As part of the redevelopment plan of the northern side of the square in front of the Basilica of Aquileia, the new structure built by Fondazione Aquileia for the protection and enhancement of the archaeological site named “Domus and Bishop's Palace” offers an important insight in the life of Roman Aquileia and the rare opportunity for visitors to watch overlapped floors from different epochs, thanks to a skilful architectural project.
The venue is the result of a long redevelopment process started following the acquisition of a private rustic courtyard named “stalla Violin”. In the late 1950s, the Direction for Antiquities of the Venezie began investigations in the site, supervised by Luisa Bertacchi, and discovered three rooms of a large complex identified as a portion of the 5th century bishop's residence, which had been left in the open air.
Between 2009 and 2010, new excavations promoted by Fondazione Aquileia and the scientific experts of the Direction for Archaeological Heritage of Friuli Venezia Giulia unearthed a mosaic-floored hall dating from the early 4th century. The outstanding value of the vestiges caused the decision to build a roofing, so as to protect the remains and make the site accessible to the public.
Further excavations in 2016 helped reach the level of the early imperial times (1st-2nd century AD), a discovery that imposed a variation to be brought to the original project to obtain the current layout.
The vestiges now visible belong to one of the neighbourhoods of Roman Aquileia that developed outside the city walls erected at the time of its foundation (181 BC), some two centuries before. The site encompasses structures and floors belonging to several construction steps, lying at different levels (down to 4 metres below the current ground level). Visitors will therefore be able to make an exciting journey back in time, deep down into the underground of the ancient city of Aquileia, and watch the house of the 1st and 2nd centuries, as well as a wide portion of the mosaic floor and masonry of the bishop’s palace erected in the 5th century.
The remains of the latter are seen at the beginning of the path. Probably connected to the basilica, the long hall belonged to the state rooms of the bishop of Aquileia, whose authority had been growing significantly during the 5th century. The western wall separated the hall from a paved outdoor area (investigated in 2010 and no more visible today), which some coins helped date back to the late 4th or early 5th centuries AD.
Dating back to some time during the 5th century AD, the mosaic consists of two carpets of different sizes separated by a strip of yellow tesserae. The northern portion features a pattern of small concentric squares around a black button and is made of terracotta tiles, while the larger oblong area is decorated with a network of lozenges and squares similar to other mosaics found in some Christian churches in Aquileia.
The oldest level refers to a small portion of a house built in the 1st century AD, now visible at the centre of the path at the deepest level of the excavations. The walls, which still stand for over one metre, are decorated with an elegant fresco pattern, which make an unusual find as compared to other vestiges in Aquileia of the same time.
The path ends with a beautiful apsed hall of the 4th century, which was brought to light during the excavations held between 2009 and 2010.
The apsed hall found within the neighbourhood of bishop Theodore's basilica, which may have been part of the bishop's residence, was a large formal hall of about 100 square metres built in the architectural style of the time, similarly to several other wealthy houses excavated elsewhere in Aquileia.
The apse, over five metres large, was raised and connected to the hall by a large step. The walls and ceiling were painted with frescoes, of which several portions were found during the excavations. Refined leafy grape shoots, grape bunches and birds on a red background caused the dome of the apse to stand out from the simple white ceiling of the hall. The floor mosaic with an original drapery motif of shaded tesserae highlighted the function of the space, which was used as reception hall and therefore more generously decorated.
Divided into three sections by refined vegetable strips, the mosaic of the apsed hall features a square in the centre, of which only a portion of the frame is still visible today.
Simple geometrical patterns of intertwining hexagons and circles hold colourful patterns that are easily compared to the decoration of the halls of bishop Theodore's basilica nearby, so that it can be inferred they were realized by the same artists and in the same period, after the Edict of Constantine in 313 AD. The motifs are drawn from a widespread collection of decorations in Roman mosaics: fish, octopuses, shells and birds, coupled by grape bunches, flowering branches, baskets and pots full of fruit, whose aim is to evoke the affluence of nature and, as a result, an idea of wealth and wellness.
The enhancement of the site, designed by architects Tortelli Frassoni (executive project by Mads & Associati) was partially funded with the European project Expoaus sponsored by the IPA Cross-border Adriatic Programme 2007-2013 and with the generous support by some art patrons – Olimpias Group, BCC di Fiumicello e Aiello, Allianz Italia e Danieli & C Officine Meccaniche – which joined the Italian Art Bonus programme.
The construction works were carried out by CP costruzioni Trieste; Eu.Co.Re restauri of Pavia di Udine.