Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Sleepy Historical Ravenna

Ravenna street
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
On the ninth day of our trip, we finally said good-bye to our beloved Florence and embarked on our journey to Ravenna, via Bologna. The drive through Tuscany was gorgeous, punctuated by crossing endless tunnels connected by short views of rocky landscapes and trees, at least one mile long and one over six miles long. Even though the tunnels were well lit, we took a new variant to the autostrada and it made us wonder if we would ever escape this very long tunnel in which we seemed to be the only travelers. We were becoming quite anxious to emerge at the other end of the tunnel and making bets what the weather would be like. We felt like moles trying to dig our way out of one rocky mountain after another. We reached Ravenna in about two hours after the brief stop at an Autogrill to recharge our human batteries with a sandwich and a glass of freshly squeezed blood orange juice.

Ravenna turned out to be a breath of fresh air, very few tourists, and a sleepy and semi-closed town because of Mother’s Day. Few restaurants were open, museums, and churches. Even the Basilica of San Francesco was closed for siesta. Italians love their lengthy siesta; I don’t know how they get anything accomplished when they work so few hours every day in the service sector.

Jazz band in front of San Vitale
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
As soon as we turned the corner for Basilica of San Vitale, a jazz band was entertaining people on the street right in front of it. The saxophone players clad in red shirts and blue jeans were part of the 2016 Ravenna Jazz Festival, the 43rd edition, May 2-14.

Ravenna is an inland city in the state of Emilia-Romagna, northern Italy, connected to the Adriatic Sea by the Candiano Canal. Although small, its significance to Western Civilization is evident in its rich history.

Ravenna was the capital of the Western Roman Empire from 402 A.D. until 476 A.D. when the Roman Empire of the West collapsed under the siege of barbarian king Odoacer who “proclaimed himself king of Italy.”

Italians consider the origins of Ravenna as “lost in legend,” probably inhabited by Umbrians and then Etruscans. Evidence shows that in the second century B.C., the Po Valley was colonized by Rome and Ravenna became part of the Roman Republic in 89 B.C.

Back then Ravenna had houses built on piles on several sandy islands in a lagoon. Julius Caesar is believed to have assembled his soldiers in Ravenna in 49 B.C. before crossing the Rubicon.

Emperor Augustus established the military port at Classe in 31 B.C. Classe was 4 km east south-east of Ravenna, near the head of the Adriatic coast. It maintained its strategic location for almost 500 years as a military and commercial port. Classe probably derived its name from the Latin word classis, fleet.

Emperor Trajan built a 70 km long aqueduct in Ravenna at the beginning of the second century. According to Birley, when Germanic settlers took possession of Ravenna during a revolt, Marcus Aurelius stopped bringing any more barbarians into Italy and banished those who had previously been brought there.

Ravenna had 50,000 inhabitants when Emperor Honorius transferred the capital of the Western Empire from Milan to Ravenna in 402 A.D. The transfer took place because Ravenna was seen as easily defensible since it was surrounded by swamps, and it had Porto di Classe connection to the Eastern Roman Empire.

The Visigoths did not care about Ravenna’s defensible location, King Alaric bypassed it and sacked Rome in 410 and took Galla Placidia, daughter of Emperor Theodosius I, hostage.

When Theodoric conquered Ravenna in 493 A.D., he is said to have killed Odoacer with his own hands. Theodoric built not just his palace church Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and the Arian cathedral now named Santo Spirito and Baptistery, but also his own Mausoleum outside the walls.

Theodoric and Odoacer were Arian Christians who co-existed in peace with the Latins who were Orthodox. Orthodox bishops made their mark on Ravenna but only Capella Arcivescovile survived.

Roman citizens in Theodoric’s kingdom could follow Roman law and judicial system, while the Goths lived under their own laws and customs. When a throng burned down the synagogues of Ravenna in 519, Theodoric forced the town to rebuild at its own expense.

Theodoric died in 526 and the last representative of his line was a woman. The subsequent gothic rulers in Italy were not as successful as Theodoric. The Orthodox Christian Byzantine Emperor Justinian opposed the Ostrogoth rule and their brand of Arian Christianity. His general, Belisarius, invaded Italy in 540 and conquered Ravenna which became the seat of the Byzantine government in Italy in 554.

Monuments were built during this period for sixty years around Ravenna and Classe; the Basilica of San Vitale, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, and parts of San Michele in Africisco still survive today.

It is believed that Pope Adrian I had authorized Charlemagne to take anything portable from Ravenna that he liked, such as Roman columns, mosaics, statues, and other treasures that were then shipped to his capital in Aachen.

Dante's Tomb exterior
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The famous poet Dante was exiled in Ravenna and died there in 1321. His Neo-Classical tomb is located on the side of the garden of Basilica di San Francesco. The elaborate tomb is facing a paved street. It almost seems out of place as if it was dropped there by mistake.

Ravenna continued to be ruled by many, including Venice and various legates of the Pope as part of the Papal States. It was even sacked by the French in 1512 during the Holy League wars.

The former port became covered with silt and returned to its marshy state until modern era reconstruction when the Candiano Canal was widened and trade was brought back to the city.

“The city was damaged in a tremendous flood in May 1636. Over the next 300 years, a network of canals diverted nearby rivers and drained nearby swamps, thus reducing the possibility of flooding and creating a large belt of agricultural land around the city.”

With eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Ravenna has many well-preserved late Roman and Byzantine architectural gems. 

San Vitale Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016 
The Basilica di San Vitale was founded by Bishop Ecclesio (522-532) after his trip to Constantinople with Pope John I in 525, a year before Theodoric’s death. Legend has it that San Vitale was a “Roman soldier martyred during the early Christian persecutions.” It is considered “The most glorious example of Byzantine art in the west.” Giuliano Argentario, a wealthy banker living in Ravenna, financed the basilica’s construction.

The eastern influence is so strong, the basilica is octagon shaped, with a dome, eight columns and arches, without the traditional three naves.  Bishop Maximian, who consecrated the basilica in April 548, appears in one of the mosaics. The splendor of the mosaics, the marbled mosaic floors, the intricate columns, the beautiful greens, the stories depicted on the ceiling and the walls, the glittery gold, the light shining down onto the marbled floors transported me into that time for a brief moment.

San Vitale interior Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
San Vitale mosaic Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
San Vitale mosaics Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Mosaic of Justinian I in San Vitale Photo: Wikipedia
Galla Placidia empty sarcophagus
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Across the courtyard from San Vitale is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. It is said that she had commissioned its construction. Built in the second quarter of the 5th century, this extremely well-preserved monument in the shape of a Latin cross, never housed the mortal remains of Galla Placidia. According to the museum archives, she was buried in Rome in 450 A.D. in the Theodosian Mausoleum near St. Peter’s.

The dark interior of the mausoleum has vaults and lunettes covered in mosaics with ancient Roman traditions, no eastern influence here. The motif and the atmosphere seem more spiritual with its midnight blue sky on the ceiling. There is some diffused light flowing through the alabaster windows. The dominant theme is Christian redemption hence the belief that the building was intended as a mausoleum.

According to the museum archives, “The dome is decorated with concentric circles of golden stars on an indigo background, and the cross in the center symbolizes Christ’s triumph over death and a promise of salvation to the faithful. The long arm of the cross points towards east (Salvation will come from the East).” Golden angels, the four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and some of the Apostles like Peter and Paul are recognizable, dressed in white togas like Roman senators.

Galla Placidia Mausoleum ceiling
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
A pair of doves and a pair of deer are drinking from a vase of crystal clear water and from blue waters, a symbol of “souls who drink from the waters of true faith and eternal life.”

There are three Greek marble tombs which some scholars believe, were not placed in the mausoleum until the 14th century.

The central tomb is known as Galla Placidia’s; it looks unfinished, and has no decorations or inscriptions.
The left arm has a 5th century tomb believed to be Galla Placidia’s second husband, Constantinus III.
On the right arm of the mausoleum is the 6th century tomb believed to belong to Galla Placidia’s son, Valentinian III.

Theodoric Mausoleum Photo: Wikipedia
Theodoric’s Mausoleum is an interesting monument he built to himself in 520 on the site of a former Gothic cemetery. Theodoric, who never knew how to read or write, remained an Ostrogoth even though he was educated at the court of Constantinople.

The two story ten-sided structure was built from large, square blocks of Istrian stone secured with iron cramps. The roof is a circular cover made from one block of Istrian stone, 11 meters in diameter, one meter thick, and weighing 500 tons.

There is a porphyritic urn in the middle of the room once thought to contain the remains of Theodoric. However, the archivists believe that “his body was probably removed when the city fell into Byzantine hands, and the churches were taken over by the orthodox Catholics.”

The ceiling is slanted on one side; legend says that Theodoric knew of the prediction that he would be struck by lighting and, during a heavy storm he hid beneath the great stone roof to protect himself. He was killed by lightning and the flash cracked the roof. The crack, however, was likely caused during renovations.

Galla Placidia, while at sea with her children during a terrible storm, returning from Constantinople to Ravenna, made a vow to Saint Giovanni Evangelista that she would build a church bearing his name if God spared them during the ferocious storm. Thus San Giovanni Evangelista was begun in 425. The church was renovated many times and was almost destroyed in a bombing raid in 1944.

The Battistero degli Ariani (the Baptistery of the Arians) was built in the late 5th century in front of the church of Spirito Santo (formerly known as Cattedrale degli Ariani) during Theodoric’s rule when Arianism had become the court religion. The octagonal building sunk more than two meters and no longer displays the original mosaics except on the dome. The Catholics turned the baptistery into an oratory during the second half of the 6th century.

An Alexandrian presbyter named Arius, condemned by the Council of Nicaea (325), advocated Arianism, a heretical doctrine. “Arius disputed the Christian doctrine over the divine nature of the son of God, who was generated and therefore not equal to the Father, thus denying the divinity of Christ.”

Neonian Baptistery Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Neonian Baptistery Font
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The Battistero degli Ortodossi (the Baptistery of the Orthodox) or Neonian Baptistery is Ravenna’s oldest ancient monuments. The simple, octagonal brick building dates its construction in the late 4th or early 5th century. The original entrance is actually three meters below the current surface. The beautiful mosaics inside were made at the request of Bishop Neone during the mid-fifth century, hence its name. In the middle, there is an octagonal Greek marble and porphyry font, rebuilt in 1500.
Sant'Apollinare Nuovo Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Another late 5th century and early 6th century basilica, built at the behest of Theodoric, as a place of worship for Arians and dedicated to Christ the Redeemer, is Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo. When the relics of Sant’Apollinare were allegedly transferred here from the basilica in Classe, the church took its current name. The interior has three naves and is richly decorated with mosaics.

Sant'Apollinare Nuovo interior Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Mosaics on the left depict episodes from the life of Christ: Jesus multiplying the loaves and the fishes; Jesus at the wedding Cana; Jesus heals the blind man of Jericho; Jesus heals the sick; Jesus and the Good Samaritan at the well; the raising of Lazarus; the widow’s mite; Jesus divides the sheep from the goats; Jesus heals the palsied man at Capernaum; the healing of the madman; and the healing of the palsied man at Bethesda.

Mosaics on the right display scenes about the passion and resurrection of Christ (without the crucifixion): Jesus and the Apostles at the Last Supper; Jesus on the Mount of Olives; Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss; Christ taken for judgment; Christ before the synedrium; the announcement of Peter’s denial; Peter denies Christ; Judas repents; Christ before Pontius Pilate; Christ ascend Calvary with Simon the Cyrenian; the resurrection of Christ; the disciples of Emmaus; and the doubting Thomas.
Sant’Apollinare in Classe is a magnificent red brick monument consecrated by Bishop Maximian in 549, but built at the behest of Bishop Ursicino. Like San Vitale, the building was financed by the rich banker with a very fitting name, Giuliano Argentario. The basilica “remains one of the most expressive examples of Byzantine art, a veritable ‘house of prayer,’ the purest form of ancient Christian basilica.” The mosaics and the paintings are magnificent for the time period. There is a crypt that was built in the 9th century.  Below the high altar there is a “Greek marble sarcophagus which was restructured in 1511 and which originally contained the mortal remains of Sant’Apollinare before these were transferred to the high altar.”

Ten Greek marble sarcophagi line the lateral naves – these are the bishops of Ravenna. The sarcophagi offer an interesting lesson in sculpture development from 5th-8th century.

Ravenna's Duomo Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The Duomo is Ravenna’s first cathedral known as basilica ursiana, built by Bishop Orso at the beginning of the 5th century, dedicated to the resurrection of the Lord. The only fragments left of the original building are the transenae which are preserved in the archiepiscopal museum. There are two urns preserved inside; one was used in 1321 as the tomb of Archbishop Rinaldo da Concorreggio and the other as the tomb of San Barbaziano, Galla Placidia confessor and advisor, whose “mortal remains were placed here in 1658 but he died in the second half of the 5th century.

Chapel of San Andrea mosaic ceiling
Photo: Ileana Johnson
Bishop Maximian's Ivory Throne
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The Archiepiscopal Museum and Chapel of San Andrea contains, among many collections, the ivory throne used as a liturgical seat of Bishop Maximian who consecrated both basilicas of San Vitale and Sant’Apollinare in Classe. He served as Bishop of Ravenna around the middle of the 6th century. It is considered a “masterpiece of early Christian sculpture.”

Dante's Tomb
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The monument erected to Dante is a small temple in neo-classical style, built at the order of the Legate Luigi Valenti Gonzaga who commissioned it in 1780 from the architect Camillo Morigia.  According to archives, Dante Alighieri was buried under a small portico in the church of San Francesco located now behind the monument.

Guido Novello da Polenta had every intention of building a monument for the poet but his rule ended a few months after Dante’s death. Captain Bernardo Bembo commissioned the urn and asked Pietro Lombardo to add a portrait to the tomb which is still found inside. Bembo had the tomb inscribed with the following Latin epitaph coined by Bernardo Canaccio in 1327:

“I sang of the rights of the monarchy, of the heavens and of the waters of Flegetonte, until I met my mortal destiny. But my soul was welcomed in better places and more blessed still reached the stars and the Creator. Here in this urn lies Dante, exiled from his native land, born to Florence, an unloving mother.”

According to archives, there was a bizarre fight in 1519 over Dante’s remains. Pope Leo X gave Florentines permission to take Dante’s body back to Florence.  When they got to Ravenna, “they found an empty burial chamber. During the night, the Franciscan Friars had made a hole in the wall from the monastery and had carried the body away, hiding it in another monastery nearby. Later, in 1677, Padre Antonio Santi had Dante’s body placed in a wooden casket engraved with the poet’s name and the date of his death. When the friars had to leave the monastery in 1810, as a result of the Napoleonic laws, the small box was hidden beneath an old gateway near Branccioforte (not far from the site of the present tomb).” The casket was found in 1865 during excavations and Dante’s remains were placed in the original urn.

San Francesco courtyard
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Basilica di San Francesco sign
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The last stop was a visit to San Francesco. This ancient church was built in the 5th century by Bishop Neone and dedicated to the Apostles Peter and Paul. According to archivists, nothing remains of the original church which was rebuilt in 10th-11th century and renamed San Pietro Maggiore. When the church was handed over to Franciscan friars, it was renamed St. Francis in 1261.

San Francesco Basilica fa├žade
Photo: Wikipedia
The austere wooden ceiling is shaped like the hull of a ship. The church is divided into three naves and receives light from windows in the semi-circular apse. Close to the bell tower there are fragments of sculptures dating back to the 6th century. On the left side there are two sarcophagi from the 4th century. There is another sarcophagus in the apse from the 4th century. It is Bishop Liberio’s tomb and it serves as the high altar.

San Francesco crypt with swimming fish
Photo: Ileana Johnson
Side view of crypt below the high altar
Photo: Ileana Johnson
The most curious feature of this church is its 10th century crypt which is clearly visible through a center window and two side windows below the high altar. The archives describe the crypt as having been designed like an “oratory and held up by small pillars. The floor is covered in mosaic fragments from the original church. The crypt is situated much lower than ground level and is consequently subject to flooding.”

I found it strange that the flooded crypt is stocked with fish who are swimming over the preserved mosaics in the darkness. The only light comes from the occasional tourist like me who might put one euro in the vending machine and the flooded crypt with crystal clear water, the mosaics, and the columns would light up for three minutes, enough for all the nearby visitors to take photographs.

I left the church with a feeling of loss and sadness and I could not explain why. The beautiful garden to the left of the church was covered in greenery, in stark contrast to the centuries-old aged brick.

Passatori grill feast fit for a king
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
We were really hungry but everything seemed closed. On the way to the car, we found a mom and pop restaurant called Passatori with faded pictures of plates of grilled meats and vegetables in the window. We went inside; the restaurant was full of loud Italians and Germans from two separate groups, no sign of any American but us. They were closing soon and I asked them in Italian if they would feed us since we were so hungry. They agreed with a frown, charged us each four euros cover because the area was not touristy enough, and seated us at the worst table in the restaurant, in a corner, by the only opened window. As it turned out, it was a blessing in disguise as the window provided much needed cool air – there was no air conditioning running yet.

I speak fluent Italian and my husband and I must look German because on several occasions German tourists approached us for directions speaking German, but Dave’s red baseball cap with his college logo gave us away. The cap came in handy when it connected us briefly with other Ohio State fans who were visiting Venice.

No matter how much we smiled, we could not endear ourselves to the serving staff at Passatori who did not say a word to us after we ordered, treating us like dirt under their feet. The other customers around looked at us as if we had landed from the planet Mars. But the food was divine, just like the discolored pictures showed in the window; the table was covered with crisp and clean linens, and the local beer was delicious. Dave was in grilled meat and vegetables heaven!

We left Ravenna after we hobbled back to our free parking, certainly unusual for Italy where nothing is free. It felt good to sit down in the car and rest my very painful knees. We just did not know how long we would have to drive to get to our next destination, Venice.




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