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 (2)

Ravenna's been inching up on my ToDo list for many decades, and here we are. Another day, another whole bunch of cute little tesserae.

We've just been admiring the Basilica of San Vitale, probably the Jewel in the world's Byzantine Mosaics Crown, and we're following the school groups out the back of it to the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia.

One of the eight early Christian buildings in Ravenna inscribed in the World Heritage List in 1996, it is understood to have been built between 425 and 430, after Galla Placidia had returned to Ravenna, then the capital of the Western Roman Empire, in her early thirties, to act as regent for her 6-year-old son Valentinian III.

The architectural style and the style of the mosaics are in the western Roman tradition. That's probably St Lawrence, or Lorenzo, with his martyrific gridiron, by the way. The proportions of the building are perfect, but the volume is small, and the crowds are loud and jostling, and we've got to get out of here whether we're ready or not.

Placidia's not here, by the way, she's reliably reported to have died and been buried in Rome in 450 -- shortly before Attila the Horrible Hun stormed through Italy after Placidia's daughter Honoria sent him an engagement ring and offered to marry him if he'd bring his Hunnish Hordes to Rome and rescue her from her mother's attempts to marry her off to an aged Roman Senator. Kids!

There are three sarcophagi in there, however, but no one knows whom they contain or when they fetched up here. Tantalizing theories abound.

Back we go past the Basilica di San Vitale, squatting like an enormous Lunar Lander.

The National Museum of Ravenna occupies part of the former Benedictine monastery within the San Vitale complex; it's inexpensive for most people (and free for me), and it's got a heterogeneous collection of great odds and ends, and archaeological bits and bobs.

The San Vitale bell tower looms.

When the religious orders were suppressed after 1797, a lot of their properties and possessions went to the state and were planted here in 1914, along with a lot of archaeological bits and pieces and very interesting what-have-you.

Like this evocative party piece, evidently from a smashed-up sarcophagus

And those donkeys or whatever they are, evidently modern, and the bulky but poignant statue of Pope Clement XII, scion of the Corsinis and Strozzis, the guy who ordered the Trevi Fountain built and tried to invade San Marino but failed, and died at 88 after a nepotistic and bureaucratic life well lived.

Bell tower and cloister, peaceful

The mosaic car, ingenious. "Ravenna", a mosaicified Fiat 500, by Felice Nittolo (2007).

Exploring the old Benedictine digs

How would Benedictines say "peek-a-boo"?

Now we'll step just outside the fence to find the next stop on Kristin's list, the church of Santa Maria Maggiore next door.

We're getting ready for our 35th pilgrimage on foot, the 8th of June. Be there or be square!

We've come to the church of Santa Maria Maggiore (just next to the San Vitale compound) mainly to visit with Our Lady of the Tumors. They won't let us get too close -- understandably; liability issues.

Here we are encouraged to "pray for the pains and hopes of all the people suffering from tumor; pray for their relations living the same sufferings; pray for the doctors taking care of the sick; and pray for all the researchers, so that they can find a remedy against this disease". We can heartily endorse those sentiments, and suggest making a small donation to a scientific research institution as well.

Kristin signals that we've spent enough time playing the jackanapes with religious sentiments and we need to get on with our tourism.

A look back at San Vitale as we progress down Via Barbiani towards Santa Eufemia

Via F. Barbiani

This is the little church of Sant'Eufemia (a young lady who was consecrated to virginity for some reason and got tortured and martyred by a bear in Asia Minor during Diocletian's persecutions, ca. 307) in whom we have no interest at all, except for generally hating martyrdoms, torture, and cheney-interrogations, but we're really here to see the Domus dei Tappie di Pietra, the 'House of the Stone Carpets', huh.

But first, along with a reasonable admission fee (discounted for seniors), we must observe a few more savage beheadings before we get to pass through the secret door and descend en bas for the Good Stuff. Perhaps that's Saint Euphemia about to get a definitive theological argument right there.

Here we are. In 1994, whilst digging away for some new underground parking garages, the unfortunate developers learnt that the legally required archaeological scouting team had turned up a bunch of old houses, some dating from the 2nd century BC and including a small Byzantine-era palace from the 6th century AD. That's called "The Good Shepherd".

There won't be many Lancias, Fiats, and Lamborghinis parked overnight here for a while.

This is a perfectly stunning job of archaeological presentation.

The Dance of the Spirits of the Seasons is the most famous of the very famous mosaics down here. Unfortunately, it's wisely a "No Flash!" regime and I had to shoot this out through a hole poked in the bottom of my greasy sandwich bag.

Subsequently, we've been gawking through the Archiepiscopal Museum attached to the not-very-interesting Duomo, and there's some neat stuff in it, mosaics and jewels, but best of all, a 6th century ivory bishop's throne and a hideously complicated 6th century liturgical calendar for computing and harmonizing the date of Easter in both the eastern (lunar) and western (solar) churches' calendars. No Photo!!

This is called the Orthodox Baptistry (since it's not the heretical Arian Baptistry), from the late 4th century, otherwise known as the Neonian Baptistry after Bishop Neon who completed it in the late 5th century -- it's the oldest surviving building in the city. It's stuck on out the back of the Duomo and Archiepiscopal Museum.

The mosaic motifs in the Arian Baptistry, including the naked Jesus in the Jordan River with his cute little wiener, were borrowed from this one, but more remains of this place, since it wasn't effaced as heretical as the other one was. The 12 apostles are processing around in a circle, evidently in opposite directions and soon to collide.

The immersion baptismal tub

Photos were permitted here, but nearly impossible to take with the hilarious school outings and jostling groups with guides waving yellow umbrellas, so that's it for today.

The Basilica of St Francis -- originally built by Bishop Neon in the mid-5th century but entirely reconstructed in about 1000, and renamed when it was gifted to the Franciscan order in 1261. There's a plaque on the wall in the piazza announcing that "Byron Slept Here" -- the poet lived here in 1819-21 whilst paying his respects to a married teenager, the Contessa Guiccioli, and wrote much of Don Juan here.

A simple nave with two aisles, long missing its original mosaics in all the rebuilding. There is said to be an interesting 10th century crypt with excellent mosaics, but since the church (like much of Ravenna) is still sinking into the primordial marshes, it's normally half-filled with water.

Another Madonna of the Enormous Crown. (Who's that peeking out from behind her?)

This was Dante's neighborhood church, and his funeral obsequies were observed here in 1321. His monumental tomb is just out the back, and we'll be back for that tomorrow. Like a mini-pilgrimage.

Street scene, with Kristin

Street scene, in the Piazza del Popolo (with Kristin)

Following General Belisarius' conquest of Ravenna (and Italy) in 540, Byzantine holdings throughout Italy were ruled by an "Exarch", an Eastern Roman governor based in Ravenna. The Lombards (or Longobards) came over the Alps with their Germanic tribal allies, beginning in 568, and set themselves up through most of northern Italy, including Milan, and Tuscany as well, and much of central Italy including Spoleto and Benevento. A turbulent status quo continued with a lot of back and forth, until finally the Lombards conquered Ravenna in 751. Oooff.

The Byzantine administration transferred to Bari in the south, until the Saracen raiders put paid to that idea in 847. In the meantime, the Franks swept in and threw the Lombards out of Ravenna, and King Pippin of the Franks donated it to the Pope, and his son Charlemagne confirmed that gift in 774 and was invited by the Pope to help himself to whatever Good Stuff from Ravenna he'd like to take back to Aachen with him. So he did (Germans sometimes do that).

Oh God, she's still here. (Not Kristin, of course she's still here, I'm following her.)

The Civic Tower at sunset. Time for dinner at La Gardèla.

Street scene, the Via Diaz -- it's a new day, and we're bound for the train station.

Who does not know the feeling?

Kristin and the Ravenna rail station in the early morning. Well, about noon.

The other mosaic extravanganza now at the top of our Ravenna List is the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe, and that's 5km south of town, so we're inquiring about the bus stop.

There it is, lovely squat old thing. It was built in the early 6th century -- as with San Vitale, Julianus Argentarius, the Greek banker, paid for building it, and Bishop Maximian consecrated it, in 549. The city of Classe that grew up around the Augustan military port once thrived but is now just a dusty suburb out in the boonies.

It is just so beautiful. The bell tower survived by pure luck, first, the Anglo-American bombardment of 1944, and second, the Allied orders to destroy it in case German dead-enders might use it as an observation post. Collateral damage.

-- Welcome, come on in. Seniors get a reduced rate!

The fabulous nave and two aisles

The medallion fresco portraits of Bishops of Ravenna date from the 18th century.

There were mosaics crawling all over the side walls, but Malatesta and the Venetians carted them all off to Rimini in 1449. Luckily, for some reason, they didn't smash up the apse.

The original altar (it's said) on the site of St Apollinaire's martyrdom (errrm). I think the inscription says that St Romuald put it here for the Blessed Martyr in 927, but Romuald was apparently born in about 951 so I've misunderstood something again.

Triumphal arch and apse

Original 6th century mosaics here: at the very top, Christ in a medallion and the symbols of the Four Evangelists, then Christ in a microscopic medallion stuck in his golden cross in the big disc of the universe, with the lambs of Peter, James and John observing, and below that St Apollinare praying for grace for his flock of cute little sheepsies. (Below that are just another bunch of bishops.)

Sarcophagi along both walls

Awwww. "To Licinia Valeria Faustina italica, who sleeps in peace, and who lived for one year, six months, and six days; a beloved daughter. Her grieving parents." This touching memorial is pre-Christian; the basilica was built over a Roman-era cemetery.

Throw your pennies here, for luck. Think of it as a fountain.

The Madonna of the Six Fingers

-- Aw, cute. We LOVE a bison. (And a marmot. And a harbor seal.)

-- Hey, wow, more bisons!

Kristin and bisons in Classe

-- Don't let them think you're scared, face them down!

The fortress of the Rocca Brancaleone -- we're on our way to see Theodoric's Mausoleum north of town.


Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 7 July 2013, tinkered with 18 March 2021.

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