Aquileia. The Aquileian landscape
The exhibition itinerary starts in a big room, where visitors can figure out better how the city of Aquileia is structured and discover how the landscape was when Aquileia was founded in the II century B.C. Some of the most iconic works of the museum tell the millenary history of Aquileia, from the years before the foundation to the events that made Aquileia famous during the Roman imperial era.
The Roman colonia of Aquileia was founded in 181 BC by the magistrates Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica, Gaius Flaminius and Lucius Manlius Acidinus Fulvianus, in a territory with earlier Bronze and Iron Age settlements. Its establishment was decided by the Senate as part of Rome's expansionist policy in northern Italy and the Balkans. Initially a military outpost, Aquileia soon acquired a strong commercial vocation: due to its geographical position on land, sea and river - Natiso cum Turro- routes it became an important Mediterranean trading port, a centre of exchange between the Adriatic and the Alpine and Balkan regions. Its strategic function increased in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, when it became an eastern bastion of the Italian peninsula and then seat – at the end of the 3rd century – of the governor of the Venetia et Histriaprovince. The city was besieged several times during internal power struggles and the repeated attacks by Germanic peoples, which intensified after the 2nd century AD. The most dramatic episode was the devastating siege of the Huns led by Attila, in AD 452. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Aquileia became the seat of a patriarch and remained of great political importance; its role as a religious centre in the Early Christian era increased its renown, with an influence that continues up to the present day.
The visit continues with a section dedicated to the history of the museum and of the people who worked to bring to light and protect its huge archaeological heritage.
Excavations, studies and the museum
Giandomenico Bertoli, the first collector and specialist of Aquileian antiques, collected in his house many archaeological finds, and he wrote three books about his researches: Le Antichità d’Aquileja profane e sacre (1739). Then, Bertoli’s collection was added to Cassis Faraone and Ritter Záhony family’s ones in their private museum of the family in their villa, located in Monastero, an Aquileian suburb. This first exhibition represents the historic collection of the Museo archeologico nazionale di Aquileia. In 1807, Eugène de Beauharnais – who was Napoleon’s stepson – founded the first Aquileian public museum, the Museo Eugeniano. In the beginning, it was located in the basilica’s baptistery and in Pagani Church . In 1873, the city of Aquileia opened the Museo Patrio della Città, that became the Imperial Regio Museo dello Stato a few years later. This museum was founded by the Habsburg Monarchy, which governed Venezia Giulia and Aquileia’s territory till WWI.
The opening of the Caesareum Museum Aquileiense - Imperial Regio Museo dello Stato took place on August 3, 1882, in the presence of archduke Carlo Ludovico. In the beginning, the finds were organised, according to archaeological criteria, by materials: inscriptions, sculptures, and little objects, called Antikaglien. Works for the construction of the Galleries began in 1898, in order to find a place for many new archaeological finds. Since its opening, the museum has worked hard to collect and protect Aquileian antiques, but also to support new archaeological studies and research.
In 1915, Austria declared war on Italy, and the museum was one of the first Habsburg institutions to become Italian, on May 24, 1915. Giovanni Battista Brusin became the director of the Regio Museo Archeologico in 1922, and he worked there till the post-WWII period. He gave the museum and the excavations a new perspective, promoting new studies and restoration works on the main monuments of the Roman city. Thanks to his work, in collaboration with the National Association for Aquileia – an association born in 1929 that aims to protect and promote Aquileian archaeological heritage – people became able to visit those monuments.
During the post-WWII period, the museum was completely renovated. Especially, in 1954 began an important work of reorganization of the collections. Then, also the second floor became part of the exhibition itinerary, and the offices and the library were relocated. The Galleries were reorganized and became bigger, thanks to a new quadriporticus, where the collection of the most significant mosaics found a place. The exhibition design has been continuously updated during the years, with the renovations of some sections and of the Galleries.
The exhibition itinerary continues on the ground floor, where visitors can discover the monumental Aquileia and its areas dedicated to the living and the dead, thanks to inscriptions, fragments of architectural projects, relief and sculptures.
Public monuments were extremely important for life in the city, economically, religiously and institutionally. Monuments were built since the foundation of the city, according to the Roman government, and thanks to the many private donations. The names of the donors were usually written on monuments’ dedicatory inscriptions.
Sculpture decorations contributed to public areas richness and monumentality. The most important buildings were decorated with sculptures according to specific figurative plans. The subjects were often inspired by mythology, for example the medallions of the Twelve Deities and the two portrayals of a victorious general with a sword belt (cingulum), after the model of the Greek hero Diomedes.
During the first years of the Roman Empire – in Rome and in the rest of Italy – they usually used terracotta to decorate public buildings. Only around the I century B.C., sculptors began to work with stone. It usually was calcareous rock, that came from the caves of Aurisina. During the II century B.C., sculptors worked mainly with imported marble instead.
The forum was the heart of public life in Aquileia. It was one of the first constructions of the city. The forum and the defensive city walls at the half of the II century B.C.
During the Roman Republic, the forum was located in a big oval square, surrounded by the buildings that governed the political, economic, and religious life of Aquileia: the comitium, the food market (macellum) and the temple. This first religious building is mentioned in the inscription on the base of the statue of the triumvir Titus Annius Luscus. The forum as can be seen today was built between the end of the I century B.C. and the first two decades of the II century B.C., but its decorations were later renovated. The attic – that crowned the four porticos – was decorated with Giove Ammone and Medusa reliefs, and cupids who hold garlands. On the southern side of the forum, it was built a civil basilica for justice administration. During the two next centuries, the forum became the heart of public memory, a space to collect and show images of important local people. During the renovation, the sculptors dedicated some inscriptions to those people.
In and around the city, there were many shops, workshops, and warehouses, which were the heart of economic life, along with the big river port.
Entertainment buildings were in the northern area of the city. The public thermal baths, called Thermae Felices Constantinianae, were built there during late antiquity. During the Age of Constantine, the city was enriched by several buildings dedicated to Christianity, both inside and outside the city walls.
Aquileian necropolises were located outside the city walls and along the streets around the city, for example, the via Gemina towards Tergeste (Trieste), or the via Annia towards Iulia Concordia (Concordia), or along the streets towards the Alps or the lagoon. Tombs were organised by family and in lines, in order not to make funerary ceremonies complicated. Having a funerary monument along one of the most important paths of the cemetery was a way to show the public prestige of the deceased’s family. Statues, reliefs, and inscriptions with images and writing enriched the most prestigious funerary monuments.
The older burials are cremations, in pottery, stone, lead and sometimes alabaster urns, which often contained glass vessels. After the mid-2nd century A.D. inhumation burials became prevalent, in sarcophagus or coffins made of wood, tiles or lead.