The city of Ravenna in Northern Italy is famous for its place in Christian history, not for its association with any great Catholic saints. But this unlikely former capital of Roman Empire is home to over half a dozen essentially intact churches and other Christian sites which date back to the 5th and 6th centuries. This amazing collection of churches from the late Roman and extremely early Medieval eras is unparalled anywhere, even in Rome, and includes chapels, baptisteries, churches, and a trio of completely intact basilicas. Moreover, a number of these were built by Arian Christians, among the only such known churches in the world to survive. Eight of these ancient Christian buildings are collectively part of the Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The quiet Roman city of Ravenna in Northern Italy was thrust into the world spotlight in the 5th century, when from 402 to 476 it served as the final capital city of the dying western half of the Roman Empire. For another century afterward Ravenna continued to be the chief city of Italy, first as capital of the Kingdom of the Ostrogoths, and later as the administrative center of the Byzantine Empire in the west. It was during these periods that Ravenna became a major theological battleground between the Catholic and Arian Christian sects. It was during these periods that Ravenna acquired its amazing collection of Christian monuments.
One the city’s earliest major Christian patrons was Galla Placidia, daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius. Placidia, who had had quite the adventurous early life as a prisoner of the Ostrogoths and later wife of one of its most powerful chiefs, was powerfully affected by her experiences, and her devout faith may have been a direct result of these. Under her direction the Church of St. John the Evangelist was constructed. She may have also contributed to the construction of the Baptistry of Neon, as well as the Church of the Holy Cross. The surviving oratory of the latter is now her mausoleum.
During the Ostrogoth era, Ravenna became home to competing factions of the Ostrogothic Arian and Latin Orthodox Christians. Each sect constructed their own churches and monuments during this period. Under the patronage of the Ostrogoth ruler Theodoric, the Arians built the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, which is among the world oldest, fully intact Christian-built churches. They also constructed the Church of Spirito Santo, although only small bits of the original church survive to the present day, as well as the Arian Baptistry and the Mausoleum of Theodoric. Also surviving from this era is the Orthodox Catholic-built Archbishop’s Chapel.
In 540 AD, the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I conquered Ravenna in his effort to restore the Western Roman Empire. Justinian, a devout Orthodox Christian, crushed the Arian Christian movement in the city as he did elsewhere in Italy. To put his stamp on Ravenna, and claim it forever as an Orthodox Catholic stronghold, he constructed a pair of hulking churches: the Basilica of San Vitale and the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe. Both of these basilicas survive intact to the present day. All of the surviving Arian structures were reconsecrated as Orthodox Catholic churches. Justinian’s rule marked the last major phase of Ravenna’s boom in Christian monument construction.
The four major surviving pre-Byzantine churches are the Neonian Baptistry; the Arian Baptistry; the Archbishop’s Chapel; and the Basilica of Sant’Apolinare Nuovo. All of these are in superb condition, and together boast the greatest surviving collection of Roman/Christian mosaic works in the world. Of particular architectural interest is the Basilica of Sant’Apolinare Nuovo, among the world’s best preserved true Roman basilicas.
Justinian’s contribution to Ravenna’s religious architecture is distinctly more eastern in character, especially the Basilica of San Vitale. Completed first, this hulking building appears more like a fortress than a church. This is due in large part to its unusual octagonal layout, with elements distinctly reminiscent of the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe is more of a blend, looking similar to the Arian basilica, but blending in distinctly Byzantine elements. Both basilicas also boast the phenomenal Christian mosaic artwork that the city is famous for.
The various Christian monuments of Ravenna are spread out throughout the old city, with the Arian Baptistry closest to the center. In general, the ancient sites are open daily from 9:00am-5:30pm, with later hours in the Summer and on weekends. Admission is E9.50 for a combination ticket that will get you into most of the sites. Web: www.turismo.ra.it (official tourism website of Ravenna)
In addition to the above buildings, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and the Mausoleum of Theodoric are both counted among Ravenna’s eight early Christian monuments. The former is famous for its superb ancient Christian mosaic artwork. The Arian Church of Spirito Santo is all but gone, and the structure that stands today largely dates from the 16th century. The Church of St. John the Evangelist was among the most ancient in the city, but had to be rebuilt after being badly damged during World War II. Among Ravenna’s other prominent churches is the medieval Basilica of St. Francis, where the famous writer Dante Alighieri is buried.