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Ravenna’s golden moment. By James Pembroke

Blog | By James Pembroke | Dec 04, 2023


Suspended in the salt marshes halfway between Venice and Rimini, Ravenna, having been the capital of the Western world, has become something of a backwater for tourists even in the peak of summer.

And yet it boasts the greatest collection of mosaics in Christendom. Only those created seven hundred years later in Monreale Cathedral, in Sicily, can rival them. Even they lack the scale of Ravenna’s 5th- and 6th-century mosaics spread throughout its churches and mausoleums, most of which are in the pedestrianised centre.

Ravenna’s importance began with the construction of its port at Classe, south of the city, as one of two bases for Augustus’s Adriatic fleet. It became another thriving Roman town, but no one would have prophesied its future glory.

Its break came after the governance of the vast Roman Empire was divided, in 286 AD, into two courts: the Western Empire and the Eastern Empire.

In 401 AD, the Emperor Honorius moved the imperial court and the civil administration of the Western Empire from Milan to Ravenna, mainly to escape the Germanic hordes. Remote in its salt marshes, it was easily defensible and became the capital of the Western Empire until 476, when the last of the Western Emperors, Romulus Augustulus, was defeated and deposed in a revolt by the German-born Odoacer. Odoacer was then recognised by the Roman Senate as the first King of Italy, over which he ruled autonomously.

Gibbon mythologised the year as the demarcation point between antiquity and the Middle Ages, but the empire had a much longer tail.

In 489 AD, Zeno, the Emperor of the East, encouraged Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, to invade Italy and claim Odoacer’s throne, mainly in a bid to distract him from menacing the borders of his own Eastern Empire.

Baptism of Christ with 12 disciples, at the fifth-century Baptistery of Neon, Ravenna
Martyrdom of St Lawrence on a burning gridiron, next to a cabinet with the four Gospels, Galla Placidia Mausoleum (425-50 AD)

Within a year, Theodoric had taken most of the peninsula. In 493 AD, Ravenna surrendered. As if out of a scene from Asterix and the Goths, Theodoric invited Odoacer to a reconciliation banquet at which he promptly murdered him.

Theodoric upheld the Roman administration, encouraged the arts and expanded his mini-empire into Spain and Burgundy. He died in 526 AD and was buried in the mausoleum whose stone structure still survives. His death encouraged Justinian, the Eastern Emperor, to regain the Western Empire.

In 540 AD, Ravenna duly fell to his general, Belisarius, and in 568 AD authority in the Western Empire was delegated to an exarch, who remained subordinate to Constantinople.

In 751 AD, it was all over: Ravenna fell to the Lombards and, with that, its connection with the Byzantine was preserved only in its mosaics.

Lucky for us that they survived: their inspirational counterparts back in Constantinople were erased in the eighth century by iconoclasts.

Start your tour at the tiny mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Honorius’s half-sister and the regent of the Western Empire for ten years during the first half of the fifth century. (You can buy a pass for all the sites for €12.50 at www.ravennamosaici.it).

Built in the mid-fifth century, it’s the earliest surviving setting for mosaics in the city. The most memorable scene is the martyrdom of St Thomas, complete with gridiron and flames. Blue is the dominant colour of the tesserae, which crowd every inch of the interior, giving it a mystical, otherworldly sense.

As The Oldie’s Country Mouse, a trained mosaicist, will tell you, these tiny cubes of coloured glass, enamel and stone are set in a plaster bed, following a design that has been etched beforehand.

Blue was made by the addition of cobalt; green with copper oxide and red with copper. Gold and silver were created by the overlaying of the tesserae with a thick layer of glazed metal. In Ravenna, mother-of-pearl as well as white and grey marble created the atmosphere of Eastern opulence. The tesserae were often set into the plaster at different depths and angles to create that dazzling display of seemingly permanent motion.

Theodoric continued the tradition of copying Byzantine architectural design and mosaics in Ravenna, rather than maintaining the early-Christian basilica style. In common with all Goths, Theodoric’s preferred form of Christianity was Arianism. It differs from the Nicene Creed in the belief that Christ is not of one substance with the Father but a later creation who is subordinate to Him.

In its art and iconography, Western Christianity increasingly built on the ideal of redemption through the suffering of Christ.

Byzantine art is somewhat jollier, concentrating on the salvation offered by Christ and God. Benign Theodoric was happy for orthodox Christians to worship in his churches.

In Theodoric’s Arian baptistery, the survivor of a group of Arian churches built in the late-fifth century, there is an empty throne with a large purple cushion and, above it, a jewelled cross, symbolising the Arian belief in the physical rather than divine nature of Christ.

Theodoric’s most magnificent achievement is his palace chapel, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. Its nave walls, over 50 yards long, bear two vast processional friezes. On either side are processions of martyrs, above which are the 16 Fathers of the Church. Even higher are the first known depictions of 13 scenes from the life of Christ.

Justinian’s men were quick to erase any trace of Theodoric. They installed a huge processional frieze of Justinian and his sexy dancer wife, Theodora, in the sanctuary of San Vitale, Ravenna’s masterpiece and the largest of the churches, with a huge dome. Humility was never an option for a Byzantine emperor keen to identify himself as Christ’s appointed ruler, especially one who never visited Ravenna.

In common with other cities of the plain like Ferrara and Bologna, Ravenna is a town becalmed by the heat bouncing off its ancient brickwork. Its inhabitants are remarkably welcoming, happily matching Bryon’s description that ‘they make love a great deal – and assassinate a little’.

Dante spent the last four years of his life here in exile from Florence, finishing the Divine Comedy. Ravenna has claimed him for the city, successfully rejecting Florentine overtures to return the remains encased in his tomb.

The other delight is the city’s restaurants. They are much better value than those in Bologna and aren’t overflowing with stressed tourists desperate for a table. Order a stinco of pork between two at Ca’ de Ven, a medieval enoteca with vaulted, frescoed ceilings and an excellent wine list.

For somewhere more modern, have dinner at L’Acciuga Osteria, a seafood restaurant on the edge of town, and order a plate of anchovies. For lunch, exit the city gate for the Antica Trattoria al Gallo, run by the same family since 1909.

The centre of the restaurant is taken up with huge, Liberty-style, green statues of fin-de-siècle ladies, and the walls are covered with family portraits. The pasta was the best we had during our week in Emilia Romagna.

Ask for a table overlooking their pretty garden, where you can finish your bottle after lunch while contemplating poor Odoacer’s last dinner.

We stayed bang opposite the excellent covered market at Il Albergo Cappello Ravello, a 15th-century palazzo, complete with yet more frescoes. Doubles from 140 euros