Gallery

The Empire Strikes Back (in Ravenna)

I promised something more academic for this post than holiday photos, I know, although I hope that even my holiday photo posts have something educational going on in them. But when I did check forwards, in the thin light of the small hours last week, I found that I’m getting ahead of the blog’s twisted chronology with the academic contents relative to the touristic ones, and there is a point down the line where it will become nonsensical. So, actually, sorry, this time more photos. They are at least all my own this time. Besides which, this is very much a part two of the previous post about Ravenna, so please check that out if you haven’t, remind yourself who King Theodoric of Italy was and then we can pick up here with the point where his successors lost that title and how that was, and is, made manifest in this, one of his capitals. I should also then beg your forgiveness for how inexpert this post may appear to any expert reading; I simply haven’t had time this weekend, for reasons which will themselves some day be blogged, to do the couple of hours’ reading about late antique Ravennate architecture that I should’ve to write this, and so I’m probably missing lots of obvious points and maybe getting some things wrong. But never mind that, look! a leaning tower!

The leaning tower of San Andreas, Ravenna

Really, this, which is the Capella di San Andreas, should have been in the previous post, because inside it is apparently Theodorician, although not Arian; but we didn’t know, and only noticed its leaning tower, and since they were becoming a theme of this trip I made sure I photographed at least the outside. But then we were on our way to the place I’m about to talk about…

I make it sound as if Theodoric and his Ostrogoths had made Ravenna into the imperial seat, but actually as I said last time it had been a capital for longer than that, and received the investment which that implies. One of the more obvious signs of this is a definitely-fifth-century building, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, which I put in this post partly because there was enough in the last one already, but also because it is physically right next to some of the sites that have to be in this post. So let’s start there.

The Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, Ravenna

The site from outside; it’s t-shaped rather than cruciform as it might seem here, as see below

The Empress Galla Placidia’s is one of the more tragic biographies of the Roman Empire, being effectively abducted and married as political hostage very young and then spending much of the rest of her career slowly marrying or being transported back towards the place she’d started in.1 At the end of this long life, however, she was perhaps a happy woman, and more or less empress regnant of the Western Roman Empire as regent for her young son Valentinian III, and she ruled from Ravenna. When she died, in 421, therefore, it was here that she was entombed.

Interior of the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, Ravenna, from the entry

Interior as seen from the entry

As you can tell from that, the decoration, which I think we believe to be authentic fifth-century as built and so on, is pretty stylish.

Ceiling of the entryway of the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, Ravenna

Ceiling of the entryway

Marble flooring in the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, Ravenna

Marble opus sectile flooring

I like the windows especially; they must have cost a bit.

Window pane of marble in the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, Ravenna

Why use glass when you could just use even more marble, cut so thin as to be translucent? It’s the ultimate privacy window!

And though the lady herself is I think no longer in residence—which given the tourist traffic may be as well—her residence for when she was is still present.

Sarcophagus of Galla Placidia in the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, Ravenna

The imperial sarcophagus

And the decoration, also, fits the theme.

Mosaic of St Peter in the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, Ravenna

The caption at the site suggests that this mosaic, which is above the sarcophagus, shows Saint Peter, who would, I suppose, be the saint you’d want to be your friend in this context; but if you see, it’s Peter actually in the mausoleum, standing at a pyre, even though she was entombed

But when she was here, she wasn’t alone; there are two other sarcophagi here, and another one outside. They don’t add much to the picture(s), so I won’t show you them here, but I do wonder whose they were. The local signage wasn’t willing to guess. Valentinian III died (badly) at Rome, so I doubt he was brought back here to rest by his imperial mother. But who was?

The skyline between Santa Maria Maggiore and the Baptisteria Neoniana, Ravenna

Two more of the buildings on the site, looming over the little Mausoleum

Anyway, that is really cool, but the bigger point is, this space subsequently attracted more building (which raises the question, what was here when she chose to have her eternal rest positioned next to it? We don’t know). One part of this must be nearly the last building project of the Ostrogoths, that being one of the two above, the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, put up at first by Bishop Ecclesius of Ravenna in the 520s. However, as a quick walk round it reveals, there isn’t much of that building left…

East end of Santa Maria Maggiore, Ravenna, with bell tower at right

The east end of Santa Maria Maggiore, with its bell tower at right

Bell tower of Santa Maria Maggiore, Ravenna

The bell tower closer up

West end of Santa Maria Maggiore, Ravenna, with bell-tower visible behind

The rather later west end, with bell-tower for orientation

The tower stands separate (is this one of the Carolingian or Ottonian bell-towers you mentioned last post, Joseph?), and the main building is a Baroque expansion. I find on the web, according to someone using Deliyannis’s well-regarded book, that the apse is supposedly original, but I obviously didn’t know that when these photos were taken because I didn’t photograph it.2 That may, admittedly, be because I got distracted by this.

The Battisteria Neoniana, Ravenna

Exterior of the Battisteria Neoniana

This is another of those free-standing baptisteries we saw one of last post, and not unlike the two mausolea we’ve seen in structure either. I suppose for a Christian both are buildings in which you embark on life eternal? Anyway, this, the Battisteria Neoniana, adds to the puzzle set out by Galla’s mausoleum above: it was built in the time of Bishop Ursus of Ravenna, around 500, and was part of a much larger complex based on a substantial church which he had built here. Now this is what’s left of the area circa 500, and Ecclesius’s church was probably just a small funerary building outside by comparison. But for a remnant, it too is pretty snazzy.

Interior of the Battisteria Neoniana, Ravenna

Interior view of one side, looking around the font to the trompe l’oeil painted niches

Painting in the dome of the Battisteria Neoniana, Ravenna

The dome’s decoration

Decoration in the lower dome of the Battisteria Neoniana, Ravenna

Further trompe l’oeil in the side of the dome, trying to give the impression of an episcopal study I think

That said, baptistery it may have been but people were buried here too.

Tomb sculpture in the Battistera Neoniana, Ravenna

We have here another of the gender-matched pairs we saw last post…

Tomb sculpture in the Battisteria Neoniana, Ravenna

… and it won’t be the last one, either!

Mosaic depiction of Bishop Ecclesius of Ravenna in San Vitale di Ravenna

A mosaic depiction, named, of Ecclesius, offering the church he had built to Christ; I’ll show you the context in a moment…

So, you have that going on, you have a big church for the Orthodox while the Arian Goths are going to their big church elsewhere in the city, you have a small church put up by a later bishop for some reason, all crowding around this empress’s tomb. But Ecclesius hadn’t finished his plans with just Santa Maria Maggiore. He was also updating the big basilica. And it looks as if that work was not finished at his death, or indeed when, after twenty years of difficult war, the last Ostrogothic rulers were at last banished from Italy by the returning direct rule of the Empire (this being something of a change of policy, you may gather, under Emperor Justinian I).3 And the reason we know this is that, although Ecclesius is named in that mosaic, it is most definitely post-conquest, because he’s competing for attention with the man himself.

Mosaic depiction of Emperor Justinian I, with courtiers including Bishop Maximianus of Ravenna, in San Vitale di Ravenna

Emperor Justinian I and his courtiers; note especially the balding bishop at his left side; we’ll come back to him. There are so many photos of this, and many better indeed, presumably because they had the cradles or ladder you’d need to be able to photograph it straight on; but imperfect though it be, this one is mine, made even halfway usable with the Perspective Transformations plugin for IrfanView by Martin Vicanek

Neither, famously, is Justinian alone. I mean, evidently not, there he is surrounded by men; but what I mean is, just as in Sant’Apollinare we had men facing women across the nave, here we have emperor facing empress across the presbytery.

Mosaic depiction of Empress Theodora and her courtiers in San Vitale di Ravenna

Empress Theodora and her courtiers, in matching style and made usable here with the same tools

This is the only depiction of Theodora, who is somewhat famous, or infamous, due to the emphasis laid upon her influence on Justinian by the courtier historian Procopius in the history of the reign he didn’t publish, the Secret History.4 So it’s had a lot of attention. But it’s actually quite hard to pick it out in context, there’s so much else going on.

Mosaics in the north crossing of San Vitale di Ravenna

Mosaics in the north crossing

Apse mosaic in San Vitale di Ravenna

Apse mosaic, showing Christ in Majesty, and Bishop Ecclesius at right

Mosaics in the south crossing of San Vitale di Ravenna

And the mosaics in the south crossing. I mean, you could look right past the imperial courts quite easily

Apse mosaic and ceiling of the apse in San Vitale di Ravenna

Here’s the context, more or less, apse mosaic below the window and crossing mosaics beneath the galleries on each side

It’s actually pretty much impossible to give an adequate impression of San Vitale in a blog post, I find. As with the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, it just left me pretty much gasping at how much work, how much beautiful, tiny, ornate, work, almost all in mosaic and gold, had gone into making this place completely awesome, in the literal sense of the word. (Or even the Word.) But this is seven hundred years older than the Sainte-Chapelle.

Mosaic depiction of a stork in San Vitale di Ravenna

Unless, of course, you were not aware that the Bird is the Word

So let’s start from the outside, as you kind of have to.

Exterior view of San Vitale di Ravenna showing tower

View from behind the Mausoleo di Galla, with Santa Maria Maggiore at left

Exterior view of San Vitale di Ravenna facing the portal

Exterior view facing the portal; as you can see, it’s an oddly-shaped building

View through the portal of San Vitale di Ravenna

View through the portal onto the interior

You have to focus on bits, at first, it’s the only way.

Marbles in the entry-way of San Vitale di Ravenna

Marbles in the entry-way

Vine-scroll on a column capital in San Vitale di Ravenna

Monogrammed vine-scroll on the capitals

Marble pillars in the nave of San Vitale di Ravenna

Marble pillars in the nave

Piscina in the nave of San Vitale di Ravenna

No need for a free-standing baptistery here, despite that one right outside; we’re doing it in house from now on!

And actually the nave is not what catches the eye; because of the odd shape of the church, which makes it more or less octagonal and broken up by pillars, it’s hard even to see across it, and the decoration there is mainly marble.

Ambulatory and end of the nave of San Vitale di Ravenna

The ambulatory around the end of the nave, not really where one’s eye is supposed to stay

The decorative action is in the apse, i. e. beyond the altar, in the privileged space where the mosaic presence of the emperor is hanging out with his lady love, the saints, various Old Testament figures and of course Christ himself.

Miracle stories depicted in mosaic in the north crossing of San Vitale di Ravenna

Miracle stories in mosaic form, in the north crossing

Old Testament stories in mosaic depiction in the south crossing of San Vitale di Ravenna

And, matching the New Testament stories on the other side, a couple of Old Testament ones in the south crossing

But who was having all this done, we may ask? Justinian himself, famous for delegating his campaigns and initiatives and then removing and replacing the delegates when they didn’t go his way, never came to Ravenna as far as we know, or even to Italy. This was itself the work of one of the delegates. And the clue here is the only person named in the Justinian mosaic: not Justinian himself, but Maximianus, the new (and balding) bishop of once-again-imperial Ravenna. The point of that mosaic is mainly to associate the Maximian, quite possibly unpopular with his new flock, with the coercive power that had ousted the Goths and sent Maximian in to hold up the religious side of the new regime.

Ivory throne of Bishop Maximian in the Museo Arcivescovile, Ravenna

I accidentally used this in the previous post before Joseph Brown kindly reminded me of what my photos had not, that this, which is in the Museo Arcivescovile, is in fact known to have been Bishop Maximian’s throne. A lot of elephants had to die to make this; I’ve never seen so much ivory all together. There is debate about whether it could have been made at Ravenna, or if it was sent along with him; what seems to be the latest word reckons that although there absolutely were ivory workshops in the city, this was just more material than they could easily have got and is easiest to see as an import.5

And one of the things he therefore did with all that spare patronage and resource was, apparently, finish Ecclesius’s church. How much of the decorative scheme outwith the imperial mosaics was therefore his rather than Ecclesius’s, we probably don’t know (though there is so much work on San Vitale that I would most likely have missed it if we did).6 But by the time it went up, it was kind of all about him (and, by association, Emperor Justinian). And it’s quite a lot, all told.

A full-height view of the east end interior of San Vitale di Ravenna

The full interior height of the east end and apse

I have no greater point to end with than that, that spending masses on really splendid architecture is usually a power-play. But at least here, we know pretty much who the player was and what game he was in. I don’t know how well it worked at the time; did Ravenna stay quiet under renewed Byzantine rule? I should probably know but again have no time to look it up today; the weeks are a bit overloaded at this point in my life.7 But whether it did or not then, it’s arguably still working now, nearly 1,500 years later, and that’s quite impressive.


1. You would think, given her career, that Galla would have had quite the suite of biographies by now, but actually, as far as I can find, the only study longer than article length is Stewart Irvin Oost, Galla Placidia Augusta: A Biographical Essay (Chicago 1968). A gap in the market there, I feel!

2. That book being, in case you want it, Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis, Ravenna in Late Antiquity (Cambridge 2010).

3. There’re any number of studies of this bit of the era, but I think for quick and easy I’d pick John Moorhead, Justinian (London 1994) for long and Moorhead, “Western Approaches (500‒600)” in Jonathan Shepard (ed.), The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire c.500‒1492 (Cambridge 2009), pp. 196–220, DOI 10.1017/CHOL9780521832311.010, for short, with Michael Maas (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian (Cambridge 2005), DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521817463.001, for more detail on most other aspects.

4. See Leslie Brubaker, “Sex, Lies and Textuality: The Secret History of Prokopios and the Rhetoric of Gender in Sixth-Century Byzantium” in eidem & Julia M. H. Smith (edd.), Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300-900 (Cambridge 2004), pp. 83–101, on Academia.edu here; for the actual text, the default is Procopius, The Anecdota or Secret History, ed. H. B. Dewing, Loeb Classical Library 290 (Cambridge, MA 1935; repr. 1969), but there are also Procopius, Secret History, transl. Richard Atwater, Ann Arbor Paperbacks AA80 (Ann Arbor MI 1963) and more recently Prokopios, The Secret History, with Related Texts, transl. Anthony Kaldellis (Indianapolis IN 2010), which don’t include the Greek and are cheaper.

5. Maria Cristina Carile, “Ivory Production: Commerce, Culture and Power”, in Salvatore Cosentino (ed.), Ravenna and the Traditions of Late Antique and Early Byzantine Craftsmanship: Labour, Culture, and the Economy, Millennium-Studien / Millennium Studies 85 (Boston MA 2020), pp. 115–151, DOI: 10.1515/9783110684346-006, at pp. 136-143, reluctantly admitting that there is as much or more evidence for its construction in Constantinople as Ravenna.

6. A recent study is Brittany Thomas, “A Case for Space: Rereading the Imperial Panels of San Vitale” in Chantal Bielmann and Thomas (edd.), Debating Religious Space & Place in the Early Medieval World (c. AD 300-1000) (Leiden 2018), pp. 61–76, online here.

7. And for that I still don’t know a better thing to read than T. S. Brown, Gentlemen and Officers: Imperial Administration and Aristocratic Power in Byzantine Italy, A.D. 554-800 (London 1984), though for updates one could try idem, “Byzantine Italy (680–876)” in Shepard, Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire, pp. 433–464, DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521832311.018, or Tom Brown, “A Byzantine Cuckoo in the Frankish Nest? The Exarchate of Ravenna and the Kingdom of Italy in the Long Ninth Century” in Clemens Gantner and Walter Pohl (edd.), After Charlemagne: Carolingian Italy and Its Rulers (Cambridge 2020), pp. 185–197 DOI: 10.1017/9781108887762.017.

7 responses to “The Empire Strikes Back (in Ravenna)

  1. Thanks for the acknowledgement. And yeah, most of the bell towers of the city churches like Santa Maria Maggiore, which have an almost identikit design, are from the period c.850 – 1050, making them late Carolingian or Ottonian. No doubt Gerbert of Aurillac would have seen Santa Maria Maggiore’s bell tower and some of the others in his brief tenure as Archbishop of Ravenna before becoming Sylvester II.

  2. Interesting that you mention the lack of biographical attention to Galla Placidia, since the recent textbook The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe by Matthew Gabriel and David M. Perry uses her story and this site as a framing device for the book (ending with Dante speculatively in Ravenna).

  3. Are bad jokes allowed?

    If the Ostrogoths became a mob of Italian gangsters should we call them the Nostragoths?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.