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The origins of Ravenna are even more ancient than those of Rome, dating back approximately 3000 years.
As was typical with the early cities, Ravenna was built at the confluence of waterways; more specifically, on the rivers of the ancient Padusa (an area of the Po with tributaries and river boundaries) near the sea.
Here the ancient Umbrian people were mixed with Etruscans and Celts until, between the end of the third and early second century BC, the settlement was conquered by the Romans. From being a small but significant town, located on small islands linked by bridges, Ravenna became an important military port with a Praetorian fleet allocated to it on order of the emperor Octavian Augustus. This fleet had the task of ensuring the defense of the Adriatic and the eastern seas under the empire (hence the name Classe, from the Latin “classis”, which means “fleet”).
Under Roman rule Ravenna’s port developed and established new commercial activities, but it was at the beginning of the 5th century that Ravenna was honored by being proclaimed capital of the Roman Empire in the west, when it was chosen as the new headquarters by the Emperor Onorio. Its position was seen to be the best to defend Rome, and later Milan, from invasions by the Alaric Visigoths.
Between the V and VI centuries, under the empress Galla Placidia (Onorio’s sister), the city experienced an era of prosperity and relative peace. During this period many churches and buildings were built, such as the Cathedral (now completely lost); the Neonian Baptistry; the Palace of the Archbishop, of which only the oratory now remains (the chapel of St. Andrew); the Basilica of St John the Baptist, built as a personal offering to the saint from the empress; the church of Santa Croce (Holy Cross) and the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. Splendid mosaics revealing the influence of Roman art decorate the walls and ceilings, of which we recall in particular the Oratory of St Andrew, the Neonian Baptistry and the starry sky of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia which has become a symbol of the city throughout the world.
After the death of the empress Italy was invaded by the barbarians and in 476 AD the Western Roman empire fell at the hands of Odoacre. Odoacre was subsequently killed by Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, who ruled Italy for nearly thirty-three years (the Theodoric era). The city flourished under Theodoric’s rule and was enriched by additional buildings beautifully decorated in mosaic like the Baptistery of the Arians, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and the Mausoleum of Theodoric.
When Theodoric’s rule came to an end, the Roman emperor of the East, Justinian, sent his armies led by his general Belisario to reunite Italy with the empire. Ravenna became the administrative seat of imperial officials. These were the Byzantine years when great works such as the Basilica of San Vitale, which was the model on a smaller scale for St. Sophia in Byzantium (now Istanbul), Santa Maria Maggiore and Sant’Apollinare in Classe were completed. The mosaics of this period were influenced by the Eastern style with their static and hierarchical figures, often decorated with gold.
The invasion of the Lombards heralded the end of Byzantine power in Italy and the decline of Ravenna. The Middle Ages had begun.
A testimony to the city’s antique splendor, tens of thousands of tourists visit Ravenna’s churches, now a UNESCO heritage site, every year and are amazed and captivated by their beauty.
Text: Guerrina Casadei