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Friuli Venezia Giulia - Background information
As far back as we can see, someone has been tramping around the plains and mountains of this region. The oldest human finds go back nearly half a million years. Neolithic farmers were tilling the land millennia ago; one of their sites, Palù di Livenza, revealed remains of houses built over water on wooden piles that go back to 4900BC.
An uneventful millennium later, the first Indo-European tribes began moving in. Among these, probably, was the Bronze Age Castellieri culture, known for its fortified hilltop settlements, which flourished in Istria and southeast Friuli. The first people we have a name for, courtesy of Roman historians, are the Carnii who may
have been Celts, or closer to a related Indo-European people, the Venetii. The Carnii gave their name to three modern regions: Friuli’s Carnia, Carniola in Slovenia and Carinthia in Austria. They occupied these mountains by the 4th century BC, and settled closer to the coast in the 2nd century BC, where they founded Aquileia near the coast – which brought them into inevitable conflict with the expanding Roman Republic. Romans fought Carnii intermittently throughout the next century, and seized Aquileia and refounded it as a colony. They eventually got serious and sent a big army under one of the leading politician-soldiers of the day, Senator Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, who beat the Carnii for good in 115bc.
Aquileia became a Roman municipium in 90BC, and gradually grew into what may have been the fourth-largest city of the empire © Lytd11, Shutterstock
The Romans didn’t hold grudges. They allowed the Carnii to settle where they liked in the Friulian plains, as long as they remembered who was boss. Aquileia became a Roman municipium (a chartered city) in 90BC, and gradually grew into what may have been the fourth-largest city of the Empire. The Carnii may have founded Trieste too. Tergeste, as the Romans called it, became a municipium even earlier, in 177BC when Rome conquered Istria. Though it never rivalled Aquileia, Tergeste was an impressive city, with a population of some 12,000 at its height and an imposing citadel on Colle San Giusto where the castle and cathedral are now.
The land that is now FVG prospered quietly under the late Republic and the Empire. For the Romans, with their new conquests in the east, it became a strategic bit of land, where new roads connecting Italy with the Balkans and Greece intersected with the major trade route over the Alps, transporting Baltic amber and gold, silver and iron from the mines of Bohemia. New towns appeared, such as Cividale del Friuli, founded as Forum Julii in 50BC by Julius Caesar himself.
The mighty mountain wall between FVG and Austria protects the south from the worst of the winter cold © Pablo Debat, Shutterstock
FVG protects its surprising biodiversity in the Friulian Dolomites and Julian Pre-Alps natural parks, 15 regional nature reserves, 63 Natura 2000 sites, and 30 protected biotopes (mostly springs, marshes and lakes). The coastal lagoons host more than 200 species of migratory and resident birds, and the WWF manages Italy’s oldest marine reserve (since 1973), where peacock blennies and seahorses thrive around the rocky promontory of Miramare near Trieste. Inland, at the Oasi dei Quadris in Fagagna white storks and the endangered northern bald ibis are happy neighbours. Off the Tagliamento, the last wild river in the Alps, Lake Cornino has an important colony of griffon vultures while to the north Bordano is famous for its butterflies.
All the mountains are heavily forested; the 24,000ha national forest in the Julian Alps is the largest in Italy, outside the national parks. You’ll find pine, oak and hornbeam, scotch pine, and larch and fir at higher elevations, inhabited by deer, roe deer, chamois and ibex, and towards Slovenia, the occasional bear. Birds in the mountain regions include golden eagle, wood grouse (western capercaillie), honey buzzard, corncrake, rock partridge, ptarmigan, black woodpecker and peregrine falcon.
Friulians know they’re a little different. Whether their families originally came from Carnia or Carinthia or Carniola, they are the descendants of the ancient Carnii, with a little bit of everything else mixed in. Remembering their lost metropolis of Aquileia, they are also heirs to the sophistication of ancient Rome. Despite all the comings and goings of different tribes and armies since, they have rolled with history’s punches and persevered as a people for over 2,000 years.
Art and architecture
The early medieval abbey of Sesto al Reghena has been described as ‘a small compendium of the universe’ © Elio e Stefano Ciol, PromoTurismoFVG
As with music, food, and language, influences in art and architecture arrived in FVG from several different directions. Much has been lost in earthquakes, but there are jewels to seek out from all periods; even the smallest museum has its wonders. Aquileia is the starting point, with enough left above ground to give a sense of its ancient grandeur. The extraordinary Roman and early Christian mosaics in its archaeology museum and the great basilica complex are worth the trip, as are the slightly later ones in Aquileia’s ancient port of Grado.
Roman Trieste may have been far less wealthy and important than Aquileia, but it has remains of its impressive Roman theatre, and some beautiful works in its Lapidario Tergestino, in the Castello and the Museo d’Antichità, including the graceful 4th-century BC silver deer head Rhyton of Trieste. The archaeology museums in Udine, Cividale del Friuli, Pordenone and Zuglio – the northernmost Roman colony in Italy – all have their treasures, and fittingly in the land of karst you can also explore ancient underground mysteries: a temple of Mithras in Duino, the uncanny Ipogeo Celtico in Cividale del Friuli and less dark but equally curious Grotta di San Giovanni d’Antro in the Natisone valley.
The comings and goings of various ethnic groups through this section of Italy have led to its cultural and musical variety and diversity. Venetian, Austrian and Slavic influences are important, the last evident in the Furlana, a spritely courtship dance of Friuli that became the rage in Venice, then was adopted by the French royal court and from there spread all over Europe, working its way into compositions by Bach, Couperin, Rameau and Ravel. There was always a deep love of church music: the renowned Cappella Civica cathedral choir in Trieste has been singing nearly every Sunday morning for nearly five centuries, and two of the oldest surviving Venetian organs in the world are in Valvasone (complete with its workings) and Spilimbergo.