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The Byzantine heritage

Marvelous relics of the magnificence of Byzantine architecture and mosaic art can be found in the city of Ravenna.  The most significant works all date back to between the fifth and sixth centuries after Basileus Justinian “The Great”, who became emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire in 527 with his royal headquarters in Constantinople, decided to liberate Italy.


Ravenna - Basilica di San Vitale


His dream was to restore the ancient grandeur of the Roman Empire by re-conquering the lands of the west. Thus began the Gothic war which lasted for about twenty years and during which Rome and Milan were destroyed.


In 540 the Byzantine army commanded by General Belisarius entered Ravenna and put an end to the reign of the Goths. Thanks to its geographically strategic position the city became capital of the Western Roman Empire from 553 to 752 and enjoyed a long period of peace (540-568).


Justinian, who was also a great legislator, extended Byzantine law to Italy (Pragmatica sanctio 14 VIII 554), and divided it into provinces subject to the prefecture of Ravenna. Taxation became heavier to make up for the costs of the Gothic wars and the bishops were invested with public functions. Under the influence of the new emperor, Ravenna enjoyed a new period of great splendour surpassing even Rome in magnificence and beauty.


In the 6th century the flourishing art of Byzantium reached its apogee in Ravenna with a great masterpiece, the Basilica of San Vitale. On an octagonal plan, with the narthex containing an apse and triangular vestibules, the interior is decorated with beautiful mosaics in Byzantine style depicting the entourage of Theodora and Justinian.


Also from the same periodi s the series of Martyrs and Virgins in the Sant’Apollinare New Church: in the lower register of the basilica, in fact, there were modifications and substitutions done to the previous mosaics which depicted the Arianism of Theodoric the Great.


The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, flanked by towers and with an internal basilica layout containing mosaics of the same period, marks the end of the golden period of Byzantine architecture.


The great dream of Justinian failed and Ravenna slipped into a slow unavoidable decline. In 568, three years after the death of the emperor, Italy was invaded by the Longobards, who were, however, never able to take over the province of Ravenna for any long period of time.


Today, the historic center of this city is a jewel in which authentic pearls of Byzantine architecture and art are set.  Here, many works from when the city was the Capital of the Western Empire can still be admired.  In 1993, the “Domus dei Tappeti di Pietra” was brought to light: it is an archaeological site right next to the San Vitale Basilica which shows the marvellous decorative flooring of a palace from the sixth century.


For further information:
Local site: Ravenna

Last modified Jan 10, 2017

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