Italy 2003 pt. 5 – First steps in Ravenna (ENG)

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(Other parts of the report from Italy: first, second, third, fourth.)

Next trip, this time to the north to Bellaria-Igea Marina, was to Ravenna, the capital of the following: Western Roman Empire in the years 402-476, the Kingdom of Ostrogoths, Ravenna Exarchate (Byzantine province on the Apennine Peninsula) in the years 540-751, and part of the Papal States in the years 765-1859. Ravenna was originally a seaside town, but as centuries passed, alluvial sediments would cut it off from the sea if it were not for the construction of an 11-kilometer long canal (the longest in Italy) at the beginning of the 18th century. Ravenna is a city with a stunning number of historic churches.

The first one we saw was the Basilica di Santa Maria in Porto. It is a minor basilica built in the 16th century.

Source: own. Photo licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

The façade in its current form was built in 1784 by Camillo Morigia, to whom we owe the contemporary appearance of the Dante’s tomb and the clock tower – both of which we saw later.

We did not go inside the basilica, not knowing that it contains Greek Madonna, an ancient marble bas-relief of the patron of Ravenna and the local archdiocese. According to a local legend, angels delivered it to Ravenna in 1100. More likely it was brought from Byzantium by crusaders or iconodules (defenders of icons) in the period of iconoclasm, the organized destruction of images of God and saints.

Then we visited the so-called palace of Theoderic, who was the king of the Ostrogoths and the bane of Odoacer (the same who in 476 deposed the last Western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus). Why “so-called”? Formerly it was believed that this building is a remnant of the original palace, but according to new discoveries it is a different building. Anyway, it’s worth seeing. Interestingly, after nearly three centuries since the death of the king of Ostrogoths, Charlemagne used the columns from the Theoderic palace to build a chapel in Aachen, distant by more than 1000 km. After another thousand years, some of them were taken by Napoleon Bonaparte to the Louvre.

Source: own. Photo licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

The building contains mosaics moved here in 1923 from the remains of the original palace.

Source: own. Photo licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

The next place we visited was the New Basilica of Saint Apollinaris (Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo).

Source: own. Photo licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Built at the beginning of the sixth century, it was originally the palace chapel of Theoderic, intended for the Arians, the followers of a branch of Christianity rejecting the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and recognized by the mainstream Christians as heresy. Therefore, after the Byzantine conquest of Ravenna, the church was again consecrated and handed over to mainstream Christians in 561.

Source: own. Photo licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

There are wonderful mosaics inside:

Source: own. Photo licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

In the top row, above the windows, there are scenes from the life of Jesus. In the middle row – images of saints holding books or scrolls. These mosaics come from the time of Theoderic. The lower row initially showed two court retinues. On the right lateral wall, there was King Theoderic’s entourage, leaving his palace and heading towards Christ. On the left lateral wall there was Queen’s retinue (led by Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar – this is the oldest image of the Three Magi), which comes from Classe (ancient port of Ravenna that no longer exists), and is headed towards Mary with the Child. After the capture of Ravenna by the Byzantines, the mosaics from the lower row were reworked. Instead of the queen’s entourage, we see 22 virgin martyrs…

Source: Photo licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

and instead of the king’s retinue – 26 martyrs, led no longer by Theoderic, but by Saint Martin of Tours, patron of the basilica in the Byzantine period. The choice of this saint was not accidental – because he was a well-known opponent of the Arians, the Byzantines inflicted an additional blow to the original users of the basilica.

Source: Photo licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

On our way, we passed a monument dedicated to those who died for independence of Italy. I associate a feminine figure with the valkyrie.

Source: own. Photo licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Then we saw the church of San Giovanni Evangelista.

Source: own. Photo licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Although its present Gothic appearance dates back to the fourteenth century, the building was erected as early as the fifth century by order of Aelia Galla Placidia, as an expression of gratitude for saving her and her children lives during a storm in the Adriatic Sea. Aelia’s life abounded in so many historic and dramatic events that in my opinion it is worth spending a long moment.

Between the age of three and seven, she lost both her parents, the Roman Emperor Theodosius I and his wife Galla. She spent the following years at the home of the influential Roman commander Flavius Stilicho (of Vandal origin) and his wife Serena, with whom she was related. She was even engaged to the only known son of Stilicho, Eucherius. Before Aelia turned 20, her brother, emperor Honorius, accused Stilicho of treason and executed him. Soon afterwards Eucherius met the same fate.

Pogroms of Germans, regarded as supporters of Stilicho, ensued. The survivors turned to the king of Visigoths, Alaric, who besieged Rome in 408. Ironically, Stilicho defended Rome against Alaric and only six years earlier defeated him at Verona.

Comment from the Gallic expert on geopolitics. Source:

Aelia Galla Placydia and Serena were in a besieged city. Like her husband and son, Serena was accused of conspiring with Alaric and executed, apparently with the approval of Aelia herself.

Eucherius, Serena and Stilicho – all three ended up executed. Source: Photo licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

After almost two years of siege, Rome fell. According to the not-so-reliable account of the chronicler Procopius of Caesarea, this news frightened the brother of Aelia, Emperor Honorius, who was in Ravenna (capital of the Empire), but he calmed down when he learned that it was “only” about the Eternal City, not his favorite rooster of the same name.

“The favorites of the Emperor Honorius”, painting of John William Waterhouse from 1883. Public domain.

Aelia became Visigoth captive, and after a few years Honorius made an alliance with Alaric’s successor, Ataulf, to whom he gave his sister as a wife. Before four years passed, the son of Aelia and Ataulf died, and his father was murdered. Another Visigoth, Sigeric, took over, brutally murdered Ataulf’s six children from his previous marriage, and humiliated Aelia. After only seven days of rule, Sigeric was overthrown and killed by Wallia, a relative of Ataulf. Wallia sent Aelia back to her brother, who in 417 forced her to marry Constantius III, commander of the West Roman army. During the crisis associated with the simultaneous election of the two popes, Boniface and Eulalius, Aelia intervened, calling on the African bishops for a synod that finally settled the matter. Her letters from that period have survived.

Images of Honorius and Galla Placidia. Source: Photo licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

In 425, Aelia’s brother and husband were no longer alive, and she, by the armed intervention of the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II, overthrew the usurper Ioannes (who, as you might expect, was executed) and became a regent in the name of her four-year son, Emperor Valentinian III.

Ioannes brought before Aelia and Valentinian. Source:

Aelia ruled the Western Roman Empire for 12 years, until her son reached the age of majority. At the very beginning of the rule, she came to an agreement with the talented commander of Ioannes, Flavius Aetius. However, she failed to prevent Aetius’ fratricidal Battle of Rimini in 432, against another commander, Bonifacius. Aelia also sponsored the renewal of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome.

In 450, Aelia’s daughter, Justa Grata Honoria, sent a letter to the chief of Huns, Attila, asking her to save her from an unwanted marriage, to which she attached an engagement ring. Attila treated this as a proposal, demanded half the empire as a dowry, and came with his army to enforce it. Only Aelia’s intervention stopped Valentinian III from killing his own sister. Instead, Honoria was banished.

Image of Galla Placidia (maybe). Source:,_forse_galla_placidia,_400-450_dc_ca._(museo_dell%27alto_medioevo).jpg. Photo licensed under CC BY 3.0.

Aelia died shortly afterwards at the age of about 60. Had she lived for another 5 years, she would have witnessed further calamities: the Hun invasion and the death of her son. Valentinian III was murdered by a soldier avenging Flavius Aetius, who defeated Attila in the famous Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451, and was later executed by the emperor. As in the case of the execution of Stilicho nearly half a century earlier, the motive was the emperor’s fear of Aetius’ possible takeover.

It ended bad for the Western Empire, which fell only 21 years later. Its last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was dethroned by the Germanic chief Odoacer, who was in turn killed by Theoderic, whom I mentioned earlier. Fourteen years after the death of Theoderic, the brilliant Byzantine commander Belisarius won Ravenna for the Eastern Empire for another 200 years after a five-year campaign, vividly depicted in this film, part of a series about the life of Belisarius and his superior, emperor Justinian.

Belisarius’ campaign. Source:,_535-540.svg. Photo licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Rimini is also mentioned in this series, under its former name Ariminum. Unlike other cities in the region, its inhabitants turned against the Ostrogoths and opened the gates to the Byzantines.

We will see the influence of political and religious differences between the Ostrogoths and Byzantines on the architecture of Ravenna in the next part of this report. Until it’s ready, I strongly recommend you to watch the films linked above.

12 thoughts on “Italy 2003 pt. 5 – First steps in Ravenna (ENG)

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