The main reason to visit Ravenna, a few kilometres inland of the Adriatic coast, is simple – it holds a set of mosaics generally acknowledged to be the crowning achievement of Byzantine art. No fewer than eight of Ravenna’s buildings have been designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. They date from a strange interlude in the city’s history during the late Roman–early Byzantine period when this otherwise unremarkable provincial centre briefly became one of the most important cities in all of Europe (see The Po Delta).
Tourism seems almost incidental and for a city that has such historic monuments, the centre feels surprisingly modern – a combination of Mussolini’s building programme and Allied bombing that levelled much of the city during World War II. It’s a pleasant enough place to spend a couple of days and, though it has some excellent bars and restaurants, it’s the churches and mosaics that will monopolize your time. Nightlife is sparse, but a number of small coastal resorts, known as the lido towns, a dozen or so kilometres away provide some excitement in summer. And if you’re looking for thrills and spills, the nearby Mirabilandia, a Disneyesque theme park, brings in the crowds during summer.
When Ravenna became capital of the Western Roman Empire sixteen hundred years ago, it was more by quirk of fate than design. The Emperor Honorius, alarmed by armies invading from the north, moved his court from Milan to this obscure town on the Romagna coast around 402; it was easy to defend, surrounded by marshland, and was situated close to the port of Classe – at the time the biggest Roman naval base on the Adriatic. After enjoying a period of great monumental adornment as chief city of the empire, Ravenna was conquered by the Goths in 476. However, the new conquerors were also Christians and continued to embellish the city lavishly, particularly the Ostrogoth Theodoric, making it one of the most sought-after towns in the Mediterranean. In the mid-sixth century Byzantine forces annexed the city to the Eastern Empire and made it into an exarchate (province), under the rule of Constantinople. The Byzantine rulers were responsible for Ravenna’s most glorious era, keen to outdo rival cities with magnificent palaces, churches and art. By the end of the eighth century, however, the glory years had passed. The city was captured by the Lombards, after which the Adriatic shoreline receded – an 11km-long canal now links Ravenna’s port to the sea – and Ravenna sank slowly back into obscurity.
Top image: The main square in Ravenna, Italy © GoneWithTheWind/Shutterstock