From Aquileia to Bethlehem: a Mosaic of Faith and Beauty

The exhi­bi­tion “From Aquileia to Beth­le­hem, a mosa­ic of faith and beau­ty” is an immer­sive and unmiss­able jour­ney, full of his­to­ry, art and archae­o­log­i­cal insights. Walk­ing among the columns and mosaics that regained their ancient splen­dor after restora­tions in the Basil­i­ca of the Nativ­i­ty in Beth­le­hem, Pales­tine, it is easy to fol­low the emo­tions and mem­o­ries of pil­grims who for cen­turies made their pil­grim­age to the most impor­tant church in the world. One can then con­tin­ue the itin­er­ary in the Basil­i­ca of Aquileia, dis­cov­er­ing its evo­lu­tion over time.

The exhi­bi­tion was inau­gu­rat­ed on Sun­day, July 11th, 2021, at Palaz­zo Mei­z­lik, in the heart of the ancient Friu­lian city.

This exhi­bi­tion is well worth the vis­it to Aquileia, with the inten­tion of trav­el­ing to Beth­le­hem as soon as pos­si­ble to wit­ness first-hand the won­ders pre­served in the Basil­i­ca of the Nativ­i­ty. It cel­e­brates the thread — hith­er­to unex­plored — that binds Beth­le­hem to Aquileia, a bond of faith and beau­ty unit­ing two world her­itage sites. In fact, as of July 2019, the Basil­i­ca of the Nativ­i­ty is no longer a UNESCO endan­gered site, thanks to the qual­i­ty of the work car­ried out on the church, par­tic­u­lar­ly the restora­tion of the roof, the exter­nal facades, the wall mosaics, and the doors of the basilica.

Restora­tion was sup­port­ed by the Pales­tin­ian Nation­al Author­i­ty and car­ried out from 2013 to 2020 by the Ital­ian com­pa­ny, Pia­cen­ti, based in Pra­to. The exhi­bi­tion has been endorsed by the Beth­le­hem Devel­op­ment Foun­da­tion and the High Pres­i­den­tial Com­mit­tee for the Affairs of the Church­es in Palest ine, and orga­nized by the Aquileia Foun­da­tion in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Munic­i­pal­i­ty of Aquileia, the So. Co. Ba., with the sup­port of Pia­cen­ti Spa and the patron­age of the Min­istry of Culture.

The exhi­bi­tion spans over two floors and vis­i­tors are accom­pa­nied by detailed cap­tions and videos that were pre­pared to pro­vide accu­rate insights. On the first floor, the trea­sures of the Basil­i­ca of the Nativ­i­ty are dis­cov­ered, while on the ground floor the doors open to those of the Basil­i­ca of Aquileia. The West and the Mid­dle East redis­cov­er a strong bond: the ancient port on Ital­ian soil, a cross­roads for pil­grims head­ing to the Holy Land. “A thread lit­tle explored” link­ing the two cities, as not­ed by the May­or of Aquileia Emanuele Zori­no, and Pres­i­dent of the Aquileia Foun­da­tion, dur­ing the inau­gu­ra­tion in the square in front of the Basil­i­ca in the pres­ence of the Patri­arch of Jerusalem for the Latins, Mon­sign­or Pier­bat­tista Piz­z­a­bal­la and Ambas­sador Mounir Anas­tas, Alter­nant Per­ma­nent Del­e­gate of the State of Pales­tine to UNESCO, as well as the exhib­it curators.

The well-attend­ed event took place on the eve of the Feast of the Patron Saints of Aquileia, San For­tu­na­to and San Erma­co­ra. “An exhi­bi­tion that goes fur­ther and makes us under­stand the impor­tance of the ter­ri­to­ry of Aquileia in Europe, start­ing from a great work on cul­tur­al her­itage,” the may­or said, adding that it is “a port that has cre­at­ed ties between peo­ple. The exhi­bi­tion marks the begin­ning of a jour­ney that will lead to a deep­er under­stand­ing of these unex­plored ties, start­ing with his­tor­i­cal records and archae­o­log­i­cal find­ings.” The link with Pales­tine was woven into the open­ing of the exhi­bi­tion, thanks to a deferred inter­ven­tion by Father Ibrahim Fal­tas, of the Cus­tody of the Holy Land, Pres­i­dent Hani Abu Dayyeh, as well as the direc­tor of the Beth­le­hem Devel­op­ment Foun­da­tion, Mazen Karam.

Ambas­sador Mounir Anas­tas expressed his grat­i­tude for the high-qual­i­ty exhi­bi­tion, and his hope “that this col­lab­o­ra­tion between Aquileia and Beth­le­hem will be the begin­ning of a long rela­tion­ship of coop­er­a­tion. The restora­tion of stones, fres­coes and mosaics are very impor­tant, but what mat­ters most for the inhab­i­tants of Beth­le­hem is that the local com­mu­ni­ties and the mil­lions of pil­grims ensure that the her­itage is a liv­ing her­itage and not a muse­um”. The ambas­sador expressed a wish: “I hope to see you at the next edi­tion of the exhi­bi­tion in Bethlehem”.

Giammar­co Pia­cen­ti, CEO of Pia­cen­ti, was award­ed an inter­na­tion­al ten­der to illus­trate the sev­en years of restora­tion con­duct­ed in Beth­le­hem and the priv­i­lege of work­ing on nev­er-before restored arti­facts to dis­cov­er the his­to­ry kept inside them. “We thought this work could not remain closed in the pages of books. Togeth­er with the Beth­le­hem Devel­op­ment Foun­da­tion and the Pales­tin­ian Com­mit­tee we thought it was appro­pri­ate to make it ful­ly known — with exhi­bi­tions that could tell both the restora­tion and the his­to­ry of the pil­grims, their voic­es that over time tell their sto­ries. Hence the idea of this exhi­bi­tion: to com­bine the Euro­pean cross­roads with the Mid­dle East­ern cen­ter from which the his­to­ry of Chris­tian­i­ty began”.

Mon­sign­or Pier­bat­tista Piz­z­a­bal­la, cut the rib­bon of the exhi­bi­tion togeth­er with May­or Emanuele Zori­no and Ambas­sador Mounir Anas­tas. “The Holy Land is often remem­bered for wars, ten­sions and dif­fi­cul­ties both on a polit­i­cal, social and eco­nom­ic lev­el” he said, “fram­ing the epochal work of the restora­tion of the Nativ­i­ty, the church com­mis­sioned by Emper­or Con­stan­tine so as not to for­get the place where accord­ing to tra­di­tion Jesus was born”. He con­tin­ued: “The inter­ven­tion in Beth­le­hem was not tak­en for grant­ed in such a divid­ed con­text, start­ing with the three reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties present in the church. The restora­tion began sev­er­al years ago, when church­es through­out the Mid­dle East were burned or destroyed: a hard, dif­fi­cult peri­od, but the results have been out­stand­ing. An impor­tant out­come which high­lights its social impor­tance is that Chris­tians and Mus­lims worked togeth­er to restore this nation­al mon­u­ment, not only for their reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties but pri­mar­i­ly for the Pales­tin­ian peo­ple. The Pales­tin­ian peo­ple, so deeply wound­ed in their his­to­ry, wait­ing inter­minably to obtain the right to live in peace in their home­land, also want­ed to take part in restor­ing that mon­u­ment. Sym­bol­i­cal­ly it was a very impor­tant work.”

Mon­sign­or Pier­bat­tista Piz­z­a­bal­la after­wards framed the recov­ery inter­ven­tion in a broad­er dimen­sion: “The Nativ­i­ty had become a dark place but now it has become a place that gives light, so that our com­mu­ni­ty has recov­ered a rela­tion­ship with that mon­u­ment ”, he com­ment­ed, adding “So this exhi­bi­tion is not just an overview of the past, but unites the East and the West, show­ing us how these two worlds have always spo­ken to each oth­er and have always been in con­nec­tion with each oth­er: Aquileia was one of the doors through which Chris­tian­i­ty entered and devel­oped in Europe”.

Sal­vo Bar­ra­no, archae­ol­o­gist and rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Min­istry of Cul­ture on the board of the Aquileia Foun­da­tion, final­ly under­lined how the inter­na­tion­al exhi­bi­tion was “a rather coura­geous chal­lenge that allows Aquileia to take the role it deserves in the inter­na­tion­al cul­tur­al are­na, link­ing this site to the Mediter­ranean and to the Mid­dle East. Aquileia must strong­ly claim this role”. The day end­ed with guid­ed tours by the cura­tors of the exhi­bi­tion. While com­ply­ing with COVID safe­ty reg­u­la­tions, they explained the path of the exhi­bi­tion to the many peo­ple present and answered the ques­tions from the public.

The exhi­bi­tion at Palaz­zo Mei­z­lik unfolds in two sec­tions: the Beth­le­hem sec­tion, is curat­ed by Taisir Has­bun, Alessan­dro Fichera and Tom­ma­so San­ti, and ends with a video where the Basil­i­ca is revealed in its new­found beau­ty. Issa Kas­sissieh of the Pales­tin­ian Pres­i­den­tial Com­mit­tee brought atten­tion to the spir­it that ani­mates the exhi­bi­tion: “It is with humil­i­ty and at the same time with pride that the Pales­tin­ian peo­ple present Beth­le­hem and its church to the world. We believe that through the beau­ty and pow­er of art, his­to­ry, cul­ture and faith, we can tru­ly pro­mote knowl­edge between cul­tures, strength­en inter­re­li­gious dia­logue and serve as an inspi­ra­tion for the progress of future generations”.

The Aquileia sec­tion, curat­ed by archae­ol­o­gists Sal­vo Bar­ra­no and Luca Vil­la, leads to the ori­gins of Chris­t­ian art by inves­ti­gat­ing in depth the rela­tion­ship between these two cities, sep­a­rat­ed by over two thou­sand miles. The exhi­bi­tion can be vis­it­ed Tues­day to Sun­day from 10:00 to 19:00. Entrance tick­ets to the exhi­bi­tion (€ 6) also include the entrance to the Basil­i­ca of Aquileia, the crypt fres­coes and the crypt exca­va­tions, allow­ing vis­i­tors to con­tin­ue the path to the dis­cov­ery of the won­ders of the Basil­i­ca of Aquileia. The cat­a­logue, with texts by the cura­tors and a rich pho­to­graph­ic reper­toire, as well as the DVD, “The Won­ders of Beth­le­hem”, are avail­able at the exhi­bi­tion bookshop.

Sara Bessi
Redazione Pra­to — La Nazione
Tel. +39 0574612411
Via G.B. Maz­zoni 13
59100 Pra­to

Nativity Church Restoration – A Project we Support

Restora­tion of the Church of Nativ­i­ty: In the year of 2008 and by a Pres­i­den­tial decree, The Pres­i­den­tial Com­mit­tee for Restora­tion of the Church of Nativ­i­ty was estab­lished. The Com­mit­tee is cur­rent­ly head­ed by Eng. Ziad Alban­dak and mem­ber­ship of: Mar­wan Abdelhamid,…