Sunday, 29 September 2013


The mosaic-decorated apse of San Vitale

So far we have done Bologna and Ferrara, and today it is time for the big one - Ravenna, a UNESCO World Heritage site. We start with the 6th century church of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo (just fractionally newer than Sant'Appolinare in Classe, just outside the city). The outside is attractive with its 10th century campanile and 16th century portico.

But the real excitement is inside where the area above the arcade of the nave is covered with Byzantine mosaics showing male and female martyrs attending on the infant Jesus.

From here,  we headed northeast through the Porta Serrata (1582) - similar in style to other renaissance city gates we have seen e.g Porta Galliara in Bologna and Porta San Pietro in Lucca.

We passed the vast, ruined Venetian fort, the Rocca di Brancaleone ...

... and reached the outlying Mausoleum of Theodoric, begun about 520. We took some photos here when we visited in 1995. Theodoric was an Ostrogoth and was effectively King of Italy, notionally under the authority of the East Roman Emperor. Although he murdered his closest rival with his bare hands, Theodoric was was one of those most responsible for making Ravenna the remarkable city it is today. The mausoleum is unusual for being capped by a single vast slab of stone.

Now we headed back into the main part of the city to see the extraordinary church of San Vitale, consecrated in 547. The exterior reveals an octagonal building, constructed in brick.

When you enter however you are confronted by quite a dark space formed by by two concentric octagons of columns and arches decorated with 18th century frescoes. The overall effect is exquisitely beautiful.

Then you find your way to the apse over on your right and you are confronted by the extraordinary, overwhelming sight of the floor to ceiling mosaics shown in the photo at the head of this post. The two most alluring panels show, separately, the emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora with their courts.

Immediately adjacent is the 5th century tomb of Galla Placidia, sister of the Emperor Honorius. Again the building is a simple brick structure ...

... but the inside is entirely covered in mosaics of remarkable colour and detail. This was my favourite.

It is thought to depict St. Lawrence standing next to a flaming gridiron - the saint is traditionally believed to have been martyred on one. He is apparently the patron saint of chefs and cooks. Next up was the 16th century Porta Adriano, a further addition to the renaissance gates we have seen on this holiday.

As I mentioned, we visited Ravenna in 1995, but since then wonderful Roman mosaics have been discovered in the Domus di tappetti di pietra (house of the carpet of stones - clunk!) beneath this church.

You go through the church and then descend to a very well-arranged underground display of the floors of a roman villa. These dancing figures were enchanting.

Almost, but not quite, surfeited of mosaics, we visited the Neonian Baptistery, the oldest monument in Ravenna. It is of course beside the cathedral, whose campanile can be seen in the background and again the outside is quite plain.

Inside, every surface is covered with mosaics. This is the ceiling.

Nearby, is the Archepiscopal Museum which contains the small chapel of St Andrea with more 6th century mosaics.

As we headed back to the station we stumbled on another ancient structure. A sign proclaimed that it was Teodoric's Palace. It seemed such an apt way to end the walk, since Teodoric's Mausoleum had been one of many things we had been looking forward to seeing again.

I have since read that it actually has nothing to do with Teodoric and is simply the ruins of the church of San Salvatore. That at least explains why it looks nothing like any palace I have ever seen.

Distance: 5 miles.

Conditions: cool, heavy showers.

Rating: five stars were never more merited.

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