Ravenna: A city of art and history

Ravenna: A city of art and history

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Ravenna is a city in Emilia-Romagna, located on the Adriatic coast, a few kilometers from Bologna and Florence.

It is famous for its artistic and cultural heritage, which spans various historical periods, from Roman to Byzantine, Gothic to Renaissance. Ravenna has been the capital of the Western Roman Empire, the Kingdom of the Ostrogoths, and the Byzantine Exarchate, and has hosted illustrious figures such as Emperor Theodoric, Empress Galla Placidia, poet Dante Alighieri, and painter Piero della Francesca.

It is also known for its mosaic tradition, which has reached unparalleled levels of excellence and beauty. Ravenna boasts eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which testify to its richness and historical significance. In this article, we will present some of the most interesting and evocative places to visit, to discover its history, art, and charm.

The Baptistery of Neon

The Baptistery of Neon is the oldest standing building in Ravenna, and is considered the most beautiful and complete example of existing early Christian baptisteries. It was built in the early 5th century, on the ruins of a Roman thermal complex, and has an octagonal shape. The exterior is rather simple, but the interior is a true marvel. The ceiling is entirely covered with mosaics depicting religious scenes. The colors, lights, and details of the mosaics are breathtaking, creating a mystical and solemn atmosphere.

The Basilica of San Vitale

The Basilica of San Vitale is another masterpiece of Byzantine art in Ravenna and one of the most important churches in Europe. It was built in the first half of the 6th century, by order of Emperor Justinian, and has an octagonal plan with a large central dome. The exterior is quite sober, but the interior is extraordinary. The walls and ceiling are decorated with mosaics depicting biblical scenes, Christian symbols, and imperial figures. Among the most famous mosaics are those of the apse, which show Justinian and his consort Theodora, with their courts and gifts, in an attitude of veneration towards Christ Pantocrator. The mosaics of San Vitale are considered among the most beautiful and refined in the world, and are an example of intertwined art, politics, and religion.

The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is a small and precious funerary building, erected in the 5th century to house the remains of Empress Galla Placidia. The mausoleum has a Latin cross shape, with a central dome and four arms. The interior is completely covered with mosaics, creating a stunning effect of light and color. The mosaics depict Christian symbols and take on the meaning of earthly and otherworldly life, symbolizing the victory of eternal life over death. The mausoleum is considered one of the oldest and most beautiful works of early Christian art and has inspired many later artists; among them, it seems that Cole Porter was inspired by the mausoleum’s mosaics for his Night and Day.

Basilica of San Francesco

The Basilica of San Francesco was founded in the 9th century and dedicated to the saint of Assisi in the 13th century. The interior is decorated with frescoes, stuccoes, and sculptures, which demonstrate the devotion and artistry of the Franciscan friars. The basilica also houses the Tomb of Dante, the famous poet who died in Ravenna in 1321. The tomb is a neoclassical temple, built in 1780, which houses the remains of the supreme poet, author of the Divine Comedy. The Basilica of San Francesco is a place of worship and culture, paying homage to Dante’s genius and his influence on Italian and world literature.

Small peculiarity: beneath the current altar, through a small window, you can enjoy a spectacular view of a small crypt whose mosaic floor is completely covered with groundwater. The water, whose level varies according to rainfall and sea level, is fresh, as testified by the dozens of goldfish swimming undisturbed among the historic columns and colorful mosaic tiles. To illuminate the crypt, you will need to insert a €1 coin, but it will undoubtedly be money well spent. Admission to the Basilica is free. It’s definitely worth a visit!

The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo was built in the 6th century by the Ostrogoth king Theodoric as his palace chapel. Later, it was modified by the Byzantines, who changed its orientation and added the mosaics. The interior is dominated by mosaics, which extend along the walls of the nave and the apse. The mosaics depict episodes from the life of Christ, Mary, and the saints, as well as court and city scenes. The mosaics are characterized by a narrative style, vibrant colors, and a variety of details. The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo is an example of Gothic-Byzantine art, which testifies to the coexistence and cross-fertilization between the two cultures.

Arian Baptistery

It was built by King Theodoric for his Arian faith subjects, which differed from the Orthodox faith in the conception of the Trinity. The baptistery has a dome with a mosaic depicting Christ as a young beardless man. At the end of the 19th century, it was sold to private individuals and risked becoming a warehouse; fortunately, in 1914, it became State Heritage and was restored. Today, the Baptistery is found about three meters lower (the floor is now underground), the internal stuccoes and ornaments have not survived, but the dome covered with mosaics remains intact.

Domus of Stone Carpets

Not far from the Basilica of San Vitale, in the undergrounds of the Church of Sant’Eufemia, you can visit the wonderful Domus of Stone Carpets. Considered by many as one of the most important archaeological sites discovered in Italy in recent decades. The area features a complex of residential houses enriched by marble and mosaic floors (hence stone carpets) of high aesthetic and decorative value.

Mirabilandia

Ravenna is not only a city of art but also a city that can offer leisure and entertainment. Indeed, it is in Ravenna that the largest amusement park in Italy is located: Mirabilandia. Mirabilandia offers attractions for all tastes and ages, including roller coasters, water slides, rides, live shows, and themed areas. Among the most famous attractions are Katun, the longest inverted coaster in Europe, Divertical, the highest water coaster in the world, and Ducati World, the area dedicated to the world of motorcycles. Mirabilandia is the ideal place to spend a day of fun and adventure, in the company of family and friends.

And finally, don’t forget to taste the flagship of Romagnola culinary art, the piadina. You can taste many types from the kiosks along the street, but if you want, you can go to the Mercato Coperto of Ravenna. A Liberty style building from 1921, which houses the fruit and vegetable market and other typical shops. Here you can buy local products, such as squacquerone cheese, Mora Romagnola ham, and, of course, piadina. We won’t tell you what it is; you just have to trust.

Taste it, enjoy it, and savor what the Romagnoli are most proud of.

A heritage in danger

A little curiosity about the city and its precious works of art: in May 2023, the entire Romagna region was hit by violent rainstorms that brought the whole territory to its knees. To try to save the center of Ravenna and its invaluable artistic value, some agricultural cooperatives agreed to the controlled breaking of the riverbanks, which then completely flooded their lands, making them effectively unusable.

Ravenna thus saved its invaluable artistic heritage, which for ages has made it a pride of Emilia-Romagna and all of Italy.

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