Originally, the Chiesa di San Giovanni Evangelista (Church of St. John the Evangelist), also known as Chiesa dei Santi Marciano e Nicandro (Church of Saints Marciano and Nicandro), stood on the coast, close to the sea.
And, like all the other buildings in the city, it was subject to the phenomenon of so-called subsidence, i.e. the process of the ancient architecture sinking several metres below its present level. We must therefore try to imagine it taller, a true vertical break in the skyline, immediately striking those arriving at ancient imperial Ravenna from the sea.
For this reason, even if it might seem curiously off-centre with respect to the historic centre, as it appears to us among modern buildings and not far from the railway station, this church has instead a long and illustrious history. It was built at the behest of Empress Galla Placidia after 424 AD, when she returned to Ravenna from Constantinople, where she had gone following the death of her brother Honorius.
Galla had the church built to fulfil a vow she had made during her voyage: her ship had been involved in a devastating storm and she had promised to build a place of worship if she escaped the shipwreck. When she returned to the city, she kept her promise. As the marble inscription on the church declares: “Galla Placidia, her son Placidus Valentinianus Augustus and her daughter Justus Grata Honoria have fulfilled the vows they made to be saved from the storms of the sea”.
As proof of her deep devotion to St John the Evangelist, Empress Galla Placida is also depicted on the medieval Gothic portal prostrating herself at the feet of the saint, who appeared to her while praying with Blessed Barbaziano on the night before the consecration of the basilica. When he disappeared, St John is said to have left Galla Placidia a sandal as a relic.
At that time, the entrance was preceded by a large four-sided portico, but this was destroyed over the centuries. You enter the interior through the fourteenth century portal, which is divided into three naves. Along the walls you can view fragments of the ancient floor dating back to the thirteenth century, beautifully decorated with images of the courts of the time, full of stories of ladies and knights, fantastic and grotesque animals, and links with the Crusades, especially the fourth, which took place in that century.
The adjoining bell tower, built around the tenth century, is still the original one, while the church has undergone various interventions. In 1944 it was extensively damaged by air raids that caused the destruction of the cycle of twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth century frescoes.