Almost every city has something unique or distinctive to show off, and in Ravenna’s case it is the largest and most spectacular collection of Byzantine mosaics you can find. Together, the mosaic sites have given Ravenna, a not-especially-large city, no less than 8 UNESCO World Heritage sites, and the power to astonish even someone who has seen the pictures. A bit of Ravenna was featured in a Gumbo Pic of the Day on Nov. 27.
The three Kings on their way to Bethlehem
It’s no accident that the city has been gifted with so many treasures—it’s been the seat of important rulers going way back. It’s the capital of Emilia-Romagna—but in its long history it had far bigger titles. For a large part of the 5th century it was the capital of the Western Roman Empire. The last Roman emperor was deposed in 476; in 489 the Eastern emperor sent the Ostrogoth King Theoderic the Great to retake Italy. He succeeded, and made Ravenna his capital.
Like any king with a new kingdom, he went on a building spree, accounting for many of Ravenna’s greasures, including the great Sant’Apollinare Nuovo church and his own mausoleum. After his death a strong heir, various other Goths tried to take over; within a couple of years the Byzantine emperor sent troops to take charge, and made Ravenna the Byzantine capital of Italy—and built even more churches, including the Basilica of San Vitale and the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe.
Byzantine rule in Ravenna continued until the Lombards took control of Italy in the 8th century. After them, the city was ruled by one family and one city after another until it became part of the unified Kingdom of Italy in 1861. Fortunately, in all those wars and changes, the mosaics survived for us to see. And that goes for nature, too: as the next picture shows, Ravenna's history as a town originally built on marshland has played a continuing role; here in San Francesco church, the original floor has subsided to below the water table!
The Byzantines took the art of the mosaic to great heights, both in Constantinople and in Ravenna. The intricate work of piecing together small tiles and stones to form a picture made this kind of work very valuable, and the lavish display on walls and elsewhere was a way of showing off power, or granting favors. Probably only the basilica in Constantinople (now the Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul) compares with the display in Ravenna.
As you can see in these pictures, the work is nothing like the simple or formalized floor mosaics or stylized representations often seen; these are as fully-realized in their detail and emotions as any painting. In fact, when we visited, we several times overheard people discussing whether they were paintings. They're not!
Surprisingly, Ravenna is not on most people's tourist agenda (it wasn't on mine until on-line friends pointed me there); you'll find mostly Europeans and especially Italians visiting. If you’re planning a visit to Ravenna, by the way, you’ll want to buy the ticket sold at each of the sites that allows you to visit all of them; with one exception, they are all in walking distance of central Ravenna and each is worth a visit.
Note detail at right: Even the bookcase shows author's names on the books!
I almost thought of Van Gogh while looking at this face
The slideshow below includes these images and several more...enjoy!
(And here's a bit of today's Ravenna: Graffiti near San Vitale asks "Are you happy?"