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Blog: Another piece of the Longobard puzzle

The Longobards took over a town called Forum Iulii from the Byzantines in the year 568. They established their first ‘Italian’ capital here and named it ‘Civitas Austriae’ or ‘City of the East’ (later italianized into 'Cividale'). Like their Roman predecessors, they went on to erect prestigious religious and private buildings to assert their power.

This early medieval city has ended up as one of the seven locations comprising the Longobards in Italy WHS. Four of the other inscribed locations I have visited in previous years: intriguing buildings that made me curious for probably the prime example among the Longobard WHS locations: Cividale dei Friuli.

Very fine stucco in Cividale's Tempietto Longobardo

Cividale lies in the far northeast of Italy, just south of the Alps. It seems somewhat hard to reach by public transport. But a private railway company called ‘Ferrovie Udine Cividale’ runs an hourly train between Udine and Cividale. Its schedule will not show up at the Trenitalia website & is missing too from the Google Maps directions. One of the first things that I noticed upon arrival was a road sign pointing to nearby Slovenia (17km away). And the town center has a definite Austrian feel about it.

So far during this mini-break, travelling way out of season to northeastern Italy had not hindered me. My previous two days in Aquileia and Venice respectively were a success. Dissecting the places to see in Cividale and checking their opening hours, I became aware that I could not enter the ‘Duomo’s Treasure Museum’ as it is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. This museum houses two of the most important works of Longobard sculpture that have been found. But from the main Longobard highlights there still would be the Tempietto Longobardo and the Archaeological Museum left. The core zone of this WHS is pretty small, comprising the two almost adjacent areas of Gastaldaga and the Episcopal Complex.

Tempietto Longobardo, a building in a building

The so-called ‘Tempietto Longobardo’ is encapsulated by the ‘Monastery Santa Maria in Valle’ in the Gastaldaga neighbourhood. Via this more recent Benedictine monastery one gets access to the Longobard temple. After paying for my ticket, I was whisked away by one of the ladies there without any explanation. We speeded through the monastery, went up some stairs and suddenly we stood before medieval frescoes on a stone wall. We had come to what was the outer wall of the Tempietto. The lady pointed to some windows on the other side, from where I was able to peek into the little church. Only then it dawned on me that I would not be able to get into the old building itself, as it is being restored!

Disappointed as I was, I tried to make the most out of the view from the windows. One positive side is that you’re almost on the same level as the famous stucco decoration of 7 female figures (see first photo). The other decorations, including frescoes and mosaics, I was not able to see. The Tempietto probably served as the royal chapel for the Lombard dukes and king.

Typical Longobard S-shaped fibula

After some 15 minutes I was back on the streets again. It was drizzling slightly, so a perfect timing for a visit to the Archaeological Museum. Here I was the only visitor too: they had to deliberately switch on and off the lighting in the various exhibition rooms for me. I did take my time though, as their Longobard collection is excellent. Numerous graves were found in this region, and the skeletons are on display in the museum together with what remains of their belongings. I even noticed a horse burial. Another recurring theme in the Longobard exhibition is the ‘S-shaped fibula’. This must really have been a fashionable thing to wear among Longobard women (it’s a kind of brooch).

So that was about it. When I left the museum I made a detour to the Celtic Hypogeum (a mysterious subterranean structure that could have been a Celtic funerary monument or a Roman or Lombard jail), but this was closed too. Cividale may be just too much off the beaten track to fully cater to visitors during the winter months.

Published 5 March 2016

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