The largest cathedral in Puglia, Bitonto Cathedral is not well known but is very much worth a visit. It boasts impressive Romanesque architecture and sculpture (12C), a marble pulpit (13C), a beautiful griffin floor mosaic (11C), a fine crypt (12C) and well-presented excavations dating back to the 5th century. Bitonto is located just 11 miles west of Bari in southeastern Italy.
Historical origins of Bitonto Cathedral are not well documented in written sources, but archaeological excavations beneath the cathedral have revealed ruins of a church dating from the 5th-6th century, shortly after the Puglian region was converted to Christianity. This ancient church had three aisles, one apse (destroyed by the construction of the Romanesque crypt), and a colorful mosaic floor.
From the 7th to 11th century, the church was regularly renovated and expanded but retained the basic Early Christian plan. The mosaic floor was modified in various places, especially the presbytery, with geometric designs using larger tesserae.
A square building of uncertain purpose - possibly a tower - was added to the west end at some point, and in the 11th century its floor was decorated with the beautiful griffin mosaic that is the star attraction of the excavations.
The present cathedral was built on top of the earlier basilica in a Norman Romanesque style between about 1150 and 1200.
Various remodeling and restorations were done in Bitonto Cathedral over the centuries. Most recently, major excavation work in the late 1990s involved tearing up the entire nave floor to reveal Early Christian and pre-Norman ruins beneath. The work is now complete, the floor has been relaid and the excavations are open to the public.
What to See
Known for its excellent olive oil, Bitonto is a compact town of 57,000 people located just 11 miles from the city of Bari in Puglia. The cathedral is located in the center of the interesting Old Town, of which official guided tours are available (phone: 080 375 1014).
The largest cathedral in Puglia, Bitonto Cathedral is an impressive sight. It dominates an open plaza, from which there are excellent views of its west and south sides. Its austere Romanesque architecture closely resembles the Basilica di San Nicola in nearby Bari, which was built 1089-1105.
The west facade, where the influence of San Nicola in Bari is especially evident, is divided into three vertical sections by large pilaster strips. The narrow top of the facade is filled with a fine rose window flanked by small hanging columns topped with animals. Lombard bands (small blind arches) decorate the eaves.
The long south exterior is pierced with six deep niches probably used for tombs. The last niche on the right contains the Porta della Scumonica, which has a fine tympanum depicting the Crucifixion (with Christ wearing a large crown and long-sleeved robe) against an interlace background. The spandrels between the arches are decorated with sculptures of the Virgin Mary and each of the Four Evangelists.
Above the niches is an elegant gallery or loggia with slender columns and delightful Romanesque capitals. Each capital is different and many depict friendly animals, both real and mythical. Above this can be seen the clerestory, which is decorated with intricate tracery.
The south transept features large blind arches and a rose window with a finely carved architrave. The flat east wall also has large blind arches, as well as a window with an elaborately sculpted frame and, at the top, a Moorish-style arch. The campanile adjoins the east wall on the right (north) side; it was built in the 13th century and renovated in 1488 and 1630.
The interior of Bitonto Cathedral is lofty and generally austere, with three tall aisles, short transepts and a flat apse. All the capitals are beautiful carved, some with foliage but many with figurative sculptures. Don't miss the merman at the base of a column in the north aisle, next to the stairs to the crypt.
The most celebrated artwork of the interior is the marble ambo created by Master Nicolaus (Maestro Nicola) in 1229. It was remodeled in the 17th century and is supported by columns of the 18th century. The balustrade of the staircase contains a relief depicting a secular scene, which is believed to represent the family of Frederick Barbarossa.
The Romanesque crypt, modeled on that of San Nicola in Bari, occupies the space directly under the transept. Its three long aisles are divided by slender columns with imaginatively carved capitals. Medieval frescoes can still be seen on the walls. Unlike the vast majority of medieval examples, this crypt never sheltered any relics.
Next to the crypt is the entrance to the excavations and museum, where one can view the architecture and artifacts discovered beneath the current cathedral. Some of the remains date back to the Early Christian era. The excavations are brightly lit and well-presented, with excellent informational signs in multiple languages.
The star of the excavations is a beautiful griffin mosaic of the 11th century that has been perfectly preserved. It can also be viewed through an oculus in the back of the nave floor above. A griffon is a mythical creature with a head and wings of a bird and a body of a lion; in Christian iconography it usually represents the human and divine natures of Christ.
Another highlight is the collection of 52 ashlars with sculptural reliefs, which were discovered neatly stacked beneath the right side of the nave. They were originally part of three decorative portals, which archaeologists have been able to partially reassemble based on markings on the sides of the ashlars and other evidence. Arch A consists of stylized plant reliefs except for a Lamb of God in the central ashlar, Arch B depicts plants and animals, and the partial Arch C depicts animals. A partial jamb, with plant motifs, has also been reconstructed.
Based on style, the ashlars were probably made in a Normandy workshop in the late 11th century. They are similar to sculptures produced in Barnay and Jumieges, as well as the miniature pantings of the Preaux Gospels. Puglian influences are evident as well, however, such as in the symbolic figures of lions, griffons, deer, and other animals.
The excavations also display various artifacts uncovered beneath the cathedral, including a variety of coins from early medieval to modern times, old buttons, and interesting pottery.
Quick Facts on Bitonto Cathedral
|Names:||Bitonto Cathedral; Cattedrale di Bitonto|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||41.106305° N, 16.689767° E (view on Google Maps)|
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Map of Bitonto Cathedral
Below is a location map and aerial view of Bitonto Cathedral. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.
- Personal visit (April 4, 2008).
- Informational signs posted in the cathedral.
- Antonio Castellano and Michele Muschitiello, La Cathedrale de Bitonto (French version, undated). Book purchased in gift shop.
- Paul Blanchard, Blue Guide Southern Italy, 11th ed. (London: Blue Guides Limited, 2007), 450-51.
- Stefania Mola, Bitonto: La Cattedrale - Mondi Medievali
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