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)

The joys and tears
evoked by travelling
by train in Bologna

Travelling through Bologna Centrale … clean, efficient and welcoming (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Bologna is one of the cleanest, most elegant and most efficient cities I have visited in Italy. The public transport is easy to understand and is cheap, compared with travel in either Ireland or Britain. The train fare from Bologna to Ravenna is only €7.35, still cheaper than the bus fare from Askeaton to Limerick or the train fare from Lichfield to Birmingham.

And on the return journey late yesterday [15 November 2017], there were profuse apologies at regular intervals that the train was running late, first by nine minutes, and then by 12 minutes.

So often, when I have experienced delays like this on public transport in Ireland or England, there is neither an explanation nor an apology.

Part of the reading I have taken with me this week is John Hooper’s new book The Italians (London: Penguin, 2016). He expresses surprise in the way Bologna’s public transport system is 20 years ahead of Rome, but goes on explain how this reflects the innate character of Bologna.

We moved through Bologna Centrale, on the northern edge of the city centre, with efficiency and with courtesy. Yet this is the fifth-busiest station in Italy.

A fissure remembers the bombing on 2 August 1980 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The new, three-level Bologna Centrale station was designed in July 2008 by an architectural consortium of Andrea Maffei, Arata Isozaki, Ove Arup and M + T & Partners. But the first Bologna Centrale station was built in 1859, and a second station was built 12 years later on the same site.

Until the 1940s, it was topped by a clock tower with marble pillars, but the tower was damaged by allied bombings in World War II and not rebuilt.

But the station was destroyed on 2 August 1980 at 10.25 a.m., when an improvised explosive device made with 20 kg of a TNT mixture exploded, killing 85 people and injuring more than 200 others.

At the time, the station was crammed full of people, and the blast was heard for miles. The roof of the waiting room collapsed onto passengers, which greatly increased the total number murdered. The youngest victim, Angela Fresu, was 3; the oldest, Antonio Montanari, was 86.

At first, the Italian Prime Minister, Francesco Cossiga, and his government said the explosion had been caused by the explosion of an old boiler located in the basement of the station. But the Italian government soon accused neo-fascist militant groups for the attack, although no group has ever accepted responsibility.

A monument near Piazza Maggiore to the victims of Fascist terrorism in Bologna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The attack was probably carried out by a small neo-fascist group, Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari (NAR). The Italian press agency Ansa received a telephone call from someone claiming to represent NAR and claiming responsibility. But the call later proved to be fake, and was made from the Florence office of SISMI, the Italian Military Secret Service. Later, Federigo Manucci Benincasa, the director of SISMI in Florence, was charged with the obstruction of justice.

In the days that followed, Piazza Maggiore in the city centre hosted large-scale demonstrations. The funerals took place in the Basilica of San Petronio on 6 August. President Sandro Pertini said in tears: ‘I have no words, we are facing the most criminal enterprise that has ever taken place in Italy.’

The Bologna massacre is the fourth deadliest terrestrial terrorist attack in Western Europe – after the Nice attack in 2016, the Paris attacks in 2015, and the Madrid train bombings in 2004.

The area in the station where the bomb exploded has been rebuilt. But the original floor tile pierced by the explosion has been left in place and a deep crack, closed by a glass panel, has been made in the reconstructed main wall. In a second memorial, the station clock that stopped at 10.25 a.m., has been repaired but permanently set at the time of the explosion.

The clock has stopped at 10.25 a.m. in Bologna Centrale (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)