The Borgo of Venosa
From high on its plateau, the Castle of Venosa welcomes visitors from afar, facing out over the immense expanse of freshly harvested wheat fields interspersed with stretches of rich, red earth. Beside the ancient castle, you catch a glimpse of the bell tower of the Chiesa del Purgatorio, standing proud with an austere and slightly Gothic air.
Entering the streets of the historical center, you discover the Medieval borgo described by the great Latin poet Orazio, an ancient city with a naked soul, made of white-washed stone houses and a past that speaks of simplicity and genuine community. As you proceed along the main street, indulge yourself in the joy of discovery, because all along it are ancient stone lanes, each one a marvelous little world in itself: one leads into the lush green of the Parco del Reale, follow another, and it frames the local women as they chat across their balconies, and yet another reveals the splendid Fountain of Messer Otto. Venosa is full surprises, with its little shops straight out of the 1950’s, and the artisan ceramic workshops, where the ever-smiling ceramics masters create multicolored hand painted tiles, classic porcelain objects and delicate and original modern pieces. As you search for the Cathedral and the “Casa di Orazio”, (Orazio’s house, home of the Latin poet Horace), you come across a lovely little stand where an ex-archeologist sells the aromatic produce of his land. As you delight in the scent of ‘forest oregano’, and the artfully draped sun dried peppers, he will regale you with tales of the borgo, of the exploits and escapades of the noble Orsini del Balzo family, the Church of the “Incompiuta”, and of course, the wonders of the archeological park just outside the city: just when you think you have seen all there is of Venosa, the best surprise has been saved for last.
Venosa stands on a plateau surrounded by the deep valleys of “del Ruscello” and “del Reale”, which limited the expansion of the borgo and defined its structure.
The borgo was probably founded by the pre-Hellenic population of the Pelasgians, colonists from the Mycenaean civilization.
In 291 B.C., twenty thousand Roman colonists reached the plateau, led by Roman console Postumio Megello. They set up a Roman colony called Venusia, probably derived from Venus, the Roman Goddess of Love. Recent archeological studies have contributed to uncovering the ancient layout of the colony, enclosed by a city wall and the Castellum Acquae, built at the junction of two deep valleys, the most vulnerable point of the city’s defenses.
In 89 B.C., Venosa became a Municipium of the Roman Republic, allowing the population to become Roman citizens, with all the related privileges.
Unfortunately, a wave of invasions and savage attacks by barbarians and Muslim Saracens soon followed, plunging the borgo into a period of darkness and despair. A ray of hope finally came in 867 A.D, when Ludovico II arrived to crush the invaders, heralding in the dawn of a slow rebirth.
The advent of Norman rule in Southern Italy is interwoven with Venosa’s history; in 1041, the borgo was conquered by brothers of the d’Altaville family, and a year later was personally assigned to one of the brothers, Drogone d’Altaville.
In agreement with the Papal authorities and the local clergy, the new ruler of Venosa launched a series of renovations for the religious structures of the borgo. The first project was to transform the Cathedral, also known as the Chiesa della SS. Trinità, into an abbey, moving the function of Cathedral to the Chiesa di San Felice. Nowhere recounts the affairs of Venosa during this period better than the Church of S.S.Trinità: once it was transformed into a Benedictine monastery, the abbey immediately received the favor of the Normans and began to flourish economically, allowing the construction of a new church. A few years later however, construction work was abruptly interrupted due to period of decadence in the monastery, culminating when the abbey passed into the hands of the “Ordine Gerosolimitano di San Giovanni”.
The arrival of a flux of rulers in the South of Italy, dominated first by the German Swabians and then the English Angovins, proceeding on into the feudal period, brought no dramatic changes or upheavals to the little borgo.
In 1456, a terrible earthquake brought Venosa to its knees, and during reconstruction it was forced to renovate the urban layout of the town. These improvements were made possible by the flourishing economy stimulated by the arrival of the Aragon dynasty. Under this new domination, the borgo began to improve its defensive structures, and to this end, Pirro Orsini del Balzo, Duke of Venosa, asked the bishop for permission to construct over the ruins of the Chiesa di San Felice, which had been destroyed in the earthquake. The position in question was located at the meeting point of the two surrounding valleys and could not be left unprotected, prompting the Duke’s decision to build a defensive castle there, while on the other side of the city, he commissioned a new cathedral, dedicated to Sant’Andrea Apostolo.
The clergy’s ledger books reveal that there were thirty six churches present in Venosa at that time, and that ten of them were demolished to make way for the new defensive structure.
The following years heralded in a period of flourishing growth, both economically and regarding urban planning.
Today, the little town of Venosa is as joyful and sunny as its people, with a rich history that over the ages has made it one of the most beautiful places in Basilicata.
The Aragon Castle
The Castle of Venosa stands imposing and majestic at the entrance to the city, its royal features transmitting a proud authority.
The castle was built at a strategic point over several pre-existing structures: during the Roman Empire there was a structure called Castellum Acquae , because the waters of the aqueduct merged here. Later, the Cathedral of San Felice was constructed over it in the same location, but after it was damaged in an earthquake in 1456, it was demolished to make way for the existing castle.
The castle stands at the same point where the two valleys surrounding the plateau of Venosa converge, which had long represented the weakest link in the city’s defensive system. To remediate, the Aragon prince, Pirro Orsino del Balzo, requested permission to construct a defensive castle at that point, promising to construct a new Cathedral in a different location in exchange.
In 1546, at the height of the Renaissance, defense was no longer an urgent necessity, and the Lord of Venosa, Luigi Gesualdo, transformed the fortress into an elegant noble home.
The castle has undergone continuous restoration interventions, some of which have uncovered the remains of a Roman road, evidence of the presence of a settlement in this area of the city.
Today, entering the castle, you can walk along its crenellated walls, admire the ancient courtyard and descend into the darkness of the subterranean vaults, and above all, visit the National Archeological Museum, the Library, and the Municipal Historical Archives.
The Cathedral of Sant’Andrea Apostolo
The existing Cathedral of Venosa is the third this borgo has had. Proceeding chronologically, the first was the Church-Cathedral of SS. Trinità, which was transformed into an abbey during the Norman period. Later, the Chiesa di San Felice became the Cathedral, until it was damaged in an earthquake and then demolished to make way for the Aragon Castle. The Prince had promised to construct a new cathedral dedicated to Sant’Andrea Apostolo on the opposite side of the city from the fortress, and he kept that promise.
The location of the Cathedral corresponds to where the parish church of San Basilio once stood, facing a public square full of artisan workshops, until the entire area was demolished to make room for the Cathedral. These buildings were not the only ones sacrificed for the Cathedral’s construction, in fact the building materials used were taken from the ruins of the Roman amphitheatre, which explains why the walls are full of Latin engravings and funeral dirges.
The exterior façade of the Cathedral is simple and linear with no particular artistic decorations, but is flanked by a majestic bell tower forty-two meters high.
The external grandeur is reflected in the ample interior, exalted by white walls and solid wood details creating a harmonious alternation of colors.
There are altars along the perimeter of the church, adorned by decorations and paintings and the vestiges of frescoes emerging from the painted walls.
Pointed arches divide the interior into three naves, with the coats-of-arms of the Orsini del Balzo family gracing the architraves. Two side stairways with balustrades in polychrome marble lead to the crypt of Maria Donata Orsini, the wife of Pirro del Balzo. The main altar holds a simple marble pulpit, and to the right is one of the chapels. Of all the chapels, the most important is dedicated to SS. Sacramento, with an arched entrance dating back to 1520, decorated with frescoes in Biblical themes depicting Judith and Holofernes and David and Goliath.
“La Chiesa Incompiuta”The Unfinished Church of Maria Santissima Trinità
Pirro Orsini del Balzo, Prince of Venosa, constructed the castle and the cathedral by utilizing the material he salvaged from city’s ancient Roman ruins. His daughter was so fascinated by the imposing and majestic buildings that she insistently asked her father for a church of her own.
And so, in the year 1110, construction began on her church, utilizing a mixture of lime, egg whites, and Roman stone slabs. However, the previous endeavors had used up all the materials, and with neither lime nor stone to build with, the church could never be completed.
The “Incompiuta” stands outside the town, near the Church of San Rocco and the ruins of the Roman settlement. Though it lacks a roof and many other important elements, entering the church is an evocative experience. Time, wind and rain have become the masters of this place: it remains eternally confined to the realm of the imagination, a testament to what could have been and what never will be.
Casa di Orazio, Orazio/Horace’s House
“Piazza Orazio Flacco. Latin poet.” This is the address of what is commonly known as the “Casa Natale di Orazio”, the birthplace of the esteemed Latin poet, born around 65 B.C.
The house has the appearance of a patrician home and has undergone numerous interventions over the centuries, but the external walls still preserve traces of the Roman era.
Regardless of common belief, recent studies have revealed that this building was actually a public thermal bath house. The internal layout is characterized by two round rooms connected to each other, one of which with a suspuspensurae, floor system, which probably coincided with the sauna. There were certainly other rooms in the baths as well, which must have been incorporated into the surrounding buildings over time.
The stone lane in front of the house is characterized by four Roman slabs, and if you look closer, you see a mosaic paved with depictions of marine animals: it is highly probable that this area was the frigidarium, the Roman system of refrigeration.
Wells and canals dating back to the Late Roman and Medieval periods have been found around the house, and historical sources confirm that this area was full of artisan workshops.
Even though this house is probably not the actual birthplace of the poet who gave us Carpe Diem, whoever wants to walk in Orazio’s footsteps will not be disappointed by Venosa. The great poet’s maxims are engraved all over the city, and in Piazza Orazio you can greet his statue, who from on high continues to encourage humanity to live life to the fullest and “Seize the moment!”
Fontana di Messer Oto, the Fountain of Messer Oto
From the arrival of the Aragon rulers in Italia to the advent of the feudal period, Venosa underwent no particular events or dramatic changes.
During the Angevin period, Roberto d’Angiò issued a commission for the construction of fountains in the city center, and Venosa decided to construct a a stone fountain surmounted by a magnificent sculpture of a Roman lion. The fountain is known by all as the ‘ La fontana di Messer Oto.’ For centuries it was the central hub of city life, the place everyone went to draw water for daily use, and it was also used as a public laundry area.
Parco Archeologico di Venosa, the Archeological Park of Venosa
The Archeological Park of Venosa marks the final area of the city’s historical-artistic beauty. The road that leads to Melfi divides the park in half, drawing a boundary line between two different epochs, the era of the Roman Republic and the era of Imperial Rome.
On the right, near the “Incompiuta” Church and the Church of San Rocco, we find the ruins of the Roman baths, the Trepidarium and the Frigidarium, constructed during the years of the Roman Empire, in the age of Trajan-Adriano. Evidence of farmhouses dating back to 43 B.C. has also been found in the area, built over the remains of kilns from the Republican Age. These houses had already undergone remodeling interventions in the first century after Christ.
The other half of the park holds the ruins of most important and famous construction in ancient Venusia, the Roman amphitheater.
The amphitheater was built in two successive epochs, the first dating back to the Imperial era, during the Julius-Claudio period, while construction techniques of mixed masonry belong to a later era, coinciding with the Trajan-Adriano period. The amphitheatre was constructed in the traditional elliptical shape, and based on calculations of measurement and other studies, it is hypothesized to have held about ten thousand spectators.
The amphitheater gave a tangible and concrete contribution to the construction of the city of Venosa, in fact with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the amphitheater was literally disassembled to create building material, and walking through the streets of the city you still see pieces of it, some embedded in the walls of buildings, others used as decorative elements.
The Tradizione of Ceramics
The craft of ceramics in Venosa has ancient origins, as we can see from the ruins of furnaces in the archeological park dating back to around the seventh century B.C. The craft of working with terracotta is even older, dating back to the ninth and eighth centuries B.C.
The ancient “Via delle Fornaci” is the most evident sign of this glorious tradition. Today, only one furnace is left standing in what was once an open-air series of workshops. A little further on, we find the caves used for the various phases of production.
A document dating back to the 1700’s testifies that among the ceramicists, the “vasari” (vase makers) were the most numerous, and the three principal families guaranteed the production of 150 “orciuoli” (jugs), 700 oil lamps, and 150 dishes for each vase maker.
Today, the art of ceramics in Venosa is still alive and well: it is one of the few towns in Basilicata to boast the presence of several artisanal ceramics workshops. They brighten up the main street with their colorful tiles and hand painted creations, combining the beauty of classical ceramics with the innovation of contemporary style.
Orazio(Horace) and the power of origins.
Quinto Orazio Flacco was born on December 8 in Venosa in 65 B.C., and raised in the comfort of his father’s infinite love. A freed slave, his father was also his tutor, for which the poet remained eternally grateful.
In his youth, Orazio expressed his desire to move to Rome, and his father rolled up his sleeves to satisfy his son’s wishes.
In the capital, Orazio studied at the best grammar and rhetoric schools and at eighteen, he moved to Athens, where he absorbed the refined Hellenic culture and accompanied distinguished academics and Aristotelian and Epicurean philosophers. In Greece, Orazio also embraced the Republican ideology of the Roman patricians and in 42 B.C. he participated in the Battle of Philippi. A year later, Emperor Octavian allowed him to return to Rome, but all of his assets in Venosa were confiscated.
Poor and without means, Orazio adapted himself to becoming a scribe at police headquarters, while at the same time, his writings began to find favor with illustrious readers such as Virgil and Vario. These two intellectuals became lifelong friends and they presented him to Maecenas, who introduced him to the elite circle close to Augustus. The Emperor wanted Orazio as his secretary, but even though the poet always supported him through his writings and his political activities, he chose to refuse the task.
In 30 B.C. Orazio began writing the four books of the Odes, and in 20 B.C. he presented his Epistles to the public, among which, his Ars Poetica. In 17 B.C. Orazio wrote Carmen Saeculare in honor of Apollo and Diana.
Quinto Orazio Flacco died on November 27 in the year 8 B.C, shortly after his friend Maecenas. The poet left all his possessions to the Emperor Augustus, who had him buried with honor on the Esquiline, next to Maecenas.
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In Venosa, “le Ajette” are a real delicacy, typical of traditional country cuisine. The “Ajette” are made with figs crushed and placed to dry in the sun. Once they are ready, they are stacked on a rod of straight cane, or stacked in a pyramid shape. Before serving, the figs are removed from the cane, stuffed with almonds, coated with chocolate and dipped in anise. A unique and exquisite delicacy.
“Il nocino di San Giovanni” The walnut liqueur of St. John
The shortest night of the year, between the 21 and the 22 of June, is intertwined with the worship of San Giovanni, in a delicate balance between the sacred and the profane. It is said that on this night, the witches used to perform their Sabbath, dancing around a walnut tree. The walnut tree is closely linked to esoteric fables and is also featured in one of Venosa’s ancient traditions.
Folk tales recount that on the night of the Summer Solstice, the most skilled woman had to gather the walnuts with her bare feet and begin to prepare the walnut liqueur. The walnuts were placed in an infusion of alcohol with cloves, cinnamon and other spices and herbs for forty days, and then filtered and bottled.
Today walnuts are no longer harvested by performing this ancient rite, but the day of San Giovanni is still the traditional day to begin preparing “nocino”, or walnut liqueur.
The ancient recipe for walnut liqueur is often handed down from generation to generation, with small variations. The result is a “nocino” that will knock your socks off, excellent as a digestive and as a tonic for liver ailments.
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