The Colossus of Barletta, echoes from the East

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An imposing bronze statue seems to stare with icy eyes at the tourists walking along Corso Vittorio Emanuele in Barletta. It is a familiar figure to the locals, who call it Arè, short for Heraclius. Heraclius is about four and a half meters tall, and his appearance testifies to centuries of life, partially mysterious. This is why he is called Colossus of Barletta, not only for his enormous height, but also for what he symbolizes for the Apulian city.

Colossus of Barletta
Colossus of Barletta

The giant Colossus of Barletta

Heraclius stands proudly on a stone pedestal; he wears an elegant suit, which comes down to his knees, and shoes. His hairstyle is neat, his beard has a short shave. It is possible to observe some clues to discover who this giant represented in the center of Barletta is. Heraclius’ head is surrounded by an imperial diadem, he has a jewel on his forehead as was the custom among the ancient people of the Goths. In addition, a single pearl earring hangs below the lobe of his left ear.

Colossus of Barletta

Heraclius firmly holds in his left hand a globe, symbol of the Emperor’s power over the whole world – who said the ancients believed the Earth was flat? – while, on the other side, he raises the Cross. At first sight, the bronze workmanship is Byzantine. Is he a Christian king of the Eastern Roman Empire, whose power was considered to be given by God? It seems a reasonable hypothesis… but, who is he?

The mysterious appearance of Heraclius

The appearance of Heraclius in Barletta is really mysterious. According to popular tradition, the statue was found in 1204 lying on a rock. However, how it got there no one can explain. It seems that Heraclius emerged from the sea, spontaneously, deciding to move to Barletta from some distant Oriental city. This historiographic tradition derives from the writings of Giovan Paolo Grimaldi, a Jesuit of the seventeenth century. According to him, Heraclius was forged in Constantinople and was stolen by the Venetians during the sack of 1204 [1].

In fact, it was the same destination of several famous works now in Venice, which were taken by Doge Enrico Dandolo. Among these, for example, are the famous bronze Horses of Saint Mark, once at the Hippodrome of Constantinople, and then placed on the Basilica of San Marco. During the transfer towards Venice, the ship carrying Heraclius was caught in a storm, so it was decided to abandon the statue along the Apulian coasts.

Historiographical studies on the Colossus

Actually, spectometric analyses have partially invalidated this hypothesis. In fact, the bronze does not present iodine contaminations that could justify a protracted stay at sea. Moreover, it has no corrosive processes typical of maritime findings. It is more probable that Heraclius was moved to Barletta from a near city. The most accredited hypothesis is that the Colossus was made in Ravenna, when it was the capital of the Western Roman Empire, and then moved to Apulia by the will of Frederick II. The monk Thomas of Pavia reported an extraordinary campaign of excavations conducted by the emperor in Ravenna in 1231-1232. Heraclius was unearthed in a place outside the city, where a mausoleum similar to that of Galla Placidia was located [2].

Ravenna, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

The purpose of Frederick II was probably to embellish the cities of the Kingdom of Sicily, which he loved so much. Moreover, it is not certain that the Colossus was actually headed to Barletta, since some scholars have suggested its final destination was Foggia. Anyway, for some strange reasons, Heraclius remained at the customs of the seaport of Barletta for several years, until it was located in the center of the city.

A controversial identity

The initial question still remains: who does the Colossus of Barletta represent? The name Heraclius refers to its first historical identification. In the past, the presence of the prominent cross, in the right hand, suggested that it could represent the emperor Heraclius I. He was the king who, according to tradition, avenged the desecration of the Holy Sepulchre in 630 by the Persians, and brought the True Cross to Jerusalem during a pilgrimage [3].

Several hypothesis have been 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 credited hypothesis is that the Colossus of Barletta may represent the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, Theodosius II. This would be demonstrated by the presence of the Gothic jewel on the diadem. The mother of Theodosius II, in fact, was Elia Eudozia, of Frankish origin and daughter of a Gothic general. According to this hypothesis, also supported by Gianfranco Purpura, the Colossus was forged in Ravenna in 439 [9].

Successive alterations of the Colossus of Barletta

The only historical source concerning the Colossus of Barletta is an edict of 1309. With it, Charles I of Anjou allowed the Dominicans to cast the arms and legs of the Colossus, in order to obtain some bells for the nascent church of Siponto [10]. At the time, the statue was located at the customs of the port of Barletta. Only at the end of the fifteenth century, it was decided to restore the missing limb and to erect the statue as we can see it now. Anciently, it was kept in a gothic loggia, now not existing.

The Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Barletta

Behind the Colossus of Barletta, is the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, whose name recalls the East and its suggestions. The first mention of the building dates back to 1130, when Innocent II recognized the Order of the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre [11]. In fact, some knights, returning from the Holy Land, had decided to found the Basilica. Innocent II indicated the site of the religious building in a bull of 1138. Next to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher is also attested the presence of the Spital of the pilgrims. 

Colossus of Barletta

Description of the Basilica

The Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre is located in the historical center of Barletta, and is based on the architectural tradition of Apulian Romanesque, although it was later modified according to the rules of Gothic. In addition, there are several cultural influences from Jerusalem. Barletta was an important crossroads and a point of maritime departure for the Holy Land. From its seaport departed the supplies, as well as the knights, to the Crusades. Barletta had a direct link with the East. Until the fall of Acre in 1291, the city was one of the most important harbors for monastic and chivalric orders, including the Knights Templar.

The Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre of Barletta is located just along the Via Francigena, the road axis that led pilgrims from Rome to Jerusalem. The current building has Gothic characteristics of the thirteenth century. Even the facade, facing east, is partially rebuilt: the upper part is baroque. Originally, in front of the main facade was an elegant portico that was demolished in 1770.

Colossus of Barletta

Also the ancient bell tower is replaced by a similar one, of baroque style. Externally you can admire the three apses of the Eastern elevation and the Northern side, in front of which is the Colossus of Barletta.

Internally, the Basilica has three naves with a transept. On the aisles there are the matronei, which flank seven bays, marked by pointed arches. In correspondence of the cross stands the main altar, with a wooden crucifix. On the whole, the spaces and the symmetries are tipically Cistercian.

Colossus of Barletta

The Treasure of Barletta

After the fall of Acre in 1291, the last stronghold of the Templars in the Holy Land, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Randolfo, took refuge in Barletta. According to local tradition, he transferred to the city precious relics, which were now a treasure. The Treasure of Barletta, preserved at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, could contain a fragment of the True Cross, kept on a silver reliquary. A 12th century ostensorium and a breviary, probably from Jerusalem, and many other precious relics are preserved here.

Jerusalemite Orders in Barletta

During the Crusades in the Holy Land, Barletta was inhabited by several hierosolimitan orders. According to historical sources, the first to settle in the city were the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem, also known as the Knights of Malta, who founded a primitive priory. A few years later, the Templars arrived in Barletta, where they remained until the year 1158. For sure, there was an 1169 convention of the Order with the bishop of Trani, Bertrando [12] [13]. The agreement established the Knights Templar to take care of the pilgrims, in exchange for the Church of Santa Maria Maddalena in Barletta.

The Templars in Barletta

From the documents it is revealed that the donation was made to the brothers Riccardo and Rainerio. Traditionally, the Church of Santa Maria Maddalena is identified with the famous Preceptory of Barletta, which was the seat of the entire Order in Capitanata. However, the scholar Oronzo Cilli [14] suggests that the seat of the Preceptory was the Church of San Leonardo outside the walls. It is difficult to ascertain where the domus templi was, since both churches were demolished in the 16th century.

In 1229 the contrasts between the Templars and the Holy Roman Empire intensified because of the dispute between Frederick II and the Papacy. As a result, the king confiscated all their property. This favored the settlement of the Teutonic Knights in Barletta, who had political ideas more similar to Frederick.

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 over time. A first construction of the sixth century, dedicated to San Sabino, dates back to the early Christian period. Over the centuries, new buildings were erected, including an early medieval basilica. In the Norman period, the structure was renovated (1147-1153), and the changes lasted also in the Swabian period, under Frederick II. He recognized to the city the privilege to celebrate the Assumption Fair, in honor of the Virgin to whom the church is dedicated.

Most of the actual building is a Romanesque renovation of the 12th-13th centuries, whose consecration is dated 1267 by Bishop Randulphus. Several Gothic elements were added, such as the apse from the Angevin period. Pierre d’Angicourt was the architect of the enlargement. In addition, in 1307 Pope Clement V issued a bull by which anyone visiting the Cathedral of Barletta obtained an indulgence of 100 days. Here, the 4th of February 1459, Ferdinand of Aragon was crowned.

Colossus of Barletta
Cathedral of Barletta

Stylistic description of the Cathedral

During the Swabian domination, the facade was impressively elevated, and a central single lancet window and rose window were added. At the bottom, there are three portals, of which the central one is surrounded by elegant pillars and surmounted by a tympanum. This decoration was inserted during the Renaissance, while the carved side portals are original. In addition, the decoration appears multifaceted, with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic motifs.

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

Left portal

The right portal has a historiated archivolt with an important symbolic and artistic meaning. Here, in fact, are represented some men, armed with spears, swords and sticks, who fight against wild beasts. It is the representation of the inner struggle that every Christian faces against temptation and sin in order to enter the House of God.

Right portal

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


Interior of the Cathedral

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore, in Barletta, has a basilica plan. It is composed of a nave and two aisles, divided by elegant columns with sculpted capitals and bundled pillars. The capitals show representations of animals and plant motifs. Above the columns are the partitions of the aisles, with false matronei. The aisles are covered by wooden trusses, while the nave is vaulted by a groin vault.

Interior of the Cathedral

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

High altar with ciborium

Sacred Center

The front columns, which separate the aisles, seem older than the others. It is likely that they are reused materials, perhaps of granite. This detail is important to identify the possible engravings as in the first column on the right where is a Sacred Center.

“Sacred Center”

The Sacred Center is an ancient symbol that originates from the concept of the Universe of the Greeks. This principle was related to the Omphalos, the sacred stone located at the oracle of Apollo at Delphi. At the time, the Sacred Center figuratively indicated the center of the world. It was mythical and ritual, in its original meaning of sacred or principle of everything.

The symbolism, took on a new meaning in medieval and Christian times, identifying the place of elevation and encounter with God. This is the House of God, the true center of all humanity. Thus, the presence of the symbolism of the Sacred Center in a Christian cathedral is not surprising. At the same time, the symbol is the image of God, the creator of everything.

The Castle of Barletta

Near the Cathedral is the Swabian Castle of Barletta. Symbol of the opposition between the Empire and the Papacy, of the city against the militias, it was the impregnable bulwark of Frederick II. However, the building dates back to the Norman era (1046-1050). In particular, Peter the Norman ordered the construction of the original building and the city walls. During the Swabian period, Frederick II extended the perimeter of the castle. The king commissioned the insertion of 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 held, during which Frederick II announced his departure for the Sixth crusade. The castle was renovated several times during the Angevin period, with the addition of the Porta Trani, and the Aragonese period. The structure has taken on its current structure between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries with the modification of the perimeter in order to meet the emerging needs of military artillery.

Samuele Corrente Naso


[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.


Samuele avatar

Samuele is the founder of Indagini e Misteri, a blog on anthropology, history and art. He has a degree in forensic biology and works for the Ministry of Culture. For pleasure he studies unusual and old-fashioned things, such as uncertain symbolism or enigmatic apotropaic rituals. He pursues mystery through adventure but that, inexplicably, is always one step further.

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