Byzanthium in Italy: mysterious Ravenna

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The greatest mystery about Ravenna is why it is so far from mainstream touristic itineraries. This tiny city has eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a glorious past and  its 1,500-year-old churches are decorated with best-in-the-West Byzantine mosaics. And, by the way, it hosts the human spoils of Dante Alighieri (they are in here and not in Florence as many people think…).

Personally, what I really find fascinating about this tiny provincial town is that it is the junction point in history between the collapsed Roman Empire and the middle age. An historic period that lasted four centuries but is still immersed in a deep air of mystery.

Ravenna has ancient origins and a glorious past.  From the 5th to the 8th century it has been the capital of the Western Roman Empire, of king Theodoric of the Goths and of the Byzantine empire in Europe. The most important legacy from that period are its astonishing mosaics dating from the 5th and 6th centuries. It is only a 90-minute detour from the main Venice–Florence train line and, if you have a spare day in your  rushy tour of Italy, you will find the peaceful charm of this untouristy and classy town and its extraordinary churches and mosaics definitely worth the effort.

In this post I’m suggesting a half day walking itinerary that covers six out of the eight early Christian monuments inscribed on the World Heritage List. These are:

  • Baptistry of Neon (c. 430)
  • Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (c. 430)
  • Arian Baptistry (c. 500)
  • Archiepiscopal Chapel (c. 500)
  • Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (c. 500)
  • Basilica of San Vitale (548)

The remaining two (the Mausoleum of Theoderic (520) and the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe (549) are out of the city center and requires a private mean of transportation and two of three ours more.

Visit Ravenna itinerary

Let’s start our tour from the central Piazza del Popolo. Once a lagoon city, the canals were covered over in the fifteenth century during its rule by Venice and its elegant central square, Piazza del Popolo, was created. Now it is the center of the city life, with elegant restaurants and cafes.

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From Piazza del Popolo walk down the pedestrian Via Diaz; after 300 meters a small alley willlead you to the Arian Baptistery, the first monument of our tour.

The Arian Baptistery was built in the small square of the church of the Holy Spirit, the former Arian cathedral, at the end of the 5th Century, when Theoderic had already consolidated his dominion and Arianism had become the official religion of the Court,

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The building, octagonal in shape and with four small external apses, has sunk about 2.3 metres into the ground. Nothing remains of the various stuccos and decorations which certainly covered the internal walls. The cupola, instead, is adorned with mosaics depicting the procession of the twelve Apostles and the baptism of Christ, whose naked and young body is immersed in water to the hips.

Although it shows the same iconographical structure of its model, the Baptistery of Neon, the mosaics of the Arian Baptistery are an evidence of the religious beliefs of Theoderic’s court, based on Christ as both an earthly and divine figure.

While in the Orthodox Baptistery the 12 apostles hail the image of Christ on the central medallion as God’s son, in the Arian Baptistery they pay homage to a big throne decorated with gems and topped by a cross, from the arms of which hangs a purple cloth, symbol of Jesus’ corporeity and human suffering.

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Back in Via Diaz and then right in Via di Roma, you will find the Basilica of Sant’Apolinarre nuovo.

Built by Theoderic (493-526) next to his palace, it was originally used as a Palatine Church of Arian religion. After the Byzantine reconquest and consecration to the orthodox faith (mid-6th century), the Basilica was dedicated to St. Martin, bishop of Tours. Tradition has it that in 9th century the relics of St. Apollinaris were removed from the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe and transported here. On that occasion, the church was dedicated to Saint Apollinaris and called “Nuovo” (new) in order to differentiate it from the church of the same name in Classe.

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Inside the building, it is possible to admire the magnificent mosaic decoration of the original church, documenting the stylistic, iconographical and ideological evolution of Byzantine wall mosaics from the era of Theoderic to that of Justinian. The 26 christological scenes from the period of Theoderic are one of the biggest monumental cycles and, at the same time, the most ancient original mosaic work on the New Testament of all times.

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Note the mosaics depicting Theodorics placae (and compare it with the actual remains, later in this post…)

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After the byzantine reconquest, the mosaics were heavily modified to satisfy the new rulers. Just like today’s photoshops mistakes, some details (such as arms and hands on the columns) were forgot by inattentive artists!

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The (few) remains of Theodorics palace, close to Sant’Apolinarre nuovo.

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Follow the itinerary and after 10 minutes walking you will get to largo Firenze, were a tiny pedestrian alley will lead you to the tomb of Dante Alighieri.

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After Dante’s exile from Florence, Prince Guido Novello da Polenta invited him to Ravenna in 1318, and he accepted. He finished Paradiso, and died in 1321 (aged 56) while returning to Ravenna from a diplomatic mission to Venice, possibly of malaria contracted there. He was buried in Ravenna at the Church of San Pier Maggiore (later called San Francesco). Bernardo Bembo, praetor of Venice, erected a tomb for him in 1483.

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Our next stop is the Archiepiscopal Chapel.

The Oratory of S. Andrea or Archiepiscopal Chapel is the only existing archiepiscopal chapel of the early christian era that has been preserved intact to the present day. It was erected by bishop Peter II (494-519) during the reign of Theodoric as a private oratory for catholic bishops, at the time when Arianism was the main religion of the court. Originally dedicated to Christ, the chapel was then renamed and dedicated to Saint Andrew, whose relics were transported from Costantinople to Ravenna around the mid-6th century AD.

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The cross-shaped chapel is preceded by a small barrel-vaulted rectangular vestibule, entirely covered with marble in its lower part and decorated with mosaics at the top. The iconography of the mosaic decoration is of great interest and aims at glorifying the figure of Christ from a clearly anti-Arian point of view. The representation of Christ as a warrior, his monogram and his face as well as the images of Martyrs, Apostles and Evangelists frequently appear in a dominant position in various places of the chapel, thus underlining the concept of the glorification of Jesus and reaffirming the principles of Catholic orthodoxy.

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Opposite the Archiepiscopal Chapel you will find the Baptistry of Neon.

The Baptistry of Neon is one of the most ancient monuments of the city of Ravenna. It was commissioned by Bishop Urso and probably built at the beginning of the 5th century like the nearby cathedral. During the episcopacy of Neon (450 – 475), the baptistery underwent many restoration works that ended with the reconstruction of the cupola and the realization of the interior decoration, still present today.

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The interior of the baptistry consists of two rows of arches put one above the other. Its decoration is divided into three tiers, the lower one covered with marble pieces, the middle one with stucco-works, while the upper section is adorned with mosaics of Hellenic-Roman influence. At the center of the dome, a big medallion frames the Baptism of Christ, depicted as a young man immersed to the hips in the sheer waters of the river Jordan. This is one of the oldest mosaic scenes of the Baptism of Christ housed inside a monumental building.

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The images of the twelve Apostles, divided into two groups led by Saint Peter and Paul, revolve around the central medallion, standing out against a blue background. A second ring shows eight exedrae that cover thrones and altars and symbolize the concept of heavenly city and the spread of the Christian doctrine.

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Back to Largo Firenze, the best place in town to have a rest is the Famous Ca de Ven (literally “house of wine”). It is a beautiful historical wine bar, were you can have a lite lunch, a glass of wine (of course!) and taste the Romagna region specialty: the Piadina.

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The Piadina (also called “piada” by locals) is a thin Italian flatbread, usually made with white flour, lard or olive oil, salt and water and eaten with various combination of ham, salad and cheese.

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Back to Piazza del Popolo, head to Via Cavour to reach the highlight of this walking tour: San Vitale and the Galla Placidia Mausoleum.

The Basilica of San Vitale is one of the most important monuments of Early Christian art in Italy, especially for the splendour of its mosaics. Founded by Julianus Argentarius and commissioned by Bishop Ecclesius, the octagonal church was consecrated by Archbishop Maximian in 548.

The influence of oriental art, a typical feature of Ravenna buildings, plays a dominant role both for the architecture of the basilica, where elements of Eastern art merge with Western tradition, and for its mosaic decoration, that expresses the ideology and religious beliefs of the Justinian era.

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The typical division into nave and two aisles is replaced here by a central, octagonal plan, topped by a cupola that rests on eight pilasters and arches. The cupola and the niches were frescoed in 1780 by Bolognese painters Barozzi and Gandolfi and Guarana from Veneto.

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On entering the Basilica of San Vitale, the eyes are captured by the elevation and width of spaces, by the stunning mosaic decorations of the apse and by the baroque frescoes of the cupola. It is probably due to this upward thrust that a small and lesser-known treasure often goes unnoticed: a labyrinth is represented on the floor of the presbytery, right in front of the altar.

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Once followed the path of the labyrinth, the eyes may contemplate the altar of San Vitale and some of the most beautiful mosaics of Christendom.

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Galla Placidia (386-452), sister of the Roman Emperor Honorius who had transferred the Capital of the Western Empire from Milan to Ravenna in 402 AD, built this little Latin cross-shaped Mausoleum around 425-450 as her own resting place. The mausoleum was never used for that purpose, though, because the empress died and was buried in Rome in 450.

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Now a separate building, the mausoleum was once connected to the south side of the narthex of the close Church of Santa Croce, erected by Galla Placidia between 475 and 500.

The outside of the building is very sober compared to the magnificence of the inside, decorated with mosaics made even brighter by the golden light filtering through the alabaster windows. The lower surfaces of the interior are covered with marble slabs, while the upper part of the building – including the walls of the vault, the lunettes and the cupola – is entirely decorated with mosaics. The themes represented in the mosaic decoration show traces of the influence of both Hellenic-Roman and Christian tradition and aim at representing the victory of eternal life over death from different perspectives

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The atmosphere of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is undoubtedly magical. The countless stars of the cupola have deeply stirred the imagination of many visitors of Ravenna, for instance Cole Porter who, during his honeymoon in the city, was so impressed by the starry sky of the small mausoleum that he wrote his famous song Night and Day.

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Monuments descriptions come mainly from the official Ravenna Tourism site.

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