UNESCO World Heritage Site #244: City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto

UNESCO World Heritage Site #244: City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto
UNESCO World Heritage Site #244: City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto

From the World Heritage inscription:

Vicenza represents a unique artistic achievement in the many architectural contributions from Andrea Palladio integrated within its historic fabric and creating its overall character. Through its architecture, the city has exerted exceptional influence on architectural and urban design in most European countries and throughout the world.

Vicenza is situated in the Veneto region of northern Italy on the low hills between the mountains of Berici and Lessini, on a natural communication route. The city of Vicenza was founded in the 2nd or 1st century BC by the Veneti and was granted Roman citizenship with the status of municipium in 49 BC. The ancient town plan is still recognizable in that of the modern town, Corso Palladio being the decumanus maximus and Contra Porti the cardo maximus . Among the public buildings erected from the time of Augustus that survive are the remains of the theatre, now incorporated in a more recent structure, and sections of the aqueduct to the north of the city.

The city became the See of a Christian diocese at the end of the 4th century AD. In the 5th century it was on the route of successive barbarian groups, whose ravages were exacerbated by a series of disastrous plagues, which left the region depopulated. It formed part of the Langobardic kingdom and became chief town of one of the 36 duchies. Eventually the pope called on Charlemagne to drive out the Lombards, and Vicenza became a Frankish Countship within the March of Friuli. It was during this period that the first Benedictine communities of San Felice and San Pietro were established. The disintegration of the Carolingian Empire saw fresh invaders, this time the Magyars, whose depredations led to the construction of city walls. The bloody wars between episcopal feudatories and the Ghibelline Counts that disfigured most of the 12th and early 13th centuries raged around Vicenza. The region became divided into a patchwork of small seigneuries, which fought among themselves, only uniting to defy the Holy Roman Emperor. Like most Italian cities of the period, Vicenza evolved its own administration, which in 1208 introduced controls on building within the enceinte of the walls. A new urban perimeter was created by the Della Scala family, enclosing the most important streets within the city.

A movement by the small states in the region towards coalescence was interpreted by Venice as a threat and so in 1404 La Serenissima annexed the entire region. Vicenza remained part of the Venetian Republic until its fall at the end of the 18th century. The feudal aristocracy was stripped of its powers and replaced by a dominant mercantile class. Feudal lands were expropriated and sold to patrician Venetian families, who created great agricultural estates on which they built sumptuous mansions. The city also prospered under Venetian rule, benefiting from its situation on a major natural communication route. The town became polarized around the four main piazzas that still exist. There had been limited expansion to the east and west in the late 14th century but the city retained its basic form throughout the succeeding centuries. The wealth of its leading citizens resulted in the erection of many lavish buildings, strongly influenced by Venetian taste, but it was the advent of Andrea Palladio that gave Vicenza its enduring form.

Andrea Palladio (1508-80) was profoundly influenced by his study of the surviving monuments of classical Rome and of the works of Vitruvius. For Vicenza he created both public (Basilica, Loggia del Capitaniato, Teatro Olimpico) and private buildings. A total of 26 individual buildings or parts of buildings known to have been designed or reconstructed by Palladio or attributed to him make up the World Heritage site – 23 in the city itself and three villas in its immediate environs. The palazzi or town houses were fitted into the urban texture of the medieval city, creating picturesque ensembles and continuous street facades in which the Veneto Gothic style combines with Palladio’s articulated classicism. These urban compositions closely related to theatre design, which link reality and make-believe, are unique to Vicenza. A similar approach to composition is shown by the location of the suburban villa known as La Rotonda, as seen from the Villa Cricoli.

It is easy to categorize Vincenza as another historical European city type of UNESCO site. In fact, it is really an architectural site designed to showcase the work of Andrea Palladio.

The site consists of two parts: the city of Vincenza and many villas located outside the city in the surrounding area. In the city, the primary Palladio buildings are the Basilica and the Teatro Olimpico (shown above). The basilica is actually not a church and contains the Torre Bissara, one of the highest towers in the city. The Teatro Olimpico is a greek style theater created for the city. The villas are harder to reach as they require a significant amount of walking or a car.

Vicenza is an easy day trip from either Verona or Venice, which it lies between. It can be reached by many of the high speed trains which leave from Venice as well as slower (and cheaper) regional trains.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #243: City of Verona

UNESCO World Heritage Site #243: City of Verona
UNESCO World Heritage Site #243: City of Verona

From the World Heritage inscription:

In its urban structure and its architecture, Verona is an outstanding example of a town that has developed progressively and uninterruptedly over 2,000 years, incorporating artistic elements of the highest quality from each succeeding period. It also represents in an exceptional way the concept of the fortified town at several seminal stages of European history.

The city is situated in northern Italy at the foot of Monte Lessini on the River Adige. It was founded by ancient tribes and became a Roman colony in the 1st century BC, rising rapidly in importance. It was occupied by the Ostrogoth Theodoric I (5th century), by the Lombards, and by Charlemagne (774). In the early 12th century, it became an independent commune, suffering during the wars of Guelphs and Ghibellines. It prospered under the rule of the Scaliger family and particularly under Cangrande I. It fell to Venice in 1405, was part of the Austrian Empire from 1797, and joined the Kingdom of Italy in 1866.

The core of the city consists of the Roman town in the loop of the river. The Scaligers rebuilt the walls, embracing a much larger territory in the west and another vast area on the east bank of the river. This remained the size of the city until the 20th century. The heart of Verona is the ensemble consisting of the Piazza delle Erbe (with its picturesque vegetable market) and the Piazza dei Signori, with their historic buildings, including the Palazzo del Comune, Palazzo del Governo, Loggia del Consiglio, Arche Scaligere and Domus Nova. The Piazza Bra has a number of classicist buildings.

In the north of Italy, Verona is one of the richest cities in Roman remains. These include the Porta Borsari, a city gate at the beginning of the decumanus maximus; the Porta Leoni, only half of which remains, attached to a later building; the Arco dei Gavi, dismantled in the Napoleonic period and rebuilt next to Castelvecchio in the 1930s; the Ponte Pietra; the Roman theatre, excavated in the mid-19th century and restored for use in spectacles; and the Amphitheatre Arena, the second-largest after the Colosseum in Rome (originally a wall of three orders surrounded it, but this collapsed in an earthquake in the 12th century).

Despite all the history which can be found in Verona, it is still best know for someone who never once visited: William Shakespeare.

The story of Romeo and Juliette still is a huge draw for the city. The House of Juliette is a tourist attraction run by the city and there is a bronze statue of Juliette in the courtyard of the house underneath a balcony.

The attractions related to a fictional story by a 16th Century English playwright are not what make Verona a world heritage site, however. Verona dates back to the Romans and their presence is felt by the largest and most significant attraction in the city: the Roman Arena.

The Verona Roman Arena is one of the best preserved Roman amphitheaters in the world. It still is used to host performances.

Verona also has a host of fortifications which ring the city which harken back to its days as a city state.

Verona is best seen as an attraction in itself but can be visited on a day trip from Venice, which is only 1 hour away by train.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #242: Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna

UNESCO World Heritage Site #242: Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna
UNESCO World Heritage Site #242: Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna

From the World Heritage inscription:

The early Christian religious monuments in Ravenna are of outstanding significance by virtue of the supreme artistry of the mosaic art that they contain, and also because of the crucial evidence that they provide of artistic and religious relationships and contacts at an important period of European cultural history.

In the reign of Augustus the port of Classis was established at Ravenna. Following the barbarian invasions of the 5th century, Honorius made it his capital. His sister, Galla Placidia, lived in Ravenna during her widowhood in the first half of the 5th century, and made it a centre of Christian art and culture. With the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476, Ravenna entered into a period of prosperity and influence. It was taken by Belisarius in 540 and remained the centre of Byzantine control in Italy until 752. Its subsequent history was one of decline and stagnation. After 1441 it was under Venetian and then papal rule.

The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, built in the second quarter of the 5th century, has a plain bare exterior lightened by pilasters that meet in arches and is crowned by a brick dome concealed by a small quadrangular tower. The interior is lavishly decorated. The lower part is clad in panels of yellow marble and the remainder is entirely covered in mosaics. The building is in the western Roman architectural tradition.

The Neonian Baptistery, built by Bishop Orso in the early 5th century, was decorated with mosaics by his successor, Neone, around 450. The interior consists of four apses, articulated into two orders of arches, rising to the great cupola. The large mosaic medallion at the apex of the dome shows the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist. This is the finest and most complete surviving example of the early Christian baptistry.

The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo was built in the early years of the 6th century. Inside the interior is divided by 24 marble columns into a nave and two aisles, with a rounded apse. At the present time mosaics cover the two side walls at the foot of the nave, from the ceiling to the tops of the supporting arches, in three decorated fascias. Those in the upper two fascias are in traditional Roman style whereas those in the third show strong Byzantine influence.

The Church of San Vitale was completed around 547. It was fronted by a large quadroportico, converted into a cloister when the church became part of a Benedictine monastery. There are two storeys, the upper one encircling the dome. The apse, which is semi-circular on the interior and polygonal on the outside, is flanked by two small rectangular rooms terminating in niches and two semi-circular sacristies.

Of the three world heritage sites I visited in Emilia-Romagna, Ravenna was by far the most impressive.

Ravenna was the capital of Western Roman Empire at the time it fell in 476 and remained the Byzantine capital of the region afterwards. There is very little which can be thought of as “roman” in the city, especially compared with what you will see in Rome. The most significant buildings are the Byzantine era churches from the 5th-7th Century.

There are a total of 8 buildings in the Ravenna area which are part of the site. 6 of the 8 are located within walking distance of each other in the middle of town. The other two are located just outside of town and are accessible by car.

The most significant of the churches are the Basilica of San Vitale and the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. Both are located on the same property. Both buildings are romanesque designs with exquisite, well preserved mosaic artwork. The octagonal basilica is very reminiscent of the Aachen Cathedral in Germany, which is also of a similar romanesque design.

I found Ravenna to be one of the most overlooked attractions in Italy. It doesn’t get the attention of a Venice or Florence, but is well worth a visit. It is only a 45 minute train ride from Bologna and can easily be visited on a day trip.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #241: Ferrara, City of the Renaissance, and its Po Delta

UNESCO World Heritage Site #241: Ferrara, City of the Renaissance, and its Po Delta
UNESCO World Heritage Site #241: Ferrara, City of the Renaissance, and its Po Delta

From the World Heritage inscription:

Ferrara is an outstanding planned Renaissance city which has retained its urban fabric virtually intact. The developments in town planning expressed in Ferrara were to have a profound influence on the development of urban design throughout the succeeding centuries. The brilliant Este court attracted a constellation of artists, poets and philosophers during the two seminal centuries of the Renaissance. The Po Delta is an outstanding planned cultural landscape which retains its original form to a remarkable extent.

Among the great Italian cities Ferrara is the only to have an original plan that is not derived from a Roman layout. It did not develop from a central area but rather on a linear axis, along the banks of the Po River, with longitudinal streets and many cross streets around which the medieval city was organized. The most significant characteristic of Ferrara’s urban history rests on the fact that it developed from the 14th century onwards and, for the first time in Europe, on the basis of planning regulations that are in use nowadays in all modern towns. This type of development is known as addizione ; the third phase was implemented in 1492, making Ferrara the only planned Renaissance town to have been completed.

The street network and the enclosing walls are closely linked with the palaces, the churches, and the gardens. Throughout the 16th century the city was planned with the aim of making it a future ‘capital’. Its evolution came to an end after the 17th century under papal administration, and the city did not undergo any extensions for almost three centuries. The city plan (1492) provided for doubling its area, an expansion limited to the south of the castle. This extension was completed by a new and very up-to-date defensive system made up of elements belonging to the various extensions carried out over several centuries (ramparts, keeps, semicircular towers, bastions, barbicans, etc.). These alterations completely changed the appearance of the city: new streets were created on a grid and buildings in a new style were built.

The most important monument surviving from the medieval period is the San Giorgio Cathedral dating back to the 12th century. The facade is a work of the master builder and sculptor Niccolo who, influenced by Benedetto Antelami, worked in the first half of the 12th century; the construction of the bell tower began in 1451 to a design attributed to Leon Battista Alberti. Standing in front of the cathedral, the 13th-century Palazzo Comunale was the first residence of the Este family and was joined in the late 15th century to the Castello di San Michele or Castello Estense. This massive, four-towered fortress was built in 1385 by the court architect Bartolomeo da Novara after a violent popular revolt. Works were carried out until 1570 with the creation of a noble residence with large halls to receive the court and embellished by frescoes and marble balconies and logge.

I’m surprised that Ferrara and the Po Delta are combined into one world heritage site. They could each probably stand alone and Ferrara isn’t the only world heritage site in the Po Delta. Mantova is also in the Po Delta and the case could be just as easily be made for combining those two.

Ferrara is an interesting city. The primary attractions are the Castello Estense (shown in photo) and the Basilica Cattedrale di San Giorgio Martire. There are many other plazas and squares to be found in the city as well.

Ferrara is an easy day trip from Bologna. It takes about an hour to get there by train, which run frequently throughout the day.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #240: Cathedral, Torre Civica and Piazza Grande, Modena

UNESCO World Heritage Site #240: Cathedral, Torre Civica and Piazza Grande, Modena
UNESCO World Heritage Site #240: Cathedral, Torre Civica and Piazza Grande, Modena

From the World Heritage inscription:

The joint creation of Lanfranco and Wiligelmo is a masterpiece of human genius in which a dialectical relationship between architecture and sculpture was achieved in Romanesque art. The Modena complex bears exceptional witness to the cultural traditions of the 12th century and is one of the best examples of an architectural complex where religious and civic values are combined in a medieval town.

Modena is located in the Po plain at the crossroads of the ancient Via Aemilia linking Piacenza with Rimini and the road leading to the Brenner Pass.

The construction of the cathedral, dedicated to San Geminiano, and of the bell tower was decided when the Bishop’s See was vacant. The inscriptions in the cathedral and the text of the Relatio translationis sancti Geminiani provide invaluable evidence of the first phase of building (1099-1106), and mention the names of the architect, Lanfranco, and the sculptor, Wiligelmo. The new cathedral had to be larger than its predecessor, built by the schismatic Bishop Eribert in 1070, to prove that the clergy and people of Modena had returned to the Roman Catholic Church. Construction of the cathedral and the bell tower took place in an urban structure already largely formed. The cathedral was built on the site of that built by Bishop Eribert and destroyed to make way for it, on an axis oblique to the original. The Maestri Campionesi, architects and sculptors commissioned to maintain the building by the cathedral’s works office from the second half of the 12th century onwards, opened two side portals and the rose window in the facade, followed by the Porta Regia on the southern side (around 1180). Inside they enlarged the crypt, raised the choir, and expanded the roof in order to build a false transept (end of the 12th to start of the 13th centuries). The bell tower, whose tall silhouette is a landmark to travellers approaching the town, is closely linked to the cathedral by two arches.

Only minor changes have been made to the Piazza Grande. Its quadrangular shape has been preserved, and it has been lined on its northern side by the flank of the cathedral. The old and new Palazzi Comunali were connected by the clock tower (13th to 16th centuries) and blended in by the means of new facades and arcades (17th to 19th centuries). The brick Archbishop’s Palace, closely connected to the cathedral by a private passage, is on the western side of the square. It underwent a first transformation at the end of the 15th century, and an additional floor was added in 1776. Further changes were made in ensuing decades. The appearance of the southern side radically changed when the new Law Courts were built by Luigi Giacomelli in 1892 (replaced by a new building by Gio Ponti in the 1960s). The bell tower (Ghirlandina) and the cathedral are indivisible in both physical and stylistic terms. This monumental tower, built from the same materials as the cathedral, consists of six floors emphasized by small blind arcades lit by simple openings, and then by two- and then three-light windows on the upper floors. The austerity and power of the bottom half of the tower, which is reminiscent of Roman structures, is surmounted by an octagonal drum and an upper lantern which express the new feeling of the Maestri Campionesi for Gothic architecture.

I wasn’t really sure what to think of Modena.

I’ve been to many “old European city” world heritage sites. This isn’t the type of site that is going to jump out and grab you by the throat.

For starters, the site isn’t that big. It consists of the cathedral and the piazza behind the cathedral including the large city tower. The piazza doesn’t really seem like anything special and the facade of the cathedral isn’t overwhelming. (most romanesque churches aren’t)

The best part is certainly the inside of the cathedral. There aren’t that many romanesque cathedrals in Italy and this is one of the better ones. You can get a feel for the age of the building the moment you see the brickwork on the inside. The raised altar and what I assume is the crypt below it is also something you don’t see is most Italian cathedrals.

The back of the cathedral facing the piazza was under renovation when I visited in May 2013.

If you are in Bologna, Modena is a short train ride away and there are many things to seen and do in Modena besides the cathedral. It is worth a day trip, but it is probably not a destination in itself unless you are a serious world heritage enthusiast.

Um er-Rasas (Kastrom Mefa’a)

UNESCO World Heritage Site #239: Um er-Rasas (Kastrom Mefa'a)
Um er-Rasas (Kastrom Mefa’a): My 239th UNESCO World Heritage Site

From the World Heritage inscription for Um er-Rasas (Kastrom Mefa’a):

Um er-Rasas (Kastrom Mefa’a) is strongly associated with monasticism and with the spread of monotheism, including Islam, throughout the region. The artistic and technical qualities of the mosaic floor of St Stephen’s church justify describing Um er-Rasas as a masterpiece of human creative genius. It also presents a unique and complete (therefore outstanding) example of stylite towers.
This is an archaeological site of the Roman, Byzantine and early Muslim periods. The site was founded in the 3rd century AD as a Roman military camp, closely associated with the frontier (limes) of the Roman Empire, the border with the desert and possibly with the eastern branch of the incense route.

The large camp (castrum) gave the site its ancient name – Kastron Mefa’a. The roughly square fortified castrum (about 50 m by 150 m is almost unexcavated. While the castrum itself became the core of the later settlement, the ruins of the Byzantine settlement outside it cover an area of about 200 m by 300 m.

Among the visible and partly excavated structures on the site are several churches. These can be easily identified before excavations and attracted the main attention of archaeologists working on the site since 1986. For this reason, much less is known of the character of housing, town plan, and daily life.

Among the extraordinary remains on the site are several mosaic floors, one of which of special importance. The mosaic floor of the Church of St Stephen shows an incredible representation of towns in Palestine, Jordan, and Egypt, including their identification. At a short distance from the town, a well-preserved tall tower from the Byzantine period is probably the only existing remain of a well-known practice in this part of the world – of the stylite ascetic monks (i.e. monks sitting in isolation for long periods on top of a column or tower). The tower has no stairs and is in a relatively isolated area.

Um er-Rasas (Kastrom Mefa’a) is surrounded and dotted with remains of ancient agricultural cultivation, from water reservoirs to terracing, water channels, dams, and cisterns. There are two small cemeteries on the site, one immediately to the west and the other to the east. The Eastern is an old Bedouin cemetery, whereas the Western is a modern one. About 150 m separate the site and the main modern north-south road.

In this area, there are several ruins of relatively new structures, from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, but now abandoned.

Um er-Rasas is easily the least visited World Heritage Site in Jordan. It isn’t easy to get to. It isn’t on the way to somewhere else and it doesn’t get anything close to the visitors of a place like Petra. In fact, when I arrived there was no one else there. There was no one working the ticket window and the doors were wide open. Others who have visited have reported the same thing.

However, I found this site to be absolutely fascinating!

The primary reason for its listing is its incredibly well preserved mosaic floors. They are easily the largest and best-preserved mosaics I’ve ever seen. They are the remains of Byzantine church floors and there are several at the site. The largest one is the church of St. Stephen. It has been excavated and currently rests under a shelter to protect it from the elements. Many of the human images in the mosaics were destroyed during the Byzantine iconoclastic movement of the 8th century.

The rest of the site is almost entirely still buried in rubble. I’ve never before had the feeling of visiting something unexplored like I had here. You can literally walk over the buildings and look down on the arches which are still standing. I even found a shard of pottery laying on the ground! There is still an enormous amount to be discovered here. It is just a matter of funding.

Um er-Rasas (Kastrom Mefa’a) is approximately a 30-minute drive outside of the city of Madaba. Unlike the other world heritage sites of Jordan, I know of no regular tours which visit Um er-Rasas. You will probably need to hire a guide or rent a car to visit the site, but it is well worth it for those who are inquisitive.

View the complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Jordan.

View the list of all of the UNESCO World Heritage sites I have visited on my travels.

Last updated: Aug 1, 2017 @ 8:48 pm

Quseir Amra

UNESCO World Heritage Site #238: Quseir Amra
Quseir Amra: My 238th UNESCO World Heritage Site

From the World Heritage inscription for Quseir Amra:

Quseir Amra bears exceptional testimony to the Omayyad civilization which was imbued with a pre-Islamic secular culture whose austere religious environment only left behind insignificant traces in the visual arts. It is the best conserved architectural ensemble, if not the most complete, of all the Omayyad palaces and castles in Jordan and Syria.

Built in the early 8th century AD, this exceptionally well-preserved desert castle was both a fortress with a garrison and a residence of the Umayyad caliphs. The most outstanding features of this small pleasure palace are the reception hall and the hammam, both richly decorated with figurative murals that reflect the secular art of the time.

Approximately 85 km east of Amman and not far from the caravan trail which passes through Azrak, Kharaneh and Tubah, Quseir Amra is one of the many residences which the Omayyad caliphs built in the desert of present-day Syria and Jordan. These ‘castles of the desert’ had various roles. They were fortresses where garrisons could be lodged, on at least an occasional basis; they were places of relaxation where the caliphs could come back into contact with the traditional existence of Bedouin nomads. The fortress of Quseir Amra, square in shape, is in ruins with no thing more than the foundations remaining. But the small country house with its three-nave reception hall and hammam still exists with its extraordinary mural decorations. These murals, which were discovered by the Austrian, Alois Musil, in 1898 and made known in 1907, were restored by a team of Spanish specialist headed by the archaeologist, Martin Almagro.

Quseir Amra, which was probably built under Walled I (705-15), although a more recent theory suggests the reign of Walled II (743-44), is interesting first of all because of the remarkable architectural structure of the reception hall and also due to the existence of a very extensive bath complex. Supplied by a noria and an aqueduct, it resembles Roman baths with its three rooms: the changing-room (apodyterium), the warm bath (tepidarium) and the hot bath (caldarium), in addition to the service room.

What gives Quseir Amra its uniqueness, however, is the figurative painting on the walls and vaults of the reception hall and hammam. There are historical themes (royal figures who were defeated by the Omayyad caliph) and mythological representations as well (the muses of Poetry, Philosophy and History, with their names in Greek), a zodiac, hunting scenes and hammam scenes as well as some imaginary themes (animal musicians, a hunter being chased by a lion), etc.

Quseir Amra is not large. In fact when we pulled up to it and I had no idea we were there. Quseir is Arabic for “castle” so I was expecting something…..bigger.

What is there is actually the bath of what was believed to be the summer palace of Walid II, the Umayyad caliph. The original structure was believed to be much larger and the remains of which may still be unexcavated in the surrounding area.

The building itself is not why it was listed as a World Heritage Site. What makes Quseir Amra special are the well-preserved frescos inside. Unlike most Islamic buildings, the fresco designs are not simply geometric shapes. They show scenes of people and animals. The painter was mostly likely a Byzantine Christian who lived in the region.

Quseir Amra is approximately a one hour drive from Amman. Most visitors will not be visiting Quseir Amra as the primary destination, but rather as part of a day-long trip to several desert castles between Amman and Azraq. Quseir Amra is small enough that it can probably be experienced in 30 minutes, including the small visitor center.

View the complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Jordan.

View the list of all of the UNESCO World Heritage sites I have visited on my travels.

Last updated: Aug 1, 2017 @ 8:48 pm