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For other places named Ravenna, see Ravenna (disambiguation).

Ravenna is a city in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, population 134,631 (2001). The city is inland, but is connected to the Adriatic Sea by a canal. Ravenna once served as the seat of the Roman Empire and later the Ostrogothic kingdom. It is presently the capital of the province of Ravenna.


Early history

Nowadays the city is land-locked, but Ravenna was an important seaport on the Adriatic, as well as an administrative center of the Roman Empire and the early Middle Ages. When Ravenna was settled, it was on a coastal lagoon (which still appeared on 16th century maps), and the city in Antiquity was traversed with canals. Ravenna was an ancient ally of Rome against the Gauls, and kept its identity as an ally until it sided with Marius in the Civil Wars of the 1st century BC. Sulla annexed it to the province of Cisalpine Gaul. It was an important station of the Roman imperial fleet ("classis") which gave a name to Classis the dockyard port city of Ravenna, protected at first by its own walls. The imperial Porta Aurea of Classis was not demolished until the 16th century, the last of the standing remains. Columns from Classis were scattered as trophies among Christian churches in Ravenna, and even shipped to Venice. Roman sculptures were built into churches such as San Giovanni in Fonte or San Vitale.

Thusnelda , widow of Arminius, and Marbod, King of the Marcomanni, were confined at Ravenna. After 404 when Ravenna was the imperial residence, the city gained its most famous monuments, both secular (demolished) and Christian (largely preserved). The 18th century cathedral occupies the site of the 4th century basilica, Christianized by Bishop Ursus about 380 AD. No vestige remains however of the secular palaces of Honorius. The earliest churches have scarcely fared better: Sant' Agata, a basilica of three naves, (San Pietro in Classis was torn down in the 16th century, to make room for fortifications); San Giovanni Evangelista, (largely rebuilt in Gothic style and stripped of its mosaics in 1747); part of Santa Croce; some columns in San Giovanni Battista. The most important is the square chapel of the archiepiscopal palace (dedicated to San Pietro Crisologo) with its mosaics

The "tomb" of Galla Placidia, preserved by being made the church of Santi Nazario e Celso, which contains the finest mosaics of Ravenna, deserves special mention. It is built in the shape of a Latin cross, and has a cupola that is entirely in mosaics, representing eight apostles and symbolical figures of doves drinking from a vessel, a Roman motif; the other four apostles are represented on the vaults of the transverse arm; over the door is a representation of Christ as the Good Shepherd, young, beardless, with flowing hair, and surrounded by sheep; opposite, there is a subject that is interpreted as representing St. Lawrence. There are three sarcophagi; the largest is said to have been that of Galla Placidia, and that her body was deposited there in a sitting position, clothed with the imperial mantle; in 1577, however, the contents of the sarcophagus were burned.

San Giovanni in Fonte was the baptistery of the Orthodox, dedicated by Archbishop Neon (449-52), built over the calidarium of public baths on the same site. It is of octagonal shape, with the interior walls and vault adorned with mosaics. In the centre of the cupola is the baptism of Christ, on a golden field, with a personification of the River Jordan; around are grouped the twelve Apostles on a blue field; and below are other figures, possibly of the prophets; there are also arabesques, etc. The marbles of the socle were taken from secular buildings.

After 493, Ravenna was the capital of the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy. Here the kingdom was ruled by Theodoric the Great. After the battle of Verona , Odoacer retreated to Ravenna, where he withstood a siege of three years by Theodoric, until the taking of Rimini deprived Ravenna of supplies. Archbishop Joannes served as the peace mediator (493). Theodoric employed Roman architects for secular and religious structures, including the lost palace near San Apollinare Nuovo; the "Palazzo di Teodorico" was an outbuilding. The palace itself was sacked by the Byzantines in 539, became the seat of the exarchs and of the King of the Lombards. Charlemagne appropriated columns of this palace for his own palace at Aachen. The last tower that remained of the palace of Theodoric was destroyed in 1295.

Theodoric's Arian bishops had their seat in the cathedral close to the palace. It was rededicated in the 9th century as Sant' Apollinare Nuovo when relics of Saint Apollinaris were transferred there. Its apse and atrium underwent modernization at various times, but the mosaics of the lateral walls, twenty-four columns, and an ambo are preserved. The mosaics of the right side represent a scheme of twenty-six saints going to receive their crowns, towards a group representing Christ, beardless, enthroned amid four angels; which lattter group is the best. This picture contains a schematic representation of the palace of Theodoric. The Catholics had to revise some of the more Arian of the mosaics, as is shown by some hands that remain near a column. On the left are the virgins moving from the city of Classis towards the group of the Madonna and Child surrounded by four angels; on the two sides are the lines of windows, between which are mosaics representing sixteen saints (Doctors of the Church?) that have much more individuality than the figures already mentioned. On the third story are represented twenty-six scenes of the life and passion of Christ, in which latter, however, the crucifixion is lacking; between each two scenes there is the image of a saint. In another part of the church there is a rough mosaic containing the portrait of the Emperor Justinian.

Exarchate of Ravenna

Following the conquests of Belisarius for the Emperor Justinian I in the sixth century, Ravenna became the seat of the Byzantine governor of Italy, the Exarch, and was known as the Exarchate of Ravenna.

Catholic and modern history

After the Byzantine withdrawal Ravenna was ruled by legates of the Pope as one of the Papal States. It became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.


Numerous beautiful late Roman and Byzantine mosaics remain to this day in the following:

  • Arian baptistry
  • Baptistry of Neon
  • Church of S. Vitale
  • Church of S. Apollinare in Classe
  • Mausoleum of Theodoric
  • Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

External links

  • Official Site
  • Ravenna, A Study (1913) by Edward Hutton, from Project Gutenberg
  • Catholic Encyclopedia: Ravenna's early history and its monuments

Last updated: 02-08-2005 13:50:28
Last updated: 02-20-2005 19:47:52