Dwight Peck's personal website

A visit to Ravenna, mid-May 2013

It's not just about the mosaics. But it's mostly about the mosaics.

You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

Ravenna (1)

We've just spent four days in fascinating Ferrara, and since we're in the neighborhood . . .

. . . we'll grab the local down to Ravenna, about an hour's comfortable jaunt to the southeast near the Adriatic coast. 21 May 2013.

Kristin's researches on the Web have paid off again: this is the Albergo Cappello in IV Novembre street, inexpensive and elegant beyond our deserts. There's a grocery (and wine shop) just along the street, a little night club at the end of it, and a beautiful old covered market across the street (left). Our room was the one with the (inaccessible) balcony.

The location could not be better, 'two paces' from the central Piazza del Popolo in the middle of the mainly-pedestrian historic centre. Just to the right is a bar/nightclub belonging to the hotel.

There was a down-side to all this welcome good fortune -- the two bar-cafés on the street (including ours) played popular music every night, directly below us, a little exasperating at times. Sometimes there were happy people merrymaking in the street outside the doors, but other times there were none -- just the crap music meant to attract them.

This is our room -- the anteroom rather . . .

. . . and this is the room itself, big enough to practice down-and-out American football plays in.

As it was once a sort of palace, the rooms radiate out from a series of stately salons and drawing rooms, and they've even got a cute little TV in them -- like we've come down here to kick back and watch Italian game shows.

The Via IV Novembre below us, with the covered market across the street, and a line of rental bikes along the wall.

There's a sad tale to the market, evidently. We were told that Developers want to install a modern supermarket in place of the shopkeepers, but the long-time merchants within are blocking the plan as well as they can.

In the doorway, "We're still here"! The merchants who are not giving up -- unfortunately, one of the names has been crossed out.

Salons on our way to the lobby

We're out for a reconnaissance. Ravenna's origins are obscure (of course)(though the name is Etruscan), filled with stories of immigrants and emigrants wandering around the Po valley marshes and little islands in the millennia before "the Common Era", settling in on houses built on pilings, eating whatever came to hand, until the Romans came along in the 1st century BC and Julius Caesar put the place on the map by 'crossing the Rubicon' not too far from here.

The Piazza Costa outside our hotel. Augustus Caesar built a military harbor just south of Ravenna, called Classe ("the Fleet"), and turned it into the Roman fleet's headquarters for the Eastern Mediterrean region, and it remained a vital military port for the next 500 years. The city flourished under the Roman Empire, especially after in AD 402 Emperor Honorius and his boss General Stilicho moved the capital of the Western Roman Empire from Milan (planted there by Diocletian in 286), where Alaric's Visigoths were at that time roaming around pretty freely, to Ravenna, surrounded by marshes and boasting port facilities for a quick getaway if required.

A frightening sort of welcome, but she's inanimate (so far). "The Piadina of the Orange". The piadina is a wonderful sort of flat-bread sandwich of the Romagna region. But oranges? She just stands there and never moves! But if she did, it would be worse.

The Via IV Novembre. Those were exciting times for Ravenna, the Emperor Honorius hiding out here whilst Alaric's Visigoths finally lost patience with him and sacked the city of Rome in 410 in lieu of promised land for farming; the Emperor's sister Galla Placidia carried off to France and married to Alaric's Gothic successor Ataulf (or Athaulf) in Narbonne in 414; a good stretch of peace and prosperity under Galla Placidia's reign as regent for her son Valentinian III from her second marriage; and then the Fall of the Roman Empire in AD 476 when 'barbarian' Odoacar, a disgruntled Roman military officer, besieged and captured Ravenna and put the emperor, the teenager Romulus Augustulus, out to pasture with a pension.

Kristin revisiting the scene of the Fall of the Roman Empire.

The Piazza del Popolo, Plaza of the People, as much as anywhere else in town, rightly called the city centre.

Deeply Troubled about Odoacar, the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno in Contantinople commissioned the Ostrogothic king Theodoric ('the Great') to teach the man a lesson, and after a three-year siege of Ravenna, Theodoric, as viceroy of the Eastern Emperor, proclaimed himself De Facto King of Everybody and ruled most of Italy in a benevolent, tolerant, and judicious manner, most of the time.

The church of S. Maria del Suffragio, built in 1701 and we're rocketing right on past it. Theodoric, Ravenna's Favorite Son, was a Christian right enough, but he was an Arian Christian -- followers of the 4th-century Alexandrian priest Arius believed that Jesus Christ was created by God to accomplish great things, and that the orthodox Trinitarian, Nicene notion that Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit are really all the same, was just a lot of bosh.

The belltower of the basilica of St John the Evangelist. Wait there, we're on our way.
By the 5th century, there were probably more Arians walking around Europe and North Africa than Trinitarians, but the strengthening hierarchy of the Roman Church eventually put a violent end to all that "heretical" nonsense.

OpenShop24. Automatic Bar & Market.
So, at least, we don't have to worry about Arians anymore. (Just Branch Davidians, charismatic pentecostals, and Roman Catholic pedos.)

A colorful bus in the Piazza Garibaldi near the rail station
Theodoric, for most of his reign, was an enlightened despot -- he was militarily successful in holding old Roman imperial territories in France together, and even repaired the Jewish synagogues in Ravenna at his own expense after an unruly mob wrecked them all. But then things became unpleasant, and before his death in 526 he had seriously blotted the autocratic copybook, and had even had his loyal friend, great philosopher Boethius, executed for treason, and may have begun persecutions of the non-Arian citizens of the empire. Sic transit . . .

(Update: In light of all the foregoing, this might be good place to mention the wonderful new book by Judith Herrin, Ravenna: capital of empire, crucible of Europe (Princeton UP, 2020), 530 action-packed pages that will sort all of this out in elegant prose.)

The Basilica S. Giovanni Evangelista, near the rail station -- the first stop on our visit

The 14th century gothic portal in the modern precinct wall tells the story of the founding of the church -- in 425, Galla Placidia, returning from exile in Constantinople to establish her son Valentinian as the Western Roman Emperor, got caught in a bad storm at sea and vowed to build a church to St John the Fisherman if she got through it. Here it is.

But almost not. After the Anglo-American bombing of Ravenna in 1944, the church was given up for lost and about to be demolished, but a civic effort got the thing reconstructed according to original specifications. Though the walls look pretty bare.

It's still got a nice look to it, and the wooden-beamed ceilings are from the 16th century.

Here are funny but crude 13th century mosaics salvaged from the ruins of the Anglo-American precision weapons --

They tell the story of the Great Christian Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade against the muslim infidels who, in 1204, lost their focus momentarily and sacked the Christian city of Constantinople instead. Galla Placidia's original 5th century mosaics were stripped out during the Counter Reformation by the local Christian equivalent of the Taliban.

5th century church-hopping grows on you -- we're just down the road, the Via di Roma, to the Basilica of St Apollinare Nuovo. The legendary Archbishop Apollinare of Antioch brought Christianity to the region early on and set himself up in the port of Classe in the southern suburbs -- we'll be visiting the "Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe" presently, but this one, the "Nuovo" one, actually predates it (though the marble porch dates from the 16th century).

The basilica was built by the Arian Theodoric the Great and consecrated in 504, but after Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian's General Belisarius stormed into Ravenna in 540, they de-Arianized everything and reconsecrated this place in 561 in honor of St Martin of Tours, the famous Arian-fighter.

Brilliant interior. In the mid-9th century, the bones of St Apollinare were said to have been moved here from the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe, where they were vulnerable to the pirate raids of the time, and this church was rededicated to the old archbishop, becoming the "Nuovo". (The monks in Classe later claimed they actually still had the real bones, and in the late 12th century Pope Alexander III had to send an investigating team, which apparently ruled for Classe. Bones and relics were Big Business in those days.)
(Supply and Demand, etc.)

The mosaics are a mix of the western style of those created in Theodoric's time and others in the Byzantine style that replaced those that were destroyed as looking too Arian. All of the early mosaics were removed from the apse, but the four porphyry columns and the altar are original.

The line of saints, prophets, and martyrs above the columns is from Theodoric's time, as is the ambo or pulpit in the middle.

A bearded Jesus on the left, welcoming the procession of saints and martyrs

On the other side, a procession of the 22 virgins from the Byzantine period, more idealized and less individual than the Hellenist/Roman saints along the other wall.

The bricked-up walls once showed the Arian Theodoric and his officials standing in front of the city's fortifications -- when the Roman Catholics got control of the place again in the 560s, Archbishop Agnellus had them all mosaicked over with golden bricks. The 22 virgins are processing from the city and port of Classe on the left . . .

. . . towards the madonna and child on the right, and led by . . .

Balthasar, Melchior, and Caspar, the Three Magi, in a hurry to present their gifts. (The silly hats were stuck on in the 1850s.)

A more modern church tradition. (Ermm.)

The Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, and the bell tower from about the 10th century

The Church of the Spirito Santo was the cathedral of Theodoric's Arians, built in the early 6th century -- closed while we were there. But alongside it, on the right . . .

. . . is the Battistero degli Ariani or Arian Baptistry, dating from the same time. It was promptly converted to Byzantine Christian uses and added onto extensively. When it came into state ownership in the 20th century, the authorities faced resistance to their plan to remove the excrescences, but the massive bombing of Ravenna in 1944 removed the offending structures and left the original baptistry. (The Lord works in mysterious ways.)

The mosaics on the ceiling are all that survive, but it's got a great Cute Jesus being seen to by John the Baptist, as the Holy Spirit dove hovers. There's a disagreement about whether the guy on the left represents the River Jordan, with the river water flowing out of his bag at the far left, or God his own good self, as the UNESCO World Heritage site suggests, which would make this a very non-Arian tribute to the Trinity. The cute chubby Jesus with the tiny wiener predates some of our later traditions for portraying the Lord of the Universe.

(In the contemporaneous Roman Catholic baptistery down the street, a similarly posed Christ, also with John the Baptist, looks about 33 years old and has a beard.)

Street scene

Back to IV November street for a visit to the little grocery (wine store)

Kristin chatting with our friendly receptionist

A labyrinth of salons to get to the room

and another.

Bright and early the next day

The Piazza Costa nearby

The covered market across the street

In the covered market . . .

. . . with unfortunately a number of merchant stalls already closed up.

The Civic Tower in Paolo Costa Street around the corner from our hotel -- our favorite restaurant (La Gardèla) is on the far side of the red awnings. The tower was built in the 12th century as one of many private fortifications erected by the powerful families of the city -- the others were torn down by the authorities in the late 13th century to discourage clan feuds and violence, but this one had passed into the city's ownership and was spared. (Psst, it's leaning.)

We're off to see the Basilica of San Vitale, another part of the UNESCO World Heritage designation in Ravenna and perhaps the most famous one.

San Vitale was begun by Bishop Ecclesius at the end of Theodoric's rule but only completed and dedicated by Bishop Maximian in 547, in the Byzantine period. The octagonal style of basilica and the mosaics are considered to be amongst the most important examples of early Christian Byzantine stuff anywhere.

The bell tower stuck alongside it dates from the 10th century.

Here we go -- before the next school group catches up with us.

Fabulous polygonal interior with niches all round (and balconies for the female worshippers)

The church is understood to have been built on the site of the martyrdom of Saint Vitalis, but no one seems to know which Saint Vitalis.

The apse, with a mix of Hellenistic/Roman foreground and Byzantine gold background traditions (It's very dark in here.)

The Byzantine-style Jesus the Kid, sitting on the world between his angel bodyguards, is handing the martyr's crown to St Vitale ('thanks for that!'), and on the far side Bishop Ecclesius is offering up the church itself. (Ecclesius was behind the design of the building, but died too soon, in 532, having secured promises that he'd be prominently displayed here when the place was opened for business in 547.)

The famous representation of the Eastern Emperor Justinian, portrayed on his way to make a sacrifice accompanied by Bishop Maximian, who ordered up the work, and his soldiers. (The background fellow between Justinian and Maximian may be Julian the Silversmith, the Greek financier who paid for building this church and the Basilica of St Apollinare in Classe. The chap to our left of Justinian is thought to be General Belisarius.)

(Actually, Bishop Victor ordered up the work but died, and his successor Maximian kept the lower body, replaced the upper body, and renamed him.)

The great representation of the formidable Empress Theodora (she of the shady origins), Justinian's wife, perhaps the most influential woman in Roman imperial history. An amazing person, with or without Procopius' horrific portrayal of her as a demonic hootchy-kootchy demimonde (in the Secret History). (Justinian and Theodora never personally visited in Italy.)

Stories from Abraham's life in the lunette, especially the sacrifice of Isaac . . .

. . . and the sacrifices of Abel and Melchizedek -- the three archetypal Old Testament sacrifice stories that were associated with the bread-and-wine sort of communion ritual of the Christian Church

Mosaics everywhere -- there must be a trillion colorful little stones stuck up there.

Even The Lamb in the Ceiling

Now we're out the back door and on our way . . .

. . . to the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia.


Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 7 July 2013, updated 17 March 2021.

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