Ravenna: A Mosaic of Art, History and Religion

By Ashlyn Dempster

Photo by Kathryn Jones Malone
Photo by Kathryn Jones Malone

Some of the most exciting times a study abroad student or visitor encounters are on excursions to different cities, monuments and other landmarks. Ravenna was the first excursion on my study abroad program in summer 2016.

This Roman city dates to the first century A.D. when Caesar Augustus began to organize an east Mediterranean fleet port, Porto di Classe. These days Ravenna is a destination tourist stop for its historic churches decorated with mosaics and frescoes unlike any elsewhere in the world.

Ravenna became the capital of the western Roman Empire in 402, which marked the beginning of a very important historical period for the city. The barbarian king Odoacer named Ravenna his royal home after proclaiming himself king of Italy during the year 476. In 493, Ravenna was occupied for over 30 years under a ruler named Theoridic. According to Ravenna, City of Art, the new ruler erected many monuments, restored aqueducts, reclaimed land , and built churches of the Arian religion that he practiced.

The reign of the Goths in Ravenna ended in 540 by a Byzantine army led by Belisarius. The next ruler, Justinian, wanted to unite the East and West culturally and politically, but failed and Ravenna fell into decline. “Porto di Classe had silted up and was lying abandoned,” Ravenna, City of Art, explains. “As a result, the surrounding area gradually turned into marshland, putting an end to the city’s industrial, commercial economy.”

Once again a modern city bustling with industry and bicycles – our Italian guide explained that Ravenna is home to more bicycles than residents – Ravenna’s art treasures lure tourists from all over the world.

Art is so ingrained in the Italian lifestyle, even the bikes are mosaiced.
Art is so ingrained in the Italian lifestyle, even the bikes are mosaiced. Photo by Kathryn Jones Malone

Traveling to Ravenna from Urbino by charter bus, the first basilica to see is S. Apollinare in Classe. The tall tall red brick building was consecrated in 549 A.D. and the cylindrical tower added in the 10tenth century. It was built near the defending port for the Adriatic sea and was the destination for Sant’ Apollinare to become the bishop of a new Christian community.

Behind the plain exterior brick walls is a richly decorated Byzantine era interior with intricate mosaics. Above the carved columns and arches, images of bishops in chronological order are shown. A large mosaic directly above the altar depicts Jesus Christ in the middle of a medallion with Moses and Elijah at either side, with a quite peaceful Sant’Apollinare pictured below. The large mosaic is surrounded by many small and significant art mosaics of Old Testament biblical figures.

Along the lateral walls one can view ten Greek marble tombs, varying in origin between the fourth and eighth centuries. This basilica contains artworks ranging in date from the fourth century to the eighth century.

After arriving at the bus stop and central train station, visitors enter the main city through a tunnel decorated by local artists’ graffiti. an interesting modern contrast to the historical art and architecture of the city. The next basilica a visitor will encounter was originally built in either the late fifth century or early sixth century by Theodoric as a place for Arian worship. By the mid- ninth century, after being renamed several times and taken over by Catholics, the basilica took on the present name of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo.

Photo by Kathryn Jones Malone
Photo by Kathryn Jones Malone

Centuries of artists and religious eras have created a beautiful and timeless interior. Similar to the basilica in Classe, the basilica’s arches, windows, artwork and columns are in symmetry and balance. Mosaics lure visitors towards the altar, telling biblical stories above the archways just below the ceiling.

Venturing deeper in the city, a visitor will come across a small white neoclassical style building. This building, created by Camillo Morigia in 1780, is a graceful memorial for Dante Alighieri’s tomb. Visitors stand in line to get a chance to view and photograph the memorial to the poet who wrote the masterpiece “The Divine Comedy.”

Near the tomb is Piazza Del Popolo, Ravenna’s bustling town center, which features gelaterias, shops and restaurants. Many students from our study abroad class enjoyed shopping, and exploring Ravenna’s colorful side streets.

The last stop of the tour ended with the Basilica di San Vitale. Visitors stand in awe of the cathedral’s large archways, decorated frescoed walls, and detailed artistic dome. From floor to ceiling. one can not only view the effort of the artists, especially in the mosaics detail, but also feel the timelessness of the ancient architecture. The octagon-shaped building was erected in 548.

Ravenna’s artistic legacy of mosaics continues throughout the city. Some street signs on the sides of buildings are done in mosaics, and one shop displayed a bicycle and chair covered in mosaics. Students can enroll in a mosaics school, and a mosaic shop near the Basilia di San Vitale sells mosaic picture frames, boxes, and other decorative items, as well as bags of mosaics.

The merchandise and local cuisine are alluring enough, but the real enchantment of Ravenna is the local art and beauty that are so timeless and unforgettable.

A group of Tarleton students took a trip to Ravenna. From left to right: Jacki Miller, Harley Brown, Ashlyn Dempster and Forrest Murphy. Photo by Forrest Murphy
A group of Tarleton students took a trip to Ravenna. From left to right: Jacki Miller, Harley Brown, Ashlyn Dempster and Forrest Murphy.
Photo by Forrest Murphy

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