The mediaeval world of north-east Italy

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Friuli-Venezia Giulia in the north-west of Italy is culturally rich from years of Austrian, Hungarian, Greek and Roman traditions. This is partly due to its location being neighbours with Austria in the north, Slovenia in the east whilst facing the Adriatic Sea to the south.

San Vito al Tagliamento

It is full of mediaeval towns typical of which is San Vito al Tagliamento. Dominated in the main square by a medieval castle, the town preserves the elegance of the past in its stylish architecture and a square surrounded by three towers, enriched with the beauty of Venetian and Renaissance frescoes. There are elegant monuments all around along with a smattering of modern boutiques and brand shops but not enough to remove the feeling that the town is essentially mediaeval.

If there is no castle in a town or village in this part of Italy then there seems to be an abbey such as that to be found at Sesto al Reghena, The seventh century Benedictine abbey of Santa Maria in Sylvis is accessed through an arched tower, one of seven surviving from the tenth century. These were the defensive towers that helped to protect the town from various attacks over the centuries, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.

the frescoes at Santa maria in Sylvis

The large square court yard of the abbey is surrounded by the basilica and an eleventh century brick, bell tower. Enter the abbey and, in the foyer, is an amazing gallery of frescoes, one of which I found very striking. It was a display of how the artist viewed paradise and in that scene was the coronation of the Virgin.

There is far more to see than just the frescoes.  Beneath the church’s atrium is an underground crypt supported by twenty columns whilst outside, the parkland and the rose gardens contribute to the charm and spiritual air permeating the grounds.

Surely one of the prettiest places in Italy is to be found in Friuli-Venezia Giulia and that is the town of Valvasone Arzene. With elegant streets, manor houses and monumental buildings dating back to the thirteenth century, the Piazza Castello, a large square overshadowed by gothic and renaissance buildings, is the heart of the town. Valvasone Castle, today a museum, dominates the town’s landscape. Although there has been a great deal of restorationt you can still see original paintings on the walls of some rooms.

Mediaeval castles were places to live and defend with one large hall being the centre of activities. Over the years tastes changed and you will find something in the castle that you might not expect to see.  Residents used to have their own entertainment in a small and cosy wooden theatre which has now been restored to its eighteenth century glory.


The Valvasone also has two other monumental treasures.  The Saint Corpo of Cristo or the Church of the Holy Christ’s Body, contains a holy cloth stained with blood following a miracle in 1294 and to which people continue to come in large numbers to see. The church’s organ is also an historical Venetian jewel having been designed and made by Vincenzo Colombo, in 1532.

Nearby is Palmanova, a great fortress city built in 1593 by the republic of Venice. This UNESCO World Heritage site is surrounded by ditches and was built in a nine-pointed star as part of a Venetian defensive programme. This seven kilometre long defensive stronghold was designed to protect a large population and their machinery from potential attacks by the Turks. Like many other villages, towns and cities dating from mediaeval times, Palmonova’s centre is surrounded by colourful mansions and monumental buildings. The town hall and the white stone church of Duomo Dogale – Parrocchia del Santissimo Redentore are the main landmarks of the city along with a tall pole, representing the city’s glory.

To enter the city there are only three gates: Porta Udine, Porta Cividale and Porta Aquileia and at Porta Udine, there is a huge gate over a large path with two separate entrances controlled by two huge wheels to lift the drawbridge.

one of the tunnels around Palmanova

You can walk the wide ditch around Palmanova and here you will find hidden underground tunnels linking the fortress city to the outside world. The soldiers and messengers could have used the hidden tunnels – built as a complicated maze – to move around and communicate with other regions and it probably served to smuggle food to the residents during times of siege.

In complete contrast to the places I have mentioned, Troviscosa is a surprise because it is a planned modern city. A textile company producing cellulose undertook the task of founding an urban residential development for its managers and workers of the company. This subsumed an eighteenth century village called Torre di Zuino and today, contains architecture typical of the fascist era. Some would think that Troviscosa is out-of-place given the style and nature of the other towns and villages in the area.

Returning to more mediaeval haunts, Gorizia Castle is an eleventh century fortification built on a hill overlooking the city of Gorizia. The castle’s inner gate, marked with imprints and seals dating back to the fourteenth century and, atop the tower, there is a wide view of the surrounding landscapes.

the castle in Gorizia

Everybody knows about the Berlin Wall, but not so well-known is where the last wall dividing Eastern and Western Europe stood. This was in the Piazzale della Transalpina in Gorizia, which had divided Italy and Slovenia since 1947. It didn’t fall until 2004! Walk in the Piazzale della Transalpina and you can have one foot in Italy and the other in Slovenia but today, all that remains of the wall is a memorial on the ground revealing the location of where the wall stood.

In the striking landscapes around Gorizia, there is an exotic garden filled with a large variety of plants and flowers. The Garden of Azaleas surrounds a private villa which contains hundreds of azaleas, rhododendrons, roses, camellias and magnolias. Despite the climate of the area, the soil has been enriched so that the plants may flourish. And in the middle of this lush colour is an artificial pond. No, it wasn’t a deliberate design to enhance the garden but a crater caused by bombing during WWII. Now it is totally integrated into a much more peaceful setting and you wouldn’t know that this was once a relic of war.

who would have thought this was once a bomb crater?

But that is what this part of Italy is largely like. Much of it seems lost in another age; that is its attraction and that is why hundreds of thousands of visitors come to visit Friuli-Venezia Giulia each year.

Images and story © Mohammed Reza Amirinia

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