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Travel - Discovering Friuli-Venezia Giulia: the history (2)

Aquileia is a small town close to the Adriatic Sea that’s a little more than an hour’s drive southeast of the base. While Rome is a wonderful place to see acres and acres of ruins, Aquileia is the perfect day trip to see similar ruins on a smaller scale; not to mention, you can be home in time for dinner. (Photo by Jessica Lynn)

Aquileia is a small town close to the Adriatic Sea that’s a little more than an hour’s drive southeast of the base. While Rome is a wonderful place to see acres and acres of ruins, Aquileia is the perfect day trip to see similar ruins on a smaller scale; not to mention, you can be home in time for dinner. (Photo by Jessica Lynn)

Aquileia dates back to antiquity (around 180 B.C.) and was one of the wealthiest cities in the Roman Empire at the time. Today it’s a working archeological site, as well as featured on the UNESCO World Heritage List. (Photo by Jessica Lynn)

Aquileia dates back to antiquity (around 180 B.C.) and was one of the wealthiest cities in the Roman Empire at the time. Today it’s a working archeological site, as well as featured on the UNESCO World Heritage List. (Photo by Jessica Lynn)

The town, dubbed “Second Rome,” was not only destroyed and demolished by Attila the Hun in the 4th century, but after the ambush many Venetians traveled to Aquileia to acquire building supplies. They ended up stealing stones to help construct their homes in Venice.
(Photo by Jessica Lynn)

The town, dubbed “Second Rome,” was not only destroyed and demolished by Attila the Hun in the 4th century, but after the ambush many Venetians traveled to Aquileia to acquire building supplies. They ended up stealing stones to help construct their homes in Venice. (Photo by Jessica Lynn)

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- This feature is part of the "Discovering Friuli-Venezia Giulia" series. These stories highlight the history and culture of the region surrounding Aviano Air Base.

Welcome back for our second journey into the history of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Last time, we parted as the Romans were marching toward the Celts, and now we will see the results of that conflict and then continue our exploration through the Middle Ages, to 1797, when one of the most famous and charismatic historical leaders of all time put in an appearance in this area.

Before we turn our clocks back, I must warn you. Be very careful, because over the course of history, we'll often find ourselves in the middle of battles that mark the passage from one ruler to another. So pluck up your courage, and let's go back to where we left off.

Second Century B.C.: The marching of the powerful Roman legions marks the end of the Celtic rule over these territories and their complete "Romanization." Immediately following the Celtic defeat, in 181 B.C., the colony of Aquileia is founded. To witness all of this, we don't need to travel back in time though; for a whole weekend in the summer, the city of Aquileia fills up with Celts and Romans for a reenactment with Celtic feasts, battles and gladiatorial games.

If we want to meet the great Julius Caesar, we have to travel back to a winter day between 58 and 56 B.C., during which Caesar and his legions were involved in the Gallic Wars right here in Friuli.

Aquileia will later become the capital of the X Regio Venetia et Histria, under Emperor Augustus, and the Romans will rule the region for centuries, while other cities such as Forum Iulii (today's Cividale del Friuli), Tergeste (Trieste), Iulium Carnicum (Zuglio) and Iulia Concordia (Concordia Sagittaria, today included in the region of Veneto) will be founded. Signs of the Roman presence in Friuli-Venezia Giulia are just everywhere: from the layout of the streets, to the ancient "centuriation" (measurement and division of the lands) still observable today. To admire the magnificence and splendor of Roman times in this region, there's no better place than Aquileia. Look up at the she-wolf feeding Romulus and Remus, the symbolic founders of Rome, walk in the ancient naval port, see the Roman forum with its tall pillars, the basilica, the archeological sites and museum featuring impressive statues, mosaics and other finds. If that's not enough, visit another Roman forum, more archeological sites and the Civico Museo Archeologico Iulium Carnicum in Zuglio. I told you we didn't need to travel all the way to Rome, didn't I? I'll tell you more. No need to go to the Colosseum to sit in an ancient Roman theatre. You can find one right in the middle of Trieste, at the foot of the San Giusto hill.

Let's move forward to the fifth century. Not a very peaceful century I'd say, given the crisis of the Roman Empire and the constant barbarian invasions of the Visigoths, Goths and the Huns. As we turn our clocks back, we arrive in A.D. 452 where we feel the glare and heat of a violent fire devouring Aquileia. As the legend says, Attila the Hun enjoys the spectacle from a hill that he ordered to be built with earth carried in his soldiers' helmets after plundering and setting fire to the city. That hill is the one where the castle of Udine stands today. The island of Grado, a Roman seaport and stronghold, will offer shelter to the inhabitants of Aquileia and its Roman artifacts in the Palaeo-Christian monuments, including the Basilica of Sant'Eufemia, the Basilica of Santa Maria delle Grazie and the Barbana Sanctuary.

A.D. 568: Alboin, the king of Lombards -an ethnic group of German origins-, arrives in the region. Here he'll establish the first Lombard duchy in Italy with Cividale del Friuli as its capital which is still universally known as the "city of the Lombards" and it is now listed among the UNESCO world heritage sites. Important examples of Lombard art and archeological finds are visible at the National Archeological Museum, the Christian Museum of the Cathedral and the extraordinary Lombard Temple. Traces of the Lombard presence are also found in Sesto al Reghena, where three noble Lombard brothers founded the abbey of Santa Maria in Sylvis.

A.D. 776: here comes Charlemagne, king of the Franks, to defeat the Lombards. A Frank duke is appointed and Friuli will gradually turn into a feudal territory as castles and lands are assigned to loyal subjects under the centralizing power of a Patriarch. Meanwhile, the clergy of Aquileia will be first granted autonomy and the right to appoint the Patriarch, and then continue to extend its power and possessions until 1077. In that year, the whole county of Friuli - except the independent territories of Gorizia, Pordenone and Trieste - will become a fief of the Patriarchate of Aquileia.

This powerful institution will rule the region until 1420 when Republic of Venice troops invaded it. Evidences of the patriarchal period can be seen all over the territory in religious buildings, monuments and castles and in further stratifications of Aquileia and the above mentioned abbey of Santa Maria in Sylvis. But if the daily life of people in the Middle Ages fascinates you more than those awe-inspiring constructions, visit the Medieval Archeological Museum of Attimis, the first regional museum dedicated to all the aspects of life in a feudal castle featuring unique exhibits and reconstructions of settings and costumes.

Let's travel to Nov. 10, 1218: Ottocaro, duke of Stiria and lord of Pordenone is about to sign an important document with which he's granting the territory of San Quirino to the Order of the Temple. In 1312, the Knights Templar will be substituted by the Knights Hospitaller, later known as the Knights of Malta. I bet you'll look at it differently next time you drive through this little town only a few minutes away from Aviano, won't you?

Moving forward to 1350, we find ourselves in the farmlands of San Giorgio della Richinvelda. It's Sunday, June 6. The patriarchal cortège of the over 90-year-old patriarch Bertrand of St. Genesius, preceding from Sacile to Udine, is about to fall under attack from a coalition of Friulian nobles. We can still see today the exact spot where the Blessed Bertrand was killed, marked by a gravestone in the fields of San Giorgio della Richinvelda, while his mortal remains are preserved in a glass shrine inside Udine cathedral.

But it's time for another change of authority: in 1420, the powerful Republic of Venice invades Friuli, while Trieste and Gorizia will remain under the Austrian Empire. Pordenone will hold its independence for almost another century, before falling under Venetian control also. A trace of this domination is St. Mark's lion, the emblem of the Republic of Venice, that used to be placed in every town and every place under its authority. Take a walk in the square of Maniago, raise your eyes to look at the Attimis-Maniago palace and there you will find it. But to see what is known as "the most beautiful Venetian square on dry land" we have to move to Udine, where we'll find the astonishing Piazza della Libertà. Also worth seeing is the villa remembered as the residence in Friuli of the last Doge of Venice: Villa Manin in Codroipo. This spectacular building combines the model of the colonnade of St. Peter's square in Rome and typical Venetian architecture. And how to forget about that masterpiece of Renaissance military architecture that is the fortress town of Palmanova shaped as a nine-pointed star?

Those were actually hard times and the need to defend these territories was pressing. Between 1472 and 1499 the Turks terrorize the local peoples with their forays. The 1499 Turkish invasion is still commemorated nowadays every September with an historical reenactment in Torre di Pordenone. But the Turks are not the only calamity of those years.

It's 1511 and, as a terrible plague is afflicting the region as the earth starts shaking. It's the destructive earthquake of 1511 which comes less than 500 years before another terrible seism that we'll witness in much more recent times.

Another dark episode of our history: the calendar indicates an unspecified date between the end of 1599 and the beginning of 1600. We're in Pordenone and the scene in front of us is terrible. The 67 year-old miller, Menocchio, born in the town of Montereale Valcellina and condemned of heresy is being burned at the stake. He's a victim of the terrible Inquisition, present in Friuli-Venezia Giulia from the 14th to the 18th centuries.

But a man is marching through history with the intention of bringing enlightenment and freedom to these lands. As we'll see in next article, Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grande Armée are on their way to Friuli.