26 April 2015

TESSERAE - 11 - The Province of Ravenna

Piadine Romagnole.....

We stay at Il Palazzo, just outside Brisighella, surrounded by peach and cherry blossom and roads that crumble into ravines of gypsum. Brisighella is a medieval village, in the Province of Ravenna, half way between that city and Florence. Adriana and Ettore, who have run this azienda agrituristica biologica for almost thirty years, provide us with delicious local and home-produced food, and excellent sangiovese, trebbiano and chardonnay to go with it.

As the President of the Local Council, Elena Bianchi, says: Travelling to Brisighella you will discover a village and its land, lost in a natural and still untouched scenery, a delight for the eyes, a place to love, forever.  High from above a Fortress, a Church and a Tower like watchmen look after her. She appears in the glitter of the surfacing chalk, shows herself through the soft hues of the old houses and lives it up in her festivals, captivating you, our guest, with and unforgettable experience.....

Il Palazzo is in the middle, part hidden by trees

Brisighella dominates the valley of the river Lamone, and lies at the eastern end of a vein of gypsum that stretches twenty-five kilometres toward Bologna, and which now is largely protected by the Parco Regionale Vena del Gesso Romagnolo.  The area has spectacular cliffs, is riddled with over two hundred caves, and is home to rare species of plants, animals and birds such as the Cheilanthes persica (felcetta persiana) fern, mediterranean horsehoe bats, cave salamanders, yellow-bellied toads and Eagle Owls.  Natural woodlands of downy, Turkey and holm oaks, field maples and manna ash  mix with hornbeam and service trees, and in the undergrowth and on the grassy slopes there are helleborine orchids,  wood anemones, larkspur, cyclamen and snowdrops.

In times past, gypsum was mined here, as it had many uses, including as a mortar or plaster in building, as a constituent of agricultural fertilisers, and, when mixed with powdered white lead, as gesso - then gilded with gold - for medieval illuminated manuscripts.  In Brisighella there is a raised street, unique in the world, known as Via del Borgo, or Via degli Asini (Donkey Street), along which miners brought their beasts into the first storey rooms of the houses which rose steeply out of the rock .....

The town is served by the Treno di Dante, which winds from Florence to Ravenna, which also calls at the ceramic capital of Italy, Faenza.

Looking down on Brisighella from the Clock Tower, the houses of the Via degli Asini at the bottom

If that service had been available in 1300, Dante himself might have taken it, as he was exiled from his beloved Florence, and never returned, eventually dying, at the age of 56, in Ravenna, in 1321.

Alabaster - another use of gypsum - windows in the Mausoleum of Galla Placida, Ravenna

Of course, we visit Ravenna too..... Once capital of the Western Roman Empire (402 - 476 AD), then the Ostrogoth capital (until 540), then Byzantine capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Exarchate of Ravenna, then (from 751) principal city of the Lombard Kingdom, until it came under papal rule..... under which it remained, apart from occupation by the Venetians and the French, until the unification of Italy in 1861.

All of which is to say that Ravenna has had a chequered history!

Emperor Augustus, founder of the Port of Classe

Ravenna's glory lies in the eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites that are found here.... which include, the octagonal Basilica di S Vitale, which was consecrated in the year 548:

Ravenna's fame rests largely on the skills of unknown artists who created a series of stunning mosaics, and the mosaics in S Vitale date from the second quarter of the sixth century. They portray the Evangelists and Prophets, scenes from the old Testament:

And show S Vitale himself (on the left) alongside his Redeemer, with Bishop Ecclesio (on the right) in the Apse:

Next to this monumental brick basilica is the tiny Mausoleo di Galla Placida:

which was constructed in the middle of the fifth century and which is decorated with mosaics which are probably the oldest in the city (and which would already have been over eight hundred years old when Dante saw them....)

Almost contemporary with this is the Battistero Neoniano, which takes its name from Bishop Neone in the mid fifth century.....  The mosaics here show Jesus being baptised in the Jordan, surrounded by the Apostles.

Some fifty years after these two buildings, Theodoric (Patriarch of the Eastern Roman Empire, and Regent of the Visigoths from 511 - 526) built the Basilica of S Apollinare Nuovo.  The mosaics here are almost a century younger than those of the Mausoleum and the Baptistery, and with their golds and greens seem almost new.....

And the figures seem to step right off the walls with their grace and energy:

But for me, at least, the jewel in Ravenna's crown lies outside the city walls, in peaceful isolation nearer the sea.  

This is the Basilica di S Apollinare in Classe, which was consecrated in 549. The mosaics, however, date from various periods in the sixth and seventh centuries and, with their natural scenes and allegorical images, they startle you with their freshness..... 

In 1873 Henry James visited Ravenna, and recorded these impressions in Italian Hours: Between the city and the forest, in the midst of malarious rice-swamps, stands the finest of the Ravennese churches, the stately temple of San Apollinare in Classe. The Emperor Augustus constructed hereabouts a harbour for fleets, which the ages have choked up, and which survives only in the title of this ancient church. Its extreme loneliness makes it doubly impressive. They opened the great doors for me, and let a shaft of heated air go wander up the beautiful nave between the twenty-four lustrous, pearly columns of cipollino marble, and mount the wide staircase of the choir and spend itself beneath the mosaics of the vault. I passed a memorable half-hour sitting in this wave of tempered light, looking down the cool grey avenue of the nave, out of the open door, at the vivid green swamps, and listening to the melancholy stillness.

Ravenna is a treasure chest full of rich delight.  But it is also a lively and thriving city.  The Piazza del Popolo, with its Venetian Columns (1483) and the medieval Palazzo del Comune, is the centre of the action, and here you can while away the time sampling the local speciality - the Piada (or Piadina), which is a round flatbread filled with cheese and ham, or virtually anything you fancy (which is really what this Province is like itself!)  So, under a bright blue sky, with a glass of Albana (bianco) or Sangiovese (rosso DOC) di Romagna, this is how you should appreciate La Provincia di Ravenna.....

And then, of course, there is gelato to follow......

L'ombra sua torna, ch'era dipartite.....


  1. We loved it so much there!xxx

  2. Once again this shows the breadth of your scholarship, as well as your understanding and love of people and places. You appreciate the richness of light and shadow, and portray your thoughts so clearly in words and pictures. Procuratevi un agente e farsi pubblicare!