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Ravenna: the world capital of mosaics

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After the end of my January 2016 internship in Imola, I had a couple of days left to explore what I could of Italy, and a secretary at the company enthusiastically recommended me Ravenna, a one-hour train ride away. I present below a summary of the city's rich history so the viewers can learn about the context of the various monuments and fully appreciate this thread.

Ravenna has served three times as a capital: first of the declining Western Roman Empire (during the 5th century AD), then of the reign of Theodoric the Great, King of the Ostrogoths (AD 493-526) and finally of the Byzantine Empire in Italy (AD 553-751). Due to this, it is recognized worldwide for its historical and artistic treasures, and preserves in particular the richest mosaic heritage in the world, dating from the 5th and 6th centuries AD, within its early Christian and Byzantine monuments, of which no less than eight have been included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The art of mosaics itself did not originate in Ravenna, but its greatest expression is to be found there. It can also be said that Christian iconology originated in the city, under a mixture of Roman and Byzantine influences.

The subsequent periods of the city's history also left a legacy of buildings and monuments. In the 8th Century it was conquered by the Lombards, then by the Franks, who donated it to the Church of Rome. During their domination Ravenna was visited by Charlemagne on two occasions: in 787, and in 800 when he was on his way to Rome to be crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. After his death, duke dynasties were entrusted by the archbishops of feudal titles and powers, until the creation of the Commune in the early 12th century, when several factions formed within the local aristocracy. Some of the most celebrated monuments of this period are the Tomb of poet Dante Alighieri, the Municipal Tower, the monumental gates of the city, and a number of palaces and mansions.

In 1441 Ravenna passed under the dominion of the Venetian Republic. During this period, the walls were rebuilt and the central parts of the city were reshaped. It then passed permanently under the Church’s control in the 16th century. It was in this context that the famous Battle of Ravenna took place between the French and the Spanish (allied of the Italians) on Easter Day 1512, which ended with the papal defeat and the sack of the city by the French. It remained nonetheless under the control of the Church until the arrival of Napoleon in 1859.
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Once again, I include informatively a map of the city and a more detailed one of my itinerary in the central areas (delimited in red on the first map) with numbers referencing every spot where I took pictures:

Ravenna map by Wasso H., on Flickr

Ravenna itinerary map by Wasso H., on Flickr
Map: 1

Leaving the train station and walking towards the center, I first encounter the church of San Giovanni Evangelista (St John the Evangelist) a short distance away. It was originally built in the 5th century by Empress Galla Placidia, who wished to release herself from a vow made during a sea storm while traveling from Constantinople to Ravenna to attend her son Valentinian’s installation on the throne of the West. The bell tower was erected in the 10th century:

San Giovanni Evangelista church by Wasso H., on Flickr

Map: 2

In the Middle Ages, a square portico rose before the entrance, now replaced by a wall with a beautifully carved 14th century Gothic gate:

Gothic portal of San Giovanni Evangelista church by Wasso H., on Flickr
Map: 3

Divided into a nave and two side aisles, the church has undergone several changes over time. Furthermore, in 1944 it was severely damaged by an air attack targeting the train station that destroyed the 12th-14th century frescoes and the apse mosaics. The church was then rebuilt in its original form after the war, and still retains some of its original features, including most of the columns and their carved Byzantine capitals. Many of the early mosaics had been lost to renovations in the 16th century, but fragments of the floor mosaics completed in 1213 still survive, and are now displayed along the walls:

Interior of San Giovanni Evangelista church by Wasso H., on Flickr

In the left aisle is a chapel with fragments of 14th century frescoes on its vault, which have been attributed to Giotto, but are more likely by a Rimini artist of the same era:

Chapel with fragments of frescoes inside San Giovanni Evangelista church by Wasso H., on Flickr
I continue on Viale Farini until its intersection with Via di Roma, where I turn south, and arrive a little later to one of the city’s famed UNESCO Word Heritage Sites, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. It was erected by Theodoric the Great as his cathedral in the early 6th century, and originally used as a Palatine Church of Arian religion and dedicated to Christ the Savior. After the Byzantine conquest in the mid 6th century, the Basilica was consecrated to the Orthodox faith and dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours, a foe of Arianism, and those of its mosaics whose themes were too overtly Arian or which expressed the king's glory were covered up. Tradition has it that in the 9th century the relics of St. Apollinaris, the first Archbishop of Ravenna, were removed from the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe (on the road from Ravenna to Rimini) and transported here, and the church was dedicated to him on that occasion and called Nuovo (New) in order to differentiate it from the church of the same name in Classe.

Map: 4

The Basilica’s appearance, with its central nave and lower side aisles, recalls the exterior of the Milanese churches of the same period. Its gabled façade is provided with a mullioned window, topped by two small openings, and decorated with a 16th century marble porch:

Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo by Wasso H., on Flickr

Map: 5

A large cylindrical bell tower was erected near the southern wall in the 10th century, with numerous single-light and mullioned (both biforate and triforate) windows:

Bell tower of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo Basilica by Wasso H., on Flickr
Map: 6

I buy an entrance ticket at the booth on the south side that is valid for the Basilica and two others of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site complexes (the Archiepiscopal Museum and Neonian Baptistery next to the Duomo, and the San Vitale complex), then enter through a peaceful cloister shaded by some large trees:

Cloister of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo Basilica by Wasso H., on Flickr

Cloister of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo Basilica by Wasso H., on Flickr
Map: 6

The elegant bell tower can be seen from within the cloister:

Bell tower of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo Basilica seen from the cloister by Wasso H., on Flickr

as well as the southern façade. There are numerous wide windows on both the southern and northern walls, which make the Basilica the first one built in this style:

Southern facade of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo Basilica seen from the cloister by Wasso H., on Flickr
Map: 7

The Basilica’s interior is flooded by the light entering from the windows and looks majestic, with its three naves delimited by two rows of wide arches, and its magnificent heritage of mosaics documenting the stylistic, iconographical and ideological evolution of Byzantine wall mosaics from the era of Theodoric to that of Justinian. The central nave is covered by an impressive colorful roof of wood tiling made in the 17th century:

A first look inside the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo by Wasso H., on Flickr

and ends in an elaborately stuccoed Baroque apse dating back to the 16th century and housing an imposing altar. The apse is devoid of mosaics since it was rebuilt after an earthquake that completely destroyed it:

Apse and altar of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo Basilica by Wasso H., on Flickr
Map: 7

During the 18th century, eight chapels were added to the northern lateral nave. One of them is dedicated to Saint Anthony of Padua:

Chapel in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo Basilica by Wasso H., on Flickr

Another one seemingly depicts the Christ dressed in a red tunic and with a crown of thorns, but I couldn’t find information confirming this with certainty:

Chapel in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo Basilica by Wasso H., on Flickr

Nor did I find any information about this other exquisite chapel with the lavish Baroque decorations:

Chapel in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo Basilica by Wasso H., on Flickr
Map: 7

The mosaics adorn the imposing spaces above the two orders of twelve columns each, and unfold in three bands. The upper band features 26 boxes with Christological scenes originally from the period of Theodoric, depicting Jesus’ miracles and parables on the north / left wall, and the Passion (excluding the Flagellation and the Crucifixion) and Resurrection on the south / right wall. These constitute the most ancient ever original mosaic work on the New Testament. The Christ, the focal point, is represented larger than the other personages according to the canons of the art of late antiquity. These boxes are separated by decorative mosaic panels depicting a shell-shaped niche.

The middle band consists of 32 haloed figures of Saints, Prophets and Evangelists interspersed with windows, 16 on each side. They are set on a golden background, which symbolically represents pure light. Being executed in a Hellenistic-Roman tradition, they show a certain individuality of expression as compared to the other figures. Peacocks and pheasants stand in pairs above the windows.

Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo - Mosaics of the north wall by Wasso H., on Flickr

Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo - Mosaics of the south wall by Wasso H., on Flickr
Map: 7

The lower register is the largest in surface and the most important. The left side illustrates a procession of 22 Virgins led by the Three Magi, moving from the port city of Civitas Classis (Classe) towards the Madonna and Child sitting on a throne and surrounded by four angels:

Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo - Mosaics of the Procession of Virgins (north wall) by Wasso H., on Flickr

To the right is a similar procession of 26 Martyrs led by Saint Martin, moving from the Palace of Theodoric towards Christ enthroned amid four angels. These mosaics were executed when the Basilica has already become an Orthodox church and are a classic example of the Byzantine style; the faces of all the characters follow the same archetype according to the 6th century theology stating that "those who accept the same food (Eucharist) must have the same expression":

Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo - Mosaics of the Procession of Martyrs (south wall) by Wasso H., on Flickr

Originally, it was Theodoric and his wife who led the right and left procession respectively, but they were replaced by St Martin and the Three Magi in subsequent Byzantine times. The representations of the Palatium (Theodoric's palace) and of Civitas Classis are the only two elements of Theodoric memory that escaped the redecoration done by the Byzantines, however the subjects of the court standing in those parts have been covered, with traces of their figures still seen on some of the columns.
Thank you, I'm glad you like it already :) I will follow a similar format for my photo threads from now on whenever possible. I'm saying "whenever possible" because there is hardly any information online for instance about most cities here where I live, you always have to ask the locals about the story of any building etc. and try to filter the subjective content out of it if there is any!
Excellent presentation. :eek:kay: Looking forward to more. :cheers:
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Map: 8

Exiting the Basilica, I spot an interesting old structure a little below it on Via di Roma, the so called Theodoric’s Palace. Although in reality it dates back to the 7th or 8th century, it is traditionally associated with King Theodoric for having been built in the area of his palace, whose ruins, after being brought to light at the beginning of the 20th century, were unfortunately covered again. The building is probably the remaining part of a 7th or 8th century gatehouse erected to guard the residence of the Exarchs, the governors of Italian provinces ruling on behalf of the Byzantine emperor. The guardhouse was called Calce or Calchi because it was inspired by the one at the entrance of Chalke palace in Constantinople (a name derived from its huge fortified bronze doors):

Remains of Theodoric’s Palace by Wasso H., on Flickr

Map: 9

Through various changes, as early as the 9th century, the structure seems to have become a portico in front of the adjacent church of San Salvatore Calchi, demolished in 1503, which in turn was built over the ruins of the imperial palatial complex. Marble remains and fragments of floor mosaics from the palace are preserved in the upper room of the structure.

Remains of Theodoric’s Palace by Wasso H., on Flickr
Map: 10

From there, my eye catches what looks like a large church further south on Via di Roma, so I decide to take a look at it. On the way, I pass in front of this elegantly decorated mansion, whose name I didn’t manage to find:

Interesting building on Via Roma by Wasso H., on Flickr

Map: 11

A little later, I arrive to the Basilica of Santa Maria in Porto, built in the 16th century and modified in the second half of the 18th century, when the staircase was added and the sumptuous Baroque façade of Istrian stone was decorated in neoclassical style by Camillo Morigia:

Basilica of Santa Maria in Porto by Wasso H., on Flickr
Map: 11

The façade is divided in two parts overlapped by a cornice. The lower part extends in width across the church’s 3 naves, and is divided into three sections by four pairs of columns in the Ionic order with a niche between them. The niches house allegoric statues portraying from left to right Charity, Faith, Hope and Humility. Each of the three sections houses a portal, with a broken pediment supported by two smaller Ionic columns. The central portal, larger than the other two, is surmounted by a 17th century Madonna statue. The columns flanking it date back from the 5th century, and were taken from the now disappeared Basilica of San Lorenzo in Caesarea:

Facade of Santa Maria in Porto Basilica by Wasso H., on Flickr

The upper part of the facade, on the other hand, extends only across the width of the central nave. Two pairs of columns in the Corinthian order, again with niches between them, delimit a central section. The left niche houses the statue of San Lorenzo and the right one that of Piero degli Onesti. The central section contains a large rectangular window with a balustrade, flanked by two smaller Corinthian columns and surmounted by the coat of arms of the monastery of Santa Maria in Porto. At the left and right end of the façade respectively stand statues of Sant'Agostino and Sant'Ubaldo, while the uppermost part is a triangular pediment bearing the Marian monogram:

Facade of Santa Maria in Porto Basilica by Wasso H., on Flickr

I’m curious to take a look at the inside of this magnificent church, but it is closed. However I spot on the door a sign telling it will open again two hours later, so I decide to go explore the monuments I originally came for, then return to Santa Maria in Porto on my way back to the train station.
Map: 12

I head back north, passing in front of Sant’Apollinare Basilica again, and decide to go west on the cobblestoned Via Marini. Among the buildings lining it, Casa Grossi / Vignuzzi (the light brown brick house on the left) seems to be of particular interest. The portal in Istrian stone, the façade and the window sills date this Mannerist style house back to the 16th or 17th century. In the inner courtyard there is a 16th century well in Verona marble.

Via Mariani by Wasso H., on Flickr

Map: 13

A little further stands the impressive Palazzo Corradini / Borghi. This large 17th century palace underwent significant remodeling in the following century. The portal, of disproportionately large size, incorporates an Istrian stone balcony. In the late 19th century, the palace was the seat of the meetings of the Revolutionary Socialist Party of Romagna, and today houses the headquarters of the Ravenna branch of the University of Bologna:

Palazzo Corradini / Borghi, on Via Mariani by Wasso H., on Flickr
Map: 14

A little further again stands one of the center’s signature buildings, the Dante Alighieri Theatre. Its first stone was laid in September 1840, when the city decided to build a new structure rather than restoring the 18th century Community Theatre. The new building was erected in a decaying although central area of the city, on the so-called Largo degli Svizzeri (Lot of the Swiss), and named after the famous poet Dante who spent his last days in Ravenna. Its construction was entrusted to the Venetian Meduna brothers, who were previously involved in the second restoration of the Fenice Theatre in Venice. The theatre was inaugurated in May 1852, and soon recognized as one of the best equipped in Italy:

Dante Alighieri Theater by Wasso H., on Flickr

Map: 15

Reflecting the style of the Meduna brothers, it presents a neoclassical exterior with an ionic tetrastyle portico above which there are four niches bearing statues of Muses: from left to right, Thalia, Muse of Comedy, Clio, Muse of History, probably Polyhymnia, Muse of Hymns and Sacred Poetry, and Terpsichore, Muse of Dance:

Dante Alighieri Theater by Wasso H., on Flickr
You're welcome, thank you in turn for the kind words and all the likes :eek:kay: There is more coming over the next days.

These are nice photos and I really appreciate showing us this beautiful ancient city of Ravenna with her strings of significant histories -
a total gem of Italy and of Christianity.
Thanks dude for this photo tour with a guide.:)
However, I just want to make a small correction which is and should have been St John the Evangelist,
a desciple of Jesus who was different from John the Baptist, a cousin and who baptized Jesus.
Ah yes :doh: Thanks a lot for pointing it out! I know these are two different saints, I just mistranslated the name in a moment of inattention :)
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Interesting, very nice photos from Ravenna, wasabi-cat :cheers:
Oustanding thread. The descriptions are very informative. The connection to Byzantium is fascinating.
Thank you guys, I'm glad you're enjoying it :)
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