Sta Maria Novella train station in Firenze
Sta Maria Novella train station in Firenze

Ravenna is not easy to reach. It’s a small town in Emilia-Romagna–90 miles south of Venice and 45 miles east of Bologna. There are no direct trains to Ravenna. You have to transfer at Bologna or Florence to a regional train which will deliver you to the train station in Ravenna only a short walk to the center of town. Ravenna is about ten miles from the Adriatic. It developed much as Venice did by early settlers–perhaps Etruscans–building houses on stilts on top of many small islands in the bay. Those islands eventually filled in and were connected by solid land until a village grew up on firm but swampy land. Ravenna, Venice and Trieste were connected by trade and eventually by Byzantine culture which was seated in Trieste.

Bear with me while I relate a bit of history. In 89 B.C.E. Ravenna became a federated Roman town. Forty years later Julius Cesare, stationed in Ravenna, gathered his troops about him, made his fateful decision, and crossed the Rubicon. Twenty years later, his nephew and heir, Augustus, now emperor, built a strategic harbor at Ravenna stationing 250 warships there to protect Rome from attack by Mediterranean-based enemies, principally Marc Antony who had the might of Egypt (that would be Cleopatra) at his back.

Augustus outside St. Apollinaire in Classe

Ravenna continued to be subject to the ups and downs of political life but remained a key city. During most of the 5th century it was the capitol of the Roman Empire. It had become the surviving remnant of once mighty Rome–largely as a result of its isolated location and its valuable harbor. The papacy in Rome, and the Goths to the north fought over control of Ravenna for the next 50-75 years. Ravenna eventually became the capitol of the conquering Ostrogoths in the late 5th century.

Remnants of Theodoric's Palace on Via Roma in Ravenna
Remnants of Theodoric’s Palace on Via Roma in Ravenna

Theodoric, an Arian Christian and Ostrogoth, became emperor in 493. Italy was under their control and Ravenna was their capitol. Theodoric was a very interesting man; though an Arian Christian, he accepted the members of the Latin Catholic church, welcomed Jews, and when a mob burned down all the synagogues in Ravenna in the early 6C he required the citizens to rebuild the synagogues at their personal expense. Arian Christianity differed from Latin Catholicism in one important way: Arian theology proclaimed Jesus a mortal with prophetic and unusual attributes but not a god. Latin Catholicism proclaimed Jesus to be not only the son of God but one with God. Over time, the Latin Catholic version prevailed. Theodoric died mysteriously in 526 and by 535 his grandson and daughter were also dead. In 540, Justinian I conquered Italy and Ravenna became the seat of the Byzantine government in Italy and Arianism was denounced and fell into disfavor.

original church built near Theodoric's palace is depicted in the mosaics
original church built near Theodoric’s palace is depicted in the mosaics

I know that by now you’ve either moved on or fallen asleep! I apologize. I find the history of this town fascinating. Prior to arriving, I knew nothing about Ravenna except that it had world class UNESCO designated world heritage sites–eight of them. Its astonishing mosaics which date to the 5th century have miraculously survived and are as brilliant now as when they were installed. In addition to the spectacular mosaics in the basilicas, mausoleums, and churches, floor mosaics dating to Roman times have been discovered and preserved. I am in awe that a town as small as Ravenna can maintain these numerous sites, staff them, and develop new ones. I’m not sure how it is accomplished but I am grateful and impressed that it is

Placidia's mauseleumOne of the most lovely sites is the mausoleum of Galla Placidia. This 5C building is so stark on the outside you could easily walk by and not even consider entering. That would be a mistake. The domed ceiling is a flower and star filled wonder of lapis and gold and white. Scenes on the walls are brilliant greens, oranges and purples. Sometimes the subject matter portrayed–saints about to be roasted alive on hot grills–and so on disturbs me, but you get used to the thematic material and become consumed by the gorgeous colors, details, and brilliance of the artistic wonder you are seeing. I honestly cannot grasp how these artisans working with chisel and mallet, wooden scaffolding, inadequate lighting–sun and candle?–created this work. Not just here but in five other momuments as well as others which date to earlier times.

Galla is another powerful woman you’ve never heard a word about. She was Honorius’–Rome’s last emperor–sister. After her husband, the Visigoth king died, she became ruler of the Western world and regent for her young son Valentinian II. Although her marvelous mausoleum was built in her lifetime, she is buried in Rome where she died in 450 C.E.

The Arian Baptistry was built at the end of the 5C during Theodoric’s rule when Arianism was the official religion of the Court. The mosaic on the dome depicts St. John baptizing Christ with a white dove suspended over Christ’s head. The principal colors are gold–real gold backs the tiny clear glass pieces. We learned from a scholar that one of the properties of gold is that it does not tarnish or lose its brilliance over time.  One aspect of this scene that is very interesting to me is the portrayal of the river god as an old man.  This is not an image of “god.”   Here we see an odd blend of “pagan” and Christian iconography in the early 5C.  Jesus is a slender beardless young man.  His cousin, John is wearing an animal skin as he pours the water from the Jordan over Jesus.

Neonian Baptistry Ravenna

We stayed at Palazzo Bezzi on via Roma. You can always recognize a former Roman city because it will invariably have a road which is as straight as possible and traverses what was the Roman city. Via Roma is exactly so and Emperor Theodoric built his palace on via Roma and his personal church (now St. Apollinare Nuovo) next door. This large church has wonderful mosaics. My favorite is the terrific scene of The Three Kings scampering to deliver their gifts to the Baby. I love their clothing. The patterns are so “now” especially the leggings.

closeup of 3 kings

We spent the better part of one day visiting the Domus Dei Tappeti di Pietra “the home of the stone carpets.” Amazing mosaic floors were discovered when a large parking lot was planned and digging began. Once some of the floors were uncovered, an archeological excavation took over and the parking lot plan was abandoned. In some areas, materials older than the stone mosaic floors were discovered which are partially revealed. Another very impressive installation with excellent descriptive plaques.  (To be continued.)

St. Francesco underwater crypt and Domus dei Tappeti 2013-10-01 057

mosaic floor
mosaic floor

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