In Venetian history

Aquileia is one of those beautiful destinations you can easily reach when visiting Venice. Not just, it will help understand Venice and its history and… why not?, enjoy some special winery resorts, too

A female figure with grapes, detail of the mosaic floor in the Basilica of Aquileia, 4th Century AD

Aquileia: where is it and how old is it?

Aquileia lies by the border of a series of lagoons north of Venice, where the lagoon of Marano meets with the lagoon of Grado. It was founded in 181 BC, just a few kilometers away from the Adriatic Sea. Still it was connected to it thanks to a major system of waterways, canals and rivers. While at its beginning, Aquileia was meant to be a military outpost, it acquired a strong trading vocation as a zip-area between the Adriatic, the Trans-Alpine (towards Austria) and the Dalmatian and Balkan regions.

Terracotta Statue, likely at the Gates of Aquileia, Archeological Museum of Aquileia

Extremely multi-ethnic, Aquileia grew to an extent that turned it into a cosmopolitan metropolis of between 50,000 to 80,000 residents.

The Roman Forum in Aquileia, 1st-3rd Century AD

A detail at the Roman Forum showing the image of a Gorgon, 1st-3rd Century AD

Herodian mentioned it was also a region rich in vineyards and provided all people that could not cultivate grapes with abundance of wine, a clear sign of wealth… At the end of the 3rd century AD, Aquileia was the capital of the Venetia et Histria province of the Roman Empire. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the city experienced some sort of decay, but revived as the seat of the Patriarchate, not just religiously, but also politically relevant.

Much is left and when you visit its archeological sites, you will be impressed by its ancient remains, its treasures beautifully displayed in the Archeological Museum and, finally, by the breathtaking Christian Basilica and its 760 m² large mosaic floor.

Winged figure with laurel wreath, detail of the mosaic floor in the Basilica of Aquileia, 4th Century AD

An octopus, detail of the mosaic floor in the Basilica of Aquileia, 4th Century AD

What is the link with Venice?

In the chronicles edited in Venice regarding its history, much is dedicated to the barbaric invasions following the fall of the Roman Empire. 

Supporting the theory according to which it was refugees from the Roman town of Altino who founded the first settlement in the lagoon of Venice, called Torcello, these chronicles mention Aquileia as well and claim it was abandoned when Huns arrived. Its residents founded a new town, Grado, between a lagoon and the sea. The same pattern repeats in regards to several other cities of this ancient Roman province by the northern Adriatic Sea. You can read more here:

Not just. The patriarch of Aquileia brought the body of St Hermagoras, the first patriarch of Aquileia to Grado, thus transferring the clergy authority, too. Even the bishop of Altino brought away the body of the first bishop of Altino to Torcello, St Heliodorus.

Recap: a Roman town, cradle of civilized Romans, gets looted, its citizens escape and found a new town in a lagoon; after some time, the main religious authority transfers important holy relics away from the ancient town to the new one. Exactly what chronicles report when telling the story of Altino and Torcello in the lagoon where Venice would also be founded. 

Mosaic floor showing remains of some banquet, 1st Century AC, Archeological Museum of Aquileia

St Hermagoras and its relation with the Evangelist St Mark, patron of Venice

The same legend connected Aquileia with Grado as Altino with Torcello (and Venice). There is a lot of deja-vu… but with some quite semi-serious twists, too. When the patriarch of Aquileia moved to Grado, did he expect somebody else in the city he had abandoned would claim the title of Patriarch of Aquileia? Well, that’s what happened 🙂 In the end, the dioceses of Aquileia corresponded to a huge territory, it was quite a powerful position causing some appetite. 

Bronze Head, Archeological Museum in Aquileia, end of 1st Century BC

And so two patriarchs. One in Grado, claiming, thanks to the holy relic of St Hermagoras, he was the legitimate heir of the patriarchate of Aquileia and one in Aquileia, replicating he was the one. Who would win? Well, two dogs strive for a bone, the third runs away with it. Let me explain what happened

Mosaic detail of a peacock, Südhalle, Aquileia, 4th Century AD

The Synod of Mantua in 827

In order to reinforce the role of Aquileia, in the year 827 in Mantua it was officially established that it was St Mark, who, leaving Alexandria in Egypt, reached Aquileia on behalf of St Peter to evangelize the city. There, he would meet with St Hermagoras, eventually designated as the first Christian bishop of Aquileia by St Mark himself. This great legend sometimes mentioned St Peter, i.e. the first Pope, to have chosen St Hermagoras, with the support of St Mark. Whatever. 

St Peter blessing St Hermagoras as bishop of Aquileia with St Mark, fresco of the vault of Aquileia Basilica’s crypt

The translation of St Mark’s holy relics from Egypt to Venice in 828

Grado felt diminished and before the rivalry with Aquileia moved on, Venice, the year after, arranged the translation of St Mark’s body from Alexandria in Egypt to Venice. Claiming it was God’s will: while on the way from Aquileia back to Egypt, a storm forced the ship where Mark was traveling to stop by some lagoon and an angel appeared to tell him he would rest there, one day… 

Not just, after building the church for St Mark’s body, the Doge established St Mark’s church as “free from the bishop” and scored an asset when establishing St Mark would be the protector of the whole Venetia region and could be considered the first bishop of Aquileia, too! Thus, both Aquileia and Grado lost their primacy. 

At that point, Venice had become more authoritative and powerful than any other city in the Northern-Eastern Italian peninsula. Needless to say, the media of the time would repeat the story of the friendship between Mark, Hermagoras and Peter anywhere: altar pieces, mosaics or frescoes. It became so real. Not to mention this route Alexandria – Aquileia – Venice would be both a route of Christian evangelization and a trading route promising huge profits!

The main apsis in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice: St Hermagoras, St Mark and St Peter

A detail of the Golden Altar Screen, the Pala d’oro, in St Mark’s Basilica showing St Mark introducing St Hermagoras to St Peter

Aquileia as the seat of the patriarchate for Venetian families as the Grimani

In more recent times, starting in the 1400s, the role of the Patriarch of Aquileia became an almost hereditary title, which patrician Venetian families would hold tightly in their hands. Families of the kind of the Grimani and the Barbaro passed the title the one to the other. You can read more here: The territory the patriarch controlled was not just enormous (and tax wise, quite profitable). In fact, it was part of the Venetian State’s strategy to boast ancient Roman origins. Moreover, it worked beautifully as a cushion between Venice and the germanic Holy Roman Empire.

While moving around the area, you will see lovely hills, the Alps and large vineyards of generous grapes for wines such as Ribolla, Refosco or some grappa for the tough ones. You will be led to gentle rivers like Tagliamento, Stella and Isonzo and to its quiet sanctuaries. Eventually you will reach the lagoon and the Adriatic Sea. Not bad for a “detour” from Venice… 

The Sanctuary at Titiano dedicated to the Madonna of the Snow by the River Stella, Marano Lagoon

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

In the cover photo, you can see a Nereid riding a sea-bull, part of a mosaic floor of the 1st Century AC from a Domus in Aquileia, Archeological Museum of Aquileia

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