Visit Ravenna in one day

Justinian mosaic

RAVENNA: this ancient capital first of the Eastern Roman Empire, and then of the Ostrogothic kingdom of Theodoro, finally came under the sway of Byzantium and subsequently declined. It revived briefly during its short period of Venetian rule, and then fell into decay with its assimilation into the Papal States. It has returned to life only in this century. Nevertheless, the city preserves evidences of art and culture astonishing both in their homogeneity and in their character. A remarkable group of buildings and monuments, which has survived almost intact from the early Middle Ages, has been handed down to us, testifying to the glory of Byzantine art as it flourished on Italian soil.

We enter the town by Via Cavour where, standing in a place rich with greenery, are the Basilica of San Vitale (6th century) and the Mausoleum of Gallo Placidia (5th century). The former is a vast octagonal structure with a double portico and an octagonal dome, one of the most imaginative architectural works of all time, and one which has had an enormous influence in western religious architecture; the latter, a small, extremely simple shrine, little more than a shed built of brick in the form of a Greek cross. But the interior shimmers with the blues and gold of the most beautiful mosaics in Ravenna, more impressive perhaps than the grandiose scenes showing Justinian and Theodora which glitter on the walls of San Vitale.

In the nearby National Museum there are sculptures of classical antiquity, ivories, bronzes, etc. Following Via San Vitale and Via Paolo Costa, we come to the Battistero degli Ariani (6th century), also decorated with mosaics. Next to it stands the Renaissance church of Santo Spirito with its handsome portico.

Taking Viale Farini, which leads to the station, we reach the church of San Giovanni Evangelisle (5th century,) with its graceful apse. Coming back to Via di Roma, we continue on to S. Apollinare Nuevo, whose severe 6th century facade is relieved by a 16th century portico. The interior is exceedingly impressive, with its satisfying proportions and the extraordinary throng of mosaic figures and landscapes adorning the clerestory which is supported by columns.

Coming out and passing the front of the so called Palazzo degli Esarchi (Palace of the Exsarchs) (8th century), we reach Santa Maria in Porto, a 10 century church with a Baroque facade (inside, paintings by Scarsellino and Palma il Giovane), with a fine cloister, and an airy early 16th century- Loggia.

We return by way of Via di Roma to the corner of Via Guaccimani, which we then follow as far as the austere Basilica of San Francesco (10th century), beside which stands the simple Tomb of Dante Alighieri. Crossing Piazza Garibaldi, we come into Piazza del Popolo, where we find the handsome 15th century Palazzo Comunale (Town Hall) and next to it, the two columns which recall the city’s Venetian past.

Then we pass Piazza Kennedy, with the massive Palazzo Rasponi, and come to the 18th century Cathedral, built on the spot where the Basilica Ursiniana once stood; and next to it, still intact in the perfection of its forms and the magnificence of its mosaic decorations, we find the Baptistery, which was formed by adapting a Roman bath.

Behind the Baptistery, we come upon the Museo Arcivescovile (Arcidiocesan Museum) which contains, among many other works of art, what is surely the absolute masterpiece of ivory carving: the Throne of Bishop Maximianus dating from the 6th century. In the nearby Accademia di Belle Arti (Picture Gallery), we will find, besides the extremely famous Effigy of Guidarello Guidarelli (1525) by Tullio Lombardo, numerous paintings including some by pre-Renaissance artists such as Lorenzo Monaco and Matteo di Giovanni, and other of later masters such as Vasari, etc.: most, however, are attributable to Emilian and Romagna painters.

Behind the station, close to the road to Ferrara, we find the Mausoleum of Theodoric (6th century), a hewn stone structure, suggestive of barbaric strength, while some three miles out of town on the road to Rimini, the most beautiful church in Ravenna stands built in the 6th century Sant’Appolinare in Classe, with superb mosaics in the chancel and a magnificent cylindrical bell-tower.

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Itinerary courtesy of ENIT