The Italian Job: Day 21 – Mosaics and an Epic Fall Out

Thank goodness every meal you order in Italy results in the arrival of bread. By the time I’d found dinner (in a market food hall) last night, my stomach was convinced somebody had cut my throat.

My first evening in Ravenna was spent aimlessly wandering and it turned into one of my Magpie Walks as in “Ooh, that looks interesting – what’s that?” So off I go to have a look and before you know it, the gentle meander back to the hotel after dinner has turned into a three mile photography trail. It’s just as well that Ravenna isn’t that big or I could have been walking for much longer (as my niece discovered on our first night in Paris, because it turned out that she is as bad as me).

This morning after breakfast, with the guesthouse dog Flok wondering why I wasn’t sharing what was on my plate with him, I headed for the Tourist Information Office to find out how to buy a combined ticket for the UNESCO sites… yes, I came to Ravenna mostly for the mosaics.

Everyone likes a picture of a dog. (This will be the most liked post on this trip now).

Ravenna was awarded UNESCO Heritage Status in 1996. It preserves the most complete set of mosaics dating back to between the 5th and the 6th century AD, demonstrating Early Christian and Byzantine art.

In the rapid-fire summary at the Office I learned that the combined ticket gets you into five of about eight UNESCO sites and you have to pay separately for another three. Plus, the fabulously helpful woman at the office noted the opening times and costs of quite a few other sites to see in Ravenna.

One ever so slight drawback, the Tourist Information Office does not sell the combined ticket – you have to go to the Museo Arciescovile e Cappella di Sant’Andrea (the Museum of the Archbishop’s Chapel of St Andrew). It’s less than five minutes meander from the Office.

Handing over €12.50 for my ticket I was also informed of the time limits for visiting each venue and the need to register timed-entry for two of them. It felt like I was about to embark on a route march – and I know that I can cram a lot into a day.

Do not pass go, do not collect £200.

This registration requirement is not only about managing Covid-19 risks; this is about coping with high numbers of visitors during high season. In May, that seems to be less of an issue but already by 10am some of the sites were a little more people-y than I would have liked.

That’s not a fear of infection – I’ve always been this antisocial and people get in the way of my photos. (We have discussed this).

First stop, the Neonian Baptistery, built in the fifth century by Bishop Orso with mosaics added 50 years later. The tiny building (like the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia) gives no indication from the outside about what you’re going to see when you step inside.

The Archbishop’s Chapel was a private chapel for the bishops of Ravenna and was built and decorated between 494 and 519. The display of wealth is phenomenal and the reason why such a small town had so much opulent design in its chapels was that it was briefly the capital of the Western Roman Empire at this point, from 402 until its collapse in 476.

The decision to make Ravenna the capital was made partly for defensive purposes: the city was surrounded by swamps and marshes, and therefore perceived to be easily defensible. This completely ignored the facta that the city had falle  to opposing forces numerous times in its history. Why let facts get in the way of decision-making?

The move to Ravenna was also because of the city’s port and good sea-borne connections to the Eastern Roman Empire. Although inland today, it was a key strategic port until the Middle Ages. (It’s now connected to the sea by tha Candiano Canal constructed in the 18th Century).

The third stop on this tour of mosaics was  the Mausoleum of Galia Placidia, the daughter of an emperor. She wasn’t actually buried here because she didn’t die here but the name kinda stuck.

Not letting the facts change the name

Next to the Mausoleum is the Basilica di San Vitale, ok this wasn’t a route march and I was now left wondering why the ticket allows a week to visit everything when you’re on a time-limit of no more than 25 minutes in three of the sites and five in two of them.

The Basilica

The 6th Century Basilica was commissioned by Emperor Justinian. It is breathtaking… and it also had a steady flow of school trips through – yes I stayed longer than the allotted 25 minutes, just to take it all in.

The approach of each group was heralded by a chorus of ” shhhhhhhh” from their teachers. The hushing had absolutely no effect whatsoever. I’m guessing the teachers didn’t want to shout because of signage showing that the Basilica is a place of worship… but it might have had more effect.

Two more of the eight UNESCO Heritage sites visited (so 6/8 today) and in no way likely to cause confusion, they’re both Basilica’s di San’Apollinare. One of them (the first three pix) is Nuova, in the centre of Ravenna while the other is five miles out of town in Classe.

Be careful when making meeting arrangements.

Both were built in the 6th Century. The one in town was built in town by Emperor Theodric, so he could have a small private chapel near his palace  while the out of town establishment was built on an ancient burial site (clearly nobody had watxhes ‘Poltergeist’) which was thought to be the final resting place of the first Bishop of Ravenna, Saint Apollinare. It’s described as one of the best examples of early Christian basilicas and remarkably intact considering the ransacking over the centuries.

And so to a ‘Divine Comedy’… the story of what happened to Dante’s bones… which I find really entertainingly ridiculous.

Dante was born in Florence and exiled as a result of backing the wrong side in the city state’s civil war. He was invited back to Florence several times but refused to go on principle. He was invited to live in Ravenna so off he went. He lived here for three years before dying of malaria on September 14th, 1321 on his return from a diplomatic mission to Venice.

Ravenna buried him here. Florence wanted him back – they asked nicely twice in 1396 and in 1429 and were refused. They upped their game when Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici (Florence local boy done good) ascended to the papal throne as Leo X in 1513and asked him to intervene in 1519… well if the POPE was involved how could Ravenna refuse?

Ravenna could and did, mostly because the Franciscan friars, custodians of the body, had removed Dante’s remains by making a hole in the wall between their monastery and his tomb. They then hid them in the cloister of the monastery until 1677, when one of the friars, Antonio Santi, identified the poet’s bones and put them on display.

In 1781, a mausoleum was completed and Dante’s bones were placed there. All was well until 1810 when Napoleon suppressed the religious orders. Fearing he would loot the bones as well, Dante’s remains were hastily hidden and then forgotten until rediscovered in 1865.

Replaced in his mausoleum, Dante was able to stay there until World War II. In March 1944, the casket was buried in the garden nearby until December 1945 when, no longer in danger, it was returned to its former resting place.

To ensure that no one forgets its claim, on the anniversary of Dante’s death every year, the City of Florence sends olive oil to burn perennially in the 17th-century votive lamp hanging in the mausoleum that it had gifted to its rival city.

(Since 1829, there has been an empty mausoleum in Florence awaiting Dante’s return).

Maybe the guy will get a lie in now?

Categories: Italy, Ravenna, The Italian Job, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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