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Colossus of Barletta, echoes from the East

An imposing bronze statue seems to fix, with ice eyes, tourists who are walking along Corso Vittorio Emanuele in Barletta. It is a familiar figure for the inhabitants of the place, who call it Arè, abbreviation of Heraclius. Heraclius is about four and a half meters tall, and his appearance testifies centuries of life, partially mysterious. For this reason it is called Colossus of Barletta, not only for its enormous height, but also for what it symbolyzes for the Apulian city.

Colossus of Barletta
Colossus of Barletta

The giant Colossus of Barletta

Heraclius stands proud, on a stone pedestal; he wears an elegant dress, which reaches up to the knees, and the shoes. His hairstyle is neat and well-collected, his beard has a short shave. When someone asks who he is, this giant represented at the center of Barletta, some clues are revealed. Heraclius’ head is surrounded by an imperial diadem, he has on the forehead a jewel like the ancient people of the Goths. Moreover, a single pearl earring hangs below the lobe of the left ear.

Colossus of Barletta

Heraclius firmly holds, on his left hand, a globe, symbol of the power of the Emperor to all the World -who said that the ancients believed the Earth to be flat? – whilst, on the other hand, he raises the cross. At first sight, the workmanship of the bronze is Byzantine. Is he a Christian king of the Eastern Roman Empire, whose power was considered to be directly conferred by God? It appears as a plausible hypothesis…but, who he is?

The mysterious appearance of Heraclius 

The appearance of Heraclius in Barletta is more mysterious. According to the popular tradition, the statue was found in 1204 lying on a rock. Nonetheless, how it arrived there, nobody can explain. It seems Heraclius had emerged from the sea, spontaneously, deciding to move to Barletta from some distant Eastern city. This historiographical tradition derives from the writings by Giovan Paolo Grimaldi, Jesuit of the 17th century. According to him, Heraclius was forged in Constantinople, and after it was taken by the Venetians during the sack of 1204 [1].

Effectively, it was the same destiny of several famous works now present in Venice, which were taken by the doge Enrico Dandolo. Among them, for instance, there are the famous Bronze Horses, once at the Hippodrome of Constantinople, and then located on the Basilica of San Marco. However, in the case of Heraclius, during the transfer towards Venice, the ship transporting the giant was caught in a storm, so that it was decided to abandon the statue along the Apulian coasts.

Historiographical studies about the Colossus 

Actually, spectometric analysis have partially invalidated this hypothesis. In fact, the bronze does not have contaminations from iodine that could justify a prolonged stay inside the sea. Moreover, it has not the typical corrosive phenomena of the maritime remains. It is more probable that Heraclius was moved to Barletta from a near city. The most accredited hypothesis is that the Colossus was realized in Ravenna, when it was the capital of the Western Roman Empire, and then moved to Apulia by the will of Frederick II. Tommaso da Pavia was the monk who referred of an extraordinary excavation campaign, led by the emperor in Ravenna in 1231-1232. Heraclius was unearthed in a place out of the city, where there was a mausoleum similar to that of Galla Placidia [2].

Ravenna, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

Hence, the aim of Frederick II was to embellish the cities of the Reign of Sicily, that he loved so much. Moreover, it is not certain that the Colossus was effectively directly to Barletta, since someone suggests that its final destination was Foggia. In any case, for some strange reasons, Heraclius stayed at the customhouse of the port of Barletta for several years, until it was located at the center of the city.

Colossus of Barletta, a controversial identity 

An essential question still remains: what does the Colossus of Barletta represent? The name Heraclius deceives its first historical identification. In the past, the presence of the showy cross, in the right hand, suggested that it could represent the emperor Heraclius I. He was the king who, according to the tradition, avenged the desecration of the Holy Sepulcher in 630 by the Persians, and he carried the Real Cross to Jerusalem during a pilgrimage [3].

Several hypothesis were suggested about the real identity of the Colossus. According to Picozzi, it was the emperor Justinian [4]. Instead, Delbrueck [5]  and Kollwitz [6] identified it with Marciano, whilst Koch [7] and Cecchelli [8] with Valentinian I.

However, the most accredited hypothesis is that the Colossus of Barletta could represent the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, Theodosius II. It is proven by the presence of the Goth jewel on the diadem. The mother of Theodosius II, in fact, was Elijah Eudozia, of  Frankish origin and daughter of a Goth general. According to this hypothesis, supported also by Gianfranco Purpura, the Colossus was forged in Ravenna in 439 [9].

Subsequent reworkings of the Colossus of Barletta

The only source concerning the Colossus of Barletta is an edict of 1309. By it, Charles I of Anjou allowed to the Dominicans to melt the arms and legs of the Colossus, in order to obtain some bells for the nascent church of Siponto [10]. At that time, the statue was at the customhouse of the port of Barletta. Only at the end of the 15th century, it was decided to restore the missing limb and to erect the statue as now observable. Anciently, it was hold in a Gothic loggia, now not existing.

Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher 

Behind the Colossus of Barletta, there is the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, whose name recalls the East and its suggestions. The first attestations of the building dated back to 1130, when Innocent II recognized the Order of the canons of the Holy Sepulcher [11]. In fact, some knights, coming back from the Holy Land, decided to found the Basilica. Innocent II indicated the place of the religious building in a bull of 1138. Next to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, it is also attested the presence of the Spital of the pilgrims. 

Colossus of Barletta

Description of the Basilica 

The Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher is in the historical center of Barletta, and it follows the architectural tradition of the Apulian Romanesque, although later it was reworked according to the Gothic rules. Moreover, several are the cultural influences deriving from Jerusalem. In fact, Barletta represents an important crossroad and a maritime starting point for the Holy Land. From its port the supply merchandise left, as well as several knights, towards the Crusades. In a certain sense, it is possible to affirm that Barletta had a direct link with the East. Until the fall of Saint John of Acre in 1291, the city constituted one of the most important stopovers of the monk and knights orders, among them the Knights Templar.

It is for this reason that the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher of Barletta is along the Via Francigena, the road axis which led pilgrims from Rome to Jerusalem. Now, the current building has Gothic characteristics, remade during the 13th century. Even the facade, facing East, is partially reworked. The upper portion is, in fact, Baroque. Originally, in front of the main prospectus, there was an elegant portico. Demolished in 1770, the only remaining part is the arcade which linked the Spital with the church.

Colossus of Barletta

Even the ancient bell tower is substituted from a similar one, with a Baroque style. Externally, it is possible to admire the three apses of the eastern prospectus and the northern side, in front of which there is the Colossus of Barletta.

Internally, the Basilica has three naves with transept. On the side naves there are the matronei, which flank seven spans, punctuated by pointed arches. At the cross the main altar rises, with a wooden crucifix. Overall, the spaces and the symmetries appear typically Cistercian.

Colossus of Barletta

Barletta Treasure

After the fall of Saint John of Acre, in 1291, the last stronghold of the Knights Templar in the Holy Land, the patriarch of Jerusalem, Randulphus, found asylum in Barletta. According to the tradition of the place, he transfered to the city precious relics, which now constituted a real treasure. The Treasure of Barletta, preserved at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, could contain, in particular, a fragment of the Real Cross, kept on a silver reliquary. Additionally, here there could be an ostensory and a breviary of the 12th century, probably coming from Jerusalem, and other precious relics.

Jerusalemite Orders in Barletta

During the Crusades in the Holy Land, Barletta was interested by the presence of different Jerusalemite orders. According to the sources, the first who established in the city where the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John of Jerusalem, known also as Knights of Malta, who founded a primitive priory. Some years later, the Templars arrived in Barletta, where they stayed unitl 1158. It is certain there was a convention of 1169 by the Order with the bishop of Trani, Bertrando [12] [13]. The agreement established that the Knights Templar took care of the pilgrims, in exchange of the Church of Santa Maria Maddalena of Barletta.

Templar presence in Barletta

The donation was given to the brothers, Riccardo and Rainerio. Traditionally, the Church of Santa Maria Maddalena is identified with the famous Preceptory of Barletta, which was the headquarter of the whole Order in the Capitanata region. Nonetheless, the scholar Oronzo Cilli [14] speculates that the headquarter of the Preceptory was the Church of San Leonardo out of the wall. It is difficult to ascertain where the domus templi was, since both the churches were demolished in the 16th century.

In any case, in 1229 the contrasts among the monk orders and the Holy Roman Empire intensified due to the dispute between Frederick II and the Papacy. In fact, the king confiscated all his goods. This favored the settlement of the Teutonic Knights in Barletta, who had political ideas more similar to Frederick. Moreover, the massive presence of the Jerusalemite orders in Barletta is clearly connected to the presence of the important port, from which the resources were sold to the Holy Land. The preceptor had the role of manage the collection and shipping of goods.

Simbology in Barletta: the Sacred Center of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore

The Cathedral of Barletta is the result of a long monumental stratification of buildings constructed overtime. A first construction of the 6th century, dedicated to San Sabino, dates back to the Early Christian period. Over the centuries, new buildings were erected, among them a High Medieval basilica. During the Norman era, the structure was reworked (1147-1153), and the reworkings lasted also in the Swabia era, under Frederick II. The same king recognized the privilege to the city of celebrating the Fiera dell’Assunta, in honour of the Virgin to whom the church is dedicated.

Most of the current building is a Romanesque renovation of the 12th-13th century, whose consecration is dated 1267 by the bishop Randulphus. Several Gothic elements were added, as the apse of the Anjou period. Pierre d’Angicourt was the designer of the expansion. In addition, in 1307 the pope Clemente V issued a bull, by which anyone who visited the Cathedral of Barletta, he obtained an indulgence of 100 days. Here, the 4th of February 1459, Ferdinando d’Aragona was crowned.

Colossus of Barletta
Cathedral of Barletta

Stylistic description of the Cathedral 

During the Swabia domination, the facade was imposingly elevated, and a central single lancet and the rose window were added. Below, there are three portals, of which the central one is surrounded by elegant pilasters and surmounted by a tympanum. This decoration was inserted during the Renaissance, whilst the sculpted side portals are original. Moreover, the decoration appears multifaceted, with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic motifs.

The archivolt of the left portal was enriched with a sculpted branch, whose flaps are hold by a two-bodied centaur. At the ends, there are two lions with a Christological significance, typical of the symbology of the Romanesque.

Left portal

The right portal has a historiated archivolt, which have a symbolic and artistic relevance. Here, in fact, there are representation in sequence of some men, armed with spears, swords and sticks, who fight against wild beasts. It is the representation of the interior fight, that every Christian has to combat against the temptation and sin, for accessing the House of God.

Left portal

Moreover, along the facade, there are dispersed several bas-reliefs, with some zoomorphic representations.


Interior of the Cathedral 

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore, in Barletta, has a basilica plant. It is divided into three naves, articulated with elegant columns with sculpted capitals and beam pillars. The capitals, finely modelled, show representations of animals and phytoform motifs. Instead, above the colums there are dividing walls of the naves, with false matronei. The side naves are covered with wooden trusses, whilst the central one is surmounted by cross vaults.

Interior of the Cathedral

The apse area is covered by ribbed vaults. Here, the presbytery area with the high altar, is present. It is surmounted by an elegant ciborium of the 12th century, with angular columns and a dome with loggia.

High altar with ciborium

Sacred Center 

The front columns, which separate the naves, seem anciest and of finer workmanship than the other ones. It is more probable that these are reuse materials, maybe of granite. This detail is important to denote and classify the eventual engravings here present. Particularly, in the first right column there is a Sacred Center.

“Sacred Center”

The Sacred Center is an ancient symbol which originates from the concept of Universe by the Greeks. This principle was connected to those of the Omphalos, the sacred stone located at the oracle of Apollo, in Delphi. Then, the Sacred Center figuratively indicated the center of the world. At the same time, it was mythical and ritual, in the original acception of sacred or principle of everything.

The symbology, revived in Medieval and Christian times, identified the place of elevation and encounter with God. This is the House of God, the real center of the whole humanity. Hence, it is not surprising the presence of the symbology of the Sacred Center as the elected place over several centuries and reworkings. Although the continous changes of the styles and architectural constructions, it remained unchanged in its collocation and spatiality. At the same time, the symbol is image of God, creator of everything.

Castle of Barletta

Near the Cathedral there is the Castello Svevo of Barletta. Symbol of the contraposition between the Empire and the Papacy, of the city against the militia, it was the impregnable bulwark of Frederick II. Nevertheless, the building dates back to the Norman era (1046-1050). Particularly, Peter the Norman ordered the construction of the original building and the walls of the city. During the Swabia period, Frederick II extended the perimeter of the castle, removing the eastern area. The king inserted decorative and architectural elements, which transformed the building from a defensive structure to a palace for his court.

Barletta's Colossus
Castle of Barletta

Inside the fortress, in 1228, the Dieta of Barletta was hold, during which Frederick II announced his departure for the 6th crusade. The castle was reworked several times during the Anjou period, with the addition of the Porta Trani, which faced towards the homonymous city. During the Aragonese period, the Castle of Barletta was modified several times, following the typical style of the Spanish family. Finally, the structure has assumed the current features between the 16th and 18th century, with the modification of the perimeter in order to respect the nascent needs of the military artillery.

Samuele Corrente Naso

(Translation by Daniela Campus)


[1] Vita di S. Ruggiero vescovo di Canne et confessore, patrono di Barletta, G.P. Grimaldi, 1607, Napoli.

[2] Galla Placidia e il c.d. suo mausoleo in Ravenna, in Arti e Memorie della R. deputazione di St. Patria per la prov. di Romagna, G. Gerola, 1912.

[3] Storia dell’impero bizantino, G. Ostrogorsky, 1968, Einaudi, Torino.

[4] Contributi numismatici all’identificazione del Colosso di Barletta, in Rivista Italiana di Numismatica, 73, V. Picozzi, 1971.

[5] Spätantike Kaiserporträts von Constantinus Magnus bis zum Ende des Westreichs, R. Delbrueck, 1933, Berlin-Leipzig.

[6] Oströmische Plastik der theodosiani-schen Zeit, J. Kollwitz, 1941, Berlin.

[7] Bronzestatue in Barletta, in Antike Dankmäler, H. Koch, 1912-13.

[8] Studi di archeologia paleocristiana e altomedievale, C.Cecchelli, a cura di M.Cecchelli, G.Pilara, 2012, Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum, Roma.

[9] Il “Colosso” di Barletta ed il Codice di Teodosio II, G. Purpura, Atti del IX Convegno Internazionale Accademia Costantiniana di Perugia, 1993.

[10] Storia della città di Barletta, Volume I, S. Loffredo, 1893.

[11] L’Ordine di Gerusalemme in Puglia sotto i re normanni e svevi, Francesco Carabellese, in Rassegna Pugliese, 1898.

[12] Guida all’Italia dei Templari: gli insediamenti templari in Italia, B.Capone, L.Imperio, E. Valentini, 1989, Edizioni Mediterranee.

[13] La chiesa di Ognissanti di Trani non fu templare, V. Ricci, 2010, Cronache medievali.

[14] I templari a Barletta. Nuove acquisizioni, Oronzo Cilli, 2002.

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