RAVENNA, Italy — This city, ancient and new, feels as if it is by the sea — it is in the air, the mist in which large umbrella pines, oleander and bougainvillea thrive — but the Adriatic no longer laps at Ravenna’s door. It’s five miles away.
The naval base that Augustus Caesar developed here may have been home to a fleet of 250 ships. The base was in Classe — Classis to the Romans — about three miles southeast of Ravenna.
Thus it was that the Basilica of St. Apollinare in Classe (to distinguish it from the earlier St. Apollinare Nuovo) was built so sailors could attend conveniently. Earlier here means about 50 years, and that was in the first part of the sixth century.
Now the road from metropolitan Ravenna to the rural setting of St. Apollinare in Classe passes through flat farmland, with shopping areas and large apartment buildings clustered beside the highway.
It is neither the sea nor Caesar that brings travelers to Ravenna. On the interior walls, domes and floors of churches, baptisteries and mausoleums awaits what has been called the world’s greatest collection of Byzantine art. Ravenna is, bar none, No. 1 for mosaics; the craft is still practiced, sold in shops and taught in university classes.
On a chilly, foggy morning, I walk outside the Basilica of St. Vitale, completed about 548. The walls of long, thin bricks do not seem remarkable except that they obviously are very old. I enter the basilica, and the sun breaks out, shining through the alabaster windows to illuminate the interior, showing off the fields of gold tesserae in the mosaics at their most brilliant.
St. Vitale’s mosaics stun the eyes with color. Their size, beauty and power are overwhelming. It is impossible to concentrate as I scan the vivid biblical and historical scenes. I turn in the center of the church and notice the eight massive pillars soaring to support the cupola and shoulder much of the weight of the roof. Several sections of the floor are the original tesserae.
The Women’s Gallery stretches around seven sides of this octagon, at either end embracing the sanctuary, or choir. I wonder if the star is the assemblage of mosaics or the building, but it is both. Above the altar, the dome of the apse is dominated by a large mosaic of a clean-shaven Christ the Redeemer sitting on a blue globe between two white-robed archangels with wings of gold.
On the other side of the angel on the left is St. Vitale, with his name in Latin above his head. The figure on the far right, similarly identified, is Bishop Ecclesius, who began construction of the church after returning from a mission to Byzantium in the first quarter of the sixth century. Angels, saint and bishop stand on grass amid lambs — six on each side — and white lilies; Christ and his globe do not touch the grass but instead are surrounded by the gold background of the mosaic.
This is just part of the apse wall; to its side, the two facing walls of the sanctuary also are covered with mosaics of biblical themes and personages. Mosaic medallions of the Apostles are separated by dolphins and leaves on the side of the front of the triumphal arch that frames the sanctuary. The large mosaic pictures include “The Hospitality of Abraham” and “Sacrifice of Abel and that of Melchizedek.” Up there is Jeremiah; over there is Moses, who in one scene is tending sheep and in another approaching the burning bush.
Another mosaic depicts the Empress Theodora, in purple, carrying a jewel-studded golden chalice. She is attended by two civilian officials and seven women, two of whom look more important than the others. The mosaicist has adorned the bottom of Theodora’s splendid robe with his depiction of the Magi bringing gifts to the Christ Child. In another picture is Theodora’s husband, Justinian, the Roman emperor — one of the greatest — who ruled from 527 to 565.
St. Vitale is an example of Ravenna’s treasures, one of the great eight that are listed among the World Heritage Sites of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO. These include other churches, baptisteries and mausoleums, the earliest of them being the so-called Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, which shares the same parklike setting with St. Vitale. With grass, trees, flowers and birds, the setting becomes a holy precinct.
Ravenna, under Augustus Caesar, became a major naval base for the Roman Empire in the northern Adriatic. Later, Emperor Flavius Honorius moved the capital of the Western Roman Empire from Milan to Ravenna, and afterward it became the seat of the Byzantine Empire in Italy until the eighth century, when the Lombards broke the Byzantines’ control of the peninsula.
Honorius’ sister was Galla Placidia (A.D. 386 to 450), daughter of Emperor Theodosius I and his second wife, also Galla and a daughter of Valentinian I. This well-connected woman is believed to have ordered the mausoleum now named for her, which was attached to a church no longer existing. Ravenna was a city of churches, having about 200 of them by the year 500.
Through the centuries it often has been claimed that Galla Placidia’s remains were placed in a sarcophagus in the mausoleum, but more authorities now say she died in Rome, was buried there and was not brought to Ravenna.
What is known is that the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the oldest of Ravenna’s entries on the list of World Heritage Sites, was built between 425 and 450.
Built in the shape of a cross about 40 by 33 feet, it is relatively small for the historic Ravenna shrines. It also has sunk, as have other buildings, several feet in the city’s soft, sandy soil. The subsidence has lessened the impact of the mausoleum’s exterior as the visitor approaches, but it is the mosaics that star here. Actually, overhead in the vault, gold stars surround a gold cross in a deep blue sky.
Entering the mausoleum is like walking into a box of jewels in which all the precious stones have been separated and placed to line the interior’s bottom, sides and top. These are the greatest of Ravenna’s mosaics, not in size, but in execution and effect.
In one of the most remarkable and memorable mosaics, two doves stand on the rim of a footed white basin filled with water. One is drinking while the other is looking backward. The colors are vibrant, the craftsmanship magnificent.
A powerful lunette depicts Christ as the Good Shepherd with six lambs, one of which is smelling or licking His hand. All of the lambs have their eyes on the shepherd, whose eyes seem to be on all the lambs to his right and left.
The Ravenna mosaicists used tesserae of different shapes, including small triangles, squares and, for Empress Theodora, circular pieces of mother-of-pearl for her long necklace. It is claimed that the different sizes of mosaics look more radiant in light. Sometimes there was underpainting, especially red or green, on top of the plaster before the tesserae were inserted.
The space an artist could cover in painting frescoes often can be determined by the color or lines in the pigment, but the area a Byzantine mosaicist could complete in a day apparently is unknown.
A day or more — one is not enough — looking at Ravenna’s mosaics and their ancient homes may sound dull to travelers who shy away from museums and baroque churches. Well, Ravenna is more than that. All one has to do is be curious and attentive and realize how remarkable are these pictures executed in tesserae 1,500 or more years ago. That they escaped fires, demolition, bombs or other explosions and defacement is amazing. Some of the works, though, were altered by zealous restorers in more recent centuries.
In the Neonian or Cathedral Baptistery, dating from about 450, an artist repairing the dome’s scene of the baptism of Christ added a basin, which John the Baptist is holding above the head of Christ. The baptistery was named for Archbishop Neon.
If fig leaves could be added to statues to conform to the decorum of a later age, so a beard sometimes was added to the clean-shaven Christ.
The first church Theodoric built after he conquered Ravenna could be the Church of the Holy Spirit; the nearby Arian Baptistery dates from the same period.
Arianism, in which Theodoric believed, was opposed by more orthodox Christians in the early centuries of their religion. Arian doctrine, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, is a heresy that “denies that the Son is of one essence, nature, or substance with God; He is not consubstantial … with the Father, and therefore not like Him, or equal in dignity, or co-eternal, or within the real sphere of Deity.”
Theodoric, however, was tolerant of the Catholics and allowed them to build churches.
One of these churches, St. Apollinare in Classe, gives a powerful ending to a day or more in Ravenna. Apollinare was made bishop of Ravenna by St. Peter and was praised for the many conversions he made.
He endured several occasions of beatings, walking on hot coals, being stabbed with knives, having boiling water poured on him, being chained and put in a dungeon, and beaten in the mouth with rocks. These travails could not stop his preaching, and after suffering these tortures, he returned to Ravenna several times and resumed preaching.
I went to St. Apollinare in Classe just after sunset. Inside, the church was lighted dramatically, and at the apse at the end of the long church was one of Ravenna’s most memorable mosaic masterpieces. The effect was solemn and impressive.
The choir is reached by six steps from the nave, thus elevating the altar.
Shades of green form the background of the mosaic in the dome above the altar. St. Apollinaris, his hands raised to shoulder height in supplication, stands in the center in his bishop’s robes. On each side of the saint are six lambs looking toward him. Between saint and lambs, white lilies are in bloom.
In the distance are enough trees for a small forest. At the top of the arch framing the apse, six more sheep have entered on each side through a doorway. Their procession begins above tall palm trees on both sides.
Above St. Apollinaris, a circle of blue sky is filled with gold stars, as if it is an opening from the church into heaven itself. Moses and Elijah are to the left and right of the gold cross, which has a medallion of the head of Christ in its center.
The long nave is separated by an aisle on either side by rows of columns, about 12 on each side, made from Greek marble. It is quiet, with few visitors; there is no tour guide talking to an eager group.
This is about as perfect an ending as a day can have.
Outside, St. Apollinare in Classe has an amber glow in the dark of the night. Nearby is the bell tower, but that was built half a century later, and that was only a millennium ago.
Ravenna, at the eastern end of the Emilia-Romagna region in north-central Italy, is about an hour’s drive from Bologna. To the south are the resort cities of Rimini and Ancona. Venice is several hours to the north.
Being so close to Bologna, Ravenna must have good food, and it does. Lunch was delicious in Bella Venezia restaurant, Via IV Novembre 16; phone 0544-212746. The restaurant has two elegant dining rooms that are splendid in pastel colors.
The Ravennese, like most Italians, are proud of their gelato, but on the cool day I was there, the season was over and the ice cream shops had closed for winter.
I flew to Bologna on Lufthansa, changing planes at its hub, Frankfurt. Bologna’s Giuseppe Marconi Airport is convenient and modern, although stairs are used to board and leave planes.
Although I stayed in Bologna and Faenza, on my return to Ravenna, I will stay in a hotel there, and I will stay long enough to savor the city.
Mosaics are still created in Ravenna. Shops selling them are scattered throughout the city, particularly on via Argentario near the grand gate leading to the Basilica of St. Vitale. Some cater to the tourist trade, but look around for larger works, even mirror frames, in traditional and modern styles.
Give Ravenna no less than a day; it merits more.
Ravenna’s great eight
Ravenna’s buildings on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites represent about 125 years of the city’s history:
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (425-450)
Neonian Baptistery (circa 450)
Basilica of St. Apollinare Nuovo (early sixth century)
Arian Baptistery (late fifth century)
Archiepiscopal Chapel (494-519)
Mausoleum of Theodoric (circa 526)
Basilica of St. Vitale (circa 548)
Basilica of St. Apollinare in Classe (circa 548)