The Lion of St Mark, the symbol of Venice, is ubiquitous in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. There’s no getting away from him, it seems, even if he is looking a little weather-beaten in places. Yet there’s a quiet, unassuming town not far from the sea that has gone its own way when it comes to commemorating empires. In Aquileia Romulus and Remus reign supreme, reminders that Aquileia was once one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire.
Aquileia was founded in 181 BC, a bastion against the barbarians to the north and the east. Its strategic position, for both war and trade, meant it soon became wealthy. It may be in ruins now, the port overgrown, the columns in the forum a poignant reminder of what once was, but you can still see something of that wealth today in the basilica, and it comes as a delicious surprise.
The basilica, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the Saints Hermagora and Fortunatus, originally dates to the fourth century, an ambitious structure erected after the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, when Christianity was legalised. The current building is a majestic Romanesque-Gothic hybrid, but that is not its main claim to fame. No, it’s the mosaic floor which takes your breath away. Rediscovered in the early years of the twentieth century, the floor consists of 760 square metres of mosaics. It is the largest Paleo-Christian mosaic in the western world, and the prime reason why Aquileia has acquired a place on the World Heritage List.
The subjects of the mosaics are wide-ranging – animals, birds, fish and biblical scenes. In the centre are a selection of portraits, possibly of the donors who paid for the mosaic back in the fourth century. The colours are as fresh as they were nearly two thousand years ago – I’d say they got their money’s worth.