Romans, Goths & Byzantines: Ravishing Ravenna

Scroll down to content

Somewhere in my architecture-history education, a little note was deposited in my mind: There are some interesting mosaics in Ravenna. But I didn’t remember more than that. When we were planning our trip to Italy and Slovenia, we knew we wanted to go back to Venice, as well as to explore Bologna for the first time (another remnant from all those history courses). And there was Ravenna on the route, about halfway between. So we programmed an overnight stop.

The town itself is pleasant enough: A mixture of post-war brick buildings, and older and even ancient structures and streets.

Despite the shadow of covid, the local folks flooded the main shopping streets. Plenty of good energy, and a few, just a few, masks.

It turns out that Ravenna mosaics are a big deal. UNESCO World Heritage Site kind of big deal. We learned that we needed to buy tickets online for each of the open buildings. We were assigned 10-minute windows during which to visit. Very organized. Very constrained. But what’re you gonna do?

We showed up promptly at our first appointment, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. From the outside it is an unadorned simple brick structure, indeterminably old. We flashed our tickets and our proof-of-vaccination, and stepped inside. And then we understood why the mosaics of Ravenna are so extraordinary. Like stepping into a sparkling geode.

Let’s pause here. Seeing, or more properly feeling, these mosaics was so moving that we wanted to understand more about why they even exist, why here, and how can they be so luminous so many centuries after their creation. Which means that this post includes plenty of history, as well as photos that we hope give you a hint at how beautiful these 1500-year-old mosaics are. So, please feel free to loiter in the history boxes, or just skip to the photos — which express themselves. And there are a few food images at the end too.

So, let’s go!

From the official UNESCO statement:

The Early Christian buildings of Ravenna are unique testimonies of the artistic contacts and developments in a highly significant period of the cultural development in Europe. They constitute an epitome of religious and funerary art and architecture during the 5th and 6th centuries AD. The mosaics are among the best surviving examples of this form of art in Europe and have added significance due to the blending of western and eastern motifs and techniques.

These religious monuments, decorated with precious marble, stuccos and mosaics, reflect the major historical, political and religious events that took place in Ravenna, which became the capital of the Western Roman Empire in 402 AD, and remained prominent first Ostrogothic and then Byzantine capital in Italy through the fifth and sixth centuries.  (source)

Ravenna was the capital of the Western Roman Empire?! More evidence that I wasn’t paying enough attention in those history courses. Turns out that Ravenna was the epicenter of the world-changing pivot from Western Roman imperial power to Eastern Roman imperial power, which was really Byzantium, centered in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).

In AD 402 the danger of barbarian invasions compelled the Western Roman emperor Honorius to move his court from Rome to Ravenna. Ravenna was henceforth the capital of the Western Roman Empire until its dissolution in 476. As such, Ravenna was embellished with magnificent monuments. The city was also raised to the status of an archbishopric in 438. With the fall of the Western Empire in 476, it became the capital of the first barbarian ruler of Italy, Odoacer (reigned 476–493), who in turn surrendered it to the Ostrogothic king Theuderic (reigned 493–526) in 493. Theuderic made Ravenna the capital of the Ostrogothic kingdom, but in 540 Ravenna was occupied by the great Byzantine general Belisarius and was subsequently made an imperial exarchate [province]. (source)

So, in about 50 years, Ravenna went from Western Roman control, to control by a central European Germanic tribe, to control by Ostrogoths (from the region just north of the Black Sea), to control by the Byzantine empire. Byzantine control lasted for about 200 years. In the period between when Honorius moved the Roman court to Ravenna and the victory of the “barbarian” Odoacer, twelve “emperors” reigned, most of whom were assassinated. Imagine how chaotic and bloody these years were.

And yet, these exquisite mosaics were born during all this turmoil.

The first period of inspired construction occurred before the definitive fall of Rome in 476. This is when the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia and the Battistero Neoniano were built. This was a period of  wealthy and imperial patronage by the Italian Romans.

Like other imperial residencies that revivified and strengthened peripheral cities, Honorius’ relocation to Ravenna resuscitated the marshy municipality. Because of this imperial favor and presence, Ravenna became remarkably renovated and expansive during the 5th century, which was highly unusual for this period. Agnellus [8th-century Ravenna historian] tells us how Honorius “added much to this wall of the city, where formerly it had been girded as merely one of the towns.” Aside from the walls being renovated, legions were garrisoned in the new fortress city; governmental and imperial buildings were erected; baths were created; churches were beautified; a mint was established; and the population skyrocketed. Honorius, his sister Galla Placidia, and her son Valentinian III ruled from Ravenna, greatly expanding, sanctifying, and beautifying the city. (source)

Let’s start our tour.

Mausoleo di Galla Placidia

The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, small but lavishly decorated in the inside with inspiring mosaics against a dark blue background, reflects the Western Roman architectural tradition. (source

Modern scholarly opinion is that the “Mausoleum of Galla Placidia” was built as an oratory rather than a mausoleum.

According to tradition, this ancient building was made to house the tomb of Galla Placidia, daughter of Emperor Theodosius I (379-395) and sister of his sons Honorius and Arcadius who later became Western and Easter Roman Emperors. After short marriages to the Visigothic king Ataulf (414-16) and the Roman co-emperor Constantius III (417-21), the powerful empress became the virtual ruler of the western world for 12 years (425-37) as regent for her young son Valentinian III.

Galla Placidia died in Rome on November 27, 450, and despite a long tradition to the contrary, it is unlikely she was ever buried in Ravenna. Far more probable that she was buried in the Rotunda of St. Petronilla next to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The rotunda is known to have been the mausoleum of the family of Theodosius, and Galla herself, just a few months before her death, had the body of Theodosius II shipped from Constantinople to be buried there. (source)

Battistero Neoniano 

The Neonian Baptistery, ornate with its inlaid marble, stuccos and multi-coloured mosaics in the cupola, is the finest and most complete surviving example of an Early Christian baptistery. (source)

The Neonian Bapistry is an octagonal baptistery built in the 5th century. As the oldest building in Ravenna, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and contains some of the city’s most beautiful Byzantine mosaics…. The baptistery was converted from an old Roman bath-house, beginning under Bishop Ursus around 400 AD. The building was finished by Bishop Neone (451-75) in the second half of the 5th century, during which the mosaics were added to the dome. It is from this bishop that the Battistero Neoniano gets its name. (source)

We found it interesting that the patronage for the Baptist’s was from powerful Bishops, not Emperors. Which led us to wonder how these two centers of power co-existed. Amicably or in rivalry?

Ravenna’s gained prestige through imperial residency coincided with its rise in ecclesiastical importance. Because of this move, the Ravennate bishopric accrued a metropolitan status over northern Italy… This elevation was due primarily to Valentinian III’s amiable relationship with John, the presiding bishop of Ravenna. When the young Valentinian met with John, he was so impressed with his piety that the emperor bestowed the bishop episcopal oversight over fourteen cities in northern and central Italy and gave him the pallium [a woolen vestment conferred by the Pope on an archbishop], “as is the custom of the bishop of the Romans to wear over his surcoat, which he and his successors have used up to the present day.” ….

[T]he Ravennate bishops … had the ear of the imperial family, thus wielding the necessary means to execute their will, at least during the first half of the 5th century. [H]ere is the primary advantage of having the emperor in the same city as you. (source)

Now we move ahead half a century to Theodoric, the Ostrogoth king. Very interesting fellow.

Theodoric’s legacy on Ravenna remains to this day in the buildings he constructed and the improvements that he made to the city. Under Theodoric Ravenna became a center of education and culture, and anyone who wished an audience with Theodoric, had to travel to Ravenna to do so. Since the establishment of Constantinople it had become customary in the Roman Empire to show both Rome and Constantinople on coins. Theodoric introduced during his reign a new Rome-Ravenna political iconography and went so far as to have any land grants to be picked up by his soldiers be done in person, in Ravenna. … [T]he thirty-six years of Theodoric’s rule afford rather a pretty picture, a sort of Indian summer during which Italy recovered a good deal of prosperity on the eve of her final ruin.

He did not however achieve this goal of uplifting the city to the status held by Rome and Constantinople. Theodoric expended energy and treasure enriching Ravenna in an attempt to bring to it the status accorded to both cities. He constructed both religious and secular buildings in imitation of those in the great imperial cities, but, as in the imperial era, Ravenna’s prestige was actively rivaled by that of Rome. … Nevertheless,  … Theodoric [was] one of the saviors of Roman culture: “His care for ancient buildings was exemplary; he enjoined the prefect to restore Pompey’s theatre; he carried on the drainage of the Pomptine marshes, and he was a great restorer of aqueducts. Indeed, it is quite possible to maintain that but for ‘this Goth,’ the remains of classical antiquity, whether built or written, might have perished altogether in Italy.” (source)

Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo was also built during the reign of Theodoric as a Palatine chapel, with mosaics in traditional Roman style that also show a strong Byzantine influence. (source)

The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo is a 6th-century church in eastern Ravenna. Named for Ravenna’s first bishop, it is famed for its two side walls full of figurative mosaics dating from c.500 (under the Arian king Theodoric) and c.560 (under Catholic administration). This basilica was built by Theodoric sometime after 500 AD as an Arian cathedral (in the same era as the Arian Baptistery) dedicated to Christ; it was converted into a Catholic church dedicated to St. Martin around 560. (source)

So, what is this Arianism? Very bad history in recent centuries, but what was this in the fifth and sixth centuries?

Arianism was a heresy which arose in the fourth century, and denied the Divinity of Jesus Christ…. God alone was without beginning, unoriginate; the Son was originated, and once had not existed.

While tolerating the Catholic Church, Theodoric considered himself the protector of Arianism; accordingly he sought to intervene diplomatically in favour of the Arians who were being persecuted by Justinian I. Nevertheless he allowed complete freedom to the Catholic Church, at least so far as dogma was concerned, though he considered himself entitled to appoint a pope. (source)

Cappella di S. Andrea

The Archbishop’s Chapel … is the only orthodox monument built during Theodoric’s reign. (source)

This small chapel was originally built by Archbishop Peter II under the reign of Theodoric, between 494 and 519 AD. It was constructed as a private oratory for the Trinitarian bishops of the town and is the only existing chapel of this type and from this period that is still in existence.

The Trinitarians were a branch of Catholics that were named after the belief in the Holy Trinity, in contrast to the Arians that preceded them in Ravenna, before the town was defeated by the Ostrogoths, and several of the mosaics in the Archbishop’s chapel have Anti-Arian meanings. (source)

We have to introduce Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who never visited Ravenna.

The nearly forty-year reign of Emperor Justinian I (born 482; reign 527–65) heralded extensive territorial expansion and military success, along with a new synthesis of Greco-Roman and Christian culture seen at all levels of Byzantine culture….

In the religious sphere, Justinian took a leading role in shaping church policy. As an adamant defender of Christian Orthodoxy, he fought to extinguish the last vestiges of Greco-Roman paganism, to root out Manichaeans and Samaritans, and to oppose competing Christian sects, including the Arians and the Monophysites. Justinian also came into direct conflict with the papacy in 543, further straining relations between the western and eastern territories of his empire.

In foreign policy, Justinian sought to recover regions lost to foreign invaders, particularly Germanic tribes in Italy and North Africa. He thus launched one of the most aggressive military programs in medieval history. As a result of his reconquest of the empire’s former western territories, he restored Ravenna’s status as a capital in Italy. Mosaic portraits of Justinian and his wife, the empress Theodora, appear there at the Church of San Vitale (526–48). By his death in 565, the empire bordered nearly the entire Mediterranean Sea, a size unrivaled in Byzantine history from that point onward.  (source)

Basilica di San Vitale

The Basilica of San Vitale, from the time of Justinian, is one of the highest creations of Byzantine architecture in Italy, and combines elements from both the Western and Eastern traditions. (source)

One of the most famous images of political authority from the Middle Ages is the mosaic of the Emperor Justinian and his court in the sanctuary of the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. This image is an integral part of a much larger mosaic program in the chancel (the space around the altar). A major theme of this mosaic program is the authority of the emperor in the Christian plan of history. The mosaic program can also be seen to give visual testament to the two major ambitions of Justinian’s reign: as heir to the tradition of Roman Emperors, Justinian sought to restore the territorial boundaries of the Empire. As the Christian Emperor, he saw himself as the defender of the faith. As such it was his duty to establish religious uniformity or Orthodoxy throughout the Empire. (source)

Finally, a reference about the influence of these mosaics in the medieval centuries to follow:

A more eastern aesthetic characterizes the mosaics completed in Ravenna during this early period. Elegant, slender, flattened figures on a shallow spatial plane stare out with huge, staring eyes. Flat, deeply hued decorative schemes take over entire wall, ceiling, and vault surfaces. In these forms the medieval visual vocabulary takes form, their more abstract modes better able to convey ideas about spirituality, earthly and heavenly hierarchies, and the divine order of the universe. (source)

Mercato Coperto: La Romagna Terra e Mare

Nice young server helped us with the Italian menu. We were in the mood for pasta. The menu had a meat section and a fish section. The server recommended a couple selections in each section. I asked about another of the seafood options. She said that non-Italians generally don’t like that one. The pasta sauce base is fish. She told me I shouldn’t try it!

And a glass each of two different Sangiovese wines.

La Gardèla

Sangiovese Superiore Riserva 2017 Pruno, Tentuta La Palazza

Leave a Reply