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Home The Via dei Romei Ravenna during the age of the pilgrims

Ravenna during the age of the pilgrims

This coastal route which today connects Venice to Ravenna, the via Romea (SS 309), is a recently created road, based on the via Popilia which in antiquity, when it was located more to the east, connected Ravenna with all of the high Adriatic cities, up to Aquileia, but it was abandoned before the 10th century.


Ravenna - Basilica of San Vitale


The journey from Venice to Ravenna, halfway through the 1200s, offered two alternatives: or taking a boat in Venice to reach Ravenna by sea, or going by land and fording rivers, along the ancient route of the Priamro Po river, now the Reno River, going through Padova, Rovigo, Ferrara and Argenta. Once near the city, the traveler would have encountered numerous monasteries of which today we know only the name, and in some cases, the location (Sant'Adalberto in Pereo, Santa Maria in Palazzolo, Santa Maria della Rotonda), and a hospice for pilgrims at the river outlet of the Primaro.


Going into the city, pilgrims came across a town full of religious places, which have been maintained in the structure of the historic center of the city and its topographic arrangement which date back to the 5th and 6th centuries when Ravenna was the headquarters of the capital of the Western Roman Empire (402-476) and enjoyed for more than 20 years the brilliant presence of Galla Placidia, mother of the emperor Valentinian III, then of the Ostrogoth ruler Theodoric (493-526), and finally, of the Byzantine protectorate under the Western Roman Empire.


Today, as in the Middle Ages, the religious buildings of the town include numerous churches built according the architectural trends in the 5th and 6th centuries, whose primitive aspect can be admired thanks to restorations. Also the large sections of the urban walls of the 5th century that are still visible contribute to creating an image of what this city was like in the past.


The religious center of Ravenna is made up of the cathedral complex. Today’s cathedral was built after 1744 to substitute the older cathedral, built at the end of the 4th century. Of the ancient building, only the round bell tower remains, which was built up over various periods in the Middle Ages.  Next to the cathedral, the ancient baptistery still stands, to which in about 458 the bishop Neone added a cupola and commissioned an elaborate and priceless mosaic decoration which has survived and shows the Baptism of Christ.


The complex includes the building in which the so-called chapel of Saint Andrea is housed; this is the private oratory of the archbishops of Ravenna, elaborately decorated with mosaics.  In the vestibule of the chapel, furnished during the episcopate of Pietro II (494-519), when the city was the headquarters of the Arian Kingdom of Theodoric, there is a long mosaic inscription, where it states, through the exaltation of the power of light, the anti-Arian catholic doctrine. The image on the door is linked ideologically to the inscription: it shows Christ in military wear trampling a snake and lion, the symbols of evil.


In the same complex, there is also the Archbishop Museum that hold priceless objects such as the ivory bishop’s throne (mid-6th century), the silver cross of the bishop Agnello (second half of the 6th century) and a very rare marble calendar showing the dates of Easter in the years 532 to 626.


Next to the episcopate, the most remarkable and interesting complex of the city is that around the San Vitale Basilica. A masterpiece of late medieval western architecture, the church was built thanks to the financing of the banker Giuliano Argentario in the period in which Justinian was Emperor of the East, and it was consecrated in 547 by the archbishop Massimian.


The building, with an octagonal form, has a women’s gallery that reflects contemporary byzantine architecture.  The architectonic furnishings are elaborate with columns and capitals made of marble mined from the caves of the Island of Proconnesus, premade and imported from Constantinople, and stretches of mosaics.


The chiaroscuro that the architecture creates projects a fascinating light on the extraordinary mosaics of the presbytery dating back to the same period as the building, which follow a decorative program hinging on the Eucharist, through the images taken from the Bible.  In the apse, Christ on the globe symbolizes his rule over the world.  At the end of the 10th century, the church was given to Benedictine monks who established a colony that gained important political and economic notoriety in medieval and modern Ravenna.


In the garden of the San Vitale Basilica there is a small building which is the mausoleum of Galla Placidia one of the most well kept and significant buildings from late antiquity.  Its mosaic decorations are completely dedicated to the apocalypse and paradisiacal themes.  Famous in literature, besides the images of the doves drinking from the cantharos, are the two lunettes on the main apse of the building, which show Christ the Good Sheppard in regal clothing and a martyr seen in the act of throwing himself on the torture gridiron.


Near the San Vitale complex is also the little church of Santa Maria Maggiore, made up of a three nave building constructed in the 17th century reusing ancient columns and capitals taken from a primitive church built between 526 and 532.

Commissioned by the sovereign Galla Placidia, there is also the basilica dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist, made in the later part of the 5th century. The building was originally decorated with mosaics which were lost in the 16th century. The refined architecture and marble materials used in the columns that divide the central nave from the lateral ones, even if recycled, make this church one of the most significant monuments in the city.


When the city was under the rule of Theodoric (493-526), the church, originally Arian, of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo was built, whose primitive dedication in the name of the Savior was changed to Saint Martin in 561 when the archbishop Agnello re-consecrated it as a catholic church.  The actual dedication to Sant’Apollinare comes from the late Middle Ages.


Of the primitive mosaic decorations, originally present also on the apse, today there is only the ornate stretch along the walls of the central nave.  The decoration, laid out in three levels, shows, starting from the top, a series of panels with the narration of the life and passion of Christ; in the center there are some characters dressed with tunics and mantles; lastly, in the bottom level, there are two processions from the imperial palace and the city of Classe that are going towards Christ and the Virgin in their thrones.


In place of the actual theories of virgins and martyrs, originally the members of the court of King Theodoric had to be depicted in the processions, and were substituted when the church was re-consecrated by the archbishop Agnello. The church was given in the Middle Ages to Benedictine monks who established an important monastery there, passed in 1513 to less abiding monks.


Also built in the Theodoric era, there are also the building now called the church of the Holy Spirit, which is all that is left of the primitive Arian cathedral, and the little octagonal building, in front of it, the baptistery of the Arians.  Inside, the cupola still has its primitive mosaic decorations, which mimic those in the baptistery of the orthodox cathedral.


Now part of a private building are the remains of a church consecrated in 545 which was named San Michele in Africiso. The apse, still visible on the ground floor inside a store, was originally decorated with a mosaic that, around halfway into the 1800s was removed, sold, and put back together in its original layout at the Bode Museum in Berlin.


Of the church of Sant’Agata, whose exact date of construction is unknown but it is known that in 494 it was already in existence, what we see today, in the back part is a remodeling done in the 6th century on the primitive church, and in the front part, the main part of the building divided in three naves, is a reconstruction done between 1492 and 1494.


The church of San Francesco is a building constructed in the Middle Ages (between the 9th and 11th centuries) on a previous religious building dedicated to the Apostles dating back to halfway through the 5th century.  The crypt is particularly evocative, still visible today even if part of it has been flooded, which dates back to the 9th century. The flooring in the crypt shows some bits of mosaic that belong to the original flooring of the church before its late medieval remodeling.


Annexed with the church are two elegant Franciscan cloisters built over the years in the 16th to 18th centuries to host the convent of the Franciscan monks, to whom the building was given in 1264. Next to the two cloisters there is a little 18th century building, the Tomb of Dante Alighieri, built by the architect Camillo Morigia and which contains the bones of the Supreme Poet.


In conclusion, it should be remembered that in the historic center of Ravenna, where there is now the main headquarters of the Cassa di Risparmio bank, there was once the church of San Giorgio, under the porticos of which there was a hospice for pilgrims, furnished by the Knights of the Malta Order in 1335.  A document from the 15th century notes that in the church there was a “carta picta pro itinere sancti Sepulchri”, or a map with the itinerary for the Santo Sepolcro (Holy Sepulcher), of which today we unfortunately know nothing.


For tourist information:

Local site: Ravenna

Last modified Feb 02, 2017

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