“O lone Ravenna! many a tale is told
Of thy great glories in the days of old:
Two thousand years have passed since thou didst see
Caesar ride forth to royal victory.”
“O fallen! fallen! from thy high estate,
O city trammelled in the toils of Fate,
Doth nought remain of all thy glorious days,
But a dull shield, a crown of withered bays!”
-Oscar Wilde, in his poem “Ravenna“
The title of this blog should be preposterously bombastic, but Ravenna is nothing short of a miracle. The town itself did not stun; each town in Italy has its own character and so too does Ravenna, but it was a special kind of northern Italy ritziness that I did not love (or hate…it just didn’t speak to me or enthrall).
Yet, Ravenna was worth the three train rides and bus ride and thirty-one year wait. I started the day with my Italian preference a cornetto con crema and a cappuccino. I purchased my ticket that was good for San Vitale, Galla Placidia’s Mausoleum, the Orthodox Baptistery, the Archiepiscopal Museum, and the church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo.
San Vitale (left) and Galla Placidia (right) are neighbors. Galla Placidia predates San Vitale by about a century and a half (give or take), but I visited San Vitale first. Galla Placidia has always been my favorite and I wanted to save it for last (of the two). It was so strange to see the interior of this church that I knew so well from pictures in person. Strange because it was so very familiar but in three dimensions AND the emotional response was legit.
Looking into the apse with the sixth-century mosaics.
I won’t go into huge amounts of art-historian detail, but I spent a lot of time looking at the mosaics. I also spent a lot of time eavesdropping on people as they were talking about the mosaics. Fortunately, most of the tourists that day were French, so I could follow along…especially because my French art historical vocab was “on fleek.” (That’s what the young kids are saying these days, right?) There was no source of light besides sunlight from the windows, and the greens and golds of the mosaics sparkled. The purple worn by the most important figures (Jesus, Justinian, and Theodora) highlighted them even more emphatically in person (because of the LIGHT) than is possible in photographs, even good ones.
One of the mosaics from the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, with the Chi Rho and Alpha Omega, and grapevines all Christian iconography/symbols.
The Mausoleum itself is very small, though the ground level has risen over the centuries so that it is even smaller. The interior of this small building was magical. It was kept dark so that you can really see the mosaics. I was in there for about 10 minutes before it all went to hell (when about 40 French high schoolers tried to cram themselves into the small building that was already pretty occupied. I left Galla Placidia much faster than I had hoped.
After the super crowded Galla Placidia, the Orthodox Baptistery was a welcome respite. I had the structure nearly all to myself, except a few older ladies and couples. The structure was smaller than I expected and that made the mosaics all the more evocative and impressive.
After the Orthodox Baptistery, I headed over to the neighboring Archiepiscopal Museum, which was probably the most deserted of all of the sites I visited (I found out that the few friends who have been to Ravenna, none of them actually went to the museum, haha) and that is just too bad. The museum houses the material collection of Ravenna’s cathedral and lord, is it impressive. It includes a lapidarium (stones! usually inscriptions), episcopal regalia and ornaments. BUT the icing on the proverbial cake is the Chapel of San’Andrea and its mosaics (built during the time of Theodoric) and the Ivory Throne of Maximian, pictured above. The bishop’s cathedra is made of so many pieces of ivory (:( poor elephants and rhinossss) that are so intricately carved it took my breath away. Literally no one else came in the room while I was there. A few folks stuck their head in and looked at the chair like “why does this old chair have its own room?”
After lunch and getting a little lost, I went to Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, the last of the churches included on my ticket. By this point, I was SUPER tired and the cobblestones had done a number on my ankle. So few people came to Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (there was one group there while I was) and I was the only person under 50. I definitely was starting to get a little saturated. It’s a term I came up with to refer to what happens after my brain has gotten overstimulated by what I’m seeing. It’s not that I’m not excited or entranced by what I’m seeing, but that sponge that is my brain has reached maximum saturation. It had been dipped into much art-historical liquid to fully retain anything else very well. I took a break for a while at a coffeeshop that was SUPER modeled after an American coffeeshop (I chose it for location) and wrote postcards.
The last stop was the Arian Baptistery, which I got to see for free. I had it all to myself (besides the very uninterested guard who was playing on her iPad). I didn’t stay super long, just looked my fill at the dome and then headed on my way.
My brief, one full day in Ravenna was just long enough to see nearly everything I wanted to see. I did not get out to see Sant’Apollinare in Classe (it’s a few miles out from downtown), not technically in Ravenna, but in the town of Classe. I walked past, but did not stop at Dante’s tomb (bad girl); I was on a mission that had nothing to do with 13th-century poets. I ate a lot of good food and gelato, and saw nearly all of the requisite late-antique sites, and checked a giant item off my bucket list.
Take my word for it. If you have even a small appreciation for art and history and you’re in north-ish Italy, take a few days and a few extra train trips and say hello to this city that holds so many critical art historical masterpieces that are not visited nearly enough.