Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Surprising Ravenna

The town where the Western Roman Empire died has unexpected charms

Casella and I came to Ravenna to visit Dante’s tomb, but we knew we would also be seeing the glorious Byzantine mosaics at the sixth-century Basilica of San Vitale (above). They did not disappoint. I was startled by the beardless Christ Pantocrator mosaic; I have never seen an icon or any image at all of Jesus without a beard. But here he is, shaven:

Scott McDonough/Flickr
Scott McDonough/Flickr

Notice the rivers beneath Christ’s feet. See the flames leaping out from them? From Dante’s Paradiso, Canto XXX (Mark Musa, trans.):

And I saw light that was a flowing stream,
blazing in splendid sparks between two banks
painted by spring in miracles of color.

Out of this stream the sparks of living light
were shooting up and settling on the flowers:
they looked like rubies set in rings of gold;

A short film I saw at the Dante Museum next to his tomb speculated on how the mosaics the poet saw in Ravenna, where he lived the final years of his life and where he wrote Paradiso, may have given him visual ideas. It’s a lovely thought, and there might be something to it. They certainly give me thoughts — Dantean ones about God’s glory, and how everything in this world is a reflection of the world beyond it. And how all things can be made to work in harmony for God’s glory. Casella says I’m still culturally Catholic, and he’s right to a significant extent, but this trip has made me realize how deeply Orthodox the Divine Liturgy has made me over these last eight years. I felt at home in S. Vitale in a way that I did not in any of the Catholic churches we entered, except for the Baptistery in Florence — but its ceiling is covered with dazzling mosaics. The way we pray really is the way we believe. Anyway, Casella and I pray for the reunion of our churches.

We were both pretty hard hit after following a demanding schedule in Florence, so we were absolutely delighted to find that Ravenna is very low key. There’s not a lot going on in town other than ancient churches and Dante, but it’s enough to give  you a very pleasant day. The town has some lovely piazzas; I shot lavender, a palm tree, and a tower in one:



If you pay attention, you can catch glimpses of hidden gardens as you walk by on the street:



Same view, from a different perspective:



We went to dinner at Trattoria al Cerchio, on the recommendation of one of you readers. I owe you bigtime — it was homey and delicious. Casella had the tripe, and I had ravioli in sage butter sauce:


It was a terrific meal, and we told them who sent us (reader, the old man who runs the joint says to tell you hello). On the walk back to the hotel, we passed another tower next to a church:


Woke up early this morning and hit the road for Norcia, where St. Benedict and his sister St. Scholastica were born. I will post later about my visit to Dante’s tomb, and my prayers in St. Benedict’s birthplace. Anyway, please consider making a trip to Ravenna sometime. You can see everything you want to see in a day, but what a day it will be.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now