Aquileia, the Ruins and the Basilica

Aquileia, with its immense archaeological site and its Patriarchal Basilica, is an artistic and historical treasure trove. Located in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia (Udine Province), it was added to Italy’s register of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1998. It was also one of the largest and richest Mediterranean cities within the Roman Empire, and eventually was made seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate that lasted until 1751. Thus, Aquileia became a dominant hub of the Christian world for Central Europe from the Middle Ages to the 18th Century. The archaeological excavations have not brought to light everything regarding the the Roman Era city; nevertheless those that have been found are certainly one of the best-preserved testimonies to Ancient Rome’s grandeur. Among the jewels of this city? Aquileia’s Patriarchal Basilica, built c. 1000, and brilliant with its magnificent 4th-Century mosaics. It is an impressive work of religious architecture.

Founded by the Romans as a military outpost against the Barbarians in 181 B.C., Aquileia, given its position on the River Natissa, grew into an important trade and commerce center. Gradually it turned out as one of the most thriving cities in the Empire, yet saw partial destruction once Attila the Hun arrived. Its Forum, the Basilica (Roman Government building), the macellum or indoor produce market, the baths, the Mausoleum, residential complexes, defensive walls, the Sepolcreto Romano, the circus (or racing arena) and the amphitheatre are all still visible in part today, as are the ruins on the river port, complete with warehouses and piers. Dating back to the 2nd-3rd Century A.D., Aquileia’s forum was the heart of public life. Note the splendid Basilica – facing south, the section of it so far excavated – civic hall for Governmental affair

Sorgono leggermente decentrati rispetto al centro di Aquileia invece, il Battistero e la Basilica Patriarcale, simbolo di Aquileia, completata, con il suo Campanile, nel 1031, per volere del patriarca Popone. La Basilica è il risultato del radicale restauro di un complesso religioso risalente al IV sec. d.C., danneggiato da invasioni barbariche e terremoti. Rimangono, di questo originario complesso, le Aule Paleocristiane fatte costruire dal vescovo Teodoro e il mosaico pavimentale.

Standing slightly away from the center of the city are the Baptistry and Patriarchal Basilica, symbol of Aquileia that was completed in 1031 (including the bell tower) with the commission of the Patriarch Popone. This new Basilica constituted a radical restoration of the most ancient religious complex (from the 4th Century B.C.) that had been damaged by the Barbarian Invasions and earthquakes. The ruins of the former Basilica include the Paleochristian Complex, built by the Bishop Theodorus, and the floor mosaic, also 4th Century, depicting scenes from the Old Testament.

The floor mosaic was not discovered until the beginning of the 1900s, when the flooring that had been laid in later centuries was removed. Other ancient remains and mosaics were found in the so-called “Slaves’ Crypt,” accessible from inside the Basilica. Not only, but the “Crypt of Frescoes” holds Byzantine-style frescoes from the 1100s. The Basilica as is today is in the Romanesque, with a few Gothic details (added in 1348) and Renaissance additions that were the fruit of successive renovations.

The Roman and Paleochristian ruins can be visited in large part in three of Aquileia’s museums: the National Archaeological Museum, the Paleochristian Museum and the Civic Museum of the Patriarchate. 

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For those looking to live the fascinating history and art – mixed in with the emotion and relaxation that the beautiful nearby mountains can offer – visitors can get to some of the best-equipped ski resorts of Friulia Venezia Giulia quite easily from Aquileia. It is worth the trip to enjoy the gorgeous scenery, some winter sports, and the delicious local cuisine, the focal point of which is the famous prosciutto of San Daniele. If it is a city of art you prefer, Trieste is less than an hour away, sitting on Italy’s border with neighboring country Slovenia. Immerse yourselves in the ancient charm of the magnificent Piazza dell'Unità d'Italia and the Miramare Castle that looks out on a splendidly blue Adriatic Sea.

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