Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Aquileia (UD)

by Lavinia Colonna Preti
Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Aquileia (UD) — Friuli Venezia Giulia Secrets

Thanks to an impressive rearrangement completed in 2021, the Museum, part of a larger archaeological site under UNESCO protection since 1998, recounts the heyday of the Roman Empire through the incredible treasures found in Aquileia, one of its most important cities.

Founded in 181 BC on the banks of the Natissa river, navigable at the time, a few kilometers from the sea, the city that we see today emerging from the excavations was one of the most powerful ports in the Mediterranean, fourth in importance of the Italian peninsula under the Roman Empire, after Rome, Milan and Capua.

Suffice it to say that, at the height of its strength around 27 BC / 14 AD, Aquileia reached a population of about 200,000 inhabitants, a real metropolis where some of the major protagonists of Roman history lived such as Julius Caesar, his successor Octavian Augustus, but also Marcus Aurelius and Lucio Vero.

Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Aquileia (UD) — Friuli Venezia Giulia Secrets
Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Aquileia (UD) — Friuli Venezia Giulia Secrets

Aquileia, having been a very important city for a long time, had a very large population: being close to the sea, it served as a market for Italy; moreover it was in contact with the Illyrian territories.

(Herodian, historian III century AD)

The finds that we admire today in the great archaeological park of Aquileia, and in particular in its National Archaeological Museum, represent, in fact, the golden age of the Roman Empire, thus offering us the unique opportunity to admire its maximum expression, both architectural and artistic.

After the long entrance portico refined by a wisteria and centenary magnolias, as soon as we cross the threshold of the Museum, we are welcomed by the wonderful central hall with four imposing classical statues, depicting the emperor Augustus, his sister Antonia Minore and her son Claudius, and, centrally, the marvelous heroic nude of a naval officer, probably coming from his mausoleum. The ground floor of the Museum is, in fact, dedicated to monumental sculpture and the necropolis found in Aquileia, including various masterpieces such as an Egyptian alabaster funerary urn and the portrait gallery.

Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Aquileia (UD) — Friuli Venezia Giulia Secrets
Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Aquileia (UD) — Friuli Venezia Giulia Secrets

The floors originated with the Greeks and were embellished with an art similar to painting as long as the mosaics did not replace it.

(Pliny the Elder, writer, I century AD)

The first floor, on the other hand, is dedicated to the Domus, in particular the houses of the wealthiest Aquileians, where some of the most beautiful examples of mosaic floors in the Western world are exhibited – we can see masterpieces such as vine shoots linked with a bow and a female figure sitting on a bull – as well as various banquet furnishings and ornaments such as glass and ceramic objects in black paint.

On the second floor, the Museum exhibits the largest collection in the world of ancient artifacts in amber, lucky charms and status symbols in Roman times, gems, with over 6,000 artifacts, and everyday objects such as mirrors, perfume pots, and hair accessories.
Wonderful the colorful setting of jewels composed of semi-precious stones worked with recessed images (carvings) and in relief (cameos), used as a seal, and the collection of red amber rings.

Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Aquileia (UD) — Friuli Venezia Giulia Secrets
Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Aquileia (UD) — Friuli Venezia Giulia Secrets

Once we leave the Museum, two other wonders await us, part of the larger archaeological park of the ancient metropolis. This is the famous Patriarchal Basilica, about 300 meters from the Museum, where you can admire, stratified, over 2000 years of history starting from the first nucleus built in the sixth century at the behest of Bishop Theodore.

The extraordinary mosaic floor of the Basilica belongs to this period, the largest mosaic in the Western world with over 750 square meters decorated with scenes from the Old Testament. From here, the museum itinerary continues along a fascinating path that will guide you through the ancient baptisteries of the complex and other wonders.

Right in front of the Basilica, you can stop for a sweet break at the pastry shop Pasticceria Mosaico, in particular to taste its famous chocolate.

Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Aquileia (UD) — Friuli Venezia Giulia Secrets

About 1 km away, we find the last stop of this extraordinary journey in ancient Aquileia: the ruins of the Roman Forum, dating back to the second century. A.D., where you can still admire part of the colonnade and the floors of the Roman court and the square.

From the imposing height of the columns, one can perhaps only remotely understand what Aquileia must have looked like in the past. Thanks to the virtual reconstruction in 3D, today it can be seen in all its splendor with its wonderful monuments such as the gigantic amphitheater, similar to those of Verona and Pula, and its river port.

At the end of the visit, perhaps what strikes us most is the fine artistic avant-garde reached by Aquileia over 2,000 years ago, which leads us to reflect on the cycles of history and the reasons behind its ups and downs. And if the end of Aquileia seems to have come in 452 AD following the conquest by Attila, its slow oblivion can be traced back to the shift of commercial interests and to the birth, a little further on, of what will be the Serenissima Republic of Venice.

The Secret

It is said that some inhabitants of Aquileia, before fleeing the city following the arrival of Attila, had their slaves dig a well to hide their valuables. A legend so popular that, until the First World War, land transfer contracts included the clause “I’ll sell you the field, but not the golden well” so that the original owner could keep any treasure found.

Useful Info

Fondazione Aquileia
Via Giulia Augusta 2a
33051 Aquileia, Udine
Tel. +39 0431 917619

Discover the Secret Places closest to you