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A Guide to Ravenna

29/12/2019 Ravenna

A Guide to Ravenna

an accompanying article to the poem, "Ravenna"

Torre Civica

The Torre Civica is also colloquially called “The Leaning Tower of Ravenna.” Although lacking the embellishments and detail of its world-renowned counterpart, The Leaning Tower of Pisa, construction on Ravenna’s Torre Civica nonetheless began around the same time in the 12th century, when the building of such towers became a popular way for Italian city-states to show off their power and wealth. Like the tower in Pisa, Ravenna’s Torre Civica also started to lean, but for slightly different reasons: In Pisa, the tower’s incline had more to do with its construction on soft ground; in Ravenna, on the other hand, its tilt was caused by a slow underground landslide created by the Padenna, a river which used to flow through Ravenna in the Middle Ages.

When, at the close of the 13th century, all such towers began to be demolished by papal decree, the Torre Civica survived only because it had become the city’s property before the order was given to destroy it. Subsequently, throughout the years, a guard occupied the Torre Civica, using it as a watchtower.

To prevent a possible collapse, the top structure was removed in 2000. A popular local expression, cercar Mariola per Ravenna, owes its existence to the towers; it means to look for something closely without finding it; there are supposed to be two stone fragments (one of a woman and one of a horseman) at the base of the tower, but the positioning of these pieces makes them incredibly hard to find—maybe they don’t exist at all.

Basilica di San Francesco

Although perhaps best known as the site where Dante’s funeral was held in 1321, the more interesting history of this unimposing basilica is the fact that Dante used to pray here during his two year residence in Ravenna; it houses an impressive crypt, which is now permanently underwater, and this adds to its appeal—drop a small amount of change and the crypt will light up, allowing visitors to see the fish swimming among the mosaic fragments that decorate the floor.

Construction started in the mid-5th century AD, but there isn’t much that remains from that time period. The original shape of the building was modified and a bell tower was added in the 9th or 10th century. The Polentani family, which ruled Ravenna when Dante was there, considered San Francesco their favorite church. The family is known for having hosted Dante at some point during his stay in the city. Readers of The Divine Comedy will recognize Guido I da Polenta’s daughter, Francesca da Rimini, who appears in the “Inferno.”

It’s not a coincidence that Dante’s tomb is right next to the basilica. Near the basilica also lies the Biblioteca Casa di Oriani, where Lord Byron stayed during his own visit to the city.

The basilica derives its name—San Francesco—from the Franciscan friars who inhabited it from 1261 to 1810, and from 1949 to the present day.

The Basilica's Crypt

The Tomb of Dante

Walking by this place, it’s hard to believe that the Supreme Poet himself is buried here. Dante has long been associated with Florence; it’s where he was born in 1265 and where he lived for the majority of his life, partaking in Florentine politics, and fighting against the Ghibellines during the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict, which eventually led to his exile after the Guelphs emerged victorious but subsequently split into two factions: White Guelphs and Black Guelphs (the latter accusing Dante of financial wrongdoings and exiling him from Florence in 1302—Dante never returned and neither did his remains, despite Florence’s bitter and desperate requests for the “return” of the native poet).

On the 500 year anniversary of the Supreme Poet’s death, Florence even constructed its own much grander tomb (which to this day lies empty)—with the inscription: “Honor to the most illustrious poet.” The inscription in Ravenna naturally mocks the Florentines for abandoning arguably their most glorious citizen: “Here in this corner lies Dante, exiled from his native land, born to Florence, an unloving mother.” Dante’s remains survived papal decrees from the Medici, French occupation in 1805 under Napoleon, and two world wars. His remains were moved many times to ensure their survival and the full account of these activities can be read in an informative The Local article “Dante’s last laugh: Why Italy’s national poet isn’t buried where you think he is.”

Basilica di San Vitale

Ravenna has eight sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List—an impressive feat given not only its size (roughly 160,000 residents), but also for the fact that places like Denmark, Austria, and The Netherlands only have a total of ten sites for each of their respective countries. The Basilica di San Vitale is arguably the most recognizable and prominent such site in the city of Ravenna. The Roman Catholic Church only designates a church with the title of basilica if the building is exceptionally important in both the historic and ecclesiastical sense.

In terms of its exterior, the best angle from which you can see this incredible church is to approach it heading south on Via Galla Placidia (notice how well the cobblestones blend with the architecture).

San Vitale’s interior is nothing short of spectacular; mosaics depicting Justinian’s court, Theodora’s ladies-in-waiting, along with the frescoed dome are just some of the incredible sights.

The basilica also houses the sarcophagus of Isaac the Armenian, an Exarch of Ravenna, who ruled the city from 625 AD to 643 AD. The Exarchate of Ravenna can also be considered the Byzantine Empire in Italy. Although the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 AD, some parts of Italy (including Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and Rome itself) were subsequently reconquered by the Byzantine Empire and governed by the Exarchate until 751 AD, when Eutychius, the last Exarch, was killed by the Lombards.

Photo below: Isaac the Armenian's Sarcophagus

Candiano Canal

In ancient times, Ravenna was situated on a group of islets in the center of a lagoon; at that time, the city was much closer to the Adriatic Sea than it is today; this was partly the reason why Emperor Honorius, in 402 AD, transferred the capital of the Western Roman Empire from Rome to Ravenna—since the city was surrounded by swamps and marshes, it was believed that the city could be more easily defended. In 409, however, the Visigoth King Alaric I simply ignored Ravenna and attacked Rome right away. Due to its excellent location, Emperor Augustus constructed the second largest Roman naval base in Ravenna, calling it Civitas Classis, or City of the Fleet. Today, the archaeological site is known as Classe, and it no longer sits near the head of the Adriatic coast; in fact, the only thing which connects Ravenna to the Adriatic Sea today is the Candiano Canal, which is the largest artificial canal in Italy; it was built in the 18th century by Pope Clement XII to combat flooding by diverting two rivers (Montone and Ronco) away from the city but also for commercial purposes; the canal ceased to play a very instrumental role for the latter as railroads started becoming more widespread in the 19th century.

Today, ships still dock in the canal and as recently as 2008, its basin was deepened to accommodate bigger vessels. The importance that Ravenna’s ancient port played in projecting Roman naval power is attested to by 6th century mosaics inside the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, which depict the ancient naval base constructed by Augustus in the most glorious way. This legacy continues with the modern Port of Ravenna, which today lies outside the city proper in an adjacent region called Area Industriale; thus, the Candiano Canal is the only thing connecting the city proper with the modern Port of Ravenna.

Piazza del Popolo

The history of the square dates back to the 13th century and its name literally means People’s Square. The site was developed by the Polentani family, when the majority of political activity occurred at the residence of Bernardino da Polenta, who built his residence on the ruins of an old palace on the bank of the ancient Padenna. The city of Ravenna has other small piazzas, along with Piazza John F. Kennedy, which is perhaps even bigger in terms of sheer size; however, it’s Piazza del Popolo which is considered the heart and soul of the city. When the Venetians conquered the city in the 1441, they installed two granite columns, which still stand today; one column bears Sant’Apollinare and the other San Vitale (the latter replaced the Lion of San Marco, the symbol of Venice, after Venetian rule came to an end in 1509).

Although smaller than Piazza John F. Kennedy, it’s in this square that Ravenna truly comes alive. Restaurants and cafes provide a lively, yet intimate setting. Way past midnight, when there’s nobody here, there’s nothing more peaceful than sitting on one of the stone benches and gazing at the lit up clock tower. For a poet seeking poetry and not attention, Piazza del Popolo is the perfect place to find it by yourself, especially when no one is looking.

Porta Serrata

Literally translating to Locked Door, the Porta Serrata was so called for the following reason: After the expulsion of the Polentani family from Ravenna, the Venetians feared that forces loyal to the family might attack the city from the north; thus, they shut the door and gave it the respective name. Another version of the event is as follows: The Polentani family itself closed the door for defensive purposes and when the Venetians conquered the city, they continued to keep it closed; thus, the closure helped neither the family nor Venice, as Ravenna was conquered during the Italian Wars. In 1511, Pope Julius II visited Ravenna and ordered that the door be reopened; the people welcomed this request with great satisfaction and it has not been closed since then (it should be noted that today, unlike back then, it’s incredibly easy to bypass the Porta Serrata and enter the city, as can be seen in the two different photos).

The Porta stands on the site where the embankment of the Montone used to be; the current structure dates back to 1583, although records suggest that other structures bearing the same name occupied the site as early as 1235. In 1621, the vault collapsed, along with the wooden bridge that crossed the Montone; twenty one people were killed.

Today, the Porta Serrata stands as a symbol of Ravenna’s past glory and wealth. People are free to enter and leave the city whenever they want, and hopefully the modern borders and doors of our own generation—which are keeping people out for “defensive” purposes today—will in the future also need to serve no other function besides just an ornamental one; for now, things don’t look they will change anytime soon.

Porta Serrata

The Street of Poets

Ravenna boasts an impressive history—from ancient, medieval, and on to the modern. Given its size, the amount of culture (let’s forget about Dante and the eight UNESCO sites for a minute) that the city has is impressive. Lord Byron, Carl Jung, T.S. Eliot, Gustav Klimt, Herman Hesse, Sigmund Freud, Oscar Wilde, and Henry James, are just some of the names who have either lived in Ravenna, or referred to the city in their works—there are numerous plaques on this street which bear the excerpts of poems and other writings by the aforementioned personalities about Ravenna. One plaque from Carl Gustav Jung, who visited the Neonian Baptistery, reads: “Since my experience in the baptistery in Ravenna, I have known with certainty that something interior can appear to be exterior, and that something exterior can appear to be interior.” This is an example of how the plaques actually look.

As a truly literate and artistic city, Ravenna has rightfully crowned one of their best walkways with the name Street of Poets, and I could not imagine a more pleasant place to take an afternoon stroll, which starts on Piazza Caduti Per la Liberta and ends at the Porta Sisi; the Street of Poets can also begin at the Porta Sisi and end at the Piazza Caduti Per la Liberta, depending on which way your existential sensibilities swing. The roughly 450 meter walk can be completed in just around five minutes at a brisk pace, but if you’d like to savor the moment, and maybe stop to read some of the plaques, the whole experience can be an excellent example of how thirty minutes should be properly wasted.


If you start your walk on the Street of Poets from Piazza Caduti Per la Liberta and head towards the Porta Sisi, you will find yourself—upon leaving the Porta—less than one minute from MacGowan; there are quite a few bars in Ravenna, but none more ubiquitous with students, artists, and young people in general than MacGowan.

Naturally, MacGowan hosts open mics and its walls have received many “poets” who have either stopped writing altogether or will stop once they get a little older. The famous quote usually attributed to Baudelaire is as follows: “If you’re twenty years old and you write poetry, you’re twenty years old; if you’re forty years old and you write poetry, you’re a poet.” In that sense, poetry is more than just a “need” to express one’s raging emotions, regardless of talent or even the sheer ability to do so.

Nevertheless, whether you’re a poet or a poet, MacGowan is the place in Ravenna to grab a drink. Even the American student who suffered an unfortunate incident outside the bar still comes back to drink here; since I was fortunate enough not to have witnessed what happened that day, I’ll leave the details up to your imagination.

So, you’ve read the poem and now you’ve also read the article; the journey, unfortunately, ends here. It’s time to visit Ravenna yourself. Come have a drink with us—and maybe even look for Dante on your own. If you run into me at MacGowan, I promise not to act like a poet, but I can’t promise not to drink like an anti-fascist. If you run into Dante, however, I can’t help you.

Photo by Arthur Ovanesian


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