Between 1238 and 1751 the patriarchs of Aquileia usually resided in Udine. Initially the castle of the city was their residence, but at the end of the sixteenth century that building was commandeered by the Venetian governor. The patriarchs – who were all Venetians too by the way – thereupon moved to a palazzo from the sixteenth century that was built by order of patriarch Francesco Barbaro (1593-1616). The palazzo was thoroughly remodelled and enlarged in the eighteenth century. Responsible for this renovation was Dionisio Delfino (Dolfin in the Venetian dialect), who served as patriarch from 1699 until his death in 1734. In 1708 Delfino hired the architect Domenico Rossi (1657-1737), who among other things built the grand staircase and the patriarchal library, the Biblioteca Delfiniana. The former palace now houses the museum of the diocese. Visitors to the museum, which opened its doors to the public in 1995, can also walk through the various rooms of the Palazzo Patriarcale that were embellished by the famous painter Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) in the eighteenth century (1726-1729).
Visitors first encounter Tiepolo’s beautiful work when they reach Domenico Rossi’s grand staircase (Scalone d’onore). On the ceiling here Tiepolo painted a Fall of the rebel angels in 1726. The tour of the museum then starts on the first floor. Of course I cannot discuss each and every item on display, but this post would not be complete without mentioning the beautiful cover of an evangeliary. The ivory parts of the cover are from Constantinople and date from the second half of the tenth or first half of the eleventh century. The metal parts are younger, thirteenth or fourteenth-century, and they are the work of silversmiths from the Friuli who knew their trade. Another beautiful object is an altarpiece that has Mary Magdalene as its central figure. The altarpiece is made of wood, which was subsequently painted. Its maker was the painter and sculptor Domenico da Tolmezzo (1448-1507).
On the second floor we reach the aforementioned library (see the first image in this post). What is quite special is that it was opened to the public in 1711, thus becoming the first public library of Udine. The large ceiling fresco of the Triumph of Heavenly Wisdom is a work of the Venetian painter Nicolò Bambini (1651-1736). After the library we get to the blue and yellow room (Sala Azzura and Sala Gialla). Quite impressive is the throne room (Sala del Trono), with the portraits of the patriarchs on the walls. The large ceiling fresco here dates from 1857-1859. It was painted by Domenico Fabris (1814-1901) and represents the inauguration of Saint Hermagoras as bishop. He was the first bishop of Aquileia and is considered the patron saint of Udine. According to tradition Hermagoras was appointed bishop by Saint Peter the Apostle upon a nomination by Saint Mark, and that is exactly what we see on the fresco. Religious art featuring Hermagoras, Saint Peter and Saint Mark goes back many centuries. See for instance a fresco from the twelfth century in the crypt of the patriarchal basilica of Aquileia.
We meet Tiepolo again in the red room (Sala Rossa), where he painted the ceiling fresco with the Judgment of Solomon. The theme has been chosen well, as it was in the red room that the patriarch heard legal cases. Truly spectacular is the waiting room, the Galleria degli Ospiti, which was embellished by Tiepolo with about 240 square metres of frescoes. On Delfino’s request, the master painted four stories from the Book of Genesis here. These are Abraham and the three angels, the angel that announces to Sarah that she will have a child, Abraham who is about to sacrifice his son Isaac and Rachel hiding the idols from her father Laban. The scene of the sacrifice adorns the ceiling, the other frescoes have been painted on the long wall of the waiting room.
According to the Bible Sarah was ninety years old when she gave birth to Isaac (Genesis 17:17). And that is exactly how Tiepolo painted her: as a toothless old woman who just cannot believe that she will ever conceive. But the angel of God looks her straight in the eye and points with his finger in a very determined fashion: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14). Note how splendid Tiepolo’s angel is, wearing beautiful robes with intriguing patterns. “The most fashionably dressed angel in Christendom”, as my travel guide snidely remarks.
The big central fresco featuring Rachel and Laban also warrants closer inspection. Jacob, the son of Isaac and Rebecca, is tired of working for his uncle Laban (Rebecca’s brother). With his wives Rachel and Leah (the daughters of Laban), the slave women Bilhah and Zilpah, and his children he has left for the land of his ancestors. Rachel has taken the idols of her father with her; Laban the Aramean is clearly not a monotheist. It is therefore hardly surprising that he is angry about the departure of his son-in-law and the theft of the idols. Laban pursues Jacob and his company, overtakes them and searches the tents, including that of Rachel. The Bible then says:
“Now Rachel had taken the household gods and put them inside her camel’s saddle and was sitting on them. Laban searched through everything in the tent but found nothing. Rachel said to her father, “Don’t be angry, my lord, that I cannot stand up in your presence; I’m having my period.” So he searched but could not find the household gods.” (Genesis 31:34-35)
Old Laban, Jacob, Rachel and little Joseph take centre stage on the fresco. It is sometimes assumed that Tiepolo himself, his wife Cecilia and his son Giandomenico modelled for Jacob, Rachel and Joseph. Giandomenico (1726-1804) later became a well-known painter himself, although he never reached the levels of fame that his father did. Other figures on the fresco that can be identified are the slave woman Bilhah (far left) and the shepherd Judah – the fourth son of Jacob and Leah – next to her. Leah is the woman with the jug on the right. It is not clear why Dionisio Delfino chose to have this specific scene from Genesis 31:34-35 depicted, but that certainly does not make the fresco less beautiful.
Source: Bradt Travel Guide, Friuli Venezia Giulia (2019), p. 143-144.