Grado today is a lovely seaside resort which draws scores of tourists to its wonderful beaches. Ancient Grado used to be the port of Aquileia, some ten kilometres to the north. In Antiquity, it was known as Ad Aquas Gradatas, which was shortened to Gradus during the Middle Ages. Here, ships could dock and find safety before sailing up the Natisone river to Aquileia itself. Originally, Grado was on an island, but now it is connected to the mainland by a causeway across which runs the Strada Regionale 352, a regional road. The fact that most tourists come here to bask in the sun and enjoy a swim in the clear water of the Adriatic Sea allows history enthusiasts to explore the small historical city centre unhindered. Of Roman Grado not much remains, but fortunately the town’s churches do tell the story of Grado in the early Christian era.
Basilica della Corte
As various foreign invaders marched into Italy in the fifth and sixth century – Visigoths, Huns, Ostrogoths, Longobards – the people of Aquileia fled into the lagoon to find shelter. In this respect, the island on which Grado is located can be compared to the island of Torcello in the Venetian lagoon, which also served as a place for refugees. But Grado was certainly already inhabited well before these invasions, although the community living there permanently near the port cannot have been very large. The Doge-historian Andrea Dandolo, Doge of Venice between 1343 and 1354, claims that a castrum or fortress was built here in 421. This castrum by no means covered a large area of the island. It measured just about 320 by 90 metres, basically the area in the southern part of the centre encompassing the Piazza della Corte and the square on front of the church of Santa Eufemia. The construction of fortifications may imply that the people living here, either temporarily or permanently, did not want to rely on just the waters of the lagoon for protection.
Inside the castrum, we find the remains of the first Christian church in Grado, the so-called Basilica della Corte. It certainly predates the construction of the castrum and seems to have been founded in the middle of the fourth century. Sailors, dockworkers and citizens could find spiritual enlightenment here. The church was built over a pagan cemetery of an even older date. As more and more refugees from the mainland started to arrive from the fifth century onwards, this small church became the temporary seat of the bishop of Aquileia, who was then living in exile. It was provided with a baptistery not long after. Unfortunately, the influx of so many people, especially after the invasion of the Huns in 452, and the crowded living conditions in the city increased the risk of fires. A few years later, most likely during the episcopate of bishop Nicetas (ca. 454-485) the Basilica della Corte was burned to the ground.
A new church was then built on the same spot. Whereas the previous church was a building with a single nave, the new church assumed the form of a proper Roman basilica, with a nave and two aisles. Unfortunately, this basilica was also lost as a result of a catastrophic fire at the beginning of the sixth century. It was not rebuilt, and other churches took over its position as the temporary seat of the bishop. Between 1902 and 1906, excavations were carried out in the Piazza della Corte, which brought to light the remains of the first church. Nowadays, white lines on the pavement show the contours of this basilica and its baptistery (slightly to the west). Bridges across the excavations allow the visitor to get a glimpse of the original mosaic floor, now about a metre below the current street level. Especially the mosaics of the central part of the nave are worth a closer look. The dedicatory text that we find there reads:
PAVLINVS ET MARCELLINA CUM SVIS OMNIBVS P(EDES) ooD
The text implies that it was Paulinus, Marcellina and all their relatives who sponsored the laying of these mosaics (pedes means ‘feet’, and a Roman foot was just under 30 centimetres), with the letter ‘D’ (500 in Latin numerals) likely referring to the size of the mosaic. The geometrical decorations that we see are very elegant, mostly variants of crosses and Solomon’s knots. [In case you are wondering who the Indiana Jones-like figure in the bottom right corner of the picture is: that is yours truly.]
Santa Maria della Grazie
The church of Saint Mary is the second oldest church in Grado. It seems to have been built towards the end of the fourth century, at a time when Chromatius was bishop of Aquileia (ca. 388-407). When the Basilica della Corte was burned down for the second time in the early sixth century, it temporarily became the seat of the bishop of Aquileia until the new church of Santa Eufemia was completed. The structure we see today dates mostly from the end of the sixth century. It is the result of a restoration ordered by patriarch Elia (571–586).
The small church measures about 20 by 12 metres and both the exterior and interior are very simple. Inside we find a high nave and lower aisles. The aisles are separated from the nave by five sets of columns from different eras. The main attraction of the Santa Maria della Grazie can be found in the right aisle: a floor mosaic from the church tentatively attributed to Chromatius. It was brought to light during restorations carried out in 1924. The large rectangular mosaic is about a metre below the current nave and the central altar, which date from the time of patriarch Elia. The mosaics again show various shapes and figures, floral motifs and Solomon’s knots, as well as several dedicatory texts with the names of sponsors.
In the picture included in this post, we can just make out the following texts:
FELEX CVM SVIS FECIT P(EDES) XX
(“Felex with his relatives made 20 foot of mosaic”)
SAMBO CVM SVIS FECET P(EDES) XX
(“Sambo with his relatives made 20 foot of mosaic”)
These texts indicate that the contributions made by Felix, Sambo and their relatives were quite humble – 20 Roman foot is just a small piece of mosaic – and that spelling was not their forte (‘Felex’ instead of ‘Felix’, ‘fecet’ instead of ‘fecit’). The spelling mistakes, however, do give us a clue about how Latin was pronounced in the late fourth and early fifth century. The other texts in my photo – regretfully not fully legible – relate how Johannes and Afrodites fulfilled their vow, how Amara and Valentinianus contributed 25 pedes, while a richer man named Honoratus paid for sixty Roman foot of mosaics. The other texts on the floor are quite similar. They provide us with a glimpse of religious life in Grado in Late Antiquity.
When it was completed and consecrated in 579, the church of Santa Eufemia – to which I will dedicate a separate post – was intended to become the permanent seat of the Patriarch of Aquileia. Previous migrations from Aquileia to Grado had always been more or less temporary, but in 568 the Longobards had invaded Italy and after so many invasions, Aquileia looked like it might be abandoned for good. But it was not to be so. Immediately after the death of Elia’s successor Severus (586-606), an ugly conflict reared its head. While the archbishop living in Grado regarded himself as the true Patriarch of Aquileia and had the support of the Eastern Roman Empire, a rival Patriarch of Aquileia was appointed on the mainland in 606, supported by the Longobards.
The love between Aquileia and Grado was now over, and as John Julius Norwhich puts it, “each [patriarch] persisted in his denunciation of the other as an impostor and reciprocal anathemas thundered backwards and forwards between the two”. The conflict was settled only in 698, with Aquileia and Grado parting ways for good. The Patriarch of ‘Old’ Aquileia was given ecclesiastical authority over the mainland, while that of Grado became the supreme authority in Istria and the lagoons, including the Venetian lagoon. Much later, the Patriarch of Grado would move to Venice and effectively rule from there, until the old Patriarchate of Grado was finally converted into the Patriarchate of Venice in 1451.
An important source for this post is the entry on Grado on the Treccani website. For the Latin texts, I used Jean-Pierre Caillet’s L’évergétisme monumental chrétien en Italie et à ses marges.
 ‘A History of Venice’, p. 11.