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Places and characters of the Byzantine city of Ravenna

The Byzantine city of Ravenna has ancient origins. Since the first Etrurian and Umbrians settlements, a maritime center of great importance arose. Romans and the first emperor Octavian made it as the main port in the Adriatic sea. In fact, the port of Classe could host until 250 triremes and 10.000 sailors [1]. 


Ravenna three times capital 

The glory of Ravenna arose during the centuries, as well as its commercial hegemony. Then, it became the capital of the Western Roman Empire in 402. In the same year the emperor Onofrio moved from Milan to Romagna. In fact Milan was rendered insecure by the barbarian invasions by the Visigots of Alaric. However, Ravenna was the witness of the end of the Empire, when Odoacer deposed the last emperor Romulus Augustus. 

In 493 the king of the Goths, Theodoric, conquered the city after a long siege, generating a new political and artistic season. Then, Ravenna was conquered by Justinian I from the Eastern Empire, becoming the new capital of the Byzantine exarchate. Only in 751 the arrival of the Lombards broke the political egemony of Ravenna, which had been lasting from 350 years. 


Ravenna, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia


From the Middle Age until today

In the Middle Age the city was governed firstly by the archbishops and then by the noble families of the city, who trasformed Ravenna into a municipal signoria. In 1321 Dante Alighieri died in Ravenna due to malaria. The signoria lasted until 1441, when the city became part of the Republic of Venice. In 1509 the city moved under the control of the State of the Church until 1859, so it was annexed to the reign of Sardinia and to the rising Reign of Italy. 


Characters and historical monuments of the Byzantine Ravenna

Ravenna is one of the few cities which have a strong identification of its historical characters with the places linked to them: glorious emperors, like Theodoric, Galla Placidia or Dante Alighieri.  Across the city it is possible to walk in history, following the traces of all the men who have shaped it. 


The empress Galla Placidia

Galla Placidia was the empress of Rome and, as a woman, it is a unique event in the history. Her personal affairs are inserted into a period of strong turbulences of the Empire, due to the barbarian invasions of the 4th and 5th centuries. Galla Placidia was the daughter of the Emperor Theodosius I. After his death (395) the Roman Empire was divided into two parts: the eastern part governed by Arcadio, and the western part ruled by Honorius. The uncertainty following the territorial division encouraged the descent of the Visigoths of Alaric (404), which culminated with the famous Sack of Rome in 410. During this occasion Galla Placidia was kidnapped and kept as a hostage by Alaric, with whom she stayed for several years. 

After the death of Alaric in Cosenza, the successor Athaulf decided to marry Galla for obtaining the recognition of the Visigoths rights by the Emperor. Then the Theodosius’ daughter became the princess of the Visigoths. Nonetheless, after few time Athaulf was killed in a conspiracy and Galla Placidia was humiliated, forced to walk barefoot for twenty kilometers. After six years of prisoning, the general Flavius Honorius released her, becoming shortly thereafter (421) co-emperor together with Honorius. In Ravenna Constantius married her, although the complaints by Galla, who didn’t like his outward appearance [2]. 

Widow for the second time, after the death of her husband she was exiled in Constantinople. After the death of Honorius and various vicissitudes, Galla Placidia became the empress of the Western Roman Empire until her death (450).


The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and the mystery of her burial

According to the Ravenna tradition, the remains of Galla Placidia are inside the wonderful Mausoleum, that was constructed by her will when she was alive. However, she died in Rome and probably Christians buried her inside the Basilica of San Pietro. The finding of a sumptuous marble sarcophagus in one of the side chapels in 1458 supports this thesis. It contains the body of a woman and of a baby, that seem to pertain to an imperial lineage, since they are wrapped with gold fibers. Then, it is possible that they are Galla Placidia and her son Theodosius. 

A curious legend argues that the embalmed body of Galla was really moved inside the Byzantine Ravenna Mausoleum. However, a clumsy visitor of the 16th century would have caused a fire, forever erasing the remains of the empress. 


The Byzantine Mausoleum of Galla Placidia with a Greek plan


Details of the Byzantine mosaics of the internal vault


One of the three sarcophagi that, according to the tradition, Galla Placidia had built to Honorius, Constantius and for herself.


The mosaic of Saint Lawrence.


A mosaic with the Good Shepherd


The Byzantine church of Saint John the Evangelist 

During the travel to exile to Constantinople, the ship where Galla Placidia was victim of a violent shipwreck. The Empress, supporter of the Catholic orthodoxy, entrusted her prayer to Saint John the Evangelist, vowing to dedicate to him a church if she was saved. For this reason, one of the most important religious buildings is the church of Saint John the Evangelist. 


Church of Saint John the Evangelist


The entrance portal







Mosaic decorations; to be noted the wonderful specimens of the Solomon’s Knot.



Mosaics at the church of Saint John the Evangelist


A… unicorn?



The news about the life of Odocer are very scarse, particularly those concerning his origin. It is possible that he was the son of high-ranking military of the Attila’s army. When he was young he enlisted the Imperial army of Rome, but after a short time he passed at the head of the revolt which deposed Romulus Augustulus in Ravenna. This is the event known by historians as the fall of the Western Roman Empire (476). Odoacer, king of the Heruli, was aryan; however, he never interfered with anyone’s freedom of worship, particularly the Catholic faith. 


The Neonian baptistery

The Neonian baptistery of Ravenna was built by the will of the bishop Orso, in contrast with the Aryan doctrine, considered as heretic [3] and spread in that time. This building continued to be used during the aryan governments of Odoacer and Thedoric. 


The Neonian baptistery


Internal of the baptistery




Theodoric was a so loved and feared king by the Ostrogoths. In 489, at the head of 100.000 men, crossed the Alpes and went towards Ravenna, where Odoacer ruled. After 5 years of violent conflicts against the Heruli, he killed his opponent by treachery, during a banquet that should have sanctioned a truce. After these events there were thirty years of peace, during which Ravenna saw an increase of its artistic heritage and its fame all over the world. 

Theodoric commanded the construction of public reclamation works and the building of some of the most important monuments of the city, like the homonymous palace and the Mausoleum. Like Odoacer, Theodoric respected the freedom of worship, although he was aryan. Nevertheless, in the last years, a political and religious dispute with the emperor Justinian I led him to imprison and leave to starve the Catholic pope John I. Fearing a conspiracy, Theodoric had some of his most trusted advisors executed, including the philosopher Severino Boethius. According to the legend Boethius appeared to him as a ghost at the time of his death. 

The Mausoleum of Theodoric 

The legends about the death of Theodoric are several. A most famous is the telling about the doe with golden ropes. It seems that someone had seen the mythical animal inside a wood. When Theodoric had learned the news, he personally set out on its trace, armed with a bow. However, the king’s horse started to run, crossing the Strait of Messina with a leap and throwing the king into the mouth of the Etna. This could be the explanation that the ancients gave to the fact the body of Theodoric is not inside the Mausoleum. It is possible, in fact, that the burial has been plundered.  

The fate of the cuirass of Theodoric is not dissimilar, although historically ascertained. It is an extraordinary gold find, found in 1854 near the Mausoleum. Unfortunately, during the 20s some ill-intentioned stole it from the Museo Nazionale of Ravenna; since then it is lost. 


The Mausoleum of Theodoric. With an octagonal plan, the coverage is composed by a single and heavy stone monolith; the tecnique which allowed its placing is still a mystery. It is hypothesized that the area around the Mausoleum could be flooded, in order to allow the lifting of the block through floating rafts.


The Palace of Theodoric 

The palace of Theodoric, of which today only the facade remains, has a dubious attribution. It is possible that it was effectively the residence of the king or a portion of the lost Church of San Salvatore. 


The so called Palace of Theodoric


The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

This building was constructed by the will of Theodoric as a church devoted to the Aryan cult in 505. The Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo was a private religious building hosting only the court of the king; only in 540 Justinian converted it to the Catholic cult. 


The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo




Justinian has been a Byzantine emperor from 527 to his death. Thanks to glorious military victories he reached the reconquest of a portion of the lost Western Roman Empire. After establishing the Byzantine exarchate in Italy, he put Ravenna as the capital. Justinian is remembered as one of the most important king of the High Middle Age and his exploits are remembered inside the wonderful mosaics of the Basilica of San Vitale. 


The mosaic of Justinian inside the Basilica of San Vitale


The emperor Justinian


Basilica of San Vitale

The Basilica of San Vitale is a famous religious building of the Byzantine and Early Christian period. It was the bishop Ecclesio who ordered its construction after the death of Theodoric, but it was completed when Ravenna was under the dominion of the emperor Justinian. The building is famous for its particular Roman architecture and the mosaics inside, which represent unique masterpieces of the World. 


The Basilica of San Vitale


Interior of the Basilica






The famous floor labyrinth inside the Basilica of San Vitale, which recalls the form of the ones of the Cathedral of Chartres or Lucca.


A mosaic of Justinian inside the Basilica of San Vitale


The Byzantine empress Theodora


Simbologies on the Byzantine floor mosaics


The holy water font


Sculptural sarcophagus. It seems recalling the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem.


Floor mosaic. To be noted the Solomon’s Knot.


The fragment of a Byzantine floor mosaic which seems recalling a swastika motif. The swastika was an ancient religious propitiatory symbology, probably linked to the Sun movement.


Museo Nazionale of Ravenna, a wonderful intertwined Byzantine Solomon’s Knot


Another Solomon’s Knot at the Museo Nazionale of Ravenna

Dante Alighieri

A lot has been written about Dante Alighieri. Born in Florence in 1265, he moved along various courts of the time. The city of Ravenna is indissolubly linked to the author of the Comedy, since here his remains are hosted. In 1301 Dante was in Rome when Charles of Valois devasted Florence due to an uprising. The poet was banished from his city and since then he couldn’t go back. Exiled, Dante moved to Verona and in his last years to Ravenna. Here he was chosen for a diplomatic mission to Venice, but there he contracted malaria. He died in Ravenna the 14th of September 1421, at the age of 56. 


The Tomb of Dante 

All the events regarding the burial and the conservation of the Dante’s remains in Ravenna are fascinating. The body of the poet was preserved initially in a marble urn, but later it was moved to a sumptuous tomb made by the architect Pietro Lombardi, near the Basilica of San Francesco. When the city was leading by the Papal State, the burial was abandoned. Only in 1780 Camillo Morigia was commissioned to build a chapel where today the remains of the poet are hosted. 


The Little Temple by Camillo Morigia. It hosts the remains of Dante Alighieri.




However, the vicissitudes about the remains of the poet were not finished. Since the Florence inhabitants claimed their paternity, the friars of the Basilica of San Francesco hid the remains to prevent them from being stolen. The religious passed on the secret of the remains location. In 1810, Napoleon ordered the cancellation of all the monastic orders and the hiding place of the friars was forgotten. Until 1865 the Dante’s remains were forgotten, when a bricklayer casually found them behind a walled door of the oratory adjacent to the basilica. 


The Basilica of San Francesco 

The Basilica of San Francesco in Ravenna dates back to the 9th century but it is located on a preexisting religious building dedicated to the apostles Peter and Paul. Here the friars celebrated the funeral of Dante Alighieri. An unusual particular is the presence of a crypt under the presbitery, located below the sea level. The crypt is composed by three naves with cross vaults; on the flooded floor (where striking goldfishes swim) it is possible to observe beautiful mosaics. They reveal the ancient function of the room: it has to preserve the remains of the bishop Neone, whose sarcophagus is placed behind the access window. 


Basilica of San Francesco


The fascinating crypt in the Basilica of San Francesco






The sarcophagus of the bishop Neone


Samuele Corrente Naso

(Translation by Daniela Campus)




[1] Sources from Pliny the Elder.

[2] Olimpiodoro.

[3] Council of Nicaea, 325

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