The coast road that links Venice and Ravenna, the Romea road (Italian national highway 309), is a recently created stretch, inspired by the Popilia road, situated farther west, which in ancient times joined Ravenna with the upper Adriatic centres as far as Aquileia. The name “Romea”, the origin of which may refer to the fact that the road led to Rome and that it followed ancient “Roman” stretches, has led to the belief that it was a favoured road for pilgrims directed to the Holy City.
Today the Romea road crosses a vast plain, dotted with a few small populated centres and with still marshy expanses and stretches of woodland. In ancient times the Venice-Ravenna journey was partly by sea and, near Ravenna, partly by land or ford, along the ancient course of the Po di Primaro (today the river Reno). When the traveller got close to Ravenna he found many buildings, most of them of a religious nature, and a hospice for pilgrims, situated at the mouth of the Primaro. The religious buildings were monasteries of which today we only know the names and in certain cases the locations: Sant’Adalberto in Pereo, Santa Maria in Palazzolo, Santa Maria della Rotonda. The built-up area of Ravenna, so rich in places of worship, still retains, in the structure of the historic centre, the topographical layout of the 5th and 6th centuries. In that period the town was, first of all, the capital of the Western Roman Empire (402-476), enjoying the presence of Galla Placidia, emperor Valentinian III’s mother, for more than twenty years; then it was the capital of Theodoric’s Ostrogoth Kingdom (from 493 to 526), and in the end the capital of the Byzantine protectorate under the Eastern Roman Empire. That layout must have been even more evident in the past centuries when the town was a transit-place or a destination for pilgrims, because after the magnificent of those two centuries it did not undergo any significant topographical or building modifications until the 16th century. So today, as in the Middle Ages, the religious buildings in the town are preponderantly churches structured according to the architectural modules recurrent in the 5th and 6th centuries which we can see as they were originally, thanks to restoration carried out since the first years of the 20th century. And the large stretches of the 5th century city wall still visible helps to plunge us into what the town of the past must have been. The religious centre of the town consists of the episcopal complex.
The present day duomo was built after 1744 in the place of the more ancient cathedral built by bishop Ursus at the end of the 4th or early 5th century and restructured in the Middle Ages; only the cylindrical bell-tower of the ancient building has remained, built at various periods of the Middle Ages. The ancient baptistery still stands beside the cathedral. Its present appearance is the result of two distinct building phases: one by bishop Ursus and the other about fifty years later (usually dated around 458) by bishop Neone, who furnished the earlier octagonal plan flat-roofed structure with a dome which he had decorated with a rich mosaic we can see today. This precious mosaic shows the Baptism of Christ in the central part. In the decorative moulding surrounding the central image, divided into twelve sectors by the same number of acanthus candelabra, there are the Apostles led by Peter and Paul, rejoicing at Christ’s feet, and in a further register architectonic compositions within which thrones and altars are alternated.
The imposing structure of the bishop’s residence stands east of the cathedral. It consisted of various buildings added and continually modified since the 5th century. This complex includes the building containing the so-named St Andrew’s Chapel, the private oratory of the bishops of Ravenna, richly decorated with mosaics. In the vestibule of the chapel, which was decorated during Peter II’s episcopate (494-519) when Ravenna was the seat of Theodoric’s Arian kingdom, there is a long mosaic inscription, reconstructed in part on the basis of ancient transcriptions, which asserts the anti-Arian Catholic doctrine by exalting the power of light. The image on the entrance door, where Christ is represented wearing military clothes and in the act of trampling a snake and a lion, the symbols of evil, is ideologically linked to the inscription.
The Archiepiscopal Museum is also part of the same complex. It contains very precious materials, chiefly the remains of the ancient cathedral which were collected at the moment of demolition. To these were added certain precious materials belonging to what we could define “the cathedral treasure” such as for example the ivory throne believed to belong to archbishop Maximianus (mid 6th century), bishop Agnello’s silver cross (second half of the 6th century, with further substantial re-working at a later date), and a very rare marble calendar showing the date of Easter for the period between 532 and 626. The most important cultural complex in the town, besides the bishop’s residence, is the one around the church of San Vitale. The Church of San Vitale was built with financing from the banker Giuliano Argentario in the period when Justinian was Emperor of the East and it was consecrated by archbishop Maximianus in 574. This building, which can be rightly considered one of the masterpieces of early mediaeval western architecture both for its structure and ornamentation, is octagonal plan with a women’s gallery that recalls the contemporary architecture of the Byzantine world. The architectural decoration is very rich, consisting of marble columns and capital quarried on Proconneso Island, imported prefabricated from Constantinople, and the large surface area of mosaics. The mosaic decorations, spread over the presbytery, follow a decorative programme based on the Eucharist through images from the biblical tradition alluding to offerings to the Lord (Abraham’s hospitality to the Angels, Abel, Melchizedek) and side by side with scenes from the life of Moses.
In the apse, the Christ on the globe symbolises his sovereignty over the world. At the end of the 10th century the church was given to the Benedictine monks who established a monastery there which acquired considerable political and economic important in medieval and modern Ravenna. In the course of the 15th – 18th centuries the monastery complex was largely rebuilt on the earlier residence and equipped with three cloisters that still exist today (they now house the National Museum of Ravenna). In the enclosure delimiting the so-named “meadow of San Vitale” there’s a small cruciform plan building that is generally known as the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia; the most recent studies have clarified that the oratory never contained the sovereign’s remains (she died in 450); however, construction of the building must be placed towards the mid 5th century and connected to the church of Santa Croce, a place of worship which, though without documentary proof, is traditionally attributed to Galla Placidia. Today the Church of Santa Croce, reduced to an unpretentious building. has recovered its original structure, thanks to various archaeological excavations. Originally it was an imposing structure with a cruciform plan and external arcades along the lateral wings, and with an atrium before the façade (locally called ardica); the so-named mausoleum of Galla Placidia stood against the southern extremity of the atrium. The mosaic decoration of this votive chapel (one of the best preserved and most important complexes of late antiquity) is entirely based on apocalyptic and paradisiacal themes, to such an extent as to suppose that the building was built with a funerary purpose, even if we exclude the presence of the empress Placidia. In the down, by eight figures in pairs recognised as the Apostles. As well as the two doves drinking at the cantharos, the two lunettes on the main axis of the building have been highly celebrated in the specialist literature, depicting respectively Christ the food Shepherd in regal clothing and a martyr the act of going to be tortured on the grid. Though this figure (for whom the ancient craftsmen left no name) is traditionally identified as St Lawrence, some claim to recognise it as being St Vincent, a well loved Iberian martyr of the first hall of the 5th century, or even Christ himself, the prefiguration of all martyrs.
Near the San Vitale complex there’s also a small church, Santa Maria Maggiore, consisting of a nave and two aisles structure. It was built in the 17th century by re-using ancient columns and capitals set against an earlier structure, originally with a centric plan with eleven sides. To judge from the documentation that has come down to us it is probably the church built by bishop Ecclesius between 526 and 532. The basilica dedicated to St. John the Evangelist was commissioned by the empress Galla Placidia and built in the third three-year period of the 5th century in accordance with a vow taken by the sovereign during a difficult sea voyage from Constantinople to Ravenna. The building, restructured following bomb damage in the Second World War, was originally decorated with mosaics which were lost in the 16th century. Of these mosaics some interesting descriptions remain which permit us to reconstruct, even if only approximately, their global aspect; but above all there are reproductions of certain panels in an illuminated codex of the 13th century, now in the Classense library of Ravenna.
The rich decoration included, together with images celebrating the Valentinian-Theodosius imperial dynasty to which Galla Placidia belonged, scenes with miracles involving the sovereign and in particular the narration of the crossing during which Galla Placidia had expressed a vow to build a church dedicated to St John the Evangelist if she reached her destination alive, and of the miraculous rescue, which is one of the themes reproduced in the illuminated codex referred to. The refined architecture and the mainly recycled marble materials used for the columns dividing the naves from the lateral aisles makes this basilica one of the most important monuments of the town, even if it lacks the mosaics that have made Ravenna churches famous everywhere.
The church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo belongs to the years when the town was the seat of Theodoric’s kingdom (493-526). Its earlier name, Church of the Saviour, was changed to St Martin, after archbishop Agnello re-consecrated it as a Catholic church in 561. Its present name of Sant’Apollinare has a late medieval origin and it traditionally refers to the transfer of the martyr Apollinare’s relics from Classe to Ravenna. Of the earlier mosaics, originally also in the apse, today there remains the ornamentation extended along the walls of the nave; the decoration, developed in three registers, represents from the top a series of panels containing episodes from the life and passion of Christ; in the centre there are some figures in tunics and cloaks, perhaps prophets; lastly, in the lower range, there are two processions proceeding from the imperial palate and the town of Classe to Christ and the Virgin seated on thrones.
Instead of the current theories about Virgins and Martyrs, originally the processions were said to represent personages of Theodoric’s court who were then replaced at the time of Agnello re-consecration.
This church was given to Benedictine monks in the Middle Ages and an important monastery was set up there, later taken over by the Practising Friars Minor. The building today called The Church of the Holy Spirit (which is what remains of the earlier Arian cathedral), and the small octagonal building (largely interred, in front of the church, the baptistery whose dome still has its original mosaic decoration done in imitation of that of the Orthodox cathedral’s baptistery) date to the reign of Theodoric. Within a private building there are the ruins of a church consecrated in 545, named San Michele in Africisco, the construction of which was, like San Vitale, financed by the banker Giuliano Argentario and by someone called Bacauda about whom little is known. The apse, still visible at the ground-floor of the building inside a shop, was originally decorated with a mosaic that was removed in the first half of the i9′ century and sold and reassembled in the Bode Museum of Berlin in its original form. The building date of the church of Sant’Agata is unknown, but it already existed in 494. What we see today has a rear section which is what remains of 6th century rebuilding of the original church, and a front section, corresponding to the main body of the building,divided in nave and two aisles, which was rebuilt between 1492 and 1494.
The church of San Francesco was built in the Middle Ages (in different periods between the 9th and the 11th centuries) on a previous church dedicated to the Apostles (called Apostoleion) built in the first half of the 5th century.
Inside the church the crypt is particularly evocative, still visible though partially flooded from the water table. It was built in the 11th century.
The floor of the crypt has some mosaic parts that are actually from the floor of the earlier church before the early Middle Ages reconstruction.
The church is connected to two elegant cloisters, built in several phases in the 16th -17th centuries to house the Franciscan Friars’ monastery to which the church was entrusted in 1264. One of the cloisters stands beside a small structure created in the 18th century and containing the poet Dante Alighieri’s bones. In concluding our urban itinerary it is interesting to remember that in the historic centre of Ravenna, in the place now occupied by the Cassa di Risparmio bank, there was the San Giorgio dei Portici church where the Knights of Malta organised a “hospital” for pilgrims around 1335.
A 15th century document refers to the existence in the church of a “carta picta pro itinere sanctii sepulchri” (a map with the itinerary for the Holy Sepulchre, of which nothing is known today).
The built-up area of Classe was developed in ancient times to the south of Ravenna, to which it was linked by a suburb called Cesarea (corresponding to present day district crossed by the road called Via Cesarea). Classe today is sparsely populated, but between the 2nd and the 6th centuries, as is well known, it was one of the main forces of economic activity in Ravenna because the city port was there, visible signs of which came to light during archaeological excavations. Of the various churches and chapels known to have been built in the suburbs of Cesarea and Classe, there remains only the basilica of Sant’ Apollinare, erected where Apollinare, the first bishop of Ravenna, was buried, and consecrated by archbishop Maximianus on 9th May of the year 549. The building has a longitudinal plan and is divided in nave and two aisles by two lines of columns in “Proconnesio” marble, surmounted by capitals in the same material. In the bowl-shaped vault of the apse, the mosaic depicts symbolically the transfiguration on Tabor mountain as a cross placed against the setting of a blue sphere strewn with stars, and lower down the bishop Apollinare in an attitude of prayer in the middle of a procession of lambs. On the walls of the apse there are two panels seemingly done in the 7th century, the left one, though considerably restored, with a “historical” image that represents the moment of delivery by the emissaries of the Emperor of the East Constant II of a diploma confirming the independence of the church of Ravenna from Rome (this episode occurred in the year 666). As we said, these documents permit identification of the existence of numerous churches in the two southern suburbs of Ravenna, many of which were abandoned in the late Middle Ages.
Many of those which preserved relics must have been important and, since their foundation, sanctuaries attracting believers and pilgrims.
In this sense we should remember the church of San Lorenzo in Cesarea, situated on the present Via Cesarea, built in the first years of the 5th century and mentioned by St. Augustine (in Sermon n. 322) as a place where the pilgrim Paul witnessed a miraculous cure. It no longer exists but its exact localisation is possible thanks to a map in the Historical Archives of the Commune of Ravenna. Also the basilica of San Severo in Classe, the ruins of which were brought to tight not far from Sant’Apollinare, must have been of great importance due to the presence of the relics of Severio, an important local bishop. Even though the prelate’s relics had already been stolen and taken to Germany, it is well known that the monk Liutolfo, passing through Ravenna on a pilgrimage to Rome in the 9th century, was interested in the venerable tomb, the fame of which had crossed the Alps (maybe this was the reason behind the theft). Also in subsequent periods the church of Classe is often referred to as a destination for believers in search of miraculous cures.
The church of Santa Maria in Porto fuori is of no less importance in religious history. Today it stands in the middle of a recently formed built-up area, but in the past it was isolated in the pinewood. The building, whose present aspect is due to rebuilding after a bombardment that completely destroyed it during the Second World War, was originally an imposing structure flanked by a cloister complex built in different periods though the prevailing style (also given by very important frescoes) was gothic. In the Middles Ages two very precious marble objects were kept in the church which made it a real sanctuary and a probable destination of pilgrimage. One was a red porphyry vase which, according to tradition, was acknowledged, together with those ones of Bobbio, Caorle, Torcello and Pisa, as one of the five “hydrias” that Christ used to change water into wine at the Wedding of Cana and brought, again according to the tradition, as relics from the Holy Land. The other was the panel representing the Greek Madonna, a very precious marble bas-relief, created in Byzantium-area. Local tradition held that it had been brought by sea, transported by two Angels, on the morning of 8th April 1100. Now the two precious relics are in the church of Santa Maria in Porto in città.
The present day national highway SS 16 Adriatica follows some parts of the ancient stretch leading from Ravenna to Cervia and Rimini. We have already said that at the beginning of the 12th century Matilde Traversari built a hospice for Rome bound pilgrims along this road. According to tradition, in the place where the hospice existed (the traces of which have been lost) there was once the marble wayside cross , today in the parish-church of Castiglione. Near the built-up area of Cervia (right on the road) stands the isolated church of The Madonna del Pino , built around 1487 on behalf of the pious Carmelite Girolamo Lambertini and inspired by the taste that the Venetians imported to Ravenna in the second half of the 15th century; a portal in late Venetian style (1577) open on the side of the church, links the building with the road.
The modern town of Cervia (new Cervia) is developed around the area that pope Innocent XII wanted built totally new between 1697 and 1714, much farther from the sea than the village which was founded and developed in the Middle Ages. Considering the people of Cervia’s main activity as salt workers, among the remains of the early built-up area the “salt warehouse”should be mentioned, an imposing building used for storing and processing salt, and the Torre Michele, a massive lookout tower which predates the founding of new Cervia and was used for surveillance of the town coastline.