Ravenna, Italy, is a mosaic of splendid treasures

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Joan Scobey
The apse of the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe shows the saint and his flock of sheep in a field of flowers and animals.

By Joan Scobey, Travel Arts Syndicate

RAVENNA, Italy -- These days Ravenna, once a capital of three ancient empires -- the Roman, the Goth and the Byzantine -- all too often takes a back seat to Bologna and Parma, its better-known neighbors in the Italian province of Emilia Romagna.

What a pity. Travelers who don't make time for Ravenna miss what is probably the most splendid treasure trove of early Christian mosaics in the world -- yes, even including those in Istanbul. Some of them nearly 1,500 years old, they still glitter and have brought the city the rare distinction of having eight World Heritage sites.

Ravenna, Italy

Italian Government Tourist Board: www.italiantourism.com.

Getting around Ravenna: A "Visit Card" covers admission to five historic sites: Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Neone Baptistery, San Vitale Basilica, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Archiepiscopal Museum. It's valid for a week and costs about $10 at any participating site.


Ravenna would still be an out-of-the way backwater were it not for the relatively unknown Roman emperor, Flavius Honorius. Fearing a barbarian invasion, Flavius moved his court to Ravenna in 402 so its marshy environs could protect the land approach and the northern Adriatic Roman fleet could thwart a sea attack. It was a prescient move; the Goths sacked Rome eight years after he left.

Thank Honorius' half sister, Galla Placidia, for the earliest of Ravenna's great buildings, the so-called "mausoleum" she commissioned around 430. Daughter of an emperor and regent for her son, she was a powerful woman who led a dramatic life and died in Rome in 450. The small, lovely building in Ravenna is not, in fact, where she is buried but no matter; its glories are the mosaics.

In the cupola, for instance, more than 800 gold stars in a midnight blue sky encircle a gleaming cross. In surrounding panels are breathtaking scenes of brilliant color: Jesus tending sheep on a rocky hillside; orange flames licking an iron grate at the martyrdom of St. Lawrence, flowers of dazzling yellow, green, turquoise, blue and white, all so vivid they seem to be illuminated by an inner light.

Ravenna flourished for 70 years under the Romans, when 110,000 people lived there, and then for another 70 or so under the occupying Goths, who fortunately continued to build lavish palaces and churches. But its greatest days as a Mediterranean center of art and culture came after Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora made it the capital of the Byzantine Empire in 540.

Province of Ravenna
A full-length portrait of Empress Theodora is one of San Vitale's most famous mosaics.

One of the great places to revel in Ravenna's golden age is the mid-sixth-century Basilica of San Vitale, with its magnificent full-length portraits of Justinian and Theodora and its treasury of Byzantine mosaics, the largest and best preserved outside Istanbul. Tall, soaring arches and long wall panels are densely covered with vivid mosaics like a brilliant tapestry. Even the tiny corners around the tops of columns are carpeted with bright flowers and stars, animals and birds.

High in the golden-domed apse under wispy blue and rosy clouds a clean-shaven Christ sits on a blue globe over a field of flowers, flanked by a pair of saints and angels. In contrast to this heavenly court, lower down are two famous earthly court scenes. On one side is a bejeweled Theodora swathed in a purple robe edged in gold with her retinue, and on the other, Justinian with his deacons and soldiers. The sweep of the interior and its exquisite adornment take your breath away.

From the compound that includes the Basilica of San Vitale and the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, a gate leads to a cobbled pedestrian street of cafes and shops, including some where craftsmen make and sell mosaic objects. The tradition still goes on in Ravenna.

Unless you're a serious art historian, it won't take more than a leisurely day to explore the treasures of Ravenna. Most of them are in easy walking distance of each other in the city center.

Among Ravenna's embarrassment of riches are not one but two small fifth-century octagonal baptisteries, built 70 years apart. Both have extraordinary mosaic-lined domes picturing the baptism of Christ in a central medallion, surrounded by the 12 apostles, like the spokes of a wheel. The earlier one, a former Roman bathhouse, is the Orthodox, or Neone, Baptistery, and is the more sumptuous of the two, with inlaid marble and carved stucco figures.

The tolerant Goth King Theodoric, who came to power after the barbarians took Ravenna, let his new subjects keep their Catholic churches and built others for the Arians, a branch of Christianity that, for example, didn't believe in the absolute divinity of Christ. This is how Ravenna came to have a second baptistery that looked pretty much like the first.

The chapel of King Theodoric's palace is now the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, with mosaics that depict many biblical scenes. Among the most fascinating are a detailed representation of the palace, with swagged white and gold curtains between tall Corinthian columns and opposite it, the nearby port of Classe with three ships sailing a very blue sea. Incidentally, Theodoric's Mausoleum, another of Ravenna's World Heritage sites, is a massive circular stone building on the edge of town whose roof is a 300-ton single block of stone 32 feet in diameter.

One of the delights of Ravenna is that these heavy-duty art treasures haven't spoiled its intimate ambience of pleasant piazzas, outdoor cafes and small shops. Wander around the pedestrian zone and its pine-lined streets, and all you'll have to dodge are locals on bicycles.

Along the way, stop for a revitalizing espresso in one of the cafes on Piazza del Popolo, the heart of the city. With its miniature Piazza San Marco and two granite columns surmounted by statues, the plaza is a 15th-century legacy of Ravenna's time under Venetian rule.

Ravenna and its pine woods have enchanted writers for centuries -- Boccaccio, Lord Byron, Shelley and the most famous, Dante. A political exile from Florence, Dante spent his last four years in Ravenna, where he finished "The Divine Comedy." He is buried in Ravenna, in a tomb inside a small domed 18th-century neoclassical building. Despite repeated pleas for his remains from the Florentines, who maintain a cenotaph for him in Santa Croce church, Ravenna is hanging on to its adopted son.

It really doesn't matter in what order you see the sights, but a lovely place to end the day, at sunset if you're lucky, is the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe on the outskirts of town. It stands alone, surrounded by pine trees and open fields, where, until the Middle Ages, the Mediterranean once lapped at its doorsteps.

Perhaps it's the solitude of the setting that lends a serene majesty to the Basilica, or its high, rather plain, wood ceiling or the parade of marble columns leading to the apse or the glorious scene above the altar in which a bejeweled cross in a starry sky looks down on St. Apollinaris and his flock of 12 sheep in a tranquil field of trees and flowers, birds and beasts.

In a city blazing with the world's most glorious Byzantine art, about the only sight a sated traveler can pass up is Dante's tomb, but who would want to?

  The Piazza del Popolo is the lively center of Ravenna, Italy.

Province of Ravenna


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