So there I sat again in a bus on a school trip this week, after 12 – ? – years. To arrive at the 1.5 hours distant Aquileia, important city of the Roman Empire, Unesco World Heritage Site, famous for its particularly well preserved mosaics in the basilica. Our bunch of diverse students (in terms of age, provenience and things we did in life before we came to start the mosaic education in Spilimbergo), three teachers and an archaeologist who explained some things, visited the cathedral, the Campanile and the Museo Archeologico Nazionale.
Basilica: 1300 m² of early Christian mosaics
The Romanesque-Gothic cathedral of Aquileia was built by Bishop Theodorus in the 4th century AD. It is one of the rare examples of buildings that testimony various eras.
Inside, the Emperor Constantine and Bishop Theodorus encounter in the still visible inscription, which is located in the middle of a huge mosaic floor. This early Christian mosaics were uncovered until 1909-12. Then the entire church floor was lowered. Four times, the church was rebuilt over the centuries, each on the ruins of the previous one. For the last building in the 11th Century, the new plant was built on an approximately half a meter thick layer of soil. The theodoric mosaics were therefore protected against weather influences and other damages.
In the main nave of the cathedral you find the most important mosaic. It covers the entire floor of the basilica. Good 760 m² of mosaic can be seen, only damaged by two pillars that were built later.
Symbolism of the mosaics: Victoria Christiana and Jonah Legend
The vast floor mosaic is divided into 10 fields belonging together. The right side of the midfield shows the Victoria Christiana, a blonde girl, symbol of the victorious Christianity. With the right hand, it presents a laurel wreath, in her left hand it holds a palm branch. Around it there are flowers, fruit and grapes posed as a donation. The classical goddess of victory Nike or Victoria antiquity was somehow translated into Christianity. This process of reshaping ancient into christian motifs can also be observed in Ravenna and many other early Christian sites.
The central theme of the mosaic are excerpts from the Jonah legend. It refers to the Christological motifs death (swallowing of Jonah) resurrection (disgorging of Jonah) and assumption (dream of Jonah). 12 angels surround the scene, fishing souls (fish) from the sea.
One of the subjects in the octagons of the floor mosaic is a fight between a turtle and a cock. They symbolize the eternal struggle between light (cock) and shadow (turtle). The cup above the column of victory and price stands for eternal life. The scene is frequently found in the pagan religions.
Also the underground base of the Campanile can be visited. Walking on glass you can see the 645 m² mosaic floor with geometric shapes and animals in quiet positions. The tranquility of the animals stand for the peaceful coexistence in the spirit of the new Christian religion. In the literature it’s discussed about which meanings the pictures could have. Because from early Christianity there are not always accurate findings about the image meanings.
Museo Archeologico Nazionale: findings from the spas and jewelry
You have to search a bit until you find the mosaic floors of private houses and the ancient spa in the garden of the museum. In particular, the loop mosaic is worth seeing: it is a floor of notable artistic value with a wine and an ivy branch, connected with a loop (1st century BC). Also beautiful to look at because of its detail, presentation of light and shadow and the subject itself: the triclinium Asaroton (1st century BC), showing food scraps on a floor during an abundant Roman meal: Among them shells, fish heads and eggshells.
The museum houses some wonderful testimonies from the daily life of the Roman city. You can see really pretty things: rings, necklaces, engraved gems (inscribed stones), vases, etc. Take a look! You can find them in the section Vivere ad Aquileia nel IV secolo on the top floor.
More about Aquileia can be found on the website of the Tourist Board of the Friuli Venezia Giulia region and italia.it.