Cividale del Friuli: Museo Archeologico Nazionale

Museo Archeologico Nazionale.

The national archaeological museum in Cividale del Friuli has a very long history. It was founded in 1817, and at the end of the nineteenth century it was housed in the Palazzo de Nordis, a nice palazzo from the fifteenth century just north of the Duomo of the town. Nowadays the Palazzo de Nordis has nineteenth-century art on display; in 1990 the archaeological museum was moved to a new location just a stone’s throw away from the old one. The new accommodation, just behind the Duomo, is known as the Palazzo dei Provveditori veneti or – much briefer – the Palazzo Pretorio. The design of the palazzo is attributed to the famous architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), but it was not completed until several decades after his death. The archaeological museum is interesting for two reasons: it tells the story of the Roman history of the town and subsequently provides visitors with ample information about the Germanic Longobards.

Roman history

Cividale del Friuli was founded in 50 BCE by the Roman statesman and conqueror Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE). He named the town after himself and gave it the name Forum Julii, ‘market of Julius’. The name is certainly not unique: Fréjus in the south of France was also previously called Forum Julii. The town was quickly granted the status of a municipium and its inhabitants were given Roman citizenship. During the Roman imperial age Forum Julii does not seem have been of particular importance. Nevertheless the museum has a number of interesting objects from this period on display. Quite famous is a mosaic from the first or second century featuring the head of a sea god, presumably Oceanus. A photo of the mosaic adorns one of the banners on the façade of the museum. The Oceanus was found in 1818 by Michele della Torre Valsassina, the founder of the museum. The mosaic was probably part of the decorations of a frigidarium or cold water bath. This bath was likely not part of a public bathhouse.

Mosaic of Oceanus.

The museum also dedicates a section to the town of Iulium Carnicum, founded in the second half of the first century BCE and currently known as Zuglio. This town was on the road from Aquileia to Noricum in present-day Austria. The road was widely used for the iron ore trade. The ore was used for, among other things, the production of Roman weapons. Excavations in Iulium Carnicum started as early as the nineteenth century, and between 1818 and 1939 the archaeological museum acquired numerous bronze objects that were discovered there. One of these objects is a bronze clipeus, a circular ornamental shield featuring the scarce remains of a human figure. Fortunately another object, the bronze head of a man of stature, is still fully intact. Perhaps he is the same Gaius Baebius Atticus that is mentioned in a series of bronze plaques that can also be admired in the museum.

Remnants of a bronze clipeus.

Bronze head, possibly Gaius Baebius Atticus.

Longobardic history

The so-called ‘tomb of Gisulf’.

In 452 Aquileia was taken and wiped off the map by the Huns under their infamous king Attila. They reduced the most important city of the Friuli and – according to the poet Ausonius – the ninth city of the Roman Empire to a heap of smouldering rubble. It is possible that Iulium Carnicum suffered the same fate, but Forum Julii seems to have escaped the fury of the Huns. When more than a century later, in the year 568, the Germanic tribe of the Longobards invaded Italy, Forum Julii was the first large town to fall into their hands. The commander of the Longobards, one Alboin, made the town his capital. Forum Julii then quickly lost its prestigious status, for in 571 Alboin captured ancient Ticinum, currently known as Pavia. Although Pavia became the new capital of the Longobardic Kingdom, Forum Julii retained a certain prestige as the capital of the Duchy of the Friuli. In 737 the patriarch of Aquileia settled in the town. It was not until 1038 that he returned to his old residence, where a splendid new basilica had just been completed.

The Longobardic collection of the archaeological museum makes one thing abundantly clear: the Longobards were anything but stupid barbarians bent on senseless destruction. Beautiful fibulae (pins for fastening clothes) have been found in various tombs. Often they are just small, but they have exceptional decorations. See below for two examples of fibulae made of gilded silver, dating from the beginning of the seventh century. Also very interesting is the so-called “tomb of Gisulf” and the accompanying burial gifts. Gisulf was the first Duke of the Friuli between ca. 569 and 581. Although tomb in the museum is named after him, it is certain that he was never buried in it. The burial gifts date from the second half of the seventh century and are therefore decades younger than might have been expected if this were really the tomb of the duke. The most beautiful object is without a doubt a golden cross, encrusted with semi-precious stones and decorated with human heads. The cross is just 11 centimetres high.

Golden cross from the so-called ‘tomb of Gisulf’.

Fibulae, seventh century.

There are in fact a few more Christian crosses in the museum collection. This should not really come as a surprise, as although the Longobards were invaders with firm martial traditions, they were also pious Christians. Initially most of them were Arians, following a doctrine that had been anathemised as early as 325. Gradually however, they converted to the Orthodox or Catholic faith. Among the crosses is a second golden cross which features, among other things, an image of a deer. Almost unique is the so-called Cross of Invillino. It has been made of wood that was subsequently covered in bronze. The Cross of Invillino (named after the place where it was found) was made between the second half of the eighth and first half of the ninth century. At the time the Longobardic kingdom may have fallen already. In 774 the last king, one Desiderius, was defeated by Charlemagne and subsequently sent into exile. Longobardic culture, however, endured and gradually mixed with that of the Carolingian rulers. Forum Julii was henceforth known as Civitas Austriae, the city of the East.

Golden cross, early seventh century.

Cross of Invillino, second half of the eighth or first half of the ninth century.

Pace of duke Orso.

An example of an object that presumably dates from this transitional period is the ivory “pace” (pax) of Duke Orso. There can be no doubt that the object was commissioned by this duke: Orso had his name VRSVS DVX mentioned twice on the pax. Unfortunately this does not help us much, as there was no Duke of the Friuli named Ursus or Orso. Perhaps he was the Duke of Ceneda and a cousin of the Ratchis who was Duke of the Friuli first (739-744) and then King of the Longobards (744-749 and again 756-757). This could be an indication that the pax dates from the second half of the eighth century, but the museum believes it was made in the second half of the ninth, based on the Carolingian style. The pax features an image of the Crucifixion. Quite remarkable are the images of the sun (Sol) and moon (Luna) above the crossbar. Sun and moon have an almost classically pagan appearance, with a radiant crown and lunar disc. The text above the arms of Christ reads:


This is presumably an abbreviation of Mulier Ecce Filius Tuus Ecce Mater Tua, “woman, behold thy son, behold thy mother”.

Sources: Bradt Travel Guide, Friuli Venezia Giulia (2019), p. 158 and the information panels in the museum.

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