Ravenna, the enchanting city of mosaics - Bellarome

Ravenna, the enchanting city of mosaics

Ravenna is an Italian town of 158.058 inhabitants, capital of the province of the same name in Emilia-Romagna. It is the largest and historically most important city in Romagna; its municipal territory is the second in Italy for surface area (surpassed only by that of Rome) and includes nine shores of the Romagna Riviera.

Ravenna

Ravenna can be defined with certainty as a treasure unknown to most Italians. Obscured by the most famous Italian cities of art (Florence, Rome, Venice, Naples), it is actually an extraordinary town that attracts tourists and art lovers from all over the world.

In fact, in its history, it has been the capital of three empires: of the Western Roman Empire (402-476), of the Kingdom of the Ostrogoths (493-553) and of the Byzantine Exarchate (568-751). For the vestiges of this luminous past, the complex of the first Christian monuments of Ravenna has been included, since 1996, in the list of Italian World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, as a serial site “Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna”.

Beautiful, cultured, and elegant, the city of saints, bankers and kings, Ravenna is the second largest city in Italy by extension. This charming city just a few kilometers from the sea, boasts eight monuments declared World Heritage by Unesco, including the Basilica of San Vitale, a masterpiece of Byzantine art from the sixth century.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the city experienced a period of great expansion. The demographic growth was accompanied by a series of architectural projects that are concentrated around the Candiano canal, which connects the city to the Adriatic Sea. The city dock and the old port areas are at the center of the urban revolution that the city will experience in the first decades of the 21st century with the creation of green areas, avenues, commercial areas, the nautical center and the Technopole for energy.

Not far from Ferrara and the Mirabilandia amusement park, Ravenna is characterized by a rich social life, and the many tourists who come to visit it often use it as a starting point to explore the coast it overlooks and to visit the hinterland. where to taste the traditional dishes of Romagna cuisine.

From Ravenna, you can easily reach the Regional Park of the Po Delta of Emilia-Romagna and the Comacchio Valleys, both naturalistic oases. Conversely, it is often the point of arrival of those who, staying in Cervia and its surroundings, go to Ravenna even for just one day, to savour its millenary history.

Let’s discover this charming city together!

 

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

The mausoleum of Galla Placidia dates back to the first half of the fifth century, approximately after 425 AD. and is located in Ravenna, not far from the basilica of San Vitale.

Its functional identification with a funeral building and that of its client, the Empress Galla Placidia, are widespread in the academic environment, but there is no certainty of either: the building may have been a simple chapel pertaining to the church of Santa Croce, to which it was connected with a narthex which was later destroyed, such as a martyrium or an oratory.

The mausoleum has been included, since 1996, in the list of Italian World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, within the serial site “Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna”. According to tradition, Galla Placidia, daughter of Theodosius, regent of the Western Roman Empire for her son Valentinian III, had this mausoleum built for herself, her husband Constantius III and her brother Honorius. This tradition is not confirmed by documentary data and is reported as an oral tradition by Agnello Ravennate in his Liber pontificalis ecclesiae ravennatis. However, it was almost certainly not used as a mausoleum of Galla Placidia, since the sources report how she died in Rome in 450 and was buried there in the honorian mausoleum.

According to a very unlikely version, probably a legend, the body of Galla, embalmed by his express will, was brought back to Ravenna and placed in a sarcophagus in the mausoleum where, for more than a millennium, it could have been observed through a slit. until one day, in 1577, an inattentive visitor, to see better, would have brought the candle too close to the empress’s robes, setting everything on fire.

However, it is generally accepted that this construction is an imperial mausoleum annexed to the church of Santa Croce, [according to a model documented both in Rome (mausoleum of Santa Costanza) and in Constantinople. In fact, the building was originally connected with a portico, now lost, to the church of which few remains remain today

Later it was probably an oratory dedicated to San Lorenzo and to the saints Nazario and Celso.

Entering the mausoleum of Galla Placidia is like crossing the threshold of the afterlife, the antechamber of Paradise; that Paradise that in medieval times the Abbot Suger (1081-1151), a scholar of Neoplatonic philosophy, hoped for his cathedrals (starting from what was his “Gothic experiment”, Saint Denis): divine light must be reflected in earthly preciousness of materials, in their smoothness, so as to make the earth taste the gold of God, pure spirit, freed from corruptible matter. As one ascends, one gets rid of matter and experiences light-spirit, light, evanescent, stripped down.

 

Basilica of San Vitale

The Basilica of San Vitale is one of the most famous and important Catholic places of worship in Ravenna, an exemplary masterpiece of early Christian and Byzantine art. In October 1960, Pope John XXIII elevated it to the dignity of a minor basilica.

The Basilica has been included, since 1996, in the list of Italian World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, within the serial site “Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna”.

The Basilica of San Vitale was built by Bishop Ecclesio in 526 and completed in 547 by his successor, Archbishop Maximian, when Ravenna had already been reconquered by the Roman emperor Justinian The building, a masterpiece of Ravenna architecture, combines Roman architectural elements (the intrados dome, the shape of the portals, the towers) with Byzantine elements (the polygonal apse, the capitals, the brick construction).

From the geometric shape of the main nucleus, other equally rigorously defined bodies emerge: the raised lantern, equally octagonal, and the apse, which, according to local custom, is polygonal on the outside, semi-circular inside and flanked by two small rooms (called pastoforia, pròthesis and diacònicon). The inside is accessed through two doors: one aligned, the other oblique with respect to the apse. Con The focal point of the mosaic decoration is located in the presbytery area. On the extrados of the apse arch two flying angels hold a solar Christological clypeus, on the sides are the heavenly Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

On the basin is the Christ Pantocrator, seated on a blue globe, between two archangels with the scroll with seven seals in one hand, while in the other hand he hands the triumphal crown to San Vitale who advances from the left with his hands covered by his very rich chlamys, while the proto-bishop Ecclesio, on the right, is present with the model of the church he founded. San Vitale was believed to be dead and buried in Ravenna (instead he died in Bologna in 393).

Famous are the mosaics placed within two panels under the lunettes of the lower order in a mirrored position, with the procession of the Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora in all the pomp that required their political and religious status.

The gold decoration of the mosaic background highlights an unreal, otherworldly space. The figures are portrayed frontally, according to a rigid court hierarchy, with the Augustus in the center, surrounded by dignitaries and guards. Next to Justinia, there is the bishop Maximian, the only one marked by an inscription, so it may be that he was also the superintendent of the works, after having been appointed first archbishop of Ravenna.

 

Dante’s Tomb

Dante’s tomb is the neoclassical style tomb of the poet Dante Alighieri erected in the basilica of San Francesco in the center of Ravenna. The Supreme Poet lived the last years of his existence in the city of Romagna, dying there in 1321. The tomb is a national monument and around it an area of respect and silence called the “Dante area” has been established. The area includes the tomb of the poet, the garden with the Quadrarco and the Franciscan cloisters, which house the Dante Museum. In 2006-07 the tomb underwent a thorough restoration and the facade was completely repainted.

Built in 1780-81 by the architect Camillo Morigia, commissioned by the cardinal legate in Romagna Luigi Valenti Gonzaga and above the fifteenth-century tomb erected by the Venetian podestà of Ravenna Bernardo Bembo, the square-shaped tomb is in the shape of a neoclassical temple crowned by a small dome. Separated from the street by a narrow delimitation, it has a very simple external facade, with a door surmounted by the archbishop’s coat of arms of Cardinal Gonzaga, and on whose architrave is written, simply and in Latin: Dantis poetae sepulcrum.

A small garden opens to the right of the funeral monument. In the Middle Ages, it was a cloister that was part of the adjacent convent of San Francesco, where Dante’s funeral was held and where the poet was originally buried. Today only one side is a portico. According to tradition, it is called Quadrarco di Braccioforte, because it is believed that in that place two people invoked, as guarantor of their contract, the “strong arm” of the Savior, whose image was painted on the spot. Since 1921 the garden has been closed by a wrought iron gate made by the Venetian Umberto Bellotto.

During the Second World War, the box with the poet’s bones was hidden to prevent the bombing from destroying it. It was taken from the temple on March 23, 1944 and relocated on December 19, 1945; during this period, it was buried not far from the mausoleum under a mound covered by vegetation, today marked by a plaque. In Florence, in the hope that the relics would be returned, a large cenotaph in Santa Croce was erected in 1829, also in a neoclassical style, depicting the poet seated and pensive, raised in glory from Italy, while Poetry weeps, bowed on the sarcophagus.

Mausoleum of Theodoric

The Mausoleum of Theodoric, in Ravenna, is the most famous funerary construction of the Ostrogoths. We do not know exactly when and by whom it was built, that is to say if the same Theodoric the Great himself, still alive (therefore before 526), provided for its realization, or if his daughter Amalasunta provided for it close to the death of his father.

The mausoleum has been included, since 1996, in the list of Italian World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, within the serial site “Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna”.

Since December 2014, the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities has been managing it through the Emilia-Romagna Museum Complex, which in December 2019 became the Regional Directorate for Museums.

The monument was built outside the city walls, in an area long occupied by a necropolis, which perhaps had a sector reserved for the Goths.

After the Pragmatic Sanction (a. 560) the building became part of the assets of the Church of Ravenna. We do not know if the building was rededicated on that occasion. Protohistoric Andrea Agnello, who lived in the first half of the 9th century, informs that in his time the building was used for worship with the name of “Santa Maria ad Farum”, due to the proximity of a port with a lighthouse.

Today the mausoleum is inserted in a park in the immediate vicinity of the center of Ravenna.

The most surprising feature of the building is the roof formed by a huge single monolith in the shape of a cap, also in Istrian stone, 10.76 meters in diameter and 3.09 in height, for a weight of about 230 tons. It was transported by sea and hoisted onto the building by its twelve handles (eyelets). The strong sense of mass of the building due to the use of stone signals the continuity of this with the herons of the Roman tradition (the cap has a crack that gave rise to several legends concerning Theodoric). How it was possible to position the monolith on top of the building is still not entirely clear today; two possible hypotheses could be that it was raised on the building as it was built, or that the architects built a kind of dam, a “pool”, around the completed mausoleum and that they then transported the monolith with a raft to the top.

Furthermore, here there is a decorative band with a “pincer” motif on the outside, the only testimony in Ravenna of a decoration derived from the Gothic jewellery instead of the Roman-Byzantine repertoire.

In addition to referring to the Roman and Nordic (gota) tradition, the building has Syriac influences in the accentuated crowning frame.

 

Baptistery of the Arians

The most surprising feature of the building is the roof formed by a huge single monolith in the shape of a cap, also in Istrian stone, 10.76 meters in diameter and 3.09 in height, for a weight of about 230 tons. It was transported by sea and hoisted onto the building by its twelve handles (eyelets). The strong sense of mass of the building due to the use of stone signals the continuity of this with the herons of the Roman tradition (the cap has a crack that gave rise to several legends concerning Theodoric). How it was possible to position the monolith on top of the building is still not entirely clear today; two possible hypotheses could be that it was raised on the building as it was built, or that the architects built a kind of dam, a “pool”, around the completed mausoleum and that they then transported the monolith with a raft to the top.

Furthermore, here there is a decorative band with a “pincer” motif on the outside, the only testimony in Ravenna of a decoration derived from the Gothic jewellery instead of the Roman-Byzantine repertoire.

In addition to referring to the Roman and Nordic (gota) tradition, the building has Syriac influences in the accentuated crowning frame.

Theodoric, of Arian cult, decided to make the Goths of Arian cult and Latins of Orthodox cult peacefully coexist (where the term “orthodox” refers to the followers of the canonical doctrine recognized by the Church and the Eastern Roman Empire), maintaining the two separate populations, which led to the distinction of their respective neighbourhoods and the construction of their respective buildings of worship in the city.

Near today’s Via Diaz, Theodoric had a basilica built for the Arians, the current church of the Holy Spirit, which was greatly remodelled in the following eras, and a baptistery connected to it in ancient times, now called “degli Ariani” to distinguish it from the most ancient Neonian baptistery “of the Orthodox”. It is the only baptistery known to have been built specifically for the Arian cult in Italy.

Externally, the building has a subsidence of 2.25 meters. It looks like an octagonal brick construction, with apses in the lower register and arched windows in the upper one. Along the outer perimeter ran an ambulatory that was interrupted only at the apse facing east. The restorations made it clear that the building was an integral part of the Church of the Holy Spirit behind it.

The interior is bare, with exposed brickwork and no furniture. The presence of the baptismal font is remembered today only by a round marble slab in the center of the building. The dome, on the other hand, is completely decorated with mosaics. The mosaic surface is smaller than that of the Neonian Baptistery and the decorative organization is less complex, with only two circular registers. In the center is a representation of the baptism of Christ with John the Baptist, the personification of the Jordan River and the dove of the Holy Spirit.

 

Domus dei Tappeti di Pietra

The Domus dei Tappeti di Pietra is one of the most important Italian archaeological sites discovered in recent decades.

The site was found by chance in 1993 during the works for the construction of some underground garages in via D’Azeglio 47. A building entirely decorated with wonderful mosaics and marble inlays, dating back to the Byzantine period, came to light.

The mosaic floors are decorated with geometric, vegetal and figurative elements, for a total surface of 700 m².

Located inside the eighteenth-century Church of Santa Eufemia, in a vast underground environment located about 3 meters below street level, it consists of 14 rooms paved with polychrome mosaics and marble belonging to a private Byzantine building from the fifth-sixth century.

Of particular interest and beauty are the mosaics decorated with geometric, floral and figurative elements considered unique, as in the case of the “Dance of the Geniuses of the Four Seasons”, a very rare representation that shows the Geniuses dancing in a circle or as for the figure of the “Good Shepherd” , portrayed in a different version from the usual Christian representation.

In the Good Shepherd, it is portrayed in a different version from the traditional Christian ones. She is very young and has short hair. He wears a light blue tunic with an orange fabric under the neck. Finally, wear shoes on your feet. He holds a stick with his left arm. Two fawns appear to his right and left. Behind the fawns are two trees as tall as the Good Shepherd, with two birds on the branches. Compared to the Dance of the Geniuses of the Four Seasons, this mosaic is more damaged. Only half of the face of the Good Shepherd can be seen. The mosaics that depicted the edges, a large part of the left tree and some of the right branch are no longer there.

The monument was inaugurated on October 30, 2002 by the then President of the Republic Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, on the celebrations for the 1600 years of Ravenna “Capital of the Western Roman Empire”. It also obtained the Bell’Italia Award in 2004.

 

Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

The basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo is a basilica of Ravenna. Born as an Arian place of worship, in the 6th century it was consecrated to San Martino di Tours. The current name of the basilica dates back to the 9th century, a period in which the relics of the proto-bishop Apollinare, due to frequent pirate raids on the Ravenna coast, for safety reasons, were transferred from the basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe to the intramural basilica of San Martino which was renamed, in fact, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo.

Like all the churches of Ravenna, from the imperial (up to 402-476), Ostrogothic (up to 476-540) and Justinian (from 540-565 onwards) periods, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo is also decorated with wonderful and colorful mosaics. However, they do not date back to the same period: some are Theodoric, others date back to the redecoration desired by Bishop Agnello, when the building was rededicated to Catholic Christian worship.

The walls of the central nave are divided into three bands distinct from the mosaic decorations.

The highest band is decorated with a series of squares interspersed with the allegorical motif of a pavilion with two doves. The panels show scenes from the life of Christ and are particularly cared for in detail, even if in ancient times they were even higher (due to subsidence) and therefore their reading was all in all difficult. Some scenes allow to highlight some evolutions of the mosaic art in the time of Theodoric. The scene of Christ dividing the sheep from the kids recalls that of the Good Shepherd of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, but the differences are considerable (just under a century has passed): the figures are no longer arranged in a deep space, but appear crushed on each other, with many simplifications.

Inside, the marvellous mosaic decoration of the ancient building survives, which from a stylistic, iconographic and ideological point of view allows you to follow the evolution of the Byzantine wall mosaic from the Theodoric to the Justinian age.

The 26 Christological scenes, dating back to the period of Theodoric, represent the largest monumental cycle of the New Testament and, among those made in mosaics, the oldest surviving to us.