The next destination we are going to visit lies to the North from Rimini, and for the lovers of art and history most probably it is as famous as Florance or Venice. It’s been almost six years since I wanted to go to Ravenna during my first time in Italy, so I think this is the longest postponement of my life, but it was totally worth it.
Particularly, because this city was a place where I could indeed feel myself in the history books and could see worldwide famous pieces of art with my own eyes. The past is present in today’s city so much that I could already observe some eerie exhibitions at the railway station: namely, there were entire skeletons in the underground passage behind the glass!
Compared to the graves at Domus del Chirurgio in Rimini or the Suebian warrior' s skeleton in Vicenza I described before in one of my poems, this exhibiton was totally the winner of the contest in this very weird league...
The first and probably best-known stop I had always wanted to see was close to the station and to the port channel of the city: it was the mausoleum of the powerful Gothic king Theodoric the Great (Teodorico il Grande), who was the the ruler of the Ostrogoths (Eastern branch of the Goths) and founded their kingdom in Italy right after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
He chose Ravenna as his capital (basically because the empire’s centre was already moved there from Rome), and he adopted Christianity. However, one of the reasons why he could not stabilize his state was the fact that Ostrogoths, instead of the Catholic faith, took Arianism - a Christian church that was later considered heretic and after many synods (councils) in the early centuries was excommunicated by the pope.
In spite of that, the mausoleum of the king where he was buried is still an important monument from the times of the so-called Barbarian Invasions and Arian Christianity.
The building is described to be built in a Gothic or 'Barbarian' style, since it cannot be compared to anything else in terms of architecture. Although the king’s corpse is not resting there anymore, the ancient spirit still haunts the whole area all around.
The pine trees, green fields and infinite songs of cicadas surrounding the mausoleum indeed invite you into a timeless Mediterranean travel through decades and centuries.
There is a sort of connection to Hungary as well, because there are theories stating that Theodoric was born in Pannonia, close to lake Balaton (Lacus Pelso, as it was called by the Romans), where another Germanic ruler, Geiserich, king of the Vandals was also born.
There are various legends explaining how the king’s body disappeared; one says that he was chasing a deer with a golden horn throughout the Italian peninsula, and finally his horse threw him into the crater of Etna; another one states that he was struck by lightening when he had a bath in his own mausoleum (probably due to the bathtub shape of his sarcophage decorated with rings and lions).
In fact, his remains were scattered by Byzantine military chief Belisar when the army of Constantinople captured Ravenna - we will get back to him soon, but now we are getting into the centre of Ravenna, Piazza del Popolo.
The main square has dozens of fascinating buildings, columns and palaces, and you can also also observe a very interesting artistic manifestation there, which is visible all around North-Italy.
If you have a look at the merlons on the top of castle walls and palaces, their shape expresses whether they belong to the fraction of Guelphs (guelfi, supporters of the pope) or Ghibellines (ghibellini, supporters of the Holy Roman emperor): in general, the usual rectangular shape refers to the Guelphs and the swallow-tailed ones to the Ghibellines.
At this point it is time to talk about another important grave of the city, Dante’s tomb, which is located not so far from Piazza del Popolo, in a distinct that is also named Dantesca itself.
Dante Alighieri, who is often called ‘the father of the Italian literary language’ wrote his main work, the Divine Commedy (La Divina Commedia) as a fantastic journey through Hell (the most famous and creative chapter), Purgatory and Heaven, where first his idol, the ancient Roman poet Vergil guides him (who was the author of Aeneid as well) , then his eternal love from his childhood, Beatrice shows the way.
Since Dante belonged to the White Guelphs’ party (moderated supporters of the pope), when the Black Guelphs came into power in Dante’s home city, Florance, the poet was exiled to Ravenna where he later died and was buried.
Apart from a few years during the Second World War, when his remains had to be hidden under a heap in the church’s garden, he has been resting there for more than 700 years.
It is incomprehensible to think about that this genius writer, who is just as vivid and real through his thoughts and words like anybody else, in fact lived seven centuries ago, but otherwise was so similar to us in terms of feelings, dreams, hopes, fears and so on.
Near the tomb, you should not miss the Basicila of St. Francis, which has a real miracle inside. When you approach the altar and go down the stairs, you can see many visitors looking through a hole in the middle. What’s that?
Well, believe it or not, there is a crypt under the church, but the interesting about it is the fact that during the centuries, the water gathered and stayed inside an underground hall. Thus, there is an eerie pool underneath that turns the crypt into a cave of the dead or a terrifying pit in Hell. Enchanting, but definitely not a place where you would like to swim!
However, the basilica is still not the most famous religious monument to see. It is most probably the Basilica di San Vitale, which is already special due to its octagonal floor map, but the real amazement are waiting for you inside.
If you look upwards, there is a wonderful Baroque fresco from the modern centuries, but it is not the basic style of the church, since it was built during the time when Byzantine emperor Justinian intended to reunite the Roman Empire and captured Ravenna from the Ostrogoths.
Therefore, if one observes the to the left and right from the main altar, there are incredible Byzantine mosaics there, which are also famous, because they are the best-known representations of emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora, while one can also see Justinian’s military leader, Belisar next to the emperor, and on the opposite side, where there’s the mosaic of women, Belisar’s wife is also portraid on Theodora’s side.
The successful commander had an unfortunate life later: the suspicious Justinian, being afraid of a conspiracy against him, ordered his men to blind Belisar, and he turned into a beggar, who, as the legend says, always had to ask for an obol from the people passing by him. Obol, by the way, was also the name of the ancient Greek coin which was given to the dead in order to be taken by Charon, ferryman of the Underworld.
There is no wonder that San Vitale and other churches of Ravenna are on the UNESCO world heritage list, because you can feel it from the very first moment that this place is something extraordinary, celestial, sacred, transcendent and profound.
It can also be particular that there is a baptizing pool in the middle of the building, since people used to have a whole bath during the baptism ceremony in the early centuries - just like Christ himself did in river Jordan.
There is also a mosaic of a lion, which is not only the symbol of evangelist St. Mark, but as I should already know it very well by now, it also represents Venice, the Republic of San Marco wherever I travel in the Mediterraneum.
Just next to San Vitale, there is another impressive monument, the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, which dates a little bit before the church. Although she is often referred to in Italian as regina (queen) or imperatrice (empress), she in fact had never been a ruler, only the regent of his son.
However, that is true that she wa surrounded by emperors throughout her life: her father, Theodosius was the last emperor of the united Roman Empire, her brother, Honorius was an emperor as well (the first one of the Western Roman Empire), just as her second husband, Flavius Constantinus and then finally her son, Valentinianus.
The mauselum is full of marvelous mosaics with shining colors and decorative motives representing apostles, saints, evangelists, symbolic and mythical animals and the Good Pastor (Jesus Christ) as well.
It was fascinating for me to see in practice something which still belongs to the Roman Empire but at the same time is already Christian, although a little bit more than a century before Christians were still persecuted by the pagan leaders of Rome.
The list of wonderful mosaics and pictures, however, is not finished yet: another fabulous example for that was the Basilica of St. Apollinare with its main hall full of mosaics and with a beautiful coffered ceiling (in Italian cassettoni; we also use this expression in Hungarian).
For a few moments I really thought that it was not the 21st century but the days of the early Middle Ages, no matter that I could see people of my age walking everywhere with smart phones and in contemporary clothes.
There are of course several other churches that here I do not have the chance to introduce and I could not visit either due to the lack of time (like the one of San Giovanni Evangelista near the railway station).
Neither can I tell you in details about the gorgeous Archiepiscopal Museum (Museo Arcivescovile) with all of its paintings, artifacts and treasures, although the ivory throne of the archbishop and a collection of Roman stones and statues really remained in my mind.
However, I would still like to mention the Orthodox Baptistery (Battistero Neoniano or Battistero degli Ortodossi) which was started being built under bishop Ursus and finished under bishop Neon (hence comes the name).
How is it possible that it was named Orthodox many centuries before the Great Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox church?
If we want to understand it, we should remember to translate the Greek word in its own context: the expression itself in fact means 'true belief', which here is meant to define the kind of Christianity which is not the ‘heretic’ Arian branch (who also had their baptistery in Ravenna, Battistero degli Aariani).
I should also highlight that although Ravenna has changed a lot during its history, there are relatively many memories of the past - thus two former city gates, Porta Serrata and Porta Adriana are still visible today, which is very unique achievement indeed, and not every European city can be proud of that.
As Rome is a city associated with the Ancient Times, Florence with the Rainassance and Venice with the Baroque, Ravenna is truly the capital of the Early Christian and Medieval art in Italy, while in spite of its population (which is lower than Rimini’s) it is indeed a key city of the Italian culture in the North.
By the way, I realized one fun fact afterwards that was ou of my sight: on the way to Ravenna, I also crossed a town called Bellaria, where you can find the mouth of river Rubicon (Rubicone).
The tiny river became immortal in history due to the fact that Caesar said alea iacta est (‘the die is cast’, so ‘there is no way back’) when he crossed Rubicon with his troops which was forbidden for Roman military leaders (the river was the border of the original Roman province of Italia, which was shifted northwards later on).
And so the civil war in Rome began, which was the firs step towards establishing the system of Principate, which practically meant a monarchy, but with the institutions and formalities of the old republic. The picture below, to be honest, is not at Rubicon, but the port channel of Ravenna, but I hope is not gonna be that dissappointing.
That's all what I had to say about Ravenna and its miraculous treasures, but it is still not everything about Romagna. My last journey leads me to the countryside near Rimini, while I also had the surprising opportunity to visit one of the most particular European countries I had never thought I would see.
Join me nex time to see where I' ll be going!