It is one of the Region of Emilia Romagna's most fascinating cities, a perfect mix of art, culture, relaxation and fun: Ravenna, magnificent and ancient place attracting visitors from all over that come to discover this Capital of Mosaics. This city of art, also a maritime hub, boasts more than 18.6 miles of coastline, and a rather lovely port.
In 1996, UNESCO named Ravenna to its World Heritage List, declaring that the city preserves a religious monumental complex from the Paleochristian epoch, extremely important in terms both artistic and historic.
In 402 A.D., the Roman Emperor Honorius transferred the Western Roman Empire from Milan to Ravenna as a security measure. The city thus abandoned its more provincial appearance and took on all the pomp and circumstance of an Imperial residence. From that time on, Ravenna was thrice a capital (later of the Ostrogothic Kingdom and Byzantine Empire).
Eight monuments in total had a hand in the Romagnolan city’s meriting the UNESCO title, beginning with the Galla Placidia Mausoleum that, according to the history was built in the 5th Century, commissioned as a family tomb by the Empress. The Mausoleum contains superb mosaics in the Classical style. The grace and harmony of this mosaic work is rendered even more intriguing by the richness of its colors: peacock blue, moss green, gold and orange. It is also said that the structure inspired Cole Porter’s legendary song “Night and Day.” When the singer was visiting Ravenna on his honeymoon, he was awestruck by the mosaic-adorned cupola that depicted a nighttime sky in which 900 golden stars shine. When observed, the mosaic seems to alternate between night and day… hence the song!
Two other of Ravenna’s masterworks are the Mausoleum of Theoderic and the Baptistery of Neon (also known as the Orthodox Baptistry). The first was constructed with large blocks of Istrian stone and covered with a massive monolith of 300 tons at its top; the second, from the 5th Century, astounds for its polychrome mosaic decoration of the cupola.
Meanwhile, another magnificent cupola is that of the Arian Baptistery, edified by Theoderic for the Arian Cult in Italy – similarly to the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (in the so-called Quarter of the Goths) - consecrated to the Catholic Cult as early as c. 560. The Basilica’s central nave walls are completely covered by highly-luminous mosaics, in both Byzantine and Classical styles.
One of the finest artistic realizations in the Paleochristian tradition of Ravenna is the Basilica di San Vitale, dating back to 526. Its extraodinary interior seems to soar in all its marbled and mosaiced glory, of which the green and gold mosaics in the Presbytery and the apse particularly stand out. On the first floor of the Palazzo Arcivescovile (today seat of the homonymous Museum), one finds a singular monument, raised during the reign of Theoderic: the Orthodox Cappella Arcivescovile (Archbisoph’s Chapel). Visitors will find its mosaic of Christ the Warrior (bearing the Cross) to be absolutely breathtaking.
Finally, just outside Ravenna lies Sant’Apollinare in Classe, known above all for its mosaic depicting Ravenna’s Patron Saint within a pastoral landscape.
Along with its sister monuments, it is an extraordinary testimony to the mastery of the art of the mosaic, as well as to the tight network of artistic and religious relationships during a very significant cultural moment in the history of Europe. This city takes visitors back to the fascinating Byzantine era, via a tactile and visual discovery of these rare and captivating treasures, amazingly still intact today.
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Ravenna is also the site of the tomb of Dante Alighieri, consummate Italian poet; as a Florentine exile, he found refuge in the Romagnolan city, where he died in 1321.
During the last week of April, Ravenna celebrates its hundred-year-old Spring Fest. On Saturday evening, a large “old woman” mask is paraded on a cart before being burned, a sort of preparation ritual to herald the new season. Then, on Sunday afternoon, a grande parade of floats also makes its way through the city streets.
Ravenna can be found on the Romagnola Riviera, 18.6 mi from the splendid town of Faenza, famous throughout the world for its ancient majolica and ceramics production.