Udine: the museums of the Castello

Castello of Udine.

The castle of Udine is situated on an artificial hill of which the history goes back to the Bronze Age. There is no truth whatsoever in the legend that it was Attila the Hun who had the hill created in 452 so that he could witness the destruction of the city of Aquileia from a high platform. This legend is about as historical as a similar story about Attila’s throne on the island of Torcello in the Venetian lagoon. In the tenth century the first military fortification was built on the hill of which the existence can be proven historically. Then in 1238 the patriarchs of Aquileia settled in Udine, where they enlarged the fortification and turned it into a proper castle. In 1420 the Venetians annexed Udine. Initially the patriarchs were allowed to stay in the castle, but at the end of the sixteenth century it became the residence of the Venetian governors (who bore the title of luogotenente or lieutenant). The patriarchs thereupon moved to the lower city. They would ultimately take up residence in the Palazzo Patriarcale, now a museum.

The Castello was badly damaged by a heavy earthquake on 26 March 1511. A project to rebuild it was launched in 1517 under the direction of the architect Giovanni Fontana from Lombardy. The project took about 50 years to complete. After Fontana men such as Giovanni da Udine (1487-1561) and Francesco Floreani (died ca. 1586) were involved in the renovation. Upon completion the castle was used for, among other things, the meetings of the Friulian parliament, which was in existence between 1231 and 1805. The parliament convened in the Salone del Parlamento, a large meeting hall that was embellished by Floreani and others. Since 1906 the castle houses the municipal museums of Udine (Civici musei). I will discuss three of these museums in this post.

Salone del Parlamento.

Salone del Parlamento.

Museo del Risorgimento

This museum is located on the ground floor in the left wing of the Castello. The museum is dedicated to the Italian unification process in the nineteenth century, also known as the ‘Risorgimento’ (resurrection). All information is provided exclusively in Italian, so some base knowledge of the Italian language is a prerequisite if you want to visit this museum. The Friuli was part of the Republic of Venice until 1797. In 1866 it joined the Kingdom of Italy, and the museum addresses the events that occurred in the intervening period. The best of the seven rooms is, in my opinion, the one that has a scale model of the battle of Montebello on display. This battle was fought on 20 May 1859 and was part of the Second Italian War of Independence. Montebello is situated on the border of Piedmont and Lombardy, so quite far from Udine. The battle saw French and Italian troops driving back the Austrians, after which they were able to continue their advance through Northern Italy. The war would ultimately culminate in the famous battles of Solferino and San Martino. The scale model of the battle of Montebello was made in 2009 in honour of the 150th anniversary of the battle. The makers of this wonderful reconstruction must of course be mentioned in this post. Their names are Fabio Fiorentin and Enrico Zamparutti.

Battle of Montebello.

Museo Archeologico

The archaeological museum is also located on the ground floor. Visitors can find it in six rooms in the right wing. The first two rooms are dedicated to two local collectors of antiquities, Francesco di Toppo (1797-1883) and Augusto de Brandis (1870-1928), who donated their collections to (the predecessor of) the museum. The former participated in excavations in Aquileia as an archaeologist. Among the finds there were, among other things, glass jugs and plates, now part of the exhibition in the museum. Aquileia was the terminus of the Amber route (Via Sucinaria). That explains why the museum has several beautiful amber objects on display. See below for a photo of a Cupid and a dog, and of a dog with puppies. Also from Aquileia is a fine mosaic floor, although it has to be said that it pales a bit compared to the mosaics that are still in situ in Aquileia, for instance in the basilica of the town.

Glass from Aquileia, 1st-2nd century.

Amber items.

Floor from Aquileia.

Bronze Roman coin.

The museum also possesses a number of bronze Roman coins. The Latin word for money is pecunia, which is derived from the word for ‘cattle’, pecus. The wealth of a Roman was, after all, measured by how much land and cattle he owned. We do not know when exactly the Romans started minting bronze coins. The historian Livius claims that in the year 423 BCE the consul Gaius Sempronius Atratinus was sentenced to pay a heavy fine of 15,000 bronze asses. If the story is true, it is not very plausible that the fine was paid in bronze coins. It is possible that the fine involved the payment of lumps or discs of bronze with a certain weight. The coins in the museum, which come from the collection of Augusto de Brandis, appear to date from the beginning of the third century BCE. One of the coins features a figure with a winged helmet, possibly the Greek hero Perseus. Around 268 BCE the Romans started minting silver coins, and at the end of the third century the silver denarius was introduced. The name of that coin lives on in the Italian and Spanish words for money (denaro and dinaro), as well as in the dinar, the currency used in several Arabic countries.

The museum not only possesses Roman objects. From the collection of count Antonino di Prampero (1836-1920) come a number of Gothic and Longobard objects. We have previously seen that the Longobards were fully capable of crafting beautiful fibulae. Here in Udine we can also admire a couple of beautiful examples of fibulae, made of gilded silver and found in 1874 during excavations at a necropolis near the city.

Longobard fibulae.

Galleria d’Arte Antica

This is by far the largest of the three museums that we visited in the summer of 2022. The Galleria d’Arte Antica takes up the entire first floor of the castle. In thirteen rooms we find a collection that mainly consists of paintings from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries. In the second half of the fourteenth century painting in Udine was heavily influenced by Vitale da Bologna (ca. 1310-1360). I have previously discussed his work in the Museo del Duomo in the city, which dates from 1349. In the Galleria d’Arte Antica we can admire a number of frescoes from 1370 which come from the palazzo of a noble family. The frescoes are clearly influenced by Vitale. Presumably they were once part of a cycle of the months, of which only the months of May, October and November have been preserved. On another fresco, painted before 1364, we see a battle from the Trojan war. Although it is Greeks and Trojans massacring each other, all combatants are wearing fourteenth-century helmets and armour.

Fresco ca. 1370.

Trojan war, before 1364.

Those who want to get an idea of what Udine looked like in the past must definitely look for the works of Joseph Heintz the Younger (ca. 1600-1678), Pomponio Amalteo (1505-1588) and Palma Il Giovane (ca. 1548-1628). The German painter Heintz the Younger left us a detailed city map of Udine. The hill with the Castello is clearly visible. Below it and to the right we see the Piazza della Libertà, as the central square of the city is known nowadays.[1] Several buildings that can still be admired today are hard to miss: the Arco Bollani (Andrea Palladio’s gate that gives access to the Castello), the column with the Venetian lion (on the other column there appears to be a cross instead of Lady Justice), the portico of San Giovanni and the bell-tower with the two Moors that strike the hour. On the south side of the piazza is the Loggia del Lionello, the city hall, and to the east of it we see the Duomo, with its conspicuous octagonal campanile.

Map of Udine – Joseph Heintz the Younger.

The same buildings are visible in the background of a painting by Pomponio Amalteo dating from 1574. The most important figure on the painting is the kneeling Venetian luogotenente (governor) Girolamo Mocenigo. Udine had been under Venetian rule since 1420. The surrender of the city to Venice is the central theme of the painting by Palma Il Giovane, made by the painter in 1595 and commissioned from him by the city council of Udine. On the right side of the work we see the hill with the Castello and the Piazza della Libertà.

Painting by Pomponio Amalteo, in the background the city of Udine.

Surrender of Udine to Venice, Palma il Giovane. On the right the hill with the Castello and the Piazza della Libertà.

The museum possesses works of three painters that can be called truly famous: Vittore Carpaccio (ca. 1465-1525 of 1526), Caravaggio (1571-1610) and Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770). In 1496 Carpaccio painted a colourful Risen Christ with four angels. The work was made for the church of San Pietro Martire in Udine. We can be one hundred percent certain that Carpaccio was the maker of the painting: below the feet of the Messiah we see a small note with the name of the painter and the year 1496. The work attributed to Caravaggio depicts Saint Franciscus of Assisi in ecstasy, supported by an angel. There is a lot of doubt nowadays whether it is really a work painted by the master himself. The museum believes it is a copy, made in 1606-1607, of a work from ca. 1595-1596 that is currently in the United States.

Christ with four angels – Carpaccio.

Saint Franciscus of Assisi in ecstasy – Caravaggio (copy).

Around 1750 Giambattista Tiepolo and his son Giandomenico (1726-1804) painted a work that is called Consilium in Arena. This name is visible on a plaque on the wall in the background of the painting. The painting is about a legal case that was held in 1748 before the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta. A citizen of Udine was denied membership of the order because he was not a castellano (owner of a castle), but thanks to a brilliant lawyer he was admitted to the order nonetheless. It was this lawyer who commissioned Tiepolo to paint the work to commemorate his spectacular legal victory. The Knights of Malta, with their black robes and Maltese crosses, are easily recognisable on the painting.

Consilium in Arena – Giambattista and Giandomenico Tiepolo.

If you have any breath left after three museums, you can go to the third floor to visit the Museo della Fotografia. We did not have the required breath, but the photo museum is no doubt interesting.

Website: The Castle – Civici Musei di Udine (civicimuseiudine.it)


[1] Older names are Piazza del Vino, Piazza del Comune and Piazza Contarena.

One Comment:

  1. Pingback:Udine: Museo diocesano and Gallerie del Tiepolo – – Corvinus –

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