#2: Ravenna – the Capital of Mosaics
In 2007, I flew in and out of Milan for a conference and decided to sneak in a few days afterward for what I considered to be an Art Pilgrimage. I love Byzantine art and at the time was obsessed with seeing Ravenna, the self-proclaimed “Capital of Mosaics”. With the division of the ancient empire and the fall of Rome itself, the center of the western empire was moved to the northern Italian city of Ravenna. Between approximately 400-550 AD, Emperors Galla Placidia, Theodoric and Justinian constructed fantastic basilicas whose interiors are literally covered with vibrant and expressive mosaics. Ravenna is so rich with art that 8 of its churches have been cited by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
On the coast 75miles south of Venice, Ravenna can be accessed by train from Milan via a transfer in Bologna. Arriving in the late afternoon, I explored the city a bit and spent the night so that I could start the next morning in the Basilica of St. Vitale. The Byzantine central circle upon circular chapel architecture provides a heavenly open space which at the time was flooded with golden morning sunlight. The altar apse mosaics just glittered. At first its a little disorienting because there is so much to look at. The brightness and richness of St. Vitale is a good reminder that there was a long tradition of vivid color in Roman art. I went slowly over each face, bird and Old Testament scene, many of which including a little divine hand directing events from a cloud! You might think that mosaics – the arrangement of little bits of colored stone and glass – could never be anything more than decorative patterns, but the art was so shockingly expressive. The faces of the Apostles, Justinian, Theodora and their attendants looked like realistic portraits.
Next I went to the Mausolem of Galla Placidia whose central altarpiece depicts a youthful, beard-less, Apollo-like Christ as the Good Sheppard.
The Basilica of St. Apollinare Nuovo has parallel scenes of a procession of female and male martyrs. The women in their gold and pearls and the men in their stark white robes make for an elegant continuity but each figure have enough unique details to warrant a long look. Above this register are portraits of saints and small scenes from Jesus’ life. If you are keeping track of Christ’s evolving iconography, he looks like a youthful Roman while performing miracles and is not depicted with a beard until the Last Supper panel. As is common of early Christian art, the Passion panels jump from Simon carrying a skinny, mostly symbolic cross to the Marys at the tomb. Even the Byzantines would have been too horrified by crucifixion to visually depict it.
The Arian Baptistry, the Neonian or Orthodox Baptistery (Battistero degli Ortodossi) and the Archiepiscopal Chapel are more intimate art experiences. If your visit is anything like mine, you will be completely alone in these buildings. Here again you will find interesting visual details in the procession of apostles.
My one regret is that I did not get to St. Apollinare en Classe because it was, well, in Classe about 5km outside of Ravenna. My plan was to rent a bike but when I couldn’t find a place, I went to the Theodoric’s Mausoleum instead which sits in the middle of a field and is surprisingly undecorated.
Beside the incredible art, Ravenna is a charming city in which to spend the day largely free of the tourist crowd. The warm summer evening I was there, the whole city seemed to be out walking and shopping till 9 or 10pm. As a single traveler, I felt complete comfortable with the crowd and helped myself to some gelato and people-watching. The food was great too. I had an amazing anchovy pizza for lunch and the side of grilled vegetables with my dinner stands out as one of the best dishes I’ve ever had. I stayed at the Hotel Byron Centrale which was in a great location and cheap even though my single room was adorably small. I can not understand why more people do not prioritize Ravenna when planning a trip to Italy. It’s a pleasant city with impressive artistic treasures. It was well worth the pilgrimage from Milan!