From the Umbrans to the Romans
After the Etruscans came the Umbrans (4th and 5th centuries BC) to settle in the area of Ravenna. Towards 350 BC the Umbrans succumbed to the Celts who left an important imprint but who also had to give way to the emerging power of Rome. With Roman supremacy, between the times of Caesar and Augustus, Ravenna was enclosed in walls and enriched with public and private buildings. After 14 AD Octavius Augustus inaugurated the military port (Classis), the base for the fleet that controlled the Adriatic and Eastern Mediterranean. During this period Claudius erected the Porta Aurea (43 AD) and Trajan (98-117) the first aqueduct of Ravenna.
Saint Apolinaris With the advent of Christianity, Ravenna received and spread the message coming from Rome and the East thanks to the evangelistic work of Saint Apolinaris (patron saint of the city).
Ravenna the Capital
In 402 Honorius transferred the capital of the Western Roman Empire to Ravenna. It was Galla Placidia, the sister of Honorius, who ruled in a city illuminated with the religious and cultural personality of the bishop of Ravenna, Saint Pier Crisologus. Architectural splendour continued to flourish with buildings such as St John the Evangelist, The Church of the Sacred Cross and the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. The history of Ravenna then followed the fate of an empire crumbling under the weight of barbarian invasions.
From the barbarians to Justinian
In 476 AD Romulus Augustulus, the last emperor of the Western Empire, was deposed by Odoacer. A few years later Odoacer capitulated to the Gothic king Theodoric who was spreading Arian worship. The Gothic dominion continued until 540 when the Roman-Byzantine army sent by Justinian entered Ravenna. With Justinian, who dreamt of uniting the Latin west with the Greek east in a peaceful political and religious system, Ravenna lived its period of maximum splendour. It was the age linked to the episcopate of Maximian, the bishop of Ravenna who consecrated San Vitale in 547 and Sant’Apollinare in Classe in 549. The fascination of this era finds its maximum expression in the “ivory throne” which today stands in the Archiepiscopal Museum.
The Archiepiscopal Chapel
This is a monument to catholic orthodoxy built during the reign of Theodoric. The mosaics are particularly suggestive of historical-theological themes: the glorification of Christ dominates and is a clear element against Aryanism while the martyrs represented are a clear affirmation of Catholic orthodoxy.
The Exarchate and autocephaly
After the death of Justinian, with the descent of the Longobards into Italy, Ravenna became and Exarchate, a Byzantine state governed by the exarch. The exarchate ‘island’ was to resist for a long time in the face of Longobard invasions and remained the only place in the peninsula ruled by laws and customs of Roman derivation. It was in this period that the Church of Ravenna spread Christianity in the surrounding countryside by means of instituting parish churches.
Longobards and Carolingians
The history of the exarchate ended in 751 with the Longobard conquest followed by that of the Franks. It was Pipino, king of the Franks who ceded Romagna (a donation contested by a number of historians) to the pontificate of Steven II. With the birth of municipalities, Ravenna was quarrelled over by the Ubertini, Dusdei, Anastagi and Traversari families. It was the last of these that prevailed until the arrival of Frederic II. From the 13th century the famous Da Polenta family was to rule Ravenna and have the honour of hosting Dante until his death (1318-1321).
In 1440 the Venetian fleet occupied Ravenna. Venetian rule was to last until 1509 and leave the Brancaleone fortress as a great architectural testimony to their presence.
Papal rule later governed Ravenna until the time of the French revolution. Ravenna was subject to the French from 1797 until 1815 when it returned to Papal rule. In 1849 Ravenna welcomed Garibaldi and Anita in flight from Rome. In 1859 Ravenna revolted and in March 1860 proclaimed its annexation to the Kingdom Piedmont. This period produced a number of new buildings and restoration work. The Town Hall and 15th century Venetian Palace, Sant’Agata Maggiore and Santa Maria in Porto (17th c.), the Rasponi and Spreti palaces of the 18th century.
The Archiepiscopal Museum
This is located on the first floor of the Archiepiscopal palace, the only episcopate that has survived from the early Christian ecumene. The museum contains many articles (capitols, epigraphs, mosaics) from the ancient Basilica of Ursus. The most important remaining article is without doubt the ivory throne, given to the bishop Maximian.
In the Archiepiscopal palace there is also the oratory of San Andrea (or Archiepiscopal chapel), decorated with splendid 5th century mosaics. It is one of the monumental buildings declared by UNESCO as patrimony of humanity.