One of the tightest and most walkable concentrations of historic monuments in the world is in Ravenna, Italy. In the city's old core there is no block without a church, tomb, or monument built more than a thousand years ago. This is the sort of place where churches built in the early 1500s are deemed too recent to be of interest and aren't even mentioned in the guide books.
Ravenna is an ancient place; Julius Caesar gathered his armies there before crossing the Rubicon, iacta est alea
, and all. From that time it became a base of the Roman fleet, keeping that role for as long as Rome had a fleet. Trajan had an aqueduct built for the town, which it needed because it sits among salt marshes and suffered from a lack of fresh water. It became a center of great importance in AD 402 when Emperor Honorius transferred his capital there from Milan. Those salt marshes made the city more defensible, and it had easy sea connections to the real center of the 5th-century empire, Constantinople. Historians estimate that it was then a city of 50,000.
The history of Italy in that period is a sad tale of betrayals, assassinations, and defeats set against the grim background of imperial collapse; the Roman elite played petty politics and sought personal revenge for stupid slights while the world burned. In 410 the Eternal City was sacked by a Gothic army, an even that shook the western world. There is also some melancholy grandeur in those years, with events like the Last Charge of the Roman Legions and several men who were called the Last of the Romans. Ravenna was conquered in 540 by the armies of Emperor Justinian I and became part of the empire for two centuries again, but then the Lombards came and the sordid violence swept across Italy once more. Ravenna is the capital of that era, by far the best place to imagine the Italy of Honorius, Theodoric, Belisarius and Justinian.
We start our walking tour at the train station, which is at the eastern end of the old city, adjacent to the modern port. Ravenna is now connected to the sea by a broad canal, the Candiano Canal. The current alignment dates to the 1780s but the Romans had dug earlier canals in this same general area that had been blocked and buried by the estuary's shifting sands. Walking west down the Viale Farini we have not even gone a block before we encounter our first ancient building, the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist.
This was built in the 420s by Galla Placida, one of the great ladies of that era. When the Goths sacked Rome she, then a princess of about 18, was part of the booty. In 414 she married Ataulf, then King of the Visigoths, but he died just a year later. Still later she married a different emperor and had a son who was emperor in his turn, although of course western emperor did not mean nearly as much as it used to. Sadly the church Galla Placida built was heavily renovated in the 1300s, collapsed in the 1700s, was rebuilt, was destroyed again in World War II and rebuilt again, so little that you can see today dates to her time.
So we move on, our street becoming in the next block a pedestrian shopping arcade called the Via Diaz. In the middle of this block we turn right down an nondescript alleyway and come to the famous Arian Baptistery. When they conquered Italy the Goths belonged to a heretical branch of Christianity called Arian, so Ravenna had to have two sets of religious buildings: one for Arians, and one for orthodox Catholics.
This was built by Theodoric the Great, the Ostrogothic King who reigned from 493-526.
Back on the main street, we emerge a block later into a small square called the Piazza del Popolo.
After crossing the square we turn right into a narrow street lined with shops, then left into another,.
Making our way to the Basilica of San Vitale, built in 526-547.
Here is one of the most astonishing monuments of the sixth century.
With its famous mosaic portraits of Justinian and Theodora.
Right behind the basilica is another famous monument, the orthodox baptistery, better known by its incorrect title, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. (A Renaissance error; she was buried in Rome.)
Inside are what some say are the most beautiful mosaics in the world. Incidentally some people in Ravenna think their city is the world capital of the mosaic art, and they have for 20 years now staged a sort of art biennial where modern artists display avant garde mosaic works. The next will be held in the Fall of 2021, should Italy be open for tourists by then.
After lunch in one of the many, many restaurants on the surrounding streets we make our way south. We pass the small, 18th-century Church of Sant'Eufemia, which is unremarkable in itself. But in 1993 workers excavating for an underground parking garage on the next lot discovered that the church had been built over the remains of a grand, 5th-century house, now known as the House of the Stone Carpets. The floors were entirely covered with mosaics, of which the most famous is this rendering of the Dance of the Four Seasons. You can now enter an underground museum and behold the whole set.
We turn left on Via Massimo d'Azeglio, passing the 18th-century Palazzo Rasponi dalle Teste
Arriving at the Baptistery of Neon, another wonder, built around 400 AD.
The Baptistery is adjacent to the Cathedral, but that has been torn down and rebuilt too many times to have a part in our journey to the late Roman world, so we merely walk around it to the other side. There we find another ancient survival, what was the private chapel of the archbishop but is now a museum devoted to the city's history. The chapel was built during the reign of Theodoric, and these mosaics, including the panorama of waterfowl in the marshes, date to that time. Other marvels include a medieval ivory throne and mosaics salvaged from buildings torn down during the 18th and 19th centuries.
We then make our way east, passing the tomb of Dante Alighieri, built in the 18th century, pausing the recall his famous lines on exile:
You shall leave everything you love most:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste
of others' bread, how salty it is, and know
how hard a path it is for one who goes
ascending and descending others' stairs ...
Coming finally to our last marvel, the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo. This was built by Theodoric; pause to think that you are in a place where a church dedicated in 504 AD can still bear the appellation "new."
This was built to be the chapel of Theodoric's palace. The ceiling has been replaced and there have been other changes, but the basic structure, much of the stonework, and the mosaics remain.
Oh, the mosaics.
Our day has now come to an end, and we must find dinner and bed. But if we are lucky, the memories of Romans, Barbarians, and the greatest mosaic artists in history will come back to us in our dreams.
O how I love Ravenna, and Ferrara. Those are quintessencial Italy. I posted some years ago, after my visit, here:
It was one of the moments that moved me most intensely, I entered Galia Placidia alone, in total silence, all that magical solemn space for me, under the mosaic heavens...
And Via della Luna ? Under a nightly poetic name, one of those narrow streets with Italian feeling all along.
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