Cividale del Friuli: The Duomo

Duomo of Cividale del Friuli.

The Duomo of Cividale del Friuli, dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta, is strictly speaking not a cathedral, as Cividale does not have its own bishop anymore. The area surrounding the building is interesting and tells us a lot about the history of the town. The Duomo for instance faces a statue of the Roman statesman Julius Caesar, who founded the town in 50 BCE as Forum Julii. The statue is based on an original from Antiquity and was placed here in 1935, the pedestal mentioning the name of the then king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III. Opposite the Duomo we find the town hall, housed in the thirteenth-century Palazzo Comunale. In 568 Forum Julii was the first important town captured by the Longobards, who during their invasion of Italy were led by their king Alboin. The region they annexed was henceforth known as the Friuli, a contraction of Forum Julii. In the eighth century the town was renamed Civitas Austriae, city of the east. Readers will now understand the origins of the name Cividale del Friuli.


The history of the Duomo goes back to at least the eighth century. Perhaps the predecessor of the current Duomo was built on the orders of Calixtus (Callisto in Italian), the patriarch of Aquileia who in 737 decided to move the seat of the Patriarchate from Aquileia to Cividale. The patriarchs would reside there until 1038, when they decided to return to Aquileia. After all, patriarch Poppo had just completed the renovation of the splendid new basilica of Santa Maria Assunta there. In 1238 the patriarchs relocated again, this time to the much larger city of Udine, where they would continue to reside – intermittently – until the Patriarchate of Aquileia was suppressed in 1751.

Interior of the Duomo.

The history of the Duomo from the eighth century onwards is one of fires and earthquakes, reparations, restorations and expansions. In the middle of the fifteenth century it was decided to completely rebuild the Duomo after it had been heavily damaged by an earthquake in 1448. For this rebuilding the architect Bartolomeo delle Cisterne (ca. 1400-1480) was hired, who was from Capodistria (now Koper in Slovenia). The architect started the project in 1457. Upon his death 23 years later the new building was not yet finished, and in 1502 a part of the uncompleted Duomo even collapsed. Pietro Lombardo (ca. 1435-1515) was subsequently hired as the new architect in charge. By now architectural tastes had changed. While Bartolomeo delle Cisterne had made designs for a (Late) Gothic church, Lombardo would add several Renaissance elements to the building, for instance to the façade (see below). Apart from father Pietro his sons Tullio (died 1532) and Antonio (ca. 1458-1516) also worked on the new Duomo.

Regretfully Pietro Lombardo did not manage to complete the rebuilding either. He died in 1515, while the so-called War of the League of Cambrai (1508-1516) was raging. The war had led to a complete suspension of building activities and these were not resumed until 1518. By 1529 the workmen had fortunately made so much progress that the Duomo could finally be consecrated, on 9 May of that year. But the building was not entirely complete yet. Work on the floor was, for instance, only finished in 1549. In the eighteenth century it was decided to remodel the interior of the building. For this project the Venetian architect Giorgio Massari (1687-1766) was commissioned, who unfortunately died before he could start the work. Ultimately the project was therefore entrusted to his student Bernardino Maccaruzzi (ca. 1728-1798).

Things to see

Central portal.

The façade of the Duomo is plain and simple. The lower part has Gothic elements and was completed when Bartolomeo delle Cisterne was lead architect. The central portal, featuring an Annunciation, dates from 1465 and is a work of the sculptor Jacopo Veneziano, otherwise unknown. Above the doors we may also read the year 1457 in Roman numerals (MCCCCLVII). The upper part of the façade is built in Renaissance style. The design can probably be attributed to either Pietro Lombardo or one of his sons, but they were all long dead when workmen completed this part of the façade in 1535.

Inside the building we may admire many beautiful things as well. First of all there is the funerary monument attached to the counter-façade, made in 1621. The monument and its equestrian statue were crafted for the local condottiero Marcantonio di Manzano. He was killed in 1617 during the siege of the city of Gradisca. The siege was part of the so-called Uskok War (1615-1617), named after the Croatian pirates that had infuriated Venice by attacking Venetian merchant ships. As the Friuli had become part of the Venetian territories on the Italian mainland in 1420, it was hardly surprising that Marcantonio di Manzano fought in the service of the Venetians. Gradisca was, however, never taken, and shortly after Marcantonio was killed the war was ended with the Treaty of Madrid. The funerary monument for the slain commander is attributed – tentatively it seems – to the sculptor Girolamo Paleario (ca. 1579-1634) from Udine.

Monument for Marcantonio di Manzano.

Equally interesting is the funerary monument of patriarch Nicolò Donà in the left aisle. This Venetian was patriarch of Aquileia from 1493 until 1497. He died in the latter year in Cividale del Friuli, where he was buried in the Duomo. Donà had once again moved the seat of the Patriarchate, this time from Udine to Cividale, but after his death the decision was reversed again. The funerary monument is a work of the fairly obscure sculptor (with the very long name) Giovanni Antonio di Bernardino da Carona (1477-1536), who was from Bergamo. The monument dates from 1513. Above the effigy of the deceased on the sarcophagus we see three more statues, which must also once have been part of the monument. The statues represent a Madonna and Child, Saint Hermagoras (the first bishop of Aquileia) and his deacon Fortunatus.

Funerary monument for patriarch Nicolò Donà.

Of the many painting in the Duomo there is one in particular that I would like to mention: the stoning of Saint Stephen by the Venetian painter Iacopo Negretti, nicknamed Palma il Giovane (ca. 1548-1628). The work dates from 1606. Also of considerable interest is a large wooden crucifix from the end of the twelfth or beginning of the thirteenth century. It is possible that the crucifix was commissioned by Peregrinus or Pellegrino II (1195-1204), who is most famous for his splendid altarpiece in the Duomo. This altarpiece is of such exceptional quality that it warrants a separate paragraph.

The stoning of Saint Stephen by Palma il Giovane / crucifix, early thirteenth century.

Pala di Pellegrino II

The raised choir of the Duomo is unfortunately inaccessible to visitors. They will have to content themselves with admiring the artistic highlight of the building from a distance. This highlight is the Pala di Pellegrino II, the silver altarpiece commissioned by the aforementioned patriarch Pellegrino II for the Duomo. The measurements of the altarpiece are 203 by 102 centimetres. The object is composed of 123 silver plates, which have clearly been crafted by very skilful workers. Regretfully we do not know the names of the makers, but they were probably silversmiths from the Friuli or Venice. A comparison with the (admittedly even more impressive) Pala d’Oro in the basilica of San Marco in Venice is quickly made.

Pala di Pellegrino II.

Pala di Pellegrino II.

The people taking care of the building have fortunately placed a kind of replica of the altarpiece in the left aisle (see below). This makes it possible to see exactly what has been depicted. In the centre are three large figures, i.e. the Madonna and Child and the archangels Michael and Gabriel. The left side has thirteen saints in three rows (4-4-5), while the right side has another twelve (4-4-4). Another 24 figures have been depicted on the frame of the altarpiece. One of them is Pellegrino II himself, who can be seen kneeling at the feet of the Madonna. All figures have captions in Latin. These have been made by hammering individual letter punches into the silver. This is an early example of the use of moveable type in Europe.

Pala di Pellegrino II, replica.



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