CHIAVARI, Italy – You have to admit Ravenna isn’t exactly a household name, and chances are no one is going to swoon if you tell them you are going to Ravenna on your next trip to Italy. What you’ll probably hear is, “where’s that”. And if you tell them it’s on the Adriatic side of Italy, a couple of hours from Bologna, you’ll most likely get a grunt. If that.
But in that little city of about 135,000 you are going to find treasures, the likes of which you have never seen before. The treasures are in the form of mosaics, which may not sound like such a big deal but they are enough of a big deal to be on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
There are lots of mosaics in Italy, most of them are beautiful, complicated and detailed and date from the 2nd century BC. The mosaics in Ravenna date from the fifth and sixth centuries and were created in that brief window of time when the city was the capital of the Roman Empire.
Some of the mosaic art in Ravenna was already almost a thousand years old when Dante, that’s Dante Alegheri of The Divine Comedy fame, arrived here in 1318 after being expelled from Florence. He never left. His tomb is here if you care to visit it.
It’s a miracle the Ravenna mosaics have survived this long when you think about the disasters that have occurred since they were created. The most recent disasters were the World War II bombings by both American and British planes that flattened other buildings in Ravenna, but somehow the mosaics were spared.
The Ravenna mosaics are in churches and chapels and one mausoleum, so it’s no surprise that the subject matter is mostly religious. But it’s not the subject matter that interests visitors, it the color and form that those long ago artists were able to achieve. Some say the artisans were Greek, but truly no one knows who they were.
The most important stop in Ravenna is the Basilica of St Vitale. The Basilica of St Vitale is not your standard 6th century rectangular church building, and the mosaics inside are beyond extraordinary. They tell the story of Justinian, the Byzantine Emperor along with saints and prophets and stories from both the old and new testaments. Even the non-mosaic trim on the columns and arches looks like the geometric patterns that showed up later in great mosques around the world.
The Arian Baptistry looks like a little outbuilding next to the larger Church of the Holy Spirit. The church lost its mosaics a long time ago, but in the baptistery you see a mosaic depiction of Christ being baptized by John the Baptist. Reaching out from the central scene are the 12 apostles, separated one from the other by date palms. Don’t be surprised if you see people laying flat on their backs, taking in the mosaic art one apostle at a time. It’s common here.
St. Apollinare is the patron saint of Ravenna, even though his church is in the town of Classes, about three miles away. The story is he went to Classe to convert the locals, mostly merchants and sailors, and they built a church here to honor him. The most spectacular of all the mosaics in this church are the glittering mosaics of the presbytery, apse and triumphal arch which date from the 6th to the 12th century.
|St. Apollinare in Classe|
There are more mosaics to see, but you don’t have to see them all. Not that they are not worth seeing, they most certainly are, but so is the town. It’s compact, and just about everything worth visiting is a just a short walk from any part of town. You’ll notice most of the historic center is pedestrian only so there will be a lot of people walking around town or riding bicycles. It’s a pretty laid back place, no one ever seems to be in a hurry, which is nice.
And don’t forget you are in the province of Emilia Romagna, which according to Italians has the best food in Italy. Honest, they do say that. And it’s easy to understand why when you think of the towns in Emilia Romagna, towns like Parma, Modena and Bologna and their extraordinary local products and dishes. They make everything from Parmigiano-Reggiano, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto di Parma, culatello, mortadella, tortellini, lasagna and so much more.
Ravenna is a treat for your eyes as well as your tummy, and it’s a great place to kick back and relax and do something a little out of the ordinary that will make your visit to Italy just a little bit more special.