This time I take the stand.
A number of years ago I spent a week in Friuli Venezia Giulia as a guest of the Region’s tourism board; it was a very interesting experience and they did a fine job of laying out a program that would be of interest to both wine and travel writers (all English speaking, and as a rule neither group knows much about the other’s field). Two of the towns that most impressed me were Cividale and Aquileia.
Like many towns in Friuli Venezia Giulia, Cividale was founded by the Romans, in about 50 BC. Julius Caesar declared it a Municipium, and it remained a center of government over the centuries; the Longobards occupied it in 568 and Alboino made it the capital of the first duchy established in the Longobard Kingdom of Italy. Subsequently Cividale also hosted the Patriarch of Aquileia, and in 1420 passed into the Venetian sphere of influence, together with much of the rest of the region.
The town sits astride a deep gorge, and its most distinctive landmark is the Ponte del Diavolo or Devil’s Bridge, a bold two-arch span whose central pillar rests upon a huge rock said to have been cast into the Natisone River by the devil himself (it was built in the 1600s and rebuilt following the devastations of WWI). The road across the bridge leads into the heart of town, past an artificially dug out cave called the Ipogeo Celtico (it’s also known as the Roman or Longobard prison) and on to the Duomo, which was rebuilt following an earthquake in 1448. There are a number of nice artworks in the Duomo, and it also hosts a Christian museum that has some of the finest Longobard Christian art in Italy, including Patriarch Callisto’s octagonal baptismal font, with beautiful bas reliefs, and an unusual Visitation in which both Mary and Elisabeth look (to me) like old men. In addition to the Duomo there’s the Tempietto Longobardo (follow the signs), a beautiful chapel with 8th Century carvings and more recent frescos, overlooking the Natisone River (follow the signs), and the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, which is in a Palladian palace; it hosts a variety of artifacts and mosaics dating to both the Roman and Medieval periods, and also the most important Italian collection of Lombard artifacts. Once you have seen all you want to of art and museums, Cividale has many pretty streets and squares, and the city walls, with their ramparts and gates, are also nice.
A visit to Cividale will take about a day. What to do on the second day of the weekend?
If you want to see more Roman things, Aquileia would be an excellent bet; it’s about a half hour’s drive down towards the coast. Don’t be too taken aback by the appearance of the modern town, which is small and sleepy — there used to be a river here, which was deep enough (its Roman name, Aquilis, means dark (deep) waters) to be easily navigable, and as a result the pre-Roman settlement on the river banks was the southern terminus of the trade route that brought Baltic amber to the Mediterranean basin. The Romans established their colony on the site in 181 BC and it soon became a major fluvial port, serving the merchants, but perhaps more importantly, the army as well:
Aquileia was the staging area from whence the Roman Legions departed to conquer Dalmatia, Illirya, and Pannonia, and many Legions had their winter camps around the town. Because of all this activity Roman Aquileia was much larger than the modern town (100,000 inhabitants as opposed to 3,500), and was also quite wealthy, with a large, elegant Forum not far from the port, baths, an amphitheater, and one of the two Circuses (tracks for chariot racing) in Northern Italy — the other was in what is now Milano. Alas, many of the Roman structures were quarried for building materials in subsequent periods, but the Forum is still there, as is the port, which has a number of blocks with inscriptions turned sideways — the Romans recycled too — and it’s fun to imagine what the docks must have been like, with the coming and going of boats and the many artisans who opened shops nearby to transform the raw materials brought in from the provinces.
Much of what they did then went back to the merchants to be sold elsewhere, but you can see what the local notables had in their homes (when I visited only wealthy homes had been excavated, while the poorer section of town had not yet been found) in the Archaeological museum. Statuary, of course, but also very fine bronzes, for example a lamp shaped like a foot, beautiful mirrors, intricate keys, finely carved amber figurines, gold coins, bottles and glasses, belt buckles, and more; the policandion (a kind of chandelier), from a building that may have been burned by Attila, is worth a journey, as are some of the floor mosaics under the portico outside the museum, in particular one from a Roman dining room that shows all the stuff — fish heads and the like — that they discarded as they ate, and another, with Europa and the Bull.
Aquileia changed with the times, of course, and the policandion found in the building Attila burned was decorated with Christian symbols. You’ll find many more in the floor mosaics of the Patriarchal Basilica, which were laid down under the direction of Bishop Teodoro during the reign of Constantine (the Emperor had a palace in Aquileia), and are among the finest I’ve seen. About a third of the floor is dedicated to 12 fishermen, a reference to Christ’s transforming his Apostles into fishers of men, and there’s much more, including large fish, who symbolize Christ, schools of fish, who symbolize Christians, birds in the trees, who symbolize paradise, a rooster, who symbolizes light, facing off against a turtle, symbol of darkness, the Good Shepherd, and portraits of those who commissioned the mosaics. Once you’ve finished admiring the mosaics, there’s the crypt, which dates to the 8th century though the frescoes are from the 12th, and an unusual reconstruction of the Holy Sepulcher built by knights returning from the crusades.
In short, Aquileia is well worth a journey. Afterwards? There are Roman tombs outside the city limits, or, if you’d rather a change of pace, it’s just a few minutes to the beaches on the coast.