Bisceglie: to get to know it, we start from the sea. Very important in the history and also in the current life of the city is the port, formed by a natural inlet which defends the Levante and Ponente wharves.
From the hamlets to Biscilia
Ph. Antonio Amenduni
The sea for those who love to swim, however, winds along the coast from the beaches with somewhat strange names such as Macello, La Batteria, La Testa, Salsello, Ripalta, Pontelama, viewed from an ancient tower called “Della Guardia”, and Il Pantano.
Cala Pantano is a natural inlet on the coast, classified as a wetland and considered an important transit station for large migratory flocks. While since 1992 the protagonist of the coast, between Trullo Verde and the Mediterranean Theater, is the amphitheater where theatrical performances and concerts are held.
Moving in the countryside, we find ourselves in front of the Dolmen, typical megalithic monuments with function of sepulcher-altar. The word dolmen derives from Breton and means “stone table”. It dates back to the Bronze Age (3000-1000 BC) and in its simplest form, it consists of a large stone slab that rests horizontally on two other verticals, which are driven into the ground. The cell continues in an open corridor called “dromos”.
In Europe there are many, between Brittany and the island of Malta. In Puglia there are about twenty of them and among the largest and most suggestive there is the Dolmen della Chianca, one of the five found in Bisceglie and the most perfect among the prehistoric monuments of Italy and the most interesting in Europe. Among the green olive trees, among which our Otto had fun running free, its quadrangular cell formed by vertical slabs, two for the side walls, one for the bottom one: on them horizontally rests a fourth larger slab that forms the roof. The cell continues in an open corridor over seven and a half meters long, surrounded by small slabs of stones placed vertically.
Always in the countryside you come across the hamlets, small early medieval villages consisting of a fortified building, a wall fence, a central courtyard and a church with an adjacent cemetery. Arisen in the Middle Ages, flourishing in the Lombard era, sacked later by the Saracens, they were abandoned towards the IX century. Of the nine existing, Giano, Pacciano, Sagina, Zappino, San Nicola, Cirignano, Salandro, Santo Stefano and Sant’Andrea, we visited the first one.
The hamlet of Giano, a village located on the border between Bisceglie and Trani, demonstrates in the name the presence in the area of pagan cults and consists of a church, called Santa Maria di Giano, in which some elements of the old farmhouse are certainly recognized, and not far away another church, smaller, called the Temple of Janus, with a single hall with a central dome. The stone construction, privately owned and currently not open to the public, has a unique charm that can be appreciated even more from above with a view of the pyramid roof on a square base made with “chiancarelle” (little thin stones).
The church of Santa Maria di Giano, however, does not retain many remains of the original layout. Externally it looks like an eighteenth-century country church, but inside – as the director of the Diocesan Museum of Bisceglie Giacinto La Notte who accompanied us on the visit points out – we can observe how the plastering of the back wall of the niches between the pillars has highlighted a very ancient and frescoed masonry. Among the noteworthy frescoes the representation of San Nicola Pellegrino, patron of Trani, and that of San Giacomo surrounded by scenes from his life.
The inhabited center along the coast called Biscilia dates back to the Lombard period and became civitas in the Norman age with the construction of walls and a high tower. Here the people of the hamlets took refuge to escape the incursions of the Saracens. And it was in these years that the town took the name of Vigiliae and one of the first Romanesque cathedrals of Puglia was built.
The Cathedral was founded in 1073 by the Norman count Pietro I and was dedicated to San Pietro.
The façade is cusp-shaped and boasts one of the most beautiful portals of Romanesque Puglia very adorned, with a triple band of foliage branches, with a prothyrum supported by griffins on marble columns, with capitals with acanthus leaves. The story of salvation is told by means of symbols, from Eden to the spread of the Word throughout the universe.
Of the side portals, now walled up, the archivolts remain and a large baroque window replaces the original rose window. The southern flank of the church delimits the courtyard of the episcope, seat of the Diocesan Museum, while the side portal is surmounted by a stone high relief with two Roman columns supporting the fifteenth-century statues, once polychrome, of San Paolo and San Pietro.
In the external part of the apse there is a large window with a frame with racemes and rosary beads and adorned with protruding sculptures: a sphinx on top, two lions on the sides of which only one remains, two bulls at the base and two more lions and a ram bearer, a bearded man representing the patriarch Abraham.
The interior has three naves with galleries, which in the Christian basilicas were the areas intended for women, accessible via a staircase: the glance over the main nave and the apse from the wooden walkway that connects the two side walls really leaves breathless!
On the sides of the presbytery there is a beautiful walnut choir, from the Benedictine Abbey of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Andria. The crypt rests on ten columns of coral breach and in it the sacred relics of the three patron martyrs of Bisceglie are venerated.
The Church of Saint Adoeno, which was dedicated to the patron saint of Rouen, protector of the Normans, has always fought with the cathedral for the role of the oldest and most important church in Bisceglie. The Apulian Romanesque gabled facade is in dark-colored limestone ashlars and has a severed tympanum crowned by an eagle above a fair and in the middle there is a rose window with five shelves on which four Romanesque lions and the statue are placed of Sant’Adoeno: to enjoy the whole it is necessary to lean against the building built later opposite.
The castle was built by the Swabians: today there are three towers and the surrounding wall. While one of the most interesting churches in Bisceglie was built by the noble Falconi family during the Angevin period when the city became a fief of the Del Balzo family. This is the little church of Santa Margherita, a jewel of Romanesque-Apulian art, which has preserved its beauty made of harmony and simplicity. Leaning against the left side of the building are three sepulchres of Falconi, a unicum in Southern Italy.
The historic core of Bisceglie still looks like a sort of precious shell enclosed by the walls built by King Ferdinand I and then strengthened under the Spaniards with ramparts, to face the ever-looming threat of the Turks.
In the village there are elegant Renaissance buildings such as Palazzi Tupputi, Frisari and Borgia, with diamond-tipped ashlar, the Palazzo San Domenico which houses the Town Hall, while overlooking the sea the massive Palazzo Ammazzalorsa, a “historical fake”, because it was built from the rich Renaissance-style family in the 1700s.
Also in the visit to the Diocesan Museum at the Palazzo Vescovile (www.centrostudibiscegliese.it), which Otto also appreciated, Dr. La Notte accompanied us who told us about the effective work of religious and cultural renewal that Pompeo Sarnelli carried out in Bisceglie from Polignano a Mare, bishop of the Diocese from 1692 to 1724 and also author of the first city history.
In the rooms of what was once the bishop’s apartment, there are noteworthy wooden ceilings decorated at the end of the 17th century, under which the art gallery with paintings from the 16th-17th centuries is housed. The collection of ex-votos jewels is very interesting and, displayed in five rooms and divided by period, it offers a rich overview of women’s ornaments and clothing between the mid-nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth century. And there is no shortage of male ex-voto jewels linked above all to war events.
The third section is dedicated to the Cathedral’s treasures: chalices, ciboriums, crosses and other sacred objects in gold or silver. But the diocesan museum also preserves furnishings and works of art that lined the cathedral before being stripped of it for Romanesque restoration in the 1960s.