Ravenna – an Italian monument to mosaics

Ravenna has the distinction of being one of the great cities of the world because of its unique and unmatched collection of Byzantine mosaics.

THE SAN VITALE Basilica in Ravenna. (photo credit: IRVING SPITZ)
THE SAN VITALE Basilica in Ravenna.
(photo credit: IRVING SPITZ)
The small Italian city Ravenna has the distinction of being one of the great cities of the world because of its unique and unmatched collection of Byzantine mosaics.
The city is in the country’s north, about 225 km south of Venice, and lacks the charm and magical beauty of many small Italian towns, which have picturesque central piazzas, often with a duomo. Typical of Ravenna are the cylindrical campaniles (bell towers) dating from the 9th century, which are seen throughout the city.
But Ravenna’s three great rulers, Galla Placidia, Theoderic and Justinian, embellished the city with exceptional mosaics and for this reason Ravenna is a major tourist attraction.
The city boasts eight UNESCO World Heritage sites and is a strong candidate to be selected as the European city of Culture in 2019.
Galla Placida’s Mausoleum, built in the year 430, is one of the oldest surviving Byzantine monuments in Ravenna. Galla herself, daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, was probably never buried here, since she died in Rome. From the outside, this appears to be a very small, insignificant structure. But inside, the effect is spellbinding.
It is lit with alabaster windows and contains lavish mosaic decorations with countless blue stars in the dome.
King Theodoric’s Mausoleum was constructed in 520. The solid dome is made of a stone block over 11 meters in diameter that weighs 300 tons. One can only marvel at the skill of the architects who put this construction in place. Precisely how this was done is still unknown. Unfortunately much of the interior had been stripped of its decorations. What remains is a huge porphyry bath which presumably housed the body of Theodoric.
Besides his great mausoleum, Theodoric also erected two other memorable buildings.
One is the Arian Baptistery which depicts the baptism of Christ with the 12 apostles.
The second is the Church of Sant Appolinare Nuovo, flanked by an imposing campanile.
Inside are several remarkable mosaics. The right side depicts a procession of martyrs dressed in Roman togas proceeding from Theodoric’s palace while on the left there are 22 virgin martyrs leaving the port of Classe.
The crown jewel of Ravenna is the Basilica of San Vitale. It was constructed at the behest of the Emperor Justinian, the same ruler who built the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.
San Vitale has a central octagonal plan with a large cupola. Unlike Hagia Sophia, which throughout its history has undergone significant remodeling, especially after the Turkish conquest in 1453, San Vitale has remained substantially unchanged from the time of its construction.
This basilica so impressed Charlemagne, the first emperor in Europe since the collapse of the Roman Empire, that he built an exact replica in his capital city of Aachen (Aix-la- Chapelle).
Of Jewish interest are the mosaics portraying scenes from the Bible in the sanctuary. In a lunette on the left side there is a depiction of the three haloed angels who informed Abraham of the impending birth of Isaac.
Abraham serves his visitors a calf on a platter.
Standing on one side, one can see Sarah smiling and listening intently to the proceedings.
Slightly to the right in the same panel, there is a representation of the Akeda, the Binding of Isaac. All elements of the timeless story are there, including the divine hand which stops Abraham from slaying his son.
Above the lunette there is a portrayal of Jeremiah as well as scenes of Moses receiving the tablets of the Law and the Israelites awaiting his return from Mount Sinai.
The lunette on the other side shows Abel offering a lamb as a sacrifice and Melchizedek in a magnificent costume. Above, there is a large image of Isaiah and scenes showing Moses watching over his father-in-law’s flock and removing his shoes before the burning bush.
At the foot of the apse there are the well known, timeless pictures of the imperial Byzantine couple Justinian and his wife Theodora.
In his Secret History, the historian Procopius of Caesarea noted that Theodora began her life as an actress and possessed an insatiable sexual appetite. Justinian fell in love with her because of her wit, beauty and amusing character. On one side the serene Theodora is shown surrounded by her ladies in waiting. Opposite her is the emperor himself together with his entourage of officials which includes the Archbishop Maximian, who consecrated the basilica in 548.
The actual ivory throne of this same Maximian, also dating from the 6th century, can be seen in Ravenna’s Archiepiscopal Museum.
At the back of this exquisite relic are 12 scenes depicting the story of Joseph.
Ravenna has many additional tourist sites.
Because of its rich cultural heritage, the city has become a center for the study and restoration of Byzantine mosaics, sculpture and architecture. Much of this can be seen at TAMO, an innovative museum devoted to mosaic art. Adjacent to Dante’s tomb is a museum housing relics of the great poet.
The writer, an emeritus professor of medicine, writes, reviews and lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel (www.irvingspitz.com). He was recently recognized with the Sidney Ingbar Distinguished Service Award by the Endocrine Society for his contributions to the field. Other images from this as well as other tourist sites can be seen at www.pbase.com/irvspitz. He may be contacted at [email protected]