Little-known Italy – RAVENNA

Coat of Arms of the City of Ravenna

Coat of Arms of Ravenna

A few miles south of Venice, in Emilia Romagna, the enterprising traveler will find the city of Ravenna. This city is easily bypassed, it is not on most tourist itineraries nor does it generally host internationally advertised events such La Biennale di Venezia or La Fiera di Milano. It is nevertheless a city of capital importance both artistically and historically. And it offers a glimpse of that urbanely unhurried Italian lifestyle that most people seek when they visit the country.

The beginnings of Ravenna are uncertain, though scholarly opinion inclines towards an Etruscan origin. The city was never conquered by the Romans, rather, it was accepted into the Republic as a federated town. Ravenna was an important outpost during the period of ascendancy of the Western Empire, becoming its capital in its twilight, just before the Empire’s fall to the German foederati chieftain, Odoacer. It was then the capital of the first Kingdom of Italy, and continued in this role after Theodoric slew Odoacer and took over his kingdom. Retaken eventually by the Byzantines, Ravenna became the seat of Byzantine power in Italy (the Exarchate of Ravenna), until the Byzantines’ final expulsion by the Longobards. Ravenna’s distinguished history continued under the popes, until its unification with the newly-minted Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

The art and monuments of Ravenna are equally compelling. Because of its preeminent role during the Byzantine period, Ravenna is a veritable treasure trove of Byzantine art, particularly mosaics. Spectacular samples are seen in the Neonian Baptistery, the Mausoleum of Gallia Placidia, the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, the Basilica of San Vitale, and in other venues. Other attractions to be visited are the Mausoleum of Theodoric, and the Tomb of Dante Alighieri.

The Ravenna of today is a lovely city generally free of the urban ills that afflict larger cities in Italy and elsewhere. Its compact size and relative lack of motorized traffic makes it perfect for walking tours. Its cuisine is the cuisine of Romagna, that is to say, among the best in Italy. It should be a priority for the sophisticated traveler who has exhausted the better-known treasures of Rome, Venice, and Florence.

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