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Travels for Engineers to Ravenna

By David H. Allen


Over the course of the preceding twenty-five years, I’ve traveled to Ravenna nearly a dozen times. In addition, I have taken more than a hundred engineering students to Ravenna on study abroad programs. Suffice it to say that my focus in the visits has been on the sites in Ravenna that I believe are best suited for engineers. Thus, in this blog I will provide a short introduction to the most interesting sites I have discovered in what is my favorite small city on Earth.

Historic Sites for Engineers

Ravenna is located near the mouth of the Po River, which empties into the Adriatic Sea. It is thus blessed with a natural harbor, thereby explaining why it became an important city in both Italian and world history. In the late first century BCE, Augustus Caesar chose to place a naval fortification at Classis, located just two miles from modern day Ravenna. By the third century the fortified city of Ravenna had overtaken Classis in importance, and in 402 AD, the capital of the Western Roman Empire was relocated from Milan to Ravenna. The reasons for this are myriad, but simply perusing a map will show that Ravenna offers the most convenient water-borne route from Italy to Constantinople, which was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, by far the more powerful of the two. Unfortunately, the Western Empire fell in 476 AD, yielding northern Italy to a half century of military upheaval. But due to the sturdy city walls at Ravenna, the city never fell to the Vandals and other encroaching hordes. Thus, when things settled a bit in the mid-century, The Eastern Emperor Justinian appointed Ravenna to be the Exarchate of the Western regions of the Roman Empire. The Empire lasted until 1453, when it was subsumed by the Ottomans. Unfortunately, Ravenna (and much of Italy) came under the reign of the French King Charlemagne in 800 AD. Thus, it can be said that the tiny and unassuming city of Ravenna was the capital of Italy for nearly four centuries (from 402 to 800 AD), longer than any other place in Italy other than Rome (although the Venetians might argue this point!).

During that four-hundred-year span of time Ravenna flourished under the mentorship of Constantinople, at the time the richest city on Earth. Beginning with the reign of the Empress Galla Placidia, and spanning many others, as well as the Episcopal oversite of St. Apollinare and countless others, Ravenna was built into an opulent jewel on the Western Coast of the Adriatic, so much so that luminaries from across the Mediterranean were compelled to visit for the purpose of viewing her wonders. Much of what was built during this very early period Christianity still stands today in Ravenna, and it is a testament to not only the diverse nature of the city, but also the transitional period of Christianity into one of the great modern religions on Earth.

To wit, there are no less than eight World Heritage sites in Ravenna, crammed within a one square mile area, so that they all lie within walking distance of one another. I know of no other place on Earth with such a compact density of awe-inspiring landmarks. And lest you are wondering how these wonders have stood such a lengthy test of time, the single word of explanation is mosaics! Here you will find what is to my mind the single greatest collection of mosaics on Earth. Dazzling in their timelessness, they tell us much of a time long ago.

With that brief introduction, here then is a listing of my favorite historic sites for engineers (in no particular order) in Ravenna: The San Vitale; The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia; the Neonian Baptistery; the Arian Baptistery; the Sant’Apollinare Nuovo; the Tomb of Dante; the Sant’Apollinare in Classe; the Classis Museum; the Basilica of San Francesco; the Mausoleum of Theodoric; and the Arcivescovile Museum. I will provide some details about a few of these below, but for those interested in learning more about Ravenna prior to your upcoming visit, I recommend reading Ravenna – Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe by Judith Herrin.

The Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

Saint Apollinare was a traveling disciple of Saint Peter and the first bishop of Ravenna, who was martyred in the second century AD. Thus, he was (and still is) venerated in Ravenna, and this cathedral (Fig. 1) is the oldest extant bearing his name, despite the insignia (nuovo meaning new). The cathedral was actually dedicated in 504 AD by Theodoric (see below). Details regarding the mosaics lining the colonnade can be found in Judith Herrin’s book (see above). Suffice it to say – this is one of the oldest extant Christian basilicas on Earth, so this is where you should begin your tour of Ravenna.

Fig. 1 The Sant'Apollinare Nuovo

The Basilica of San Vitale

After the death of the Ostrogoth Theodoric (see below), Ravenna came back under control of The Eastern Roman Empire during the reign of Justinian. The basilica (Fig. 2) was commissioned in 526 AD, and the absolutely stunning mosaics within depict the Emperor and his wife Theodora. As such, this is (I believe) the only place in Christendom wherein the Emperor and Empress take their place alongside Christ and his followers, making it not only unique, but inspiring in its grandeur (Fig. 3). The octagonal design, though not on the massive scale of the Hagia Sofia in Constantinople, is a representative of the Byzantine style that dominated the Eastern Empire in the early Christian era. This cathedral, though not the first in Ravenna, is my favorite for these reasons.

Fig. 2 The San Vitale

Fig. 3 Mosaics in the San Vitale

The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

Galla Placidia (388 or 89 – 450 AD), a woman who somehow rose to be Empress Consort of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century BCE, led an incredibly complex and intriguing life (see Judith Herrin’s book). Adjacent to the San Vitale a fabulous mausoleum was built to house her tomb. Within the tiny interior, the walls and ceiling are absolutely packed with iridescent mosaics, especially the star-studded ceiling. This is a must-see for the technically minded, but don’t look for her tomb, for she died in Rome and was probably buried in the old St. Peter’s basilica, which was razed in the early sixteenth century (see my blogs on Rome and Florence).

The Sant’Apollinare in Classe

Consecrated in 549 AD, the Sant’Apollinare in Classe is the last of the three great basilicas built during Ravenna’s era of prominence. As such it is no wonder that it is in some ways the most impressive of the three. And, although it is actually located in Classe (two miles from Ravenna), it is well worth the trip. If you don’t have a car, it is actually accessible on foot, and along the way you will be treated to the archeological dig of what was once the Port of Classe (which silted in during the Middle Ages). On the other hand, if you aren’t up to a hike, you can take a bus from in front of the Ravenna Train Station. Once there, make sure to study the mosaic within the dome (explained in Judith Herrin’s book). And here is an added tidbit, both the Sant’ Apollinare in Classe and the Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo are said to be in the style of the Old St. Peter’s Basilica, which was razed in 1505 AD to be replaced by the modern St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The Classis Museum

I am a relative latecomer to the Classis Museum, but I am nonetheless a great fan of this museum. Housed within what was previously a sugar mill, this fabulous museum supplies what is to me the very best visual description of Ravenna in her heyday. It is located only a quarter of a mile from the Sant’Apollinare in Classe, just across the train tracks. Don’t miss this attraction, and when you purchase your entry ticket to the Sant’Apollinare in Classe, buy the dual ticket that will save you a bit of cash. Finally, the bus stop for your return is located near the traffic circle between these two sites.

The Tomb of Dante

No trip to Ravenna is complete without a stop at the small and unassuming tomb of Dante Alighieri (Fig. 4). It has been said that there are in reality only three authors in history – Homer, Dante and Shakespeare, and you will find no disagreement from me. Dante wrote The Divine Comedy in the early fourteenth century, in a time when the Latin language had diminished into a plethora of local dialects across Italy and Europe. Dante wrote this monumental poem in the Florentine dialect, and in order to read it, one had to learn that dialect. The poem became so popular that the dialect evolved into the modern-day Italian language, thereby uniting Italy into a single common culture.

Fig. 4 The Tomb of Dante

Unfortunately, Dante had previously been banished from his hometown of Florence, and he ended up in Ravenna for the last three year of his life, where he perished from malaria.

Originally, Dante was buried in a small crypt within the Basilica of San Francesco (See my novel Galileo’s Prophesy.), but his fame became so massive that the current tomb was built for him in 1780.

For many years Dante’s hometown of Florence has requested that his remains be returned, but the Ravennans have consistently denied this request. Thus, the magnificent tomb for Dante within the Sant Croce in downtown Florence remains empty to this day.

The Basilica of San Francesco

San Francesco, the colorful and highly venerated founder of the San Franciscan order, is honored within the Basilica of San Francesco. This medieval cathedral is one of my favorites from that period, for the simple reason that it has not been “dressed up” to appear more modern. I particularly like the “swimming pool” beneath the alter, which is a natural reminder that Ravenna is not much above sea level. And for those who are fans of Lord Byron, he lived for a period of time in a building facing the square fronting the basilica (look for the plaque).

The Mausoleum of Theodoric

Here’s a good one for you engineers. As I mentioned above, the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 AD to the Ostrogoths. Theodoric was the ruler of the Ostrogoths from 493 to 526, and his tomb is located on the edge of Ravenna. This austere tomb, though not particularly impressive to the novice, is to my eye quite amazing! Built in 520 AD, the dome of the tomb is a single limestone slab 36 feet in diameter that was imported from Istria. And to this day, no one knows exactly how they managed to place the dome over the lower decagonal walls of the tomb.

The Arcivescovile Museum

This museum contains much of the still-extant archeological finds from the era of Ravenna’s dominance. My favorites are the throne of Maximilian and the Chapel of San Andrea, which is literally encased in stunning mosaics. Make sure to check out the adjacent cathedrale and duomo.

The Neonian Baptistry

The majority of Ravennans were Christians, and they chose between two sects, the Neonians and the Arians (see below). Over the span of more than a thousand years, the citizens were baptized within one of these two baptistries. The austerity within, punctuated by the gorgeous ceiling mosaic, will surely awe.

The Arian Baptistry

Perhaps you know that the Arians were a sect of the Christian Religion that followed the teachings of Arius of Alexandria. Arius was declared a heretic in the fourth century AD. Nonetheless, Arianism persisted for hundreds of years in Western Europe, and this gorgeous baptistry is a testament to that legacy. History tells us that Ravenna was a quite heterogeneous city, with Neonians and Arians living side by side for hundreds of years, and they were baptized in one of these two baptistries according to their chosen faith. When you visit both baptistries, make sure to study the differences between the depictions of the baptismal rite of Jesus located within the vaults overarching the baptismal bowls (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5 The Ceiling of the Arian Baptistry

It will take you perhaps three days to see all the above important sites. Fortunately, Ravenna remains a nearly forgotten jewel today, so that tourist crowds are virtually nonexistent. And in case it has yet escaped you, virtually every site listed above predates the sites in Florence by at least eight hundred years! So start planning now for your once-in-a-lifetime visit to Ravenna.

I hope these tidbits of are of use to you in your trip planning for your visit to Ravenna, site of history, strife, and mosaics. In future blogs I will give more detailed reviews of some of the other cities mentioned in my previous blogs. Until then, please feel free to contact me if you have questions (

Note: All photos included in this blog were taken by me.

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