UDINE, 71km northwest of Trieste, is the provincial capital and radically different to its larger sister city. Framed by mountains and hemmed in by sombre suburbs, the oval-shaped historic centre retains much of its Venetian charm. In many ways Udine harks back to the Venetian Republic, for which it was one of the most important cities. Admittedly, its canals, called roggie, are little more than rivulets compared to those of Venice, but its gorgeous Piazza della Libertà could have been airlifted directly from La Serenissima. In addition to grand architecture, the churches and galleries here also boast scores of fine works by Giambattista Tiepolo, whose airy brilliance evokes the city’s easygoing atmosphere on a fine day, when the watery light from the canals dances on nearby walls. Two relaxed days provide enough time to get a good taste of what Udine has to offer.
The place to start any exploration of Udine is at the foot of the hill, in the Piazza della Libertà, a square whose architectural ensemble is matched by few cities in Italy. The fifteenth-century Palazzo del Comune is a clear homage to the Palazzo Ducale in Venice, and the clock tower facing the palazzo, built in 1527, similarly has a Venetian model – the lion on the facade and the bronze Moors who strike the hours on top of the tower are explicit references to the Torre dell’Orologio in Piazza San Marco. The statue at the north end of the square is a bad allegory called Peace, donated to the town by Emperor Franz I to commemorate the Habsburg acquisition of Udine. All points of interest are about a fifteen-minute stroll from the piazza.
Along with Cividale, Udine was one of the frontier towns of imperial Rome but it was not until the thirteenth century that it started to become a regional centre. Patriarch Bertoldo di Andechs (1218–51) can be seen as the father of Udine – he established two markets (the old market in Via Mercatovecchio, and the new one in Piazza Matteotti, still a marketplace), moved the patriarchate from Cividale to the castle of Udine and set up a city council. In 1362 the dukes of Austria acquired the place by treaty, but not for long: Venice, now hungry for territory, captured Udine in 1420, after several assaults and sieges. The city was ruled by Venetian governors for almost four hundred years – until 1797, when the Venetian Republic surrendered to Napoleon. These days it’s a centre of Friulian nationalism.