The smell of bakeries and a fresh rain hit my nose when I got off the train. I had wanted to visit the small Italian city of Ravenna for some time, and I wondered if, after looking forward to it for so long, it would be a letdown. Five minutes later as my tattered suitcase bumped along the wet cobblestones and bicyclists whizzed around me on the car-less streets, I wasn’t worried anymore. Already I could sense that this was a special place.
Special is an understatement for a city that was briefly the capital of the Western Roman Empire (402 – 476 A.D.) and has eight Unesco World Heritage sites, one of which was allegedly the model for the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It’s also a word that tends to sound excessively fanciful, but it’s hard to hold back from that kind of language when you’re walking down a narrow street lined with buildings the color of fruity sorbet and a fine mist filling the air.
Regardless of what adjective I assign to it, there really is a lot to see in Ravenna. One of my first stops was the Basilica di San Vitale, an eight-sided building whose apse glitters with Byzantine mosaic images of Jesus, two angels, St. Vitalis, and the Bishop of Ravenna. Built in the sixth century when the emperor Justinian and his wife (a very interesting person) were ruling in Byzantium, the basilica also displays images of both of them. With its soaring dome and centralized floor plan, it’s no wonder many say it was a prototype for the Hagia Sophia.
Adjacent to the Basilica di San Vitale is a patch of grass with a small, unremarkable, cross-shaped building in it. The sign outside this building asks that no one spend more than five minutes inside, since the microclimate of the interior is sensitive. At first one might wonder who could possibly need more than five minutes inside this unpromising structure, but upon entering that question evaporates on one’s lips with a quick intake of breath and the realization that these mosaics are as stunning as those inside the large basilica. This humble space is the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, and its star-spangled, boldly patterned ceilings are a glorious surprise to anyone who might have judged its exterior. Of all the images inside, the most famous is the one just over the entrance, which shows a gentle Christ as the good shepherd. He reaches out to rub one of the sheep on its head, just as many dog owners comfort their pets, and even in these radiant, imperial robes he looks human and tender.
Flipping through my guidebook, I noticed how often it mentions the writers, artists, and musicians who found inspiration in the mosaics of Ravenna. The best known of these is the poet Dante, who came to Ravenna when he was exiled from the city of Florence and described the mosaics here as a “symphony of color”. Dante is still honored in the city, and his tomb, located near the center of the city, contains a burning lamp supplied with olive oil from Florence. (Apparently they regret having exiled him so many years ago.) Lord Byron also lived and worked here for several years, and even the jazz musician Cole Porter visited and found inspiration for his song “Night and Day” in the mosaics here.
Just outside Ravenna is an even smaller town, Classe, which houses the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe. I borrowed a bike and pedaled out there this past Sunday morning. It was similar to the other sites in that the mosaics were once again extraordinary, but it was even larger than anything else I’d already seen, and the windows let in much more light, so that the overall effect was somehow, if it were possible, more stunning. It being a Sunday, the scent of incense still hung in the air from an early service, and in spite of the nearly 1,500 years separating me from the time this church was begun, it felt fresh and vibrant
Across the street from the church was a tiny restaurant where a teenaged waitress was filling pitchers of beer and making piadina (a type of Romagnan sandwich) to order. After asking for “pomodoro e rucola”, I sat down in a plastic chair and watched, of all things, MTV on the flat screen while she made my lunch. It was a bizarre way to cap off my morning of looking at the transcendent mosaics, but it was also oddly appropriate. When I’d first arrived in the area I’d been struck by the specialness of the place. I was ready to imbibe whatever it was that had inspired so many brilliant people to do extraordinary work. I still feel that way, but being here for a couple days has also reminded me that this place, like every place, is also home to hardworking, ordinary people with more mundane concerns like making sandwiches and waiting on all the tables in a busy restaurant. I hope to spend more time seeing these aspects of the area as well and to recognize that, like the little brown Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, these parts of the city may be more vibrant than I expect them to be.