Ravenna is a fascinating Italian city—discreet, yet wonderful. At first glance, it appears to be a rather unadorned, plain brown city. But oh, how Ravenna keeps her charms under wraps!
Historically, Ravenna was very important—first as the seat of the Western Roman Empire, and later as an important part of the Byzantine (Eastern, that is, Turkish-Christian) Empire. Over the centuries it was conquered by the Franks (who marched from Southern Germany to France) and served as the seat of the Germanic-speaking Kingdom of the Lombards.
Visually, Ravenna is a camouflaged treasure chest. Rather plain, brown buildings conceal interiors paved with glorious—ravishing!— early Christian mosaic works. Mostly executed in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries, they are considered the greatest collection of preserved mosaic works of the period and easily justify the city’s designation as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Some sites—like the Basilica of San Vitale (548 AD)—boast such visual ravishment, one can barely take it in. I wondered, “Could I be in heaven?” I could best appreciate the church by consuming the bite-sized images composed on my iPhone. Other sites, like the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (430 AD), were smaller and intimate, and could be appreciated despite the limitations of human sensual saturation. The ceiling mosaic, called “The Garden of Eden,” was one of the most pleasing (inanimate) things I’ve ever seen.
And Ravenna held one more surprise for me: the tomb of Florentine poet-genius Dante Alighieri. During the writer’s life, he seems to have found himself on the losing side of a Florentine political war. The victors subsequently banished Italy’s greatest writer from his beloved home city and he bounced around Italy for several years before settling in Ravenna (where he died in September of 1321). He was buried in the Church of Frati Minori. Only then did Florence decide they wanted their most-famous son back! After pleading, petitioning and the intervention of the Pope (at Michelangelo’s urging), it was decided (nearly 200 years after Dante’s death) that his body would be returned. When the Florentines showed-up, however, Dante’s tomb was empty! He had been hidden in the wall of the church—and then forgotten about for more than three centuries. In 1865, just in time for the celebration of his 600th birthday, a workman found him in the church’s wall (complete with a note identifying his remains) and he was reburied in a handsome 19th Century tomb which abuts the Church of San Francesco. This is where I “saw him” and spent a few minutes contemplating his dramatic story in the shadow of his burial vault. I also thought about how the great man himself had visited and enjoyed the very mosaics I had just seen—and that they were already (nearly) 900 years old when he viewed them.
The bookends above, made in the 1920’s, capture the famous poet’s hawkish gaze—as well has his muse, the lovely Beatrice.
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