Ravenna is a small city with a big place in history. Sally, Lisa and I boarded a train one day and took a day trip to this seaport town.
I’ll keep this brief, but allow me to refresh your memory with 6 little statements of history that illustrate Ravenna’s importance:
-By 330 or so, the Roman Empire was in decline. To spread risk and tighten the reins of government the Empire had been split in two, with the Western portion based in Rome and the Eastern half based in Constantinople.
-By 400, Rome was on its last legs and barbarians were banging at the city gates.
-In 402, the Western Emperor, Honorius, moved his capital across the country to the newly formed port city of Ravenna. He brought with him all the luxury and trappings of the court, as well as his sister – the bold, adventurous and beautiful Galla Placidia, who later would rule the empire for many years.
-In 476 AD the Roman Empire collapsed and Rome, Ravenna and the rest of the Western Empire were overrun.
-By 540 AD the Eastern half of the Empire, the Byzantines, had reconquered Italy. The Byzantines made Ravenna the westernmost stronghold of their empire. They showered it with favors and made it one of the greatest cities on the Mediteranean.
-In 751, the party ended when Germanic tribes conquered the region. Ravenna faded into history, and became a backwater for nearly a thousand years.
I hope we’ve all noticed that it is in backwaters that history is preserved. Many of the treasures lavished so long ago on Ravenna, during its 300 glory years, are still there. The city has 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and some lovingly preserved medieval architecture, but the name Ravenna is most often associated with its world-reknowned mosaics.
A couple blocks from the train station we came to the church of Santa Giovanni de Battiste (St. John the Baptist). It was built about 420 AD by Galla Placidia to fulfill a vow she made after she and her children were spared from a shipwreck. This land is marshy. The city is built on pilings. San Giovanni began to sink into the land as soon as it was built. It has undergone many renovations, floor raisings and even a complete dismantling and reassembly.
Over time, the reputedly magnificent original mosaics were lost. On display are mosaic panels that belonged to a floor laid in 1213. Many of the panels showed soldiers from the Fourth Crusade, during which Constantinople was sacked by the Crusaders. These were current events when they were preserved in stone, having occurred in 1204.
We learned that this art from the Middle Ages is crude – like stick figures – when compared to the work of Eastern artisans 700 years before which we saw later in the day, but as story-telling folk art it is priceless.
We strolled through the city center, the Piazza del Popolo, which sports 2 Venetian columns dating from 1483. We briefly visited the covered market (Mercato Coperto), full of splendid meat and produce.
Our next destination was the Basilica di San Vitale, consecrated in 547 AD. The mosaics we found there were the most splendid of the day. The colors were rich greens, reds and golds. The walls were bright and vivid even after 1500 years, not like the painted frescoes that had darkened or faded in the other cathedrals we have visited. The decorative floors were just as intricate.
Adjacent to the Basilica was the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, a small, vaulted building measuring maybe 30 feet by 20 feet. It was built near the time of her death, around 450 AD. Here, the mosaics portray early Christian themes in deep blue colors, with accents of gold. The windows are made of alabaster slabs, which allows only a dim, yellow light to enter. Photos were difficult here with the somber lighting, but here’s one. After all that work, they’re not sure she’s actually buried in there.
A few blocks further on we toured a newly discovered gem. Domus dei Tappeti di Pietra (House of the Stone Carpet) was discovered in 1993 during routine city maintenance. It was first opened to the public in 2002. It is the ruin of a private palace from the Byzantine era. It is special because, for a change, the art themes were from real people, not the church. It was also very grand, and 14 rooms of mosaic and marble floors have been found and restored. The floor patterns have the complexity of modern woven carpets, hence the name. The floors are located 10 feet below street level under a 17th century church that is, itself, charming.
Had a late lunch at an Osteria called Ca’ de Ven (House of Wine), which is kind of a rustic 16th Century warehouse that has been fitted out like a medievil dining hall. It was big, and you sat at long, heavy, shared tables among the wine casks.
Here we had local specialty found throughout Romagna. Piadina is a soft, grilled flat bread made of flour, lard salt and water – the same formula as tortillas. Like tortillas, they are often served filled with meat, cheese, and other stuff, or served as a side bread with other foods. The name and process sound a lot like pita, which fits with the Eastern influence of the Byzantines.
Visited the lovely Basilica di Santa Apollinaire Nuovo (6th century), another UNESCO site, on the way back to the station for our return to Bologna.
If your are interested, click here to see a slideshow more Ravenna photos.