16 November 2017

A day visiting the
Byzantine treasures
and churches in Ravenna

Mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Professor Judith Herrin of King’s College, London, is one of the greatest Byzantine scholars today. In one of her books, Byzantium: the Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, she recalls how the mosaics in Ravenna were her ‘first and most exciting introduction to Byzantine art.’

Her mother had seen an exhibition on the Ravenna mosaics and was keen to see the originals, while she was learning Italian at school. They both agreed that Ravenna should be the focus of a summer holiday. They rented a Fiat Cinquecento in Milan, and off they headed to Ravenna to see the mosaic panels that commemorate Justinian and Theodora.

It was only later that Judith Herrin wondered why portraits of rulers of Byzantium who never went to Ravenna flanked the approach to the altar in the church of San Vitale. For her, that journey from Milan to Ravenna was the beginning of the path to becoming the acclaimed Byzantine scholar she is today.

Earlier this week [15 November 2017], two of us set off, not by car but by train, and not from Milan but from Bologna, to see Ravenna, those Byzantine mosaics and some of its eight Unesco World Heritage Sites.

Ravenna was the capital of the Western Roman Empire from 402 until that empire collapsed in 476. It then became the capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom until it was re-conquered in 540 by the Byzantine Empire. Later, the city was the centre of the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna until the invasion of the Lombards in 751, and it then became the seat of the Kingdom of the Lombards.

The Romans ignored Ravenna during their conquest of the Po Delta, and it was not until 89 BC that it was incorporated into the Roman political system. It was here, then, that Julius Caesar gathered his forces in 49 BC before crossing the Rubicon.

Inside the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Today the city is landlocked, but Ravenna was an important Adriatic seaport until the early Middle Ages, and greatly prospered under Roman rule. In the year 402, Emperor Honorius transferred the capital of the Western Roman Empire from Milan to Ravenna, which was easy to defend because it was surrounded by swamps and marshes yet had good connections by sea to the Eastern Roman Empire.

However, Alaric and the Visigoths bypassed Ravenna in 409 and went on to sack Rome in 410, taking Galla Placidia, the daughter of Emperor Theodosius I, as a hostage.

When Galla Placidia eventually returned to Ravenna with her son, Emperor Valentinian III, and with the support of her nephew Theodosius II, Ravenna enjoyed a period of peace.

In that time, Ravenna gained some of its most famous monuments, including the Baptistry, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia – although she is not actually buried there – and the Church of Saint John the Evangelist.

After the collapse of Roman authority in the west, the Eastern Emperor Zeno sent the Theoderic the Great to retake the Italian peninsula. Theoderic took Ravenna in 493 and Ravenna became the capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy.

The fifth century mosaic of the Baptism of Christ in the Neonian Baptistry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Theoderic also built splendid buildings in and around Ravenna, including his palace church, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, an Arian cathedral, now Santo Spirito, a Baptistry, and his own Mausoleum outside the city walls.

Theoderic was an Arian, but he co-existed peacefully with the largely Orthodox people of Ravenna, and their bishops built more splendid church buildings, including the Capella Arcivescovile. When a mob burned down the synagogues of Ravenna in 519, Theoderic ordered the city to rebuild them at its own expense.

Theoderic died in 526 and in 540 the Byzantine Empire recaptured Ravenna, which became the seat of Byzantine government in Italy. Ravenna’s bishops embarked on a new building programme that included the Basilica of San Vitale and the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe.

Under Byzantine rule, the Archbishop of Ravenna enjoyed autonomy from Rome, and held the second place in Italy after the Pope. But Byzantine rule came to an end in Ravenna in 751 when it was captured by the Lombards. Ravenna gradually came under the direct authority of the Popes. Pope Adrian I allowed Charlemagne to take away anything from Ravenna that he liked, and an unknown number of columns, mosaics, statues and other items were pillaged and taken to Aachen.

In the 14th century, Dante came to live in Ravenna in 1318, and the city is mentioned in Canto V in Dante’s Inferno. When Dante died in 1321, on his way back to Ravenna from a diplomatic mission in Venice, he was buried in Ravenna at the Church of San Pier Maggiore, now known as San Francesco.

Apart from another short occupation by Venice (1527-1529), Ravenna was part of the Papal States until 1796, when it was annexed by the French. It returned to the Papal States in 1814.

Lord Byron lived in Ravenna from 1819 to 1821, when he worked on Don Juan and wrote his Ravenna Diary.

Ravenna became part of the modern state of Italy in 1861. Surprisingly, the city suffered very little damage during World War II.

In all, eight early Christian monuments and buildings in Ravenna are listed by Unesco as World Heritage sites: the Orthodox Baptistry, also called the Baptistry of Neon; the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia; the Arian Baptistry; the Archiepiscopal Chapel; the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo; the Mausoleum of Theoderic; the Basilica of San Vitale; and the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe.

In just one day, I managed to visit many of these this week, as well as the Church of Saint John the Evangelist, which was built in the fifth century by Galla Placidia and was restored after the World War II bombings; the tomb of Dante; and the Palace of Theoderic, which was, in fact, the entrance to the former church of San Salvatore.

On each occasion, the visit was overpowering and left me in awe and wonder. But Ravenna is worth a fuller account at a later stage.

The visit of the Magi in the sixth century Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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