Ravenna: The Byzantine Capital
Ravenna, now a small provincial capitol on the far eastern coast of the Emiglia-Romagna region with a population of about 150,000 people, was once the capital of the Byzantine Empire. While it is not as well known as many of its neighbors, Ravenna is a treasure trove for lovers of Byzantine art, especially mosaics, since some of the best of the period are in this small city. Just inland from the Adriatic Sea, Ravenna is easily reached by train from Bologna, Florence, and Venice. The nearest airports are in Bologna and Forlì. Once in the city, there is a good network of city buses to get around town, otherwise, cycling is very popular, with bikes available for rent when you arrive.

Although Ravenna is bit inland, it grew in importance in 45BC when the Emperor Augustus founded the nearby port town of Classe, just 4km away on the Adriatic Sea. Later, in 402 AD, the Emperor Honorius moved his capitol from Milan to Ravenna, a seemingly more defendable city, just eight years before the Visigoths sacked Rome, effectively destroying Roman civilization and sending most of Europe into the dark ages. Ravenna was an exception and became the capitol of the Western Empire first under the Ostrogoth King Theordoric the Great in 493 AD, and then under the Emperor Justinian in 540 AD. By the 6th century, while the rest of Italy was in total chaos and ruin, Ravenna shone as the center of civilization and the metropolis of Italy. The next five hundred years were considered Ravenna’s Golden Age, as art and culture prospered. Today, you can see many of the churches and mosaics that have remained intact from the period which demonstrate not only the meshing of Eastern and Western cultures, but the religious struggle between the Arian and Orthodox Christians. Unlike the art in the rest of Italy, Ravenna’s outstanding mosaics are entirely Byzantine in style. Here you will see the last work done by Roman artists and some of the first Christian art to be produced, much of which is considered the best art of the 6th century.

Main Attractions

San Vitale

This 1,500 year old church was built between 526 and 547 AD by the Emperor Justinian and was the prototype for the later Hagia Sofia in Constantinople. San Vitale is built in a Byzantine plan of two concentric octagons with a polygonal apse and a dome which later served as an inspiration for Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence. The church features the last of Roman art and the first of Christian in its many amazing mosaics. Of note are not only the mosaics featuring the Old and New Testaments, but those panels which are realistic portraits of the Emperor Justinian and his wife, the Empress Theodora. These are intended to emphasize their power and importance in maintaining peace in the Empire. The colors in all the mosaics are vibrant and the artistic technique is startling. Attached to the church is the Museo Nazionale which features a collection of artifacts from the 6th century, including household items such as forks, clothing and coins, with objects that date up through the Renaissance.

Mausoleo di Galla Placidia

Galla Placidia was the Emperor Honorius’ sister who married the Visigoth king Ataulf after the invasions, but later returned to Ravenna after her husband’s death, ruling there herself until her death in450 AD. This mausoleum was built around 425 AD and is built on a Greek cross plan with the only natural light within coming from the small alabaster windows above. The cupola features a mosaic of eight of the Apostles with the other four on the traverse vaults. Of note is the mosaic of the young, beardless Jesus as the Good Shepherd over the door, a beautiful scene with a rocky pasture, plants, sky, and depth. One notices also the mosaics of Saints Peter and Paul, featured in Roman togas and posed like Roman senators, underlying the classical Roman style still present at the birth of Christian art. As in the other mosaics, the colors are astounding and well worth seeing.

Il Battistero Neoniano

Begun in 430 AD, this is Ravenna’s oldest monument which was named for the Bishop Neon who commissioned the mosaics within at the end of the 5th century. The octagonal structure is symbolic of the seven days of the week plus one for the Day of Resurrection and Eternal Life. The mosaics are a good example of the Greco-Roman style, as seen in the scene of the preparation for the Last Judgment, where Christ’s throne stands empty, reminiscent of the Greek images of the empty throne used to symbolize Zeus, although here there is a cross instead of a thunderbolt. The central mosaic shows the baptism of Christ, with an old man nearby representing a river god, all surrounded by the Apostles.

Archiepiscopal Chapel

This chapel was built for the private use of the bishop in 500 AD, and is one of the few private oratories to survive. In its art is a strong anti-Arian iconography, which demonstrates the struggles between the Arian and Orthodox sections of the Church that were going on at the time, especially in Ravenna. The oratory was first dedicated to Christ the Savior, but was later rededicated to Saint Andrew. The mosaics within are considered among the best in Ravenna, with one featuring Christ as a warrior, clothed in full Roman armor and wielding a cross instead of a sword. The mosaics of the saints are intriguing for their revelation of the personalities of the individual saints, many of whom were contemporaries of the artists. Attached is the Archiepiscopal Museum which has a number of treasures including the Bishop Maximian’s ivory throne, believed to have been a gift from the Emperor Justinian.

Battistero degli Ariani

The Germanic Arians, unlike the orthodox Christians, believed in a doctrine that mixed elements of their pagan religion with Christianity, and for this it was condemned as heresy for denying the absolute divinity of Christ. The Arian baptistery was built by Theodoric the Great in c.526 AD for the Arian church, next door. In the Emperor Justinian’s attempts to squelch the Arian sect for political as well as religious reasons, much of the Arian artwork was destroyed. Within the baptistery there is a wonderful mosaic of Christ’s baptism in the dome, where Christ is portrayed as young, beardless and naked. John the Baptist stands nearby dressed in a leopard skin as the dove flies down representing the Holy Spirit. Also pictured is the pagan god of the River Jordan. Encircling the scene are the Apostles. The Arian Cathedral next door was originally built by Theodoric as well and consecrated as Hagia Anastasis, or Holy Resurrection. In 526 it was re-consecrated by the orthodox Christians as Santa Teodora. The church which stands next door today, Santo Spirito, was rebuilt in 1543.

Mausoleo Teodorico

Built by the Ostrogoth King Theodoric the Great in 520 AD, this is of artistic and historical interest because it is purely Gothic, without any Roman or Byzantine influence. It is the only known tomb of a barbarian king of the period, and remains amazingly intact. Made entirely of Istria stone, the roof alone is a single slab 10 meters in diameter and weighing over 300 tons. The ten sided building had two floors and a lower level in a cross shape, and was later converted into a Christian oratory.

Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

This church was also built by King Theordoric the Great in C. 500 AD as the Palace chapel, and originally dedicated to Christ the Redeemer. In 561 AD, under the rule of the Emperor Justinian and his suppression of the Arians, it was re-consecrated to Saint Martin, a known foe of heretics. When Adriatic pirates began to attack the nearby city of Classe, the body of Saint Apollinare was moved to this church, and once more it was re-consecrated in 856 AD, this time to honor Ravenna’s patron saint. Many of the original Arian mosaics were intentionally destroyed, but some of the scenes of the Passion and Resurrection remain intact, and are examples of the Hellenistic-Roman tradition. Of note is the portrayal of Christ on the right as a young, Emperor like figure, while on the left he is a bearded and older “man of sorrow,” as foreseen in Isaiah. Of interest are the mosaics depicting Classe at its glory, with ships in the harbor and the city behind, and one mosiac of Theordoric’s palace which once bore the figure of Theodoric himself, but was later effaced by the Byzantines. Not far away in Classe, one can still visit the remains of the original Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe. Once the Cathedral of the great Roman port city, the basilica was built in c.549 AD by the Bishop Maximian, and survived in its present state only because it housed the remains of Ravenna’s patron saint, Saint Apollinare. Within, there are a number of mosaics that have survived which feature the old and new testaments and one which depicts the Emperor Constantine IV granting privileges to the church. In the apse, the mosaic of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is noteworthy.

La Tomba di Dante e il Museo Dantesco

Important to Ravenna is the tomb of the great poet, Dante Alighieri, who fled Florence for political reasons and came to live out his exile in Ravenna in 1318. Considered the greatest Italian poet, it was here that Dante completed his Devine Comedy. In 1321 the poet died, and his tomb can be seen within the church of San Francesco. Next to his tomb is the Museo Dantesco which features sculptures, paintings and books relating to Dante, one of Ravenna’s most esteemed visitors. In fact, throughout the city one finds evidence of the importance of the poet’s residence here, as restaurants and streets are named in his honor.



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