The Byzantine Glory of Ravenna
Ravenna in all its Byzantine glory rivals the mosaics of what was Constantinople.
Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque. Italy abounds in art and architecture from all these periods. But the style “Byzantine” perhaps comes less frequently to mind when citing Italy’s artistic marvels. While there are some fine mosaics to admire elsewhere, including in some of Rome’s ancient basilicas and other churches, Ravenna is unrivaled in Italy.
Indeed, the city near Italy’s Adriatic has no match in Western Europe for its abundance of stunning mosaic decorated in the Byzantine style.
While, now inland, Ravenna was once a bustling port on the Adriatic Sea and home to the imperial court until their eventual move to Rome. Then began a period of heady artistic glories, which now invite visitors to revel in the exquisite detail and color of decorative mosaics. The decorators were top-class: among them was the sister of Emperor Honorius, Galla Placidia, and later, by Empress Theodora when the city prospered under the Eastern Empire.
Considered by some to be the top example of Byzantine art in all of western Europe is the basilica of San Vitale. Its very shape is striking — octagonal — and the building is topped by an octagonal-shaped cupola, or dome. In its mosaics, features of eastern and western art traditions merge.
Nearby is the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, whose final resting place was constructed by her brother Roman Emperor Honorius in the 400s. The empress died in Rome instead and so was buried there. Inside golden light filters through alabaster windows, adding brightness to the magnificent mosaics, while a striking blue dominates. In one charming mosaic, a dove is perched on the edge of a bowl of water.
Architecturally unusual for Italy is the cylinder-shaped bell tower of the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, which despite its name dates to the start of the 6th century. The basilica has a gabled facade. Inside are more wonderful mosaic decorations, including one of the biggest monumental cycles of New Testament themes.
Another basilica, Sant’Apollinare in Classe exudes a kind of solemn aura. It’s a bit out of the center of Ravenna, about five miles away. Some have described it as one of the most impressive basilicas of the early Christian era. It is home to ancient marble sarcophagi of bishops, positioned along the aisles.
There’s more… Theoderic built a mausoleum, in 520 A.D., as his own burial place. It features two decagonal tiers one atop of the other, with a big dome atop it all. A porphyry tub, the presumed burial place of Theorderic is on the upper level, but his remains are no longer there.
If all these dazzling mosaics begin to dizzy you, it’s easy to take a respite. Ravenna is a short distance from the seaside, and the Adriatic coast abounds in beaches.
For a small-sized city — about 150,000 inhabitants — Ravenna is particularly rich in culture, mainly due to one of those inhabitants, orchestra director Riccardo Muti. The Maestro has made Ravenna his home since 1976.
Over his career, Muti has dedicated much of his energy to transmitting his talent and passion for conducting to young people. The Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra he established in 2004 has its home in the northern city of Piacenza, but it has held its summer festival in Ravenna. So lovers of wonderful music might want to check the festival’s website to see what might lie ahead for future summers (www.ravennafestival.org/en/the-festival/).
Heavenly mosaics, sublime music, and, why not, a refreshing day at the mare (sea) might make for a memorable holiday in Ravenna.