Ravenna: Byzantine Treasures

May 28, 2016

A five-hour drive awaited us as a punishment for spending two laid back days in Milan and Bologna. We had to get to Spello for its flower festival, but first I decided to make a detour to Ravenna, a town I had wanted to check out ever since my visit to Berlin’s Bode Museum. 85 km east of Bologna, Ravenna is home to the best collections of Byzantine mosaics anywhere, with the possible exception of Istanbul.

Although currently landlocked, Ravenna was an important port during the Roman Empire. Its status grew after the fall of the empire, taking over the status of capital of the Western Roman Empire from Milan in 402. After enduring a century of instability, in 554 it became the seat of the Byzantine governor in Italy for almost 150 years. It was conquered first by the Lombards in 751 and then the Franks in 754; its harbour subsequently silted up and it never regained its former glory. Being a political backwater since the 8th century, free from warfare and conquests, many of the Christian arts and architecture commissioned under Byzantine rule are able to survive to this day.

Basilica of San Vitale

A single €9.5 ticket includes admission to the Archiepiscopal Museum, Baptistery of Neon, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and Basilica of San Vitale. We began at the Basilica of San Vitale, arguably the most important Byzantine building in Ravenna. Completed in 547, the church combined both Roman and Byzantine elements, highlighted by the largest collection of Byzantine mosaics outside of Istanbul. This is the only major building from Emperor Justinian I’s reign which remains intact today.

The richly detailed mosaics depict numerous accounts from both the Old and New Testaments; on the upper part of the central section are stories of Abraham and Melchizedek, the Sacrifice of Isaac, Moses and the Burning Bush, Jeremiah and Isaiah, representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel, and the killing of Abel by Cain. Covering the intrados of the triumphal arch are fifteen mosaic medallions, namely Jesus Christ, the twelve Apostles, Saint Gervasius and Saint Protasius, the latter two sons of Saint Vitale. Also on display are Justinian and his wife, and many portrayals of the landscape, plants and birds.

Baptistery of Neon

The oldest remaining religious building in Ravenna, the baptistery was founded on the site of a Roman bath, Constructed under the watch of Bishop Ursus in the late 4th century as part of a now destroyed basilica. The octagonal design was typical for baptisteries in the Early Christian era as it symbolized the seven days of the week in addition to the Day of the Resurrection and Eternal Life. The ceiling is decorated by mosaics recounting the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptism in the Jordan River surrounded by the Twelve Apostles.

We also visited the nearby Archiepiscopal Museum, home to relics from the Early Christian era, including fragments of mosaic from the first cathedral church and the chapel of Sant’Andrea. Regrettably we didn’t have time to visit the remaining sites in town; I had to allow ample of time to navigate SS 3 bis, part of a freeway system where I was forewarned would reveal a telling glimpse into the state of Italy’s current public finances. It turned out to be the most pothole-filled stretch of road I had ever encountered in the developed world, but I digress.

Ravenna and its Byzantine mosaics stand out even in Italy, the country with the most World Heritage Sites. The art of mosaic peaked during the Byzantine era, and by the Renaissance it had gone mostly out of fashion, but for a myriad of factors this slice of history remains in this otherwise nondescript eastern Emilia-Romagna town.


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