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Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Ravenna, Italy | The colour and the glory

There are no great duomos dominating Ravenna’s skyline. This small town in north Italy has narrow streets that open suddenly into lovely piazzas. But unlike Italy’s heavily touristed cities, there are no crowds here.

Ravenna’s basilicas and churches are but modest brick buildings. The true charms of the town lie in the mosaics housed in its churches, baptisteries and mausoleums. Indeed, the city’s fifth- and sixth-century mosaics were said to rival those of Constantinople at its peak—and these mosaics were the main reason I had long wanted to visit Ravenna.

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Ravenna was once one of the most important cities in Europe. The Roman emperor Augustus chose it as the naval base for his eastern Mediterranean fleet in the first century, making the city an important boom town on the Eastern trade routes.

Some 400 years later, emperor Honorius, when besieged by the Goths, moved his capital from Milan to Ravenna, setting in motion a chain of power transfers that were to bestow the city with a complicated history and an amazing architectural heritage. In 493 AD, Ravenna fell to the Gothic ruler Theodoric, whose stamp on Ravenna’s architecture is still visible. Theodoric in turn was defeated by the Byzantine emperor Justinian’s general Belisarius in 540 AD.

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The Basilica of San Vitale. Photo: Tango7174/Wikimedia Commons

I had seen some excellent examples of Byzantine-era mosaics in Istanbul, Turkey, but those were only small portions of the original designs that had survived. In Ravenna, by contrast, I was able to see the art form at its most magnificent and complete. Everywhere, I was stunned by the sight of what a church fully decked out in mosaics could look like. Walls, ceilings, naves and apses were covered in murals made of shimmering fragments of stone and glass, often with a foundation of gold or mother of pearl.

Almost overwhelmed by the colour and detail I saw throughout my time in Ravenna, I tried desperately to capture the images before me on camera so that I’d have a more permanent recollection when memory faded. Yet I knew that no photography could really convey the effect of the mosaics that depict scenes from the Bible, people from the time, and even simple scenes from nature, all of which appeared different every time I looked at them from a new vantage point.

Mosaics are much more durable than other pictorial art forms, and Ravenna’s have been restored and preserved painstakingly. These mosaics transported me back in time so easily that I couldn’t help but imagine Ravenna at the peak of its wealth and success.

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A mosaic of emperor Justinian by artist Meister von San Vitale. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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A mosaic of emperor Justinian by artist Meister von San Vitale. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Mosaics cover almost every visible surface here—the main dome, the vaults and lunettes—and illustrate themes of redemption in deep rich blues, greens and gold. My favourite feature was the vault, which depicted an almost hypnotic mosaic of some 800 stars in the night sky. Even in the dark space, the explosion of colour is startling. I remember thinking that in the full light of day, the richness of the images and the colours might be far too overwhelming an experience.

A short walk away is the Basilica of San Vitale. On the outside, San Vitale is a mix of Roman and Byzantine styles. My eyes, accustomed to spotting Byzantine buildings from living in Istanbul, found the structure’s buttresses at once familiar. Yet its unique octagon-within-an-octagon design was way different from what I’d seen in Istanbul. Inside, the Roman-style mosaics of Galla Placidia’s mausoleum gave way to a more Byzantine splendour.

San Vitale is perhaps most famous for its mosaics depicting the great Byzantine emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora, which decorate the walls of the presbytery. But the mosaics they are surrounded by are no less stunning. I felt like I was standing in a bejewelled chamber—the mosaics catching and reflecting the glints of sunlight. The birds, beasts, flowers, prophets and biblical scenes were all intensely vivid.

The mosaics seemed to come alive. In their exquisite attention to detail, they made me think of Islamic miniature paintings. In the panel depicting Theodora and her maids, I could spot not only the embroidery but also the gradations of colour in their robes, and could discern every fold of their clothing.

Originally built by Theodoric, the building was later re-consecrated to the Catholic Church. Theodoric had belonged to a strain of Christianity called Arianism, whose followers had been declared heretics for preaching that Jesus was distinct from God the Father. So any visual representations of Theodoric or the “heretic" saints were tactfully covered up (some with mosaic curtains), and the cruciform halos seen behind Christ were a non-Arian addition.

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A few kilometres outside the city, in Classe, the ancient port built by Augustus, is another Sant’Apollinare. Over time, Ravenna’s own port had silted and dried up and had to be abandoned, eventually leading to the decline of the city.

The church and its bell tower in Classe, once standing at the centre of the cosmopolitan port, are now hulked over a suburban neighbourhood. Inside though, the apse has a splendid mosaic depicting the transfiguration of Christ with Sant’Apollinare standing in a brilliant, verdant green meadow of flowers and white sheep, with the jewelled Cross of Glory above him, set in a star-spangled heaven.

I was all alone. I wondered how I had the place to myself, especially given how many sights in Italy are overrun by tourists. Thankful for the solitude, I sat in a pew and drank in the green of the mosaic.

Vedica Kant is a freelance writer and researcher based in Istanbul and London.

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