The Archaeological Area and the Patriarchal Basilica of Aquileia comprises the remains of a city from the Early Roman Empire, that continued to be of religious importance thereafter in spreading Christianity into central Europe.
It was a major trading center in its heydays, connected via the river Natiso to the Adriatic Sea. In 452 Aquileia was sacked by Attila’s Huns and most of its inhabitants moved away.
The Ancient Roman City is mostly unexcavated, with traces of the forum, the river port, tombs and houses visible above ground.
The Patriarchal Basilica’s main feature is its 37x20m mosaic floor dating from the 4th century. It was part of the original basilica, that has been rebuilt in the 11th century in romanesque style and later further embellished in gothic style.
The site, which covers most of the current small town of Aquileia, also includes a second basilican complex. This 5th century construction now houses the Palaeochristian Museum and also has a remarkable floor mosaic.
Map of Aquileia
Visit February 2016
Aquileia is a town in the far northeast of Italy, situated between Venice and Trieste. This frontier location is what made it into a WHS as well: founded as a Latin colony in 181 BC, it rose to a respectable position as Adriatic port, trading centre and seat of a patriarchate whose territory extended to large parts of modern Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia. Aquileia had 100,000 inhabitants in the 2nd century AD – today there are only 3,500 and the town has fallen almost into oblivion.
I arrived in Aquileia on a bright sunny Saturday afternoon – the town would be my base for 4 days in the wider Venice region. Originally I had booked a hotel in Cervignano, but I cancelled it a week ago – a good choice so it seemed, as Cervignano appeared to be nothing more than a sleepy transport hub when I passed through it getting off the train from Venezia Mestre. Aquileia is much nicer: very compact, and just touristy enough to have several restaurants and frequent bus links within the region.
The WHS encompasses the whole town center, but the focus is on the Patriarchal Basilica and the Early Roman ruins. The Basilica’s tower can be seen from afar, it is the landmark of Aquileia. I started my sightseeing here at the Patriarchial Complex. I bought my ticket at the Baptistery: for 9 EUR you receive a combination ticket that gives access to all parts of the complex. The octagonal Baptistery lies across from the main church. It has its floor mosaics, and there are re-used pagan sarcophagi on display. Both date from the 4th and 5th century.
This is only an appetizer for what is on show in the Basilica itself. There the floor is fully covered in mosaics (37x20m!). Visitors walk a meter or so above it on a plexiglass cover. Not surprisingly for a port there are many marine scenes: fish, fishermen and octopus are all immortalized in mosaic. But there are also ‘portraits’ of recognizable human beings, possibly of donors. Twice I noticed a depiction of the struggle between a cock and a tortoise, symbolizing Christianity versus paganism.
At either side of the Basilica lies a crypt. The one at the far end is the Crypt of the Frescoes. It has colourful 12th century murals on its walls and vaults. Part of it is under restoration at the moment, but you can still see most of the frescoes. They illustrate the lives of Saint Mark and Saint Hermagora, the latter being the first bishop of Aquileia. The crypt to the left of the entrance is called the Crypt of the Excavations. These actually are the excavations of a corridor, with more mosaics and some visible parts of a Roman villa.
After spending an hour in and around the Basilica, I walked on along Aquileia’s main street to the Roman ruins. These comprise several locations within a few minutes walk from each other. There’s no entrance fee, but the sites are fenced off and signage tells that they close at 4 p.m. in winter. The gates were open until at least an hour after that fortunately, otherwise my visit would have been very short. While there is nothing mindblowing to see, three of the excavations stand out in my opinion. The Forum has one row of capitols left, which picturesquely stand out against the Basilica’s Tower. Across the street lies a large mausoleum from the 1st century AD, which was found a few kilometer outside Aquileia.
Most typical for Aquileia however are the remains of the ancient port. They’ve created a nice shady path for a stroll along the river (now a mere ditch). The silhouettes of warehouses and quays are easily discernable. A few information panels give some background story, but it is hard to imagine the hustle and bustle that was going on here over 2,000 years ago.
Although Aquileia is surely worth a detour, I would not rate its Early Christian / Byzantine features as high as Ravenna (the WHS to which it is often compared). The mosaic floor is great, but especially the frescoes in the Crypt disappointed me. And you wouldn’t surely come here for the Roman archaeogical site alone, of which there are many better preserved examples in the Mediterranean. I had been reading the (rather long and repetitive) book SPQR on the plane and in the train on my way to Aquileia. It now and then touches on the plight of ‘Latin colonies’ such as Aquileia – outposts loosely linked to Rome, inhabited by non-Roman citizens (at least until the year 90 BC). After finishing the book and this visit I am left somewhat but not a whole lot wiser regarding this subject.
I really enjoyed my visit to this WHS, way more than I was expecting. Having seen both Roman ruins and Mosaics elsewhere, I wasn't expecting to be impressed.
However, the huge Roman Mosaic covering almost the entire floor of the Basilica is one of the most breathtaking that I have ever seen. Both its scale and content are impressive, I particularly enjoyed the fishing scenes.
Also in the Basilica are two crypts, one of Frescos, one of Excavations. I visited only the former and again, found the frescos to be better than I imagined. The colours are vivid and the emotions depicted on the subjects faces are incredible.
The cost for the Basilica and Crypt of Frescos is EUR 5, an additional couple of Euros buys you entrance to the Crypt of Excavations and another 2 euros for the climb to the bell tower.
Wandering around the additional roman ruins (for free) is a low-key event but enjoyable nevertheless, especially the warehouse and port ruins, which I haven't seen much of previously.
I went to Aquileia on a stifling day in July 2015 on my way from the Longobard town of Cividale del Friuli to Trieste Airport, which is located nearby. The tourist information office gave us a map showing that the components of the World Heritage Site were all within easy walking distance of one another. Aquileia's aren’t the most exciting Roman ruins, but they are at least free to wander around.
The centrepiece basilica complex is a rewarding visit. Be sure to go inside the smaller of the two crypts, where you will see primitive but riotously colourful frescos adorning the walls and ceilings. There is not much to see from the top of the belltower, but the 760 sq metre mosaic in the basilica is not to be missed.
I wasn't as impressed by Aquileia as some of the other reviewers, but it is a perfectly pleasant town and an interesting site for its long and distinguished history.
I visited this WHS in May 2014. It’s relatively unknown compared to other WHS in Italy but it truly is one of the Top WHS Italy has to offer. The huge mosaic floor is full of colour and incredible detail. The view from the belfry is nothing special although it allows you to see the cross-shaped roof of the basilica. The remaining mosaic floor from the nearby crypt can be clearly be seen here too. Although the mosaics are really special my personal highlight was the Cripta degli Affreschi with its vivid frescoes. It’s only second to the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padua but still it’s really worth viewing.
I wasn't expecting it, but the Basilica of Aquileia was astounding, one of the finest churches I have been in during all my World Heritage Site hunting.
As the other reviewers have noted the highlights are the mosaics on the floor which cover the entire surface of the Basilica. However I think I had an even stronger fondness for the incredible 12th century frescos in the crypt below the apse. The wonderful pastel colours and expressive paintings really left a mark on me, not too dissimilar to the feeling I had when leaving the Scorvegni Chapel. All in all a truly magnificent site. The fact that there are the scattered remains of a prominent Roman town strewn around this magnificent building only serves to amplify its impressiveness. I rather enjoyed walking amongst the ruins and partially restored columns whilst eating an ice cream, in fact there are very few things I could imagine that are as pleasing as this.
Even in a region which is almost drowning in cultural treasures, the Basilica at Aquileia stands out as a highlight, and it is hard to think of a bigger compliment than that.
[Site 8: Experience 6]
The excavation of the foundations of the Roman town are still a work in progress, but the forum with its marble columns is the most obvious remnant. Of greater importance are the 4th century floor and walls of the Basilica, contained within a building only 1000 years old. The ancient mosaics and frescoes are in pristine condition and well displayed.
I reached Aquileia from Venice by travelling by train to Cervignano, and taking the Grado bus from there to the Archaeological Museum in Aquileia.
The main sight in Aquileia is the basilica. The oldest remains dated from the 4th century, but the basilica was destroyed, reconstructed and extended during the ages. The church, which can be seen today dated from the 11th century. The basilica is huge compared to the small town and one can image that Aquileia was a large and important city during the Roman Empire. My first impression from the outside was, that it looks similar to many other churches I had visited in northern Italy. However, I completely changed my mind when I entered the interior. Usually when visiting a church, one looks first to the ceiling. In Aquileia, the main attraction is the mosaic pavement from the 4th century. The mosaic covers the entire floor of the nave and shows animals, fishermen, marine animals, and Christian scenes. It lies below the current floor level, you can walk around on footbridges. The mosaic is magnificent, just like the well preserved frescoes in the crypt and the apsis. I also enjoyed my stroll to the remains of the Roman harbour, the Forum and the Via Sacra. All in all a worthwhile daytrip from Venice or, if you come from the northeast, a perfect start for a trip to the Veneto.
It's hard to believe that this is the first review for Aquileia. There were many other visitors when I was there, and the site is very close to Venice and the tourist resorts on the Upper Adriatic. Anyway, Aquileia is a famous and familiar name for anyone who has ever read something about ancient history. Before the rise of Venice, it was by far the most important town in this region and a commercial as well as a religious centre, which it remained long into the Middle Ages. Much of it was destroyed during the Late Empire, most famously by the Huns, but there are still many relics to see. The Patriarchal Basilica is a much later building - from the 11th century -, but sits on the ruins of ancient churches and is really very impressive (especially the mosaics). Aquileia today is no big metropolis anymore, but it is still a pleasant little town, and since it is only about 90 minutes by train from Venice, this is definitely a recommended excursion.
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