Venusia, or modern day Venosa, has a surprisingly rich history for somewhere now so off-the beaten path…or certainly not very popular as far as mass-tourism goes anyway.
Venosa was inhabited as far back as prehistoric times (traces of Acheullean and Chellean settlements have been found there). An Apulian town (now, Venosa is part of Basilicata) in Roman times, it eventually became the largest colony in the Roman world.
Venosa lays claim to quite a few well-known historical figures. The Roman general, Marcellus was ambushed at Venosa and killed by Hannibal in 208BC. It was the birthplace of Horace (the famous Roman poet) and of Manfred (the son of Frederick II, King of Sicily). Venosa was also home to the famous “Prince of Venosa,” Carlo Gesualdo, composer of some of the most well-know choral madrigals from the late Italian Renaissance (and also extremely scandalous murderer of his wife and her lover.)
The fairy-tale, 15th century, Venosa Castle sits in the main piazza – complete with whimsical towers and a moat. (Of all the Norman castles I’ve seen in Southern Italy, this one is the one that is straight out of the story-books.) Inside, there has been a modern renovation and it now houses the Museo Archeologico Nazionale (open 9am-7pm) with a nice display of Greek, Roman, and medieval finds from Venosa, and also includes some more unusual finds from Venosa’s ancient Jewish population (you can also visit the adjoining Jewish catacombs) and impressive skeletal remains from homo erectus (300,000 years ago!).
Other interesting sights in Venosa include a 13c fountain and stone carved lions, the supposed tomb of Marcellus, 16c cathedral, and the Museo Briscese, displaying Palaeolithic finds.
Right outside the town of Venosa, stands La Trinita Abbey, a very impressive monastic complex founded by the Benedictines in 1046. It was originally a Roman temple, then an early Christian church, and finally the Abbey that still stands today. Inside, it houses what is said to be the tomb of Robert Guiscard and his first wife, along with some beautiful frescoes, including one of Joan I of Naples, and a Pieta said to be by Roberto Oderisus.
Across from La Trinita Abbey, you can wander the ruins of the ancient Roman baths, Roman amphitheatre, and Jewish Catacombs (9am-7pm or an hour before sunset)
Venosa (Basilicata) can be reached in about one hour by car from Calitri and makes for a wonderful historical excursion.