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.
Thank you! I have a good picture of the Good Sheperd lunette which I will share later, but the Three Magi leading the procession of Virgins (in Sant'Apollinare Basilica) I didn't have in closeup, so it's a great addition kay:
At the northern end of Via Ferruzzi I come across an unexpected find, a leaning medieval tower reminiscent of a much better known one in a certain other city of Emilia-Romagna. This is Torre Civica or the Municipal Tower. As happened in many other Italian city-states, the ruling class of Ravenna began to raise numerous noble towers as a symbol of power and social prestige at the beginning of the 11th century, and one of them was Torre Civica, built in the 12th century and originally called Torre dei Beccai (Tower of the Butchers). At the end of the 13th century, all noble towers were demolished by order of the papal rector, who wanted to establish his power over the city, and Torre Civica was the only one escaping demolition because it had previously become property of the city:
The 39 meter tower was used for centuries as a watchtower and occupied by a guard who would ring a bell in case of alarm, fire or flooding, or for the summoning of the town council. In 2000, its top was removed in order to prevent the possible collapse of the structure, which is subject to a slow underground landslide and consequently to a gradual inclination, caused by its proximity to the ancient river Padenna. Two peculiar stone fragments depicting a head inside a niche, probably of a woman, and a horseman turning his back to her, remain at the base of the tower.
Adjacent to Torre Civica is Casa Melandri, a Venetian residence of the 15th -16th century. The three arches with terracotta decorations and some internal walls are the only surviving parts of the original structure, while the rest of the house has been altered over time. The pillars and the upper part of the facade have also been reinforced to withstand the pressure exerted by the leaning tower. The building, formerly belonging to the Melandri family, became property of the city in the 19th century and was first used as a depot of manure, then a garage. It underwent an internal restructuration between 1978 and 1982, and houses today a conference room and public offices:
While further to the east we find the interesting Casa Maioli / Stanghellini. This Venetian building of the 15th century is made up of two originally distinct dwellings, one of which preserves a long chimney with octagonal section facade and mullioned windows with stone capitals and terracotta arches, typical elements of Venetian architecture:
The inner courtyard contains a well, and analyses have highlighted the presence of four layers of frescoes in the main rooms, probably dated to different periods between the original phase and the 19th century. The house belonged to the noble Maioli family of Faenza in the 19th century, then passed to other owners, and was restored in 1912.
Heading west from Torre Civica, I pass next to the impressive Covered market. Its southern façade looks onto Piazza Andrea Costa, whose area had been known for its commercial vocation since ancient times. Excavations began in 1915 to set the foundation for a covered market, which brought to light the 15th century remains of the Marino bridge that crossed the Padenna river. The market with its current dimensions was inaugurated in 1922. It is organized in four large pavilions and embellished with floral-themed decorations of marble and Istrian stone. The façade is made of brick with a base of stone. A total renovation was carried out in the 1980s, and another transformation is underway that will turn it from a food retail market to a mixed shopping center:
On Piazza Andrea Costa stands this beautiful building, another one whose name or function I couldn’t find. The 14th century bell tower of the former church of San Michele in Africisco can be seen in the back, with its Gothic mullioned windows:
Nearby stands the church of San Domenico, one of the most imposing buildings in Ravenna. It was erected in the 13th century along the Padenna river, together with the adjacent Dominican monastery, and enlarged in the following century. Traces of six pointed arches are still visible in the lower part of the bare 13th century façade (never completed), three on each side of the entrance, probably originally occupied by sarcophagi. The base of the arches is now 1.50 meters below the current street level:
The church was almost entirely and quickly rebuilt in the 18th century. The interior has a single nave with seven chapels, three on each side of the nave and one to the left of the apse. Fragments of 14th century frescoes from the Rimini school are preserved in the sacristy and in the bell tower chapel, and the church also hosts Late Renaissance and neoclassical works by major Ravenna painters. Today deconsecrated and used as an exhibition hall, it was closed that afternoon, so I couldn’t take pictures of the certainly impressive interior.
From there, I take Via Cavour to go further west, which seems to be the city’s main commercial artery. I find a vault somewhere along it that leads onto a peaceful courtyard with a fountain in the middle and two brick turrets in the back, housing Café Corte Cavour:
I then turn north and arrive to the monumental San Vitale complex, home to the last two monuments mentioned on my ticket. The entrance to the complex is through a 18th century Istrian stone portal with two lateral niches that had elicited at the time a lukewarm reception from the Ravennati, who considered it not to live up to the high construction cost:
Before entering the San Vitale Basilica itself, I decide to take a look at two churches located on Via Galla Placidia, which runs along the right of the complex. The first one is the church of Santa Maria Maggiore; it was erected between 525 and 532, originally on a Latin cross plan, then rebuilt in the 17th century in baroque style. Among the few surviving parts of the original building are the Corinthian columns and the apse, believed by some scholars to be part of a building in which Empress Galla Placidia (daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, and sister of Emperor Honorius who transferred the capital of the Western Empire from Milan to Ravenna in 402 AD) resided at a time. The cylindrical bell tower dates back to the 9th - 10th century, roughly the same period as the ones of Sant’Apollinare Basilica and the Cathedral:
The apse once had a rich mosaic decoration, which was progressively lost starting in the mid 16th century. Nevertheless, the church still houses Late Renaissance paintings and sculptures, and the tombs of several important personages of Ravenna, most notably of architect Camillo Morigia. At the bottom of the left aisle, it is possible to admire a painting of Saint Paul visiting Saint Agatha in prison, while on the right hand side is an altar housing the very unique Our Lady of the Tumors. Originally known as Madonna of the Swellings, it is a fresco surrounded by an ornate stucco frame and sculptures, which depicts Our Lady with a red swollen cheek and holding the infant Jesus on her lap. The church’s door appears to be open in the picture, so I have no idea why I didn’t go in to explore the interesting interior:
A little further to the north is the Basilica of Santa Croce (of the Holy Cross), which was erected in the first half of the 5th century by Empress Galla Placidia. It originally had three naves preceded by a long narthex (portico) and ending in two symmetrical sacella (oratories for the veneration of saints). The only surviving sacellum was dedicated to San Lorenzo, and is the so called Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, which I will showcase a little later. The church underwent many elevations and reconstructions over the centuries, and is today closed to the public:
The apse we see today dates back from the 15th century, the façade from the 17th century and the bell tower from the 18th century. Additionally, the church was separated from the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia at the beginning of the 17th century to make room for the street passing in front of it:
The early Christian Basilica possessed a rich mosaic and stucco decoration, today almost completely lost. Some noteworthy mosaic fragments however are still visible in the structures unearthed around the church:
I head then for the Basilica of San Vitale. Between the external gate and the church is the Ravenna National Museum, housed within the cloisters of the old Benedictine Monastery of San Vitale built in the early 11th century:
The museum displays many important archaeological findings collected from the 18th century onwards: funeral steles and Roman epigraphs, Oriental marble capitals, decorated sarcophagi, various artifacts dating back to the 5th and 6th centuries, Renaissance bronze statuettes, carved ivory pieces, icons, majolica ceramics, a collection of ancient weapons, and a series of frescoes dating back to the 14th century. However I had limited time left on my hands before the monuments would close, so I decided not to explore the museum, whose entry fee wasn’t comprised in the ticket anyway:
The Basilica of San Vitale is one of the world’s most important monuments of Early Christian art. Work on it began in the year before the death of King Theodoric, and it was completed in Byzantine times, consecrated in 548 and dedicated to Saint Vitalis, an early Christian martyr. In this church, the typical division into a nave and two aisles is replaced by a central, octagonal plan inspired by a martyrium (an octagonal structure erected in memory of a martyr) and topped by a cupola:
The architecture of the Basilica furthermore blends Eastern art with Western tradition: while the symmetry, the dome and the external brick work denote Roman influences, the polygonal apse and the early flying buttresses are typically Byzantine, as is the interior:
The Basilica’s highlight however is the stunning mosaic decoration of the apse and the presbytery with its sheer amount of detail and color. The triumphal arch leading there is decorated with fifteen mosaic medallions depicting the twelve Apostles, Saint Gervasius and Saint Protasius (the sons of Saint Vitalis), and Jesus Christ at the center, symbolically supporting the central stone of the arch:
The concept of mystical sacrifice occupies a central place in the iconography of the mosaics inside, cutting across various historical periods. The archetype of this sacrifice is the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, whose image occupies the center of the vault over the presbytery, directly above the altar. The cross-ribbed vault, richly ornamented with mosaic festoons of leaves, fruit and flowers, converges on a disc depicting the Llamb on a blue background, and carried by four angels dressed in white representing the four corners of the earth. The angels are surrounded by a profusion of flowers, stars, birds and fish representing the flora and fauna of paradise:
Below, the top part of the apse’s arch depicts two angels holding a disc with concentric circles and rays radiating from its center, while on the sides are representations of the cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, symbolizing the human race (Jerusalem representing the Jews, and Bethlehem the Gentiles).
The Theophany scene in the apse basin is of particular interest. It depicts the young Christ sitting on a blue sphere, with the four rivers of paradise flowing at his feet, and the archangels Michael and Gabriel standing around him. The Christ is offering the Crown of Glory to the martyr San Vitale to the left, while to the right, the bishop Ecclesius offers the Christ the basilica of the next imperial victory:
The lower part of the apse contains the famous panels depicting Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora surrounded by their courts, which complement each other and symbolize the alliance between Church and State. In the left panel, Justinian, surrounded by a halo of glory (sign of the divine origin of imperial power), presents a gold paten symbolizing the Eucharistic Bread for the newly consecrated basilica. To his right, the Archbishop Maximian leads the procession holding a cross, and is accompanied by two deacons holding a golden Bible and an incense burner. In the right panel, Theodora, also surrounded by a halo of glory, is seen offering a chalice as a gift for the Basilica. To her left are two eunuchs who prepare the way for her cortege. It is believed that the faces of Justinian and Theodora were copied from official imperial portraits and sent especially from Constantinople for the occasion.
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