition: Da Capo Press, April 1991. ISBN 0-3068-0436-0. An accessible, inspiring and informative overview of world architecture, with lots of full-color cutaway drawings, and clear explanations. Available at Amazon.com
Duane Siegrist, University of Oregon. Slide from photographer's collection, July 1993. PCD.3236.1011.0837.041. PCD.3236.1011.0837.042.
Doreen Yarwood. The Architecture of Europe . New York: Hastings House, 1974. ISBN 0-8038-0364-8. LC 73-11105. NA950.Y37. aerial perspective drawing, f208, p102. no image credit.
The basilica built by Constantine lasted for many centuries until the year 1500. By then it was in such disrepair that Pope Julius II saw the need to replace it with a new one. The construction started officially in April, 1506. Being a huge endeavor, the building attracted a number of well-renowned artists of that time. They included Fontana, Bernini, Giacomo della Porta, Maderno, Michelangelo, Raphael, Sangallo and Bramante. However, Bernini, Maderno and Michelangelo made the most notable contributions.
In 1546, when Michelangelo was 72 years of age, he was obliged by Pope Paul III to undertake the construction of the present-day basilica. By the time he was dying, the building of the Greek cross had already surrounded the Tomb of Peter and the papal altar. Furthermore the top drum had been completed with the large windows placed below the upturned bowl of the dome. On May 1590, della Porta completed the shape of the bowl completely changing the shape of the bowl from semi-sphere as Michelangelo had designed to a half oval shape.
Later in 1600, Pope Paul V saw that the Greek cross was too small. He obliged Maderno, who was his architect, to remove the front wall of the Michelangelo construction and extend it to the Eastern side of the Basilica by a distance of 116 yards. This project was completed by 1626 and Gian Bernini spent the next 30 years adding the Colonnade.
Founded around 181-180 BCE during the time of the Roman Republic, Aquileia was an ancient Roman city located at the head of the Adriatic Sea on the Natiso River west of the Roman province of Illyria. Initially, the area was controlled by Transalpine Gauls as a way to manage travel over the Alps however, due to its strategic location, it would eventually become one of the largest and wealthiest cities of the Roman Empire with a population approaching 100,000, including Greeks, Celts, Egyptians, and Jews. Its importance was demonstrated when it became the administrative capital of Venetia et Istria.
Since the Romans wished to exploit neighbouring gold mines, Aquileia's location served as an industrial stronghold as well as a buffer against the Gallic tribes to the north. Over the years, families settled in the area as reinforcements to the garrison stationed there. Although it was often sacked by these neighbouring, warring tribes, both Julius Caesar and Augustus (r. 27 BCE - 14 CE) realized its significance and enabled the city to thrive. Sometimes called Roma Secunda, it served as a supply centre for the Roman army to the south. The future emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 CE) stopped at Aquileia on his way to Rome after the suicide/death of Emperor Otho during the Year of the Four Emperors (69 CE). Emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180 CE) made it a primary fortress. After Attila the Hun sacked and destroyed the city in 452 CE, many former residents fled to neighbouring Venice.
Interior of the Basilica: early IVth century mosaic: small panels portraying Christian symbols: (clockwise) The Good Shepherd one of the Seasons woman carrying grapes an angel
Panels of the mosaic such as that portraying the Good Shepherd have a clear Christian meaning, but not all of them. The Four Seasons were a very common subject of mosaics as can be seen at many locations of today's Tunisia. Putti harvesting grapes were also represented in non-Christian mosaics of that country. An angel carrying a laurel wreath is another traditional Greek-Roman subject (which can be found as far as Sassanian Bishapur), but in the panel shown above the angel carries a stylized palm leaf, a Christian symbol for martyrdom, in addition to the laurel wreath.
How to Visit Aquileia
The tourist information office is right on the main road through Aquileia. Stop there and pick up a map. It describes a walk that takes you to all the high spots and ends up at the Basilica. At the end you can visit the Archaeological museum which is also on the main road.
There are numerous places to eat in Aquileia. We ate at the Hotel Patriarchi on the main drag across from the Archaeological Museum. The cheese crackers in the bread basket will knock you out. Try Cjarsons de None, ravioli stuffed with seasonal stuff, in this case potato and spinach, with smoked ricotta salata grated on top with a butter sauce. Yummy cucina povera Friuliano.
We stayed in Grado, a resort city on the lagoon directly south of Aquileia. so there are many restaurants and wine bars as well as an interesting little medieval center. Check Grado Hotels.
Yamoussoukro's Notre-Dame de la Paix, the world's largest basilica - a history of cities in 50 buildings, day 37
In the Ivory Coast’s small and remote capital city stands a church as tall as St Peter’s in Rome, with personal air-conditioning for every seat. It is a bewildering legacy of the country’s ‘founding father’, Félix Houphouët-Boigny
Last modified on Thu 15 Oct 2020 14.33 BST
Notre-Dame de la Paix, built in Ivory Coast’s administrative capital Yamoussoukro between 1985 and 1989, is a church of such national pride that, during the country’s decade of periodic civil conflict, citizens often sought refuge within its walls, knowing it would never be attacked.
Bishop Siméon Ahouna recalls one visitor in particular, General Guéï – who fronted the west African country’s first coup in 1999 and then ruled for 10 months – turning up at the basilica late one night. “It was in 2000, and he came to pray. My advice to him was not to cling to power,” says Ahouna, who heads the foundation charged with looking after the world’s largest basilica. “It wasn’t just him, either whenever there were political crises, people would come and shelter because nobody would ransack here.”
Guéï’s assassination two years later plunged the country into a decade of civil turmoil, the seeds of which had been sown by ageing former president Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Ivory Coast’s “founding father” and the man who built Notre-Dame de la Paix.
As the 1980s drew to a close, Houphouët-Boigny was nearing the end of three decades in power. Under his regime, Ivory Coast had grown rich on the back of cocoa exports and soaring world commodity prices. Not one to do things by halves, the leader affectionately known as “The Old Man” lavished much of that money on monuments – mostly in honour of himself.
Notre-Dame de la Paix is topped by a giant pearl dome that rises to 158 metres. Photograph: Alamy
In the economic capital, Abidjan, he built the towering Hôtel Ivoire, a favourite for French expatriates which for a time possessed the only ice-skating rink in west Africa. His birthplace, Yamoussoukro – formerly a small agricultural village – became home to a palace surrounded by a crocodile-filled lake a visit there inspired VS Naipaul’s celebrated essay “The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro”, in which the writer suggested the reptiles symbolised Houphouët-Boigny’s mystique over his people.
Elsewhere in Africa, other strongmen whose coffers were swelling on the commodity boom were doing similar things. Ivory Coast’s 3,000-metre airport runway was one of only two on the whole continent that was long enough to land a Concorde the other was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire), where President Mobutu Sese Seko built the “Versailles in the Jungle” in his birthplace of Gbadolite.
In 1983, Houphouët-Boigny rechristened Yamoussoukro as his country’s new capital. Another crop of grand monuments followed, including the five-star Hôtel Président and a marble-floored, rarely-used convention centre. But neither embassies nor ministries ever relocated from Abidjan, so Notre-Dame de la Paix’s chosen location was a near-deserted, forest-surrounded town of empty six-lane highways that led nowhere.
The resulting building was – and still is – staggering, nonetheless. A sudden mirage rises on a stretch of lonely scrubland kaleidoscopic stained-glass windows and ivory-white columns are topped with a giant pearl dome that rises 158 metres above the bush. Inside there is standing room for 11,000, while each of the 7,000 seats in the nave has its own personal (Italian-built) air-conditioning system. Five-thousand shades of stained glass make up the windows, including one depicting Houphouët-Boigny kneeling in front of Jesus.
Each of the 7,000 seats in the basilica’s nave has its own personal air-conditioning system. Photograph: Alamy
The history behind Notre-Dame de la Paix’s construction is no less dramatic negotiations with Rome were apparently fraught. Loosely modelled after St Peter’s basilica in the Vatican, Pope John Paul II requested the cupola be slightly lower so as not to surpass the papal one. Houphouët-Boigny complied, but instead topped it with a giant golden cross, making this the world’s tallest church.
Pierre Fakhoury, the celebrated Lebanese–Ivorian architect behind the monument, frequently batted away claims that the basilica was intended to be the world’s largest. “This project from Houphouët was fundamentally driven by his faith. He had a deal with Ivory Coast, but most of all he had a deal with God,” Fakhoury said in an interview on the basilica’s 20th anniversary. “The intention was never to surpass [St Peter’s in] Rome. But we surpassed it because evolutions in architecture … allowed us to go much further than previously possible.”
In light of the basilica’s brash imitation of the Vatican’s holy shrine, a reluctant John Paul II consecrated the building in 1990 only on the condition that a hospital be constructed near the church. To date, that hospital remains unfinished.
Aquileia - View of the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta
Aquileia - Polyptych by Pellegrino da San Daniele
Aquileia - Crypt of Frescoes
Aquileia - Ancient Roman Bronze
A treasure chest of history and beauty in Friuli Venezia Giulia, it lies in the Province of Udine. Traces of the magnificent Roman Empire rest here in Aquileia - a bulwark against the Barbarian Invasions, launching point for expeditions and military conquests, and large commercial hub.Given that it was the fourth-largest city on the Peninsula for number of inhabitants, Aquileia became the Capital of the Augustan region X Regio Venetia et Histria under the dominion of Caesar Augustus.
The ancient cardo (north-south oriented street), forum ruins, civic basilica, mausoleum, thermal baths and city walls make Aquileia one of the most important existing testimonials of ancient Roman grandeur.
Indeed, the city was one of the largest and most prosperous political and administrative towns in the Empire, and in light of its state of conservation, is still a very important example of that civilization in the Mediterranean - so much so that it was added to the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites in 1998 (and also because of the decisive role it played in spreading the Catholic religion).
Located on the banks of the Naissa River (once used to transport exotic goods), this little city was built up along the lagoon west of Trieste. It was founded by the Romans in 181 B.C. as a defense against threats from the Gauls. The ruins of its Roman river port are amazing, and include a quay that is 1,312 ft long, with two docking levels and landing stages paved with stairs (1st century A.D.).
Aquileia owes its good fortune to the numerous roads linking its port to a rich and vast hinterland. This marvelous location bears significant archaeological heritage, explorable by way of the town’s three museums: the Museo Archeologico Nazionale (with many documents dating back to the Roman Era, artisan productions and finds from the ancient city), the Museo Paleocristiano (where the ruins of a large ecclesiastical building are preserved) and the Museo Civico del Patriarcato (protecting sacred wooden and metal reliquaries).
The Patriarchal Basilica is of significant artistic and cultural importance. It is not quite in the town center, but rather parallel Via Sacra, overlooking Piazza del Capitolo together with its baptistery and majestic bell tower.
The oldest nucleus is formed by the Aule Paleocristiane (the Paleochristian Room), built in the 4th Century A.D. by the Bishop Teodoro, with support from the Emperor Constantine. They are lasting proof of the decisive role the city played in spreading Christianity in the early Middle Ages.
The floor mosaics both inside and outside the basilica are magnificent. The basilica also provides access to the Crypt of Frescoes, decorated with rare Byzantine frescoes.
Damage caused by an earthquake of 988 forced the then-Patriarch Poppo to carry out radical restorations in 1031, using Romanesque forms and featuring Carolingian-Ottonian influences. The restorations culminated in the construction of the great Palazzo Patriarcale (later destroyed) and the majestic bell tower, which stands at 230 ft tall and dominates the Friulian countryside.
After further restorations following the earthquake of 1348, the last significant work on the Basilica was carried out in the 16th Century, when Venetian craftsmen and carpenters were called upon to realize the impressive wooden ceiling that can still be admired today. Finally, any visit should include a tour of the Cemetery of the Soldiers who fell in WWI, located just behind the Basilica.
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The A tavola con gli antichi romanifood event takes place between August and September, and allows participants to thoroughly taste typical dishes from ancient Roman gastronomy. As participants enjoy the tastings, a guide illustrates the various recipes and analyzes Roman traditions and customs.
The city was defended by the river Natissa and by a circle of walls, built in the 4th century, which included the port, renovated at the beginning of the Empire. The main monument of the city preserved today is its early Christian basilica, founded on a previous place of worship by the first Bishop of the city, Theodore in 381, the building was the seat of the Council that condemned Arianism. The plan of the first basilica consisted of two large rectangular rooms connected by a third one, to which a baptistery was attached, which originally had an octagonal basin. To this first phase, which reused earlier Roman structures, perhaps belonging to granaries, dates back an exceptional set of polychrome mosaics, preserved in the two rooms south and north, which were used for various functions, such as the celebration of Mass and the teaching of Scripture. The mosaic carpet in the south room (discovered only in 1919), which preserves a dedication by Bishop Theodore, is partly consecrated to the history of Jonah, as handed down in the Old Testament: with its 760 m² it is the largest mosaic in the Western world. That of the north room, of 645 m 2 , evokes a paradise populated by all kinds of animals and plants. The two rooms have also preserved remains of their wall decoration, made up of panels painted with geometric, animal and plant motifs. The basilica owes its present appearance to reconstruction work begun in the 11th century by Patriarch Poppone, interrupted by several earthquakes, and continued until the 14th century. The building, mainly Romanesque in style, with some Gothic additions, now has a cruciform plan, divided into three naves and including a transept, with an imposing bell tower dating back to the 11th century, 73 m high.