Archaeological Area and the Patriarchal Basilica of Aquileia
Archaeological Area And The Patriarchal Basilica Of Aquileia
Cultural Italy Europe And North America Province Of Udine, Friuli-venezia Giulia Region

By virtue of the fact that most of ancient Aquileia, one of the largest and most wealthy cities of the early Roman Empire, survives intact and unexcavated, it is the most complete example of an early Roman city in the Mediterranean world. The Patriarchal Basilican Complex in Aquileia played a decisive role in the spread of Christianity into central Europe in the early Middle Ages.

Aquileia was founded by the Romans as a Latin colony in 181 BC in the north-eastern corner of the plain of the Po as an outpost against Gallic and Istrian barbarians. It quickly became a major trading centre, linking central Europe with the Mediterranean. By 90 BC it had been elevated to the status of municipium and its citizens were accorded full rights of Roman citizenship. Its wealth resulted in the town being endowed with many magnificent public buildings, and the private residences of its rich merchants were opulently decorated. During the 4th century imperial residences were built in Aquileia, and it was the seat of the Imperial Mint between AD 284 and AD 425. Of particular importance was the construction in the second decade of the 4th century of a basilica, following the sanctioning of public worship by the Edict of Milan in 313. All this was to come to a violent end in 452, when Aquileia was sacked by the Huns led by Attila. Its mercantile role was assumed later by Venice. However, Aquileia retained its spiritual significance, becoming the seat of a patriarchate which survived until 1751, and played a key role in the evangelization of this region.

Excavations have revealed part of the forum and its Roman basilica, the Republican macellum , one of the sets of baths, and two luxurious residential complexes. Outside the late city walls, a cemetery with some impressive funerary monuments, the amphitheatre and the circus have been revealed. The most striking remains of the Roman city are those of the port installations, a row of warehouses and quays that stretch a long distance along the bank of the river.

The dominant feature of Aquileia is the basilica. Bishop Theodorus constructed a horseshoe-shaped complex of three main halls, but this proved inadequate to house the worshippers and pilgrims and so in 345 a vast structure replaced the northern arm. This was destroyed by the Huns, along with the entire complex, and never rebuilt. When the survivors returned they concentrated on the ruins of the southern hall, which was restored. After a period of neglect, work was begun in the 9th century by Bishop Maxentius, with financial support from Charlemagne. Despite severe damage during the 10th-century Magyar invasions and an earthquake in 988, the work was completed in 1031. The basilica is essentially Romanesque, although there are some Gothic features resulting from reconstruction after an earthquake in 1348. The most striking feature of the interior is the huge mosaic in the southern hall of the 4th-century structure, not revealed until the 11th-century clay floor was removed in 1909. The subjects depicted include symbolic subjects, portraits of donors, scenes from the Gospels and dedicatory inscriptions. At the eastern end is a sea scene with twelve fishermen, representing the Apostles, along with the story of the prophet Jonah. At the east end the crypt of the frescoes, dating from the 6th or 7th centuries, was constructed to house relics of martyrs.

A door at the east end of the basilica gives access to the Crypt of the Excavations, revealed during the early decades of the 20th century. Here are preserved mosaics from the 1st-century suburban villa selected as the site of the basilica in the 4th century, and the foundations of the transverse and north halls of the complex not rebuilt after destruction by Attila. The mosaics are enigmatic in subject matter, full of references to esoteric cults. The west entrance to the basilica is sheltered by a portico built in the early 9th century, which gives access to the contemporary baptistry. This is typically octagonal in plan and encloses a hexagonal baptismal pool, reproducing the Chi-Rho monogram of Christ. This is surrounded by a colonnade supporting an ambulatory. The final component of the complex is the bell tower, a massive structure that has survived unscathed since it was built in 1031. There is a second basilical complex at Monastero, now serving as the Palaeo-Christian Museum. This equally imposing 4th-century structure also houses a remarkable floor mosaic.