Art & Culture
If ever there was a poetic allure tempting the culturally enlightened to explore a destination, it is Emilia-Romagna’s Ravenna, a city that’s both undeserved of its regional underdog status but all the better for it as well.
Ravenna richly rewards those who make it to this northern coastal Eden of early Christian art, a haven of historical consequence not far from where Italy’s longest river, the Po, bows to the Adriatic; and the final resting place of the country’s greatest poet, Dante Alighieri.
Spanning a lifetime of art and influence, Dante’s contribution to modern-day Italianess is incalculable, his standing as a father of language, poetry and culture within the Italian ethos undeniable.
His poetry, written in Tuscan dialect at a time when most poetry was written in Latin, was instrumental in helping establish the modern-day Italian language spoken today.
Dante died of malaria in 1321 in Ravenna where was invited to live by Prince Guido Novello da Polenta after years of nomadic wanderings (his politics led to his exile in Florence 16 years prior).
The grand poet is entombed in a neoclassical Roman sarcophagus – modest in comparison with Dante’s enormous contribution to Italian literature and culture – next to Basilica of San Francesco in the heart of city.
Celebrations marking the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death kicked off in Ravenna in September 2020 and will run through September 2021 – there’s a lot to see and do!
Any Dante-inspired incursion into Ravenna should begin with the eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the city center and nearby Classe, essential for context within Dante’s sphere of influence, but also a world-class collision of Graeco-Roman tradition, Christian iconography and oriental and Western styles without rival.
Five of these sites (Basilica di San Vitale, Mausoleo di Galla Placida, Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Museo Arcivescovile and Battistero Neoniano) can be visited with a cumulative ticket good for seven days (€10,50) but can easily be visited in a casual first day; while three others, Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe (€5), Mausoleo di Teodorico (€4) and Battistero degli Ariani (€2) are ticketed separately.
Dante’s Divina Commedia, considered to be greatest literary work ever written in Italian and the most important poem of the Middle Ages, often paid homage to these remarkable mosaics.
On Day two, Dantephiles can dig deeper to the sites more directly associated with the poet’s life and times in Ravenna, where he put the finishing touches on Divina Commedia, peppered with pop in’s to special exhibits and itineraries for full-on Dante immersion.
City-center sites associated with the poet are centered around the Zona del Silenzio (Area of Silence).
Dante’s Tomb (Tomba di Dante), built between 1780 and 1782 (still partly maintained by the city of Florence as an act of penance); and the Quadrarco di Braccioforte (Braccioforte Courtyard) next door, an enclosure featuring a green hump in the middle that marks the spot where Dante’s remains were preserved during World War II, are essential stops.
Both sites were reopened in 2020 after restoration works in a ceremony attended by Italian President Sergio Mattarella.
Basilica of San Vitale (Ravenna) Ph. RavennaTourism Archive
Basilica of San Vitale (Ravenna) Ph. @wwikiwalter
Arian Baptistery (Ravenna) Ph. RavennaTourism Archive
Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe (Ravenna) Ph. @avrvm.it
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (Ravenna) Ph. Janet Newenham
Dante’s Tomb (Ravenna) Ph. Giacomo Banchelli, RavennaTourism Archive
Ancient Franciscan Cloisters (Ravenna) Ph. Nicola Strocchi, RavennaTourism Archive
Basilica San Francesco (Ravenna) Ph. Comune di Ravenna
The Crypt of Basilica di San Francesco (Ravenna) Ph. Nicola Strocchi, RavennaTourism Archive
A step north of Dante’s Tomb is the Museo Dantesco (Dante Museum), set inside the Centro Dantesco dei Frati Minori (Dante Centre of Friars Minor) amid charming Old Franciscan Cloisters.
A step south is the Basilica of San Francesco, the preferred house of worship of Dante’s Ravenna hosts, the Polentani family, who ruled the city of Ravenna in the Middle Ages.
Not only was Dante likely a regular at the church, but his funeral was held here in 1321. Every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, Ravenna’s new Silent Play for Dante (€15) offers a guided tour of Ravenna’s Dantesco sites utilizing immersive audio technology.
Once a complete picture of Dante’s life and times in Ravenna has emerged, there’s a wealth of temporary special exhibits to compliment the image. Nicola Verlato – Autumn Equinox features a diptych, designed specifically for the Sala del Mosaico of the Classense Library, presented next to an extraordinary, figure of Dante-inspired work created by the Veronese artist during the recent lockdown period. The exhibit runs through November 22, 2020 at the Classense Library. Additionally, Inclusa est flamma, an exhibition that recalls Ravenna’s celebrations in 1920-21 commemorating the 6th centenary of the poet’s death, is also featured in the same location.
A selection of images from world-renown, Paris-based fashion photographer Paolo Roversi, who hails from Ravenna, are on display as part of Paolo Roversi – Studio Luce (€9) at the Ravenna City Art Museum through Jan 10, 2021.
Roversi has reinvented the figure of the “muse” – a clear reference to Beatrice from Divina Commedia – interpreted here in a contemporary visual form featuring iconic women such as Natalia Vodianova, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Rihanna. Fans looking for a bit more of an interactive and/or active experience can look into itineraries to discover Dante’s Ravenna such as the Itinerary of Purgatory and Dante’s Ravenna Cycling Route, respectively.
Back at the glorious Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, inside what is perhaps the crown jewel of Ravenna’s striking mosaics, the starry-skied interior dome elicits gasps from all who enter and Dante was no exception.
While the poet’s words often married art and culture in a divine kaleidoscope of esotericism and allegory, here his choice of simplicity tells you everything you need to know.
It’s a ‘symphony of color,’ he said.
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