The Byzantine world of Ravenna

We have moved on to the city of Ravenna, which has one of those ping-pong histories that have left a fascinating trail behind.

There were the Etruscans and the Romans, of course. But after that empire collapsed, a lot changed. Ravenna became the capital city of the Western Roman Empire for most of the 5th century, was taken over by the Ostrogoths, and then was reconquered in 540 by the Byzantine Empire, until the Franks invaded in 751.

It is astonishing that something remains from the Byzantine period, and that is what is now called the Basilica of San Vitale.

The church is most famous for its wealth of Byzantine mosaics, the largest and best-preserved outside of Constantinople. The church is of extreme importance in Byzantine art, as it is the only major church from the period of the Emperor Justinian I to survive virtually intact to the present day.

In addition to various biblical scenes and images of Christ and his apostles, there are two famous mosaic panels, executed in 547. On the right is a mosaic depicting the East Roman Emperor Justinian I, clad in purple with a golden halo. Another panel shows the Empress Theodora in an equally majestic pose.

The rear of the church got the obligatory baroque treatment later in life, but it is the mosaics that are so stunning and noteworthy.

Nearby is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. The building was formerly the oratory of the Church of the Holy Cross and now contains three sarcophagi. The largest was thought to contain the remains of Galla Placidia (died 450), daughter of Theodosius I. The sarcophagus to the right is attributed to Galla’s son, and the one on the left is attributed to her husband, Emperor Constantius III. But there’s lots of debate about who is buried where, so one is just left to admire the space.

The mosaics are gorgeous, and look fresh and new after almost 2,000 years. Oddly enough, the crypt is credited with inspiring Cole Porter to write “Night and Day.” Go know.

We also saw the Arian Baptistry, erected between the end of the 5th century and the beginning of the 6th century A.D. The Arians were a religious sect too complicated to describe here, but not to worry, the Church of Rome took care of them eventually. But they left us this amazing building, in which I had my own set of visions. The dome here is a beautiful rendering of the baptism of Christ.

As I began to move around the walls to take the picture so that I would have it from the right perspective, I suddenly realized that the picture kept changing direction. I moved 45 degrees and the mosaic was upside down. I moved back to my original location, and Christ’s feet were pointing toward the far left. I experimented for about 15 minutes, and finally got the right view – while realizing I was losing my mind. I asked an Englishman who was also taking photos if he had seen this phenomenon or – if he hadn’t – to not stand too close to me as I was clearly hallucinating. He looked at me pityingly and then crossed the room to test my thesis. He got a startled look on his face as he saw it move too. Don’t even ask if Don saw it too. Let’s just say he’s a skeptic with complications of color-blindness. Next, I guess it’s the stigmata coming my way.

Dante is buried in Ravenna, and he rests in a lovely little crypt that every school child in Italy also wanted to see today. Evidently Florence is so mortified they kicked him out that they pay for the oil for his eternal flame. Guess it’s the least they can do.

We saw lots of lovely parts of Ravenna today, but as we have a poor internet connection, details may have to follow.

Don’s Food Corner

After yesterday’s very fine meal in San Marino, we were ready for another one.  It’s been 24 hours, OK?  We tracked down a recommended restaurant only to find it was closed for the day. Closed on Thursday?  Do these restaurants somehow hear we are coming and close up?  Shaking off that paranoia, we went to a backup recommendation.  And I’m glad we did.

First of all, it was a beautiful restaurant.  Housed in a former movie theater, it was an open and stylish room.  Plus, it had glass-enclosed kitchen so that you could watch the chefs at work and assistants making the pasta by hand.  While such places generally emphasize a “modern” approach, this one was intent on the “slow food” approach and traditional dishes.

We started with a dazzling selection of six local cheeses — from a soft goat cheese to pecorino to a blue cheese.  It was served with thin (and freshly prepared!) flat bread and a selection of jams.   There’s a lot to learn about these local cheeses and this was a great introduction.

For our main courses we stuck with pasta. Jo had a platter of strozzapreti with a regional pesto made with rocket (instead of basil or parsley) along with the classic ingredients of pine nuts, Parmesan cheese and olive oil.  Garlic seemed to be absent.  As we’ve noticed consistently over the last seven weeks, garlic is surprisingly missing in these dishes. (Incidentally,  we have not seen biscotti in cafes or served at any of the buffet breakfasts we have had. Maybe biscotti are regional and we haven’t gotten to that region yet.)

I went with ravioli stuffed with goat cheese, ricotta and zucchini.  The luscious sauce featured finely diced eggplant along with pine nuts and shavings of Parmesan cheese that the menu said was from “red cows.”

Both pasta dishes were very fine.  It was particularly interesting to see the hand-made pasta.  The strozzapreti strands were rolled in a somewhat uneven manner as were the hand-folded and formed ravioli.  This is what we want to experience during a trip to Italy.

An excellent local red wine rounded out the meal.

3 thoughts on “The Byzantine world of Ravenna

  1. I’m feeling a little lightheaded just reading about your deep-dive into the mosaics of Ravenna so really, I am not surprised that seeing the moving picture made you think you were hallucinating! However, just reading Donnie’s “It’s been 24 hours. Ok?” snapped me right out of it.

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