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The best things to see at Aquileia, Italy
The bus rumbles along the simple country road, past fields and unsealed paths leading to more fields. We pass the occasional farmhouse and go through a couple of towns.
I push the button to stop the bus and it pulls up in the town of Aquileia. I jump off and look around. In many ways, it looks just like any other small Italian town.
But I’m here for a particular reason, so I know that’s not the case. It may be hard to believe, looking at it today, but Aquileia was once one of the largest and wealthiest Roman cities in history.
It was the location of Aquileia that played a large part in its rise to power. It is located at the northern tip of the Adriatic Sea, on the path connecting the Italian peninsula to Eastern Europe (and beyond). But, perhaps more importantly, it was also the perfect location for a strategic river port.
Aquileia was founded in 181 BC but it only survived as a major urban centre until 452 AD when it was destroyed by Attila the Hun. But during that period it prospered, with an estimated population of up to 200,000 people.
Grand buildings were constructed in Aquileia and it had the lavish infrastructure that you would expect in a city that emperors saw as vital for the future of the empire.
But, beyond that, Aquileia also played a key role in the evangelisation of Central Europe, spreading the Catholic faith to regions where it is still the dominant faith today. For that reason, some of the most important buildings in the city are the religious ones – particularly the Aquileia Basilica – and they are considered to be among the best examples of Early Christian art and architecture in the world.
Some of the original city still stands today – and, in fact, it’s quite incredible how much you can see, considering its age. There are other parts of the city that archaeologists have excavated and they are presented well. And there’s still a lot more underground, yet to be uncovered, although work is continuing.
As I explore Aquileia, I’m amazed by the amount of sites there are to see here. But even beyond that, it’s so impressive to see the significance of the historical remains here, and how well they have been restored and preserved.
Some of the things I see here are world-class. It’s quite hard to believe that they’re not more famous, that they are not on the radar of more travellers.
That’s especially true considering that Aquileia is just 100 kilometres away from Venice, one of the busiest tourist cities in Italy (if not the world). Yet almost none of those visitors take the time to come and see such an important Roman metropolis.
But they should. And that’s one of the reasons that Aquileia is part of the Ancient theme in the World Heritage Journeys of Europe project, which has brought me here. The aim is to show people the heritage sites that are important – and worth visiting – but perhaps don’t get the same kind of attention as the big tourist sites.
To give you a sense of what you’ll find here, let me run you through my suggestions for the best things to see in Aquileia. As you’ll see, there’s probably more than you would expect
There’s no doubt that the highlight of the town is the Aquileia Basilica, one of the most important religious buildings in Italy (and that’s saying something!).
What makes it so special is the enormous mosaic floor that you’ll see as soon as you go in. It’s huge, stretching out over the whole main building, and measures about 750 square metres. It was created in the 4th century and is the western world’s largest Early Christian mosaic.
There is an elevated pathway down one side of the church that I walk along to get a better view. The floor is made up of lots of smaller mosaics, each symbolising something.
There is the battle between the rooster and the tortoise, for example, the rooster representing the light (Christ) and the tortoise representing evil.
There are images of specific people, benefactors of the church. There are symbols of nature – animals, plants, seasons.
Of course, there are stories from the Bible, and the most striking here is the tale of Jonah. Over three different mosaic artworks, we can see the scenes of Jonah being eaten by a sea monster and then throwing him up.
It takes quite a long time to look at it all properly, and it certainly helps to have a guide or a guidebook to explain what it all represents. There are a lot of hidden meanings in the artworks that only become apparent with an expert explanation.
It’s also important to understand that the basilica we see today is a result of more than 1500 years of work. Over the centuries, much has been changed and added to. For instance, the incredible mosaics were only revealed in the early 1900s after a tiled floor that was built over them in the Middle Ages was removed.
The Crypt of Frescoes
At the end of the basilica, down some stairs, is the Crypt of Frescoes, which shows another stage of the church’s development.
This space is small in comparison to the overall basilica structure, but seems expansive because of the colourful frescoes that have been painted all across the ceiling. They bring life to the crypt.
The room was built in the 9th century but the frescoes have been dated to the 12th century. They are made up of 19 scenes that tell the story of the History of Hermagora and the origins of Christianity in Aquileia.
The Crypt of Excavations
Also connected to the main basilica is the Crypt of Excavations, an area where you can see more about the development of mosaics in Aquileia.
This underground archaeological site has uncovered parts of old residences and religious buildings that were once part of the basilica complex. Some of the mosaic artworks are geometric shapes, while others are more complex animal images and scenes of nature.
It’s impressive how vibrant some of them are, and how well done the recent work to uncover some of them is.
Just near the main entrance to the Aquileia Basilica, you’ll find a separate building that houses the Baptistry. At first glance, it is rather simple, without the intricate decoration that you find in the main area. But, as I stand there and take it in, I start to appreciate its elegance.
The beauty of the Baptistry comes from the six-sided font and the six columns that surround it. It sits in the middle of the octagonal room with the textured brick walls and a chandelier hanging down in the centre.
The Chromatius Hall (South Hall)
The Baptistry is attached to the South Hall, where there’s another display of mosaics, these ones from the time of a bishop called Chromatius (hence the name). There are some black marks here and legend says they are from fires started when Attila the Hun attacked in 452 AD.
The most significant part of the hall is the colourful mosaic of a peacock that is hanging on the wall. The peacock represents immortality and so is a symbol of the resurrection of Christ. It is from the late 4th century and was discovered in a corridor connecting the hall with the basilica.
It doesn’t matter from which direction you approach the basilica, the first thing you’ll probably notice is the enormous bell tower right next to it.
The bell tower is not technically connected to the church, though, and was built in the 11th century and then expanded in the 14th century. It’s now 73 metres high.
You can go into the bell tower and climb up to the top for great views across the city, which give you some perspective to how this great Roman city would once have been laid out.
When it comes to the urban layout of Aquileia, the most important element to take into account is the river port. This was key to the prosperity of the city and was as important as anything else here during Roman times.
The Natisone River flowed along a slightly different route to where it is now, so when you visit the river port, you’ll be able to see the outline of where the water once was – but the bed will be dry. That’s actually better, because it means you can see the constructions better.
And there were a lot of constructions here. You can see the quays, where the goods were loaded and unloaded; the walls of the warehouses, where goods were stored before they were transported further; and the city walls, that protected the main area from attacks.
There are various other elements that are interesting, like the fortifications to protect the port itself, and the special stones used to moor the boats.
You can get a good view of it all by walking along the tree-lined path through the landscaped garden that also has other Roman artefacts on display.
At the end of the pathway along the river port, you can curve back around to the Forum, which would have been the main gathering place of the city, with markets, businesses, and temples. It’s where the most important public meeting would’ve taken place.
Although the Forum would’ve been established at the founding of the city in the 2nd century BC, the current layout is from about 400 years later.
There are now just 14 columns but there would once have been 50 columns along each long side and 22 along each of the short side. The main buildings have also been destroyed and haven’t been restored. However, you can see some of the detailed stone carvings that were found here.
If, from the Forum, you cross over the main modern road through town, you’ll reach the remains of an old Roman road. You can see the stones they used to cover the ground, and there are other remnants displayed along the side.
Although you get a good view as you’re walking past, you can only go inside with a guide, which is how I manage to get up close. We follow the road and then take a little detour over some hillocks, and come across some archaeology students working on an excavation.
We stop to chat and I learn that these are the Great Baths of Aquileia, a complex system of heated and cold water baths that the Romans constructed early in the 4th century.
In terms of area, they would have been as large as the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, but most of the area hasn’t been uncovered. It’s actually mainly used for students as a site to practice and learn, and people have been working on it for decades.
Nearby is a small necropolis that has been completely excavated. It was found in 1939 on a secondary road that led north from the city.
There are five burial enclosures, which would have belonged to five wealthy families from Aquileia. There are tombs shaped as altars that are from the 1st century AD, while the sarcophagi and coffins are from about 200 years later.
Although there would be other Roman burial grounds around Aquileia, this is the only one that’s been uncovered.
In fact, most of Aquileia is still uncovered. You only have to imagine an enormous and wealthy city of 200,000 people to realise that what you can see today is just a tiny fraction of what must have once existed here.
But excavation work is slowly progressing and there are new discoveries all the time. When I visit, I get a sneak peek at a Roman house that has been excavated and will soon be open to the public.
It would once have been owned by a wealthy family who would’ve used part of it as a shopfront, so presumably they were some type of merchant.
The floors of the home were decorated with colourful and intricate mosaics and they will be the centrepiece for visitors. They have been carefully restored and will be on display so people can see them from elevated walkways that lead through the house.
National Archaeological Museum of Aquileia
While many of the mosaics in Aquileia have been left in situ, others have been moved – along with other important artefacts – to the National Archaeological Museum of Aquileia, on the town’s main street.
It’s a large building with 12 rooms across 3 floors and has an excellent collection of the most important pieces from the region. You’ll find a lot of items from the Roman period, such as statues, inscriptions, mosaics, glassware, and more. There’s also good detailed information about life in Aquileia.
Don’t miss the outdoor exhibition behind the main building, where there are hundreds more pieces (mainly stone inscriptions and burial monuments) on display. In fact, there are so many, it’s a little crazy!
Early Christian Museum
And, finally, I’d like to suggest you also visit the Early Christian Museum, a simple but excellent museum on the site of an ancient basilica that was turned into a Benedictine convent in the 9th century.
It’s like a much smaller version of the Aquileia Basilicia, with a walkway that takes you above the floor full of mosaics and the low foundations of the walls of the original building. You’ll be able to see some interesting geometric designs, as well as images of nature. Head up to the balcony on the second floor to see it from above.
There are pieces from other churches on display here – the most precious ones are a slab with christening scene from the 4th century, and an unfinished relief with Saints Peter and Paul.
For my visit to Aquileia, I spend the night to give myself the time to explore it properly. It is possible to do it as a day trip – from Venice, for example – but it would be a long day.
My recommendation (especially if you’re using public transport) is to give yourself a night in town and take your time to explore. The Basilica alone could take hours if you want to look at it all properly and appreciate everything that Aquileia stands for.