It might be tempting to say that after our trip to Northern Italy to visit all the major Byzantines sites, and to view the mosaics, that we may be suffering from ‘mosaic fatigue’ or even worse ‘Mosaic Neck’ after standing and looking up in awe at the wonderful art we saw, but nothing could be further from the truth. We have returned satiated, full, replete, totally happy with our holiday, and eager for more.
The goal was primarily to have a great holiday, and how could we fail in Italy, with warm autumnal sunshine, excellent food, good wine, lashings of espresso, and that all round Dolce Vita style you find in that great country? However, nothing could have prepared us for the Byzantine monuments and art that we found. We were at all times entranced by the superb imagery and the detail to be found in this art form perfected in Constantinople that evolved and made its way around the Mediterranean as far as Moorish Spain and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. At the back of our mind was always the thought that if these wonders were to be found in what was effectively a relatively remote province of the Empire, what marvels must have existed in the Queen of Cities herself? What treasures have been lost? It is fortunate for us that Ravenna and Venice were so far from the destruction wrought by the Ottomans.
We spent our first three days in and around Aquileia which is to be found in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region. The town was once a very prosperous Roman military garrison town but in the fifth century its fortunes declined following at first an attack by Alaric and his Goths, and then finally it was sacked by Attila the Hun in 452 after a three month siege. It is now a quiet place of around 3,000 souls sited on the flat plain, overlooked by the Dolomites to the north which were the setting for the start of Hemingway’s excellent and tragic novel “A Farewell to Arms”. It would appear that if you dig down about one metre anywhere in the environs of Aquileia you will find some Roman remains, and beyond the town you will find Roman cemeteries with more funerary urns than you can shake a stick at; they have so many that the town’s National Archaeological Museum has created pyramids of urns in the museum garden.
The Basilica is one of the oldest churches in Christendom built almost immediately after the Edict of Milan in which the Emperors of the Eastern and Western Empire, Licinius and Constantine respectively agreed to tolerate Christians within the Empire. The early church had two naves both of which had mosaic floors paid for by patrons, or sponsors, many of whom we can identify today by name, and whose images have been incorporated into the floors.
After an earthquake in 1348 the Basilica was rebuilt and these mosaic floors were covered up by almost one metre of debris and a new floor. Columns were sunk into the mosaic floor which damaged it. The western nave was demolished to make way for the campinale which is a massive structure. Considerable parts of the mosaic floor remain and can be viewed underground. The effect of the weight of the tower can be seen in this picture as it presses down; the tower is a sinking, and not a leaning, tower!
The mosaic floor in the eastern nave covers an area of 760 sq m.
Despite the effects of damp, column damage and subsidence, the images are as alive today as when they were first laid over one thousand six hundred years ago. The main themes are of Jonah and the Whale and the Apostles fishing in an abundant sea.
In the Crypt of the Fescoes there are some murals of St Hermagoras which are in fair condition. St Hermagoras was the first bishop of Aquileia. The murals depict scenes from his life and show events in the development of Aquileia as an important Christian centre with its own Patriarchy. The images below show a crusader and the graphic death of the Saint.
Whilst there was a lot to see in Aquileia it was a very quiet place (which had its benefits) but we found no really good places to eat. The Hotel Patriarchi was comfortable with good sized rooms (Euro 44 per person per night) and service.
There was a big contrast with Aquileia’s lively and bumptious neighbour Grado. This town just ten minutes drive south along a causeway across a lagoon was an early rival to Venice. It has a couple of canals and is now very popular with Italians seeking a beach holiday. Grado was a competitor of Aquileia and at one time had its own Patriarchy. It was a place of refuge for the citizens of Aquileia during attacks by barbarian invaders. Grado offers a good alternative as a place to stay with many hotels and excellent restaurants with fish being the speciality. It is well worth a visit for a day to view its Byzantine past. It includes the Basilica of St Eufemia with a splendid Byzantine pulpit and a large mosaic pavement that you can walk upon, and the church of St Mary nearby. It is fun just wandering around its narrow streets.
If visiting Aquileia other places of note are the museum, the old Roman port, the Christian Paleo-Christian Museum (with more mosaics and some wonderfully lively early Christian headstones which show the real belief of the early Christians that the second coming of Christ was close at hand, and the certainty of their own Resurrection in Christ).
In the rear garden of the Basilica is a particularly poignant war cemetery to some of the Italian soldiers who died fighting the Austro-Hungarians in the mountains to the north during WW1. The brewery five minutes away in San Lorenzo is also a pleasant place to while away a couple of hours and to sample the local beer. The town is apparently not ever particularly busy and we were able to enjoy time sitting in a cafe in the square in front of the Basilica drinking coffee and enjoying some simple pasta dishes.
On the way to our next destination, Venice, we stopped for lunch in Concordia Sagittaria to visit the 11C Baptistery.
It was a very warm Sunday afternoon and we arrived just as a baptism ended in the Baptistery and a typically chaotic Italian wedding was taking place in the church (not particularly worth a visit). Situated just 3 km south of Porto Gruaro on a river teeming with fish, pleasant and spacious, Concordia is the sort of place that makes an ideal stop for refreshment when on a journey.
I am busy preparing the next article about our time in Venice which obviously included a visit to St Mark’s, but also gave us the wonderful surprise of an exhibition about Torcello at the Museo Diocesano di Venezia (very close to the Bridge of Sighs). This is like the London Byzantium 330-1453 Exhibition but without the crowds. If you are going to Venice it is a ‘must see’. The exhibition runs until 10 January 2010. Then you follow that up with a visit to the island itself on the lagoon and its 1,000 year old Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta with stunning mosaics in the nave and apse. Exhibition entry is 5 Euro and includes entry to the Basilica on the island. In Venice that is terrific value!