Emilia-Romagna Europe Italy Ravenna

The Mosaics of Ravenna

Ravenna was going to be part of our post about Emilia-Romagna. We knew so little about this region and it was really just a thoroughfare from west coast to east from Cinque Terre en route to Venice. Emilia-Romagna isn’t touristy. Lots of places we’ve gone no one has spoken English, or had very broken English if they did. We like that. We like being where people actually live, not just where they visit. This is a wealthy part of Italy. To the east, it flattens into farmland and countryside until it meets the marshes and beaches near the Adriatic Sea. Bologna is the capital of this region and is a large city with an old University, continually operating since 1088. Ferrari is here, Maserati is here, Barilla pasta is here and the region has the 3rd highest per capita GDP in Italy.

We liked Parma and it’s ham. We liked Modena and it’s charm. The cities feel pretty modern and full of life and hardworking people. Bikes are big here, probably because it is so flat. And people haul ass on them, through the squares, down the streets, up the sidewalks. Don’t look down at your phone for too long, or you may find yourself in a two-wheeler to two-footer altercation.

And then we arrived in Ravenna. At first sight, it seems similar to the previously mentioned cities. Modern, bikes screaming at you, lots of high end shops as you walk from train station to the Piazza del Popolo, where we stayed. A mix of old city and new. It seemed nice and yet, unremarkable.

So we set off to secure a car reservation for visiting our third small European country on this tour: San Marino (after having visited Monaco, while in Nice and Vatican City while in Rome). While scouting out dinner options, we popped in to the ticket office for the main city sights: the churches. We’d read that they were beautiful, but we’ve also seen a lot of beautiful churches in the last two months. So, we figured, we’ve got a couple of hours to kill, let’s go check them out. All this preamble should tip you off, avid reader, that these are not just your average churches.

We began with Mausoleum of Galla Placida. It doesn’t look like much on the outside, this small unassuming building built between 425 and 450 AD. Inside, the mosaics help you appreciate what the mosaics of Pompeii must have looked like back in the day. They are dazzling. Over the door a beardless Christ is depicted as the good shepherd. In the cupola the cross of the apocalypse is the center of a night sky at whose corners sit the “four living beings” (winged man, eagle, lion and calf) from Revelation announcing the second coming of Christ. We were blown away and it was just the beginning.

On we went to the second church, the neighboring Basilica di San Vitale. Built around the same time, I’ve not been this moved by a church since visiting the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Light trickles down from above. The sound of a chorale of monks serenades your visit. The marble floors and walls are remarkable and then you look up. The ceiling and altar mosaics are incredible. Old Testament stories of sacrifice: Cain and Abel, Moses on Mount Sinai, the sacrifice of Issac, the stories of a Jeremiah and Isiah are depicted on the walls around the altar. Christ and the twelve apostles look down upon you from the threshold. It has all of the artistry of eastern Byzantine art and some of the moorish decoration of southern Spain but with biblical subjects.

Our third visit was the the Bapistry near the relatively modern and unremarkable, especially compared to its neighbors, Duomo. Partly built on an old Roman bath, the baptistry mosaics depict John the Baptist baptizing Christ in the Jordan river surrounded by the 12 apostles.

On our last day, we visited the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare, which dates back to the 6th century. A much more modern and larger church, the mosaics line the walls supported by columns in the apse. On one side Jesus’ miracles are depicted with the Passion and Resurrection depicted on the other. Prophets and Saints are depicted below the Passion and Resurrection and below the miracles of Jesus is a procession of twenty-two virgins led by the three magi. These mosaics were ordered “blackened” by Pope Gregory the Great late in the 6th century as they would distract “worshipers from their prayers”. Fortunately, they were unblackened later for us to admire.

In the corner is the Chapel of Peace and Victory commissioned in the memory of the bombing of Ravenna, and this church, during World War I.

We finished the tour, with the fifth site included in the ticket, at the Archiepiscopal Museum which was the private residence of the Bishops of Ravenna. The highlights are the mosaics of the Chapel of Saint Andrew, a Pasquale Calendar used to determine when Easter was each year (Sunday following the spring equinox) and the ivory throne of the Bishop Maximian.

It all makes you think: “man, the guidebook’s very short section on Ravenna really didn’t tell the tale”.

Ravenna is also the place where Dante Aligheri died and his tomb is located here as is a Dante museum, so Dante fans will have plenty to do as well.

Of our three visited cities (Parma, Modena and Ravenna) in this region, Ravenna was our favorite.

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