Island of Saint Julius
The Island of Saint Julius stands about 400 meters (1/4 mile) from the Orta square; you can reach it by motorboat or a scheduled ferry in only a few minutes. Although it is made up of buildings of various styles dating back to different times all crowded together, the island gives its observers on solid ground the general impression of extraordinary beauty and harmony, regardless of which observation point you choose.
The true heart of the island holds the imposing palace of the Benedictine monastery Mater Ecclesiae, built in the mid-nineteenth century as a seminary by Alessandro Caronesi. The church has a very long history: originally built in the fourth century as a small, crude chapel, it was completely redone in a much more elegant and precious way in the middle of the sixth century.
In 962 the island was besieged by the German King Otto I of Saxony, who hoped to reduce the Italian Kind Berengario II to obedience. On the island, the Saxon found only Queen Willa who, after some weeks of courageous resistance, surrendered to Otto. At that point in time the basilica was probably seriously damaged; in any case, it was decided that extensions and other changes were needed to give it an even more garish appearance during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
These changes are still present on the church we see today, perfectly preserved and covered only partly by Baroque decorations that hide the structure’s bluntly Romanesque soul. Only the crypt that contains the remains of Saint Julius, the first evangelist in the region, was extracted from under the ancient altar at the end of the seventeenth century.
The basilica is full of frescoes, canvases, and wooden works of art from various eras. One of the basilica’s authentic jewels is the invaluable green serpentine pulpit from Oira, created during the Romanesque age.
Around the basilica and the monastery, you can walk a delightful ring-shaped path along which you can spot the internal façades of local homes, some of which have almost perfectly maintained their original appearance: small two-story canonical houses that served the basilica. Near the church, close to the lavish sixteenth century grand staircase that serves as a side entrance, the ancient bishop’s building stands, expanded and embellished throughout the centuries. Today, it is reserved for use only by cloistered nuns.
From island’s small port, you can reach both Orta and Pella, on the lake’s opposite bank.