The archaeological sites of Ravenna are awe-inspiring if you want to admire early Christian and Byzantine mosaic masterpieces, which are still in place within the context they were intended for by the artists of the fifth and sixth centuries AD.
Starting with the Parco Archeologico di Classe which, in addition to the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe, the Basilica of San Severo and other great finds now on display at Classis Ravenna – the Museum of the City and Territory, comprises the archaeological site of the first settlements of Classe and the Ancient Port.
In ancient times, the city of Classe was much more developed than Ravenna and was chosen by Emperor Augustus, at the end of the first century BC, to be the site of a port for the maintenance and protection of his immense naval fleet (in Latin, classis).
Today, the town is a mere hamlet of the Municipality of Ravenna, 8 kilometres away, but in Roman times life teemed within its surrounding walls and amidst the great Paleochristian basilicas.
The remains of the Antico Porto romano di Classe (Ancient Roman port of Classe) have been found at a considerable distance from today’s coastline, indicating that the accumulation of debris carried along by the rivers to the coast, over the centuries, has caused the sea to retreat from its position in Roman times.
In fact, surveys have brought to light the ancient structures of the port of Classe and the large warehouses where goods, mostly from the Orient, were loaded and unloaded.
Returning to the city centre, Ravenna’s “flagship” archaeological site is the Domus dei Tappeti di Pietra: a rich Byzantine residence dating back to the late Imperial period, now enclosed beneath the late Baroque church of Sant’Eufemia. Consisting of several buildings added over time, between the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., the Domus boasts 14 sumptuous rooms with 700 square metres of mosaic flooring richly decorated with unique shapes, characters and designs, such as the Danza dei Geni delle Stagioni (Dance of the Genius of the Seasons) or the fourth century mosaic renamed the Buon Pastore (Good Shepherd).
Overlooking Via di Roma, however, just a few steps from what must have been, at the time, the basilica Palatina – later the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo – there is a large stretch of façade with a tower that some scholars believe is what remains of the so-called Palazzo di Teodorico.
Today, in the tower several examples of mosaic found in the surrounding area are preserved, and therefore presumably come from the imperial residence or other noble residences.
Finally, constituting a site of great archaeological and cultural interest are the remains of the ancient palazzo signorile in piazza San Francesco, accessible both from the square and through the headquarters of the Province of Ravenna.
Of particular note are the ancient mosaics with which, at the end of the eighteenth century, the floor of the family crypt – the Rasponi Crypt – was embellished, not without inspiration or erudition.
The crypt, which never housed the deceased of the Rasponi family, is a family chapel divided into three distinct rooms, inside which the magnificent mosaic flooring of the sixth century from Classe, taken from the destroyed Church of San Severo, stands out.
The floor consists of a nucleus of fragments of different mosaics, each richly decorated with ornamental figures and figures of animals, chickens, ducks, geese, ram’s heads and snakes, caught in spontaneous attitudes and livened up by the use of enamels that enhance the chromatic richness.
The presence of a mosaic floor, of such original composition, has therefore inspired the idea of enhancing the juxtaposition between ancient features and modern taste, and a constructive sense of dialogue between past and present, with the setting up of a permanent exhibition of 8 works by 8 contemporary artists, inspired by the 4 seasons and skilfully integrated in the evocative context of the crypt.
These include the stone boar by Giuliano Babini, as a messenger of Man’s autumn, the work Il fantasma dell’estate by Daniele Strada, the enamel, gold and marble sculpture by Marco De Luca, and the pebbles by Felice Nittolo.