“O lone Ravenna! many a tale is told
Of thy great glories in the days of old:
Two thousand years have passed since thou didst see
Caesar ride forth to royal victory.”
— from “Ravenna” by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). This poem won the Newdigate Prize for poetry in 1878
Ravenna has a school that teaches mosaics arts, both their creation and their restoration (see photos #1 and #2).
Also, commercial businesses produce modern mosaic art (see photos #3 and #4). You can visit their studios where you can commission or buy ready made pieces of mosaic art.
The interior of the mausoleum is rather small and dark. It may take a few moments before your eyes get used to the dim light coming through alabaster windows and you start to distinguish different elements of the decoration.
The vaults of each of the four arms, the central dome and also the lunettes of the vaults are covered with mosaics.
The central dome, which looks like a starry night sky, is deep blue with a golden latin cross in the middle. The long arm of the cross points towards East, as salvation is supposed to come from this direction. The cross is surrounded by the concentric cirles of golden stars which seem to sparkle with mysterious light. The pendatives of the dome are occupied by the symbolic representations of the four Evangelists: the lion stands for St. Mark, ox for St. Luke, eagle for St. John and winged man for St. Matthew.
The south side has a fascinating mosaic showing St. Lawrence dressed in white holding the cross and the Bible ( both signs of his deaconship). He approaches a great burning grill on which which he was martyred. Above, against the blue background, we can see two Apostles, Peter and Paul, who are dressed in white togas, like Roman senators.
Yet, the most famous and wonderful is the mosaic of Good Shepherd situated over the north doorway. The blue background of the vaulting is also present here. The Good Shepherd is not depicted as a countryman; on the contrary, he is dressed in regal gold and purple and has a golden halo. The extensive use of gold implies the Byzantine influences, but the work is clearly rooted in the Classical past. The smalti, i.e. small glass mosaic tiles of different shapes and colours, unevenly laid, reflect the light, producing the illusion of three dimensions.
The mosaics of San Vitale are not homogenous. Some were made by local artists and show the influence of ancient styles. The evidence might be using the perspective, fewer colours and the illusion of three dimensions. Others are typically byzantine - flat, motionless, bright with the predominance of gold.
Two large 'imperial' mosaics on the both sides of the presbitery are the examples of the latter style. All figures are flat, their heads are on the same level (so called isocephaly). People are somehow deprived of flesh, it is their clothes that give shape to the body. The background is golden with no elements of landscape and the artist doesn't use the perspective.
On the left side there's a scene of the emperor's gift. The two central figures are the emperor Justinian and Bishop Maximian. When you look at the bottom part of the mosaic you notice something amusing. The scene is so crowded that the feet of the men seem not to have enough room.
On the other side we can see Theodora, Justinian's wife, portrayed at the moment of offering a golden chalice. She wears a crown and a a long string of pearls. Both Justinian and Teodora seem to look lovingly at each other, and let's hope they will do it for centuries to come.
The Basilica of Saint Apollinaire is located 8 km from the centre of Ravenna, in what used to be the Roman town of Classis. Once a vibrant port, now the harbour is silted up and it's hard to imagine the days of its glory. However, we can still see here the impressive pinetrees, which were praised by such famous bards as Dante, Byron or Boccaccio.
Saint Apollinaire, to whom the basilica is dedicated, came here from Antioch at the end of the first century, converted the sailors but also thieves and prostitutes to Christianity and then he became the first bishop of local Christian community.
The building of the basilica was financed by the wealthy banker Giuliano Argentario, who also financed Basilica San Vitale in Ravenna. Actually, he may have been 'the long arm' of Justinian, who is portrayed in both churches.
The construction is a blend of a Roman basilica style with Byzantine elements. The spacious interior consists of three naves divided by two rows of columns with beautiful capitals which were carved in Constantinople and shipped to Ravenna.
The mosaic decoration covers the apse and the triumphal arch. The one that undoubtedly attracts everyone's attention is the mosaic in the apse. It is divided into two parts. The upper one depicts the story of the transfiguration of Christ. He is represented by an enormous, dazzling cross set against a starry background. In the medallion at the centre of the cross we can see the Redeemer's face. At the top of the conche, from behind the clouds, appears a hand representing God. On either side of the cross there is an Old Testament prophet: Moses and Elijah. Below them we can see three sheep representing the three apostles on Mt. Tabor: Peter, James and John. In the section below the cross there's a figure of Saint Apollinaire in a prayerful pose with a row of sheep at his feet.
There are 13 panels on each wall, depicting Christ’s miracles and parables (the left wall), and the Passion and Resurrection (the right wall).
Christ on the left is a young, beardless man, dressed as a Roman Emperor, while Christ on the right has got a beard. In this way the Arians wanted to emphasize that Christ grew older and became a ‘man of sorrows’.
There are also 16 saints, prophets and evangelists on each side. They are all individuals for themselves.
Then, there are 22 virgins, on the left, led by the Three Magi, moving from the city of Classe towards the group of the Madonna and Child, surrounded by four angels. On the right, there are 26 martyrs, led by Saint Martin, moving from the Palace of Theodoric towards Christ enthroned amid four angels.
There’s also the portrait of the Emperor Justinian.
More in my travelogue
Beautiful mosaics inside show Justinian, who is believed to have financed the building, Empress Theodora and the rest of the Byzantine court.
There are also scenes from the Old Testament, and you can see a pair of angels, holding a medallion with a cross, over each lunette.
Christ appears to be seated on a blue globe, and Saint Vitale and Bishop Ecclesius, accompanied by angels, are at his side.
The dome and the niches were frescoed in 1780 by Barozzi and Gandolfi of Bologna, and Guarana of Veneto.
The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is one of the eight structures in Ravenna inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1996.
As it was built in 425-430, it’s the earliest mosaic monument. Its cupola is completely covered with mosaics, representing 8 apostles. Over the door, you can see Jesus as the Good Shepherd, young, beardless, with flowing hair, surrounded by sheep.
Inside, there are 3 sarcophagi, the largest falsely believed to house the mortal remains of Galla Placidia, the daughter of Emperor Theodosius, her brother, Emperor Honorius, who had moved the capital of the Western Empire from Milan to Ravenna, and her husband, Emperor Constantius III.
In fact this building was the oratory of a wider church the Holy Cross.
Time: 9.00 - 19.00
Ticket office closes at 18.45
“I found also at Ravenna much education and liberality of thinking among the higher classes. The climate is delightful. I was not broken in upon by society.”
— Lord Byron (1788-1824)
The Archiepiscopal Museum, Museo Arcivescovile, is located next to the Neonian Baptistery and behind Ravenna’s Duomo. The Archiepiscopal Museum is housed on the first floor of the Archiepiscopal Palace. On display in the museum are relics of early Christian Ravenna, including fragments of mosaic from the first cathedral church, and the chapel of Sant'Andrea, dating from the Theodoric era.
The red porphyrian man (see photo #2) headless, handless, footless, may be the Emperor Theodosius. There is some question whether the figure is drawing or sheathing his sword. It resembles the statue of the Tetrarchs outside the Palace of the Doges in Venice.
The beautiful marble rosette on display is a Paschal Calendar (see photo #3) of the sixth century. Its purpose was to fix the movable feast that is Easter so that it might be celebrated everywhere in Christendom on the same day; no easy task when East and West used different calendars. The Eastern Church used the Hebraic lunar calendar, while the Western church followed the sun’s cycle. This calendar follows the eastern lunar cycle.
“I have yet seen no more of Ravenna.”
— from a letter written by Percy Bysshe Shelley to his wife Mary, August 1821
I hope that Mr. Shelley got to see this very nice sight. The vaulted ceilings of the porticoes that border Ravenna’s main square, Piazza del Popolo, are decorated with some lovely frescoes.
“What conscientious students study most in Ravenna is, of course, the mosaics. Not being conscientious, I only sit before them and enjoy them as a revelation of rich, harmonious color. Where dull gold mixes with deep blue, which melts into peacock green, it can yield a pleasure quite apart from that afforded by the anxious identification of attenuated, goggle-eyed figures and bewildering symbols.”
— from “Wayfarers in Italy” 1901 by Katharine Putnam Hooker (1849-1935)
On the right-hand wall of Sant’Apollinare’s nave, above the arches, 26 male martyrs (see photo #2) move toward the enthroned Christ in Glory. This majestic figure of Christ Enthroned is an Arian original; cruciform halo was added after the church was given to the Roman Catholics.
The procession of 26 male martyrs, led by Saint Martin and including Saint Apollinaris, proceeding from the Palace of Theodoric towards Christ Enthroned flanked by four angels (see photo #1). This image of the Palace of Theodoric on the right wall and the port of Classe with three ships on the left wall, gives us an idea of what Ravenna looked like during the time of Theodoric.
A series of haloed saints, prophets and evangelists (see photo #3), sixteen on each side, alternate with the church’s windows. The figures are in the Hellenistic-Roman style and show; each figure show a bit of individuality compared to other figures here. Each is shown holds a book. They were created during Theodoric’s reign.
Legend tells us that Pope Gregory the Great ordered the mosaics blackened out because the Holy Father believed that the dazzling quality of the mosaics distracted worshipers from prayer.
“Of all the cities in Romanian lands,
The chief, and most renowned, Ravenna stands,
Adorned in ancient times arms and art,
And rich inhabitants, with generous hearts.”
— ‘Ravenna’ by John Dryden (1631-1700)
Battistero degli Ariani was built at the end of the fifth century by Ravenna’s ruler Emperor Theodoric, a Goth who believed in the Arian form of Christianity.
Arianism was declared heresy at the Council of Nicea in AD 325. Its central argument is that Christ, while divine, was created by God the Father and therefore cannot be equal to him. The Orthodox view says Christ is equally divine.
Theodoric built the Basilica Spirito Santo, a new Arian church, with its own baptistery soon after Ravenna's Neonian Baptistery (see von.otter’s Battistero Neoniano Things-To-Do Tip for photos and more information) was built. The two are very much alike, including the dome’s mosaic.
The Arian Baptistery is built in an octagonal plan, with four small apses opposite to each other. The building now stands about eight feet below ground level.
The dome’s central mosaic shows the baptism of Christ and the Twelve Apostles. This version is simpler, with only one concentric circle instead of two, and the figures are naively styled. Although the subject and layout follows closely that of the Battistero Neoniano , the most important difference is Christ’s appearance; he is youthful and beardless. There is debate whether this was artistic license or the Arian belief that the Son is not equal to the Father made visual.
Christ is flanked by his cousin, St. John the Baptist and the personification of the River Jordan. Following Roman tradition, this river god is shown as a bearded, old man holding a rush, with horns made of lobster claws. A vase, the traditional symbolic source of the river, lays next to him.
The Twelve Apostles proceeding towards an enthroned cross at the top can be seen in the surrounding circle of the central scene. They carry jeweled crowns in their veiled hands, but Peter who carries the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven and Paul bears a scroll, symbol of his many letters.
The Arian Baptistery is opened daily, 8:30am to 7:30pm; admission is free.
“O lone Ravenna! many a tale is told
Of thy great glories in the days of old:
Two thousand years have passed since thou didst see
Casar ride forth to royal victory.”
— from ‘Ravenna,’ Oscar Wilde’s 1878 Newdigate Prize-winning poem
The inside of the Baptistery’s cupola is decorated with a stunning mosaic laid out in concentric circles resembling a giant wheel. The central medallion depicts the Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan by his cousin St. John the Baptist. In the 18th century restorations were made to the right arm of John the Baptist, the dove, and Christ’s head. St. John uses a dish to pour the water; it is an 19th-century addition by Felice Kibel, a Roman artist, who was employed to restore the mosaics and got carried away!
The majority of the dome’s mosaic remains in its original form. The personification of the River Jordan as an old man rising from the water, holding a reed in one hand and offering a garment to Christ with the other, completes the baptismal scene.
Surrounding the central medallion are the Twelve Apostles (see photo #5). Deep blues and sparkling golds are used to create these men, who are identified by name in each mosaic.
Directly below the Apostles is a ring divided into eight sections, alternating with empty thrones, representing the divinity of Christ, and altars showing an open Gospel. On either side of the thrones are scenes of celestial gardens, and the altars are flanked by empty chairs representing where the Elect will sit in heaven.
Intertwining gold vines frame the prophets on a deep blue background in the building’s corners above marble columns.
“This naval establishment, which included the arsenals and magazines, the barracks of the troops, and the houses of the artificers, derived its origin and name from the permanent station of the Roman fleet; the intermediate space was soon filled with buildings and in habitants, and the three extensive and populous quarters of Ravenna gradually contributed to form one of the most important cities of Italy.”
— from ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,’ 1829, by Edward Gibbon
Not only are the walls and ceilings decorated with stunning mosaics, the floors too are beautifully worked with tiles and stone in various patterns throughout the Basilica di San Vitale.
“War alone brings up to their highest tension all human energies and imposes the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have the courage to make it.”
— Benito Mussolini (1883-1945)
THE COURAGE OF A LEO Perhaps Italy’s most infamous Leo, Il Duce, was born on the 29th of July.
Is your astrological sign Leo, the lion? If it is, or if you travel with some who is a Leo as I do, here is a fun way to honor that person and that birth sign and to make unique photos: pose with lions, not real ones, but architectural ones, decorative ones.
Ravenna does not want for lions: indoor, outdoor, ancient, modern, large and small, on doors as knockers and integrated into fountains, in Ravenna, there’s a lion for every Leo.
The lion, the king of animals, was mainly associated by the Romans with Hercules, who was always portrayed wearing a lion’s skin. This association was not lost and was used again in many Renaissance works. Lions protected the dead in the Roman sarcophagi. Ancient Romans were fond of scenes that showed a lion hunting and killing a deer.
“Though Ravenna is one of the most interesting places in Italy for its mediaeval and early Christian antiquities, it presents few remains of the Roman period, and those for the most part belong to the declining years of the Empire.”
— from “Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography” 1857 edited by Sir William Smith
Ravenna’s 1509 coat of arms includes two lions rampant flanking a pine tree, that represent the forests that once surrounded the city.