Golden Oldies in Ravenna

We spend a lot of our time in Italy looking at churches. The older ones tend to have good art and architecture, and they’re usually free to enter. But seeing so many, we get excited when we encounter something out of the ordinary. Take the eastern city of Ravenna, for instance, which we visited from May 9 to 11 after leaving Venice. Italy feels so much like part of Western Europe that it’s easy to forget how much some of it was influenced by the East.

Ravenna was ruled by the Byzantines of Constantinople (now Istanbul) for centuries starting in the 500s AD. Although it’s otherwise a fairly nondescript town, its churches have some of the best Byzantine mosaics still in existence.

These icon-like mosaics are at least 600 years older than any we saw in Venice or Rome. What surprised us is how colorful they are: not just gold but bright blue, green, red, and various pastel tones. There are the usual religious figures and Bible stories but also vines, birds, fruit, and flowers.

The glass mosaic tiles are set at varying angles to catch the light and give an illusion of depth. Notable scenes include portraits of Emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora, in the Basilica of San Vitale and a nude Christ half-submerged in transparent water in the Baptistry. (You get so used to seeing Jesus clothed that the holy genitals come as a bit of a shock—sadly, no pictures.)

Ravenna’s churches are also distinctive in being made of brick and having round bell towers (campanile) with arches at the top. Beyond that, the city’s other claim to fame is that it was where Dante finished writing the Divine Comedy and then died. His tomb is a local tourist attraction, but we weren’t big enough fans to pay money to see it.

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