After 15 centuries, Ravenna's
luminous mosaics still shine with the golden brilliance of the empires
that endowed them. These shimmering sacred images reveal both
familiar and unexpected chapters in Italian history while affirming an
artistic climate that thrives today.
Ravenna attracted conquerors from the north and east during the fifth
through eighth centuries. That period's vibrant
blend of Roman, Ostrogoth and Byzantine cultures has drawn the
aesthetically-minded to Ravenna ever since. No wonder when Dante Alighieri was
banished from Florence in 1302, he spent his last years here.
About 56 miles east of Bologna, this eminently walkable city was a stop
on the Roman road that still traces a path across the region of Emilia-Romagna.
With only a day to explore, I'm grateful that local guide Verdiana Conti Baioni
promises to weave art and history into every step.
We meet at San
Apollinaire Nuovo on Via di Roma.
A soaring basilica its narrow side aisles open to a broad nave where
three tiers of mosaic panels draw my attention.
There's majesty in the well proportioned architecture, but
the mosaics are the main event.
Commissioned by Theodoric the Great,
who reigned in Ravenna from 493 to 526, the church blends the beliefs
of that ruler's Arian Christianity with the Catholic theology
of Rome. Justinian's rule followed and he added
Byzantine influences for a vivid mix of visual images. At one time both
the apse and inner façade were also covered with mosaics
indicating the importance of this edifice, originally a royal chapel.
Before I'm swept away by the building's beauty, I
need a quick primer on its patrons. Theodoric, the son of a
Germanic Ostrogoth ruler, spent his youth as a hostage in
Constantinople. His continued alliance with that court is
apparent here. When he subdued Ravenna in 493, Theodoric murdered his
chief rival, Odoacer, but allowed the Roman legal systems to guide
locals. At the same time, he maintained Goth
principles. Both philosophies exist side-by-side in this
At San Apollinaire Nuovo the mosaic artistry continues today, and a
recently-restored section glows with golden brilliance as it recalls
the naval fleet that served as an early source of the
region's riches. The vigor of the scene feels three
dimensional as ships bob in blue-green waves.
Facing the altar, my eyes roam between 26 scenes along the roof
line. On the right, I scan Christ's miracles. Back
to the left, I see the events that lead to his death. My
guidebook notes the balance of the Wedding Feast at Cana
on the left with the Last Supper opposite. Shifting my gaze down to the
next level, prophets dressed in toga-like garments stare back at me
from between the arched windows. The final mosaic cycle skims
above the Greek marble pillars in processions of martyrs and saints
that conclude with Christ the King and an enthroned Madonna and
Child. Angels flank both figures, but are those celestial
hands raised in welcome or
Fortunately, I've brought along opera glasses so as Verdiana
introduces me to the saints, martyrs, prophets and angels she calls
“My good companions.” I can see the myrrh
carried by the Magi as well as the crowns in the hands of the wise
Virgins. Facial expressions engage me, they're
surprisingly distinct. All this is set against a background
of gold. My guide also points to an area where the Byzantine
authorities removed Arian characters, the original drawings that
remain; she calls a “sinopia.”
With regret for the brevity of my visit, we head down Via Francesco Negri,
stopping for a quick glance into IMAD Punto Mosaico,
one of Ravenna's 30 mosaic ateliers. The tourist
office on Via Salara has a complete list of the places to find
traditional and contemporary work done by artists who come to study and
develop new techniques.
Ravenna, once honeycombed with canals, now flows with narrow streets,
but we move briskly to Via degli Ariani.
We descend curved steps that lead six feet below street level to the
small, but splendid Arian Baptistery. The octagonal space feels
cool. My eyes look heavenward to the mosaic image of a
slightly sensuous Jesus standing stripped to the waist in the Jordan
River. His animal-skin shirted cousin John reaches out a hand
as the Holy Spirit descends as a water-spouting dove.
Verdiana explains that the old man in this tableau is a personification
of the Jordan. This pagan deity is similar to the Roman god,
Neptune, but he holds not a trident but a bulrush, while the apostles
who encircle the dome are separated by palm trees. St. Peter
has his keys and St. Paul carries a manuscript while they all celebrate
their Lord's triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Gold is the
backdrop here, too. The Baptistery was also constructed for
Theodoric. After 540 as the Byzantines took charge, Justinian
gave the small building to the
At the gateway to San Vitale,
Verdiana wisely suggests lunch. Over a plate of local bread
called piadina and a glass of Trebbianco
wine at Bar
Mosaico (Via Argentario
Giuliano, 26; 39-0544-38655; www.mosaicocaffe.com) she
explains the subtle distinctions in religious beliefs.
Briefly, Theodoric professed a Christian faith that did not believe
that Jesus was God and preferred not to emphasize the
Crucifixion. Justinian represents the faith as it grew in
Greece and Turkey. He's a saint in the Eastern
Orthodox canon. The Catholic traditions from Rome embraced a
three-person deity and were tied to Roman laws and customs.
Whether from tolerance or pragmatism, edifices in Ravenna honoring both
Theodoric and Justinian incorporate multiple points of view.
We scrape back our chairs and head for the gate.
Birds sing and a pleasant breeze inhabits the yew trees as we enter the
monastic complex of San Vitale. Because time is my
taskmaster, we bypass the Museo Nazionale where the heritage of Ravenna
is on view. Like the Baptistery, the Basilica of San Vitale
is octagonal and sunken below ground level. It rises to a
monumental 90-foot height with perfectly conceived lines.
Again, there's a confluence of styles, perhaps because the
church was begun shortly after 526 while Theodoric's
daughter, Amalasuntha, reigned but completed around 547 with Justinian
Also likely is Giuseppe Bovini's statement “in the
same period, artists were living who followed quite different
ideals.” (Ravenna: Art and History)
The mosaics echo this, with the sanctuary allied with Greco Roman
traditions and the apse in tune with Byzantine.
In the sanctuary natural landscapes frame stern stalwarts from the Old
Testament. No deadpan faces in view here. A fearful
Abraham presents a sacrificial lamb while his pensive wife Sarah awaits
the outcome. Isaac, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Moses are expressive
as well. Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have a
writing table complete with pen and inkstand.
The cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem are set with gleaming
jewels. What makes me smile is the menagerie up there: ducks,
a tortoise, dolphins, a heron frolic not far from dignified symbols
such as an eagle, bull, lion and lamb. All the
biblical figures are rendered with majesty, yet even Christ cannot
quite match the power of the noble processions in the San
Emperor Justinian, to the left of the altar, and his wife, Empress
Theodora, opposite him, are attended by soldiers, courtiers and
clergy. Everyone faces us boldly, looking straight ahead as
they bear the cup and plate for the Communion rite of wine and
bread. Fifteen centuries haven't diminished the
red, blue, purple and green mosaics and the gold that beams forth.
As Verdiana explains the importance of the people in the panels, I
unconsciously straighten my shoulder, then bow my head
slightly. The gesture acknowledges the strength of the
imperial retinue and the artistry that sustains their royal
presence. Verdiana has seen these figures since her teens,
yet she says, “They continue to inspire me.”
I agree but just across the walkway, I step into the smallest, darkest
and, for me, most inspiring site of the day. Theories and
lore vary, but it doesn't matter to me if this oratory was
built for, or used as, the Mausoleum of Empress
This is a piece of heaven. As I step through heavy curtains
into the 40 x 30-foot cruciform space, I'm spun into a
transcendent, midnight blue sky blazing with 570 gold stars.
They swirl me, metaphorically, into the central cupola. Like
an ethereal compass, they lead me into each corner. Symmetry
is the guiding principal, even reducing the number of apostles to eight
so each of the four rotunda lunettes is balanced by two figures at each
Waiting until I absorb a good measure of the scene, Verdiana points out
the Good Shepherd surrounded by attentive sheep and St. Laurence on his
way to martyrdom. The vocabulary of symbols, so familiar when
these mosaics were created, is refreshed for me when Verdiana notes
details such as the flaming gridiron used to torture the saint.
Silent again and aware that we need to move on, I revel in the wealth
of blues and golds Though I know Van Gogh never
stepped foot in Ravenna, these intense colors conjure one of my
favorite paintings, Starry Night.
Verdiana recommends the Domus dei Tappeti di
Pietra (House of the Stone
Carpets) as our last stop. Behind the sanctuary of San Eufemia
Barbiani, steps lead down to
a significant 1993 archeological find. Nine feet below the
street, walkways and good lighting make it easy to see the well
preserved mosaic floors of a sixth century villa.
A two-year dig at this location also uncovered the first century paved
roadways beneath me. The Domus site incorporates several
structures and a highlight is the wall decoration called, Dance of the Gods of the
it's subdued in color, the scene is lively with movement.
“This is very rare for that time,” says Verdiana as
she notes the use of human figures to represent the yearly
cycle. Details are telling. Each figure is suitably
crowned: summer sports corn, autumn has a harvest headpiece, winter
wears bulrushes and spring is festooned with a ringlet of
roses. I wish their hands could part so I might join their
merry circle, but it's time to go.
The night is full dark as Verdiana and I pause at Dante's
Tomb on the street that bears his name. I'm no
Dante scholar but I do remember a line from The Divine Comedy.
de questa dolce vita.”
My day in Ravenna is certainly as he says “the experience of
this sweet life.”
To contact Verdiana
or other guides from the Associazione Culturale Ad
Arte, visit www.ad-arte.com
or e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org Their fees range
from 130 to 200 euros for a half- day and from 270 to 350 euros for a