The Pula Cathedral is located on the south side of the Pula bay at the foot of the hill with the 17th century Venetian fort. The site of the present-day church has been used for religious worship since ancient Roman times and the first Christian churches on the site were built in the late 4th and early 5th century AD. These had gone through a series of enlargements and reconstructions over the ages.
It is believed that the site of the present-day church hosted a temple dedicated to Jupiter Conservator in Roman times. Archeological excavations also revealed ruins of Roman thermae on that location, and it is considered likely that during the Diocletianic Persecution local Christians used it for secret gatherings.
In the 4th and 5th centuries a whole complex of ancient Christian buildings was gradually erected on the location. A small church whose width corresponds to the present-day cathedral's central nave was built first, which was followed in the mid 4th century by a single-nave church of St. Thomas next to it. These two were incorporated into an extended hall church in the early 5th century. In the second half of the 5th century it was further transformed into a three-nave basilica which featured architectural elements popular in the northern Adriatic of the time, such as the apse set in the facade and the entirely flat rear side of the church. At around the same time, a baptisterywhich had a cross-shaped floor plan and a bishop's residence were built in front of the basilica, but they were both later demolished in the 19th century after the diocese seat was moved to Poreč in 1828.
The present-day cathedral came into existence through a series of expansions of these pre-existing 5th-century buildings. The original cathedral was richly decorated with frescoes and floor mosaics. However, only a small section of the original mosaic has survived to present times, bearing the inscription DAMIANUS ET LAVRENTIA, which were the names of the couple which had paid for the mosaic as part of their wedding vows.
In 1860 a grave containing a stone sarcophagus was discovered in the church. The sarcophagus contained a silver box adorned with depictions of St. Hermagoras and St. Fortunatus, bishops of Aquileia. The box contained a smaller golden reliquary which is believed to have held the relics of Thomas the Apostle, the patron saint of Pula and the Pula-Poreč diocese. The relics were probably brought here from Constantinople in the 5th century and are today kept at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
The first bishop whose seat was in Pula was Antonius, whose name is mentioned in the period from 510 to 547. During bishop Handegis' reign (857–862) an additional entrance was constructed in the southern wall. Today this entrance is walled up, but the its outline can still be seen on the southern wall. In 1242 the cathedral was heavily damaged in a Venetian raid and the ensuing fire. The damage was fully repaired in the 15th century when the building went through extensive reconstruction and the present-day sacristy was added.
In 1707 the free-standing baroque-style bell tower was added, next to the 5th century baptistery in front of the basilica. The belltower was built using stones taken from the Roman-built Pula Arena. The present-day cathedral's classicist facade was built in 1712, at the time of bishop Bottari, when extensive works on the reconstruction of the basilica and the bell tower were launched and were eventually finished in 1924. The 5th century baptistery was subsequently demolished in 1885. Pietro Kandler, a 19th-century Austrian historian, had made several drawings of the baptistery which survived to this day and which show that it had a hexagonal baptismal font, similar to the one at the Euphrasian Basilica in nearby Poreč.
The cathedral was heavily damaged again during World War II bombings of Pula, but was repaired again by 1947.
In 1675 five sarcophagi were found beneath the main altar. They were said to hold the bones of several early Christian saints, namely that of Ss. George, Theodore, Demetrius, Basil and Flora, along with the remains of Solomon, King of Hungary who ruled from 1063 to 1074. Along with the relics a document confirming that bishop Ursini had consecrated the cathedral altar in 1487 in honour of these saints was found. However, only the origins of St. Flora (a Christian martyr from Cordoba, d. 857 AD) and Solomon can be confirmed with some certainty.References:
From 1239, Raynaud, the Bishop of Quimper, decided on the building of a new chancel destined to replace that of the Romanesque era. He therefore started, in the far west, the construction of a great Gothic cathedral which would inspire cathedral reconstructions in the Ile de France and would in turn become a place of experimentation from where would later appear ideas adopted by the whole of lower Brittany. The date of 1239 marks the Bishop’s decision and does not imply an immediate start to construction. Observation of the pillar profiles, their bases, the canopies, the fitting of the ribbed vaults of the ambulatory or the alignment of the bays leads us to believe, however, that the construction was spread out over time.
The four circular pillars mark the start of the building site, but the four following adopt a lozenge-shaped layout which could indicate a change of project manager. The clumsiness of the vaulted archways of the north ambulatory, the start of the ribbed vaults at the height of the south ambulatory or the choice of the vaults descending in spoke-form from the semi-circle which allows the connection of the axis chapel to the choir – despite the manifest problems of alignment – conveys the hesitancy and diverse influences in the first phase of works which spread out until the start of the 14th century.
At the same time as this facade was built (to which were added the north and south gates) the building of the nave started in the east and would finish by 1460. The nave is made up of six bays with one at the level of the facade towers and flanked by double aisles – one wide and one narrow (split into side chapels) – in an extension of the choir arrangements.
The choir presents four right-hand bays with ambulatory and side chapels. It is extended towards the east of 3-sided chevet which opens onto a semi-circle composed of five chapels and an apsidal chapel of two bays and a flat chevet consecrated to Our Lady.
The three-level elevation with arches, triforium and galleries seems more uniform and expresses anglo-Norman influence in the thickness of the walls (Norman passageway at the gallery level) or the decorative style (heavy mouldings, decorative frieze under the triforium). This building site would have to have been overseen in one shot. Undoubtedly interrupted by the war of Succession (1341-1364) it draws to a close with the building of the lierne vaults (1410) and the fitting of stained-glass windows. Bishop Bertrand de Rosmadec and Duke Jean V, whose coat of arms would decorate these vaults, finished the chancel before starting on the building of the facade and the nave.
Isolated from its environment in the 19th century, the cathedral was – on the contrary – originally very linked to its surroundings. Its site and the orientation of the facade determined traffic flow in the town. Its positioning close to the south walls resulted in particuliarities such as the transfer of the side gates on to the north and south facades of the towers: the southern portal of Saint Catherine served the bishop’s gate and the hospital located on the left bank (the current Préfecture) and the north gate was the baptismal porch – a true parish porch with its benches and alcoves for the Apostles’ statues turned towards the town, completed by an ossuary (1514).
The west porch finds its natural place between the two towers. The entire aesthetic of these three gates springs from the Flamboyant era: trefoil, curly kale, finials, large gables which cut into the mouldings and balustrades. Pinnacles and recesses embellish the buttresses whilst an entire bestiary appears: monsters, dogs, mysterious figures, gargoyles, and with them a whole imaginary world promoting a religious and political programme. Even though most of the saints statues have disappeared an armorial survives which makes the doors of the cathedral one of the most beautiful heraldic pages imaginable: ducal ermine, the Montfort lion, Duchess Jeanne of France’s coat of arms side by side with the arms of the Cornouaille barons with their helmets and crests. One can imagine the impact of this sculpted decor with the colour and gilding which originally completed it.
At the start of the 16th century the construction of the spires was being prepared when building was interrupted, undoubtedly for financial reasons. Small conical roofs were therefore placed on top of the towers. The following centuries were essentially devoted to putting furnishings in place (funeral monuments, altars, statues, organs, pulpit). Note the fire which destroyed the spire of the transept cross in 1620 as well as the ransacking of the cathedral in 1793 when nearly all the furnishings disappeared in a « bonfire of the saints ».
The 19th century would therefore inherit an almost finished but mutilated building and would devote itself to its renovation according to the tastes and theories of the day.