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Nothing gets us stirring and away from our hillside like the arrival of curious company.  My sister, planning her visit, had requested a trip to Ravenna to see the incomparable mosaics there.  Fresh from a visit to Turkey she was eager to compare Italian Gothic and Byzantine art to that of the Ottoman Empire.  The Captain and I visited Ravenna a few years ago and enjoyed it immensely, so it took no arm-twisting at all to get me tapping away for reservations on Venere.

Although the city is across the boot, just a few miles from the Adriatic, it is a pretty and easy drive of only about 3.5 hours to get there from Rapallo.  In fact, years ago Ravenna was on the Adriatic.  Silt buildup since the year dot has now stranded the town some four miles from the sea.

We spent two nights in a lovely hotel, the Palazzo Galletti Abbiosi, which is centrally located, comfortable and has a terrific staff.  It was simplicity itself to walk from our digs to all the major sights in the city.

Ravenna offers tourists free bicycles!  We didn’t stumble on this great opportunity ’til our last day, but it is definitely the best way to get around this flat town.  Leave some identification and fill out a form at the Information Bureau and you will be given the key to your very own bike.

Happy sister with free bicycle

Ravenna is most famous for her mosaics, some of which date from  the early 5th century CE.  Theodoric,  leading an army of Ostrogoths, conquered the city in 493, beginning an enlightened and wise 33-year reign which saw extensive land reclamation and an enormous amount of construction.  Amongst his projects was his residence, The Palatium (now gone, but we know what it looks like from a mosaic):

(Interesting fact: after the death of Theodoric and a 9-year reign by his daughter, the Byzantines under Belasarius wrested control of the city from the Ostrogoths.  They removed what they could of Gothic images from the mosaics; in the photo above, for instance, figures have been replaced by curtains.)

Others of Theodoric’s grand buildings include the Anastasis Gothorum, now the Church of Spirito Santo; and the incredible Basilica Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. (Theodoric was an Arian, that is he followed the teaching of Arius which had been condemned by the Council of Nicea in 325).

Ravenna’s concentration of Gothic and Byzantine mosaics is astonishing – and breath-taking.  There are several different ways to make mosaics; the ones in Ravenna are done in the most difficult way: the stones are placed directly into the wet cement on the wall or floor.  A special fast-drying cement was used,  so only a small section could be tiled at one time.  It’s hard (impossible?) to imagine how the artists could get such subtle variation in color tones, express such personality, and make such complicated geometric patterns when they could do only a little bit at a time and were using only small chips of colored stone, glass or gems for their medium.  I suppose they laid everything out ahead of time, but still…  it is all amazing and very beautiful.

Baptism of Christ, Arian Baptistry

Perhaps altered and renamed portrait of Theodoric, photo by Pidge Cash

Galla Placidia, photo by P. Cash

Other mosaic methods include sticking paper to the right side of the tiles with a soluble glue, mounting the tiles bottom side in the cement and then soaking off the paper and glue when the cement has dried; or sticking the tiles right-side up into wax and applying the cement afterwards, then mounting the whole on the wall or floor.  This very kind woman explained it all to us as she worked away on her own replica of an ancient mosaic:

The thing that is so difficult to fathom is the teeny size of the tiles used in the mosaics, and the snugness with which they fit together.  It’s enough to make one blind just watching a demonstration like the one above, never mind trying to make a mosaic oneself.

There is so much to see in Ravenna, and we saw almost all of it.  At the bottom of this post there is a list of monuments (eight in Ravenna are World Heritage Sites) with links for history and photographs.  Here is a link to my own web album from our trip.

But traveling in Italy is not just about seeing the beautiful art and learning some of the long and varied history of the country.  There is always Food (and it does have a capital ‘F’ in this country).  And there are always, and for me most interestingly, the people.  We had an experience in Ravenna which I’ve had once or twice before in Italy, but never in the US.

Our map-reading skills are not especially stellar, and at one point we found ourselves – or rather we lost ourselves – not knowing exactly where we were or how to get to the church we wanted to visit.  We were next to a shady park where two elderly gents were having a natter under the trees.  I brazenly interrupted them to ask directions; there ensued a long conversation between them about the best way to direct us, having quite a bit to do with a fruit store.  Finally they bid each other farewell, and one of them said, “Come with me.”  He then walked with us for ten minutes, depositing us on the threshold of our destination.  Evidently that was a lot simpler, or perhaps  more interesting, than just giving directions.  What a doll.

Salvatore and dog Willy, photo by P. Cash

Here is a linked list of the principal sites in Ravenna:

Mauseleum of Galla Placidia**
San Vitale**
Church of the Spirito Santo and the Arian Baptistry**
San Giovanni Evangelista
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo**
Sant’Apollinare in Classe *    **
San Francesco
Neonian Baptistry**
Archepiscoal Chapel**
Mauseleum of Theodoric**

* This beautiful Sant’Apollinare is in the town of Classe (which was a port city), located about 5 km from Ravenna proper.

** World Heritage Sites, built in 5th and 6th centuries

And finally – one of my favorite mosaics:

Hellfire in the Mausaleum of Galla Placidia

PS – Pat Smith has written here, in the Italian Notebook, about Orsoni, the company that makes the glass tiles that are used by many mosaicists.

PPS – Debra and Liz of the blog Debra and Liz’s Bagni di Lucca visited Ravenna in April. You can read their account and see their photos here, here, here, here, here and here.