S.Appollinare in Classe


After breakfast the next morning we toured the festive indoor market across from the hotel and snagged a couple of freshly made piadini for the road.  We were on our way south, down the coast and up into the mountains to Urbino, but on the way out of Ravenna we planned to stop at what we were told was the most beautiful of all of the Byzantine churches, the Basilica di Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, in the middle of a field south of the city in the ancient Roman port city of Classe, founded by the emperor Octavian Augustus in the 6th C. (See photo at top of Ravenna story for exterior view.)

But, first we had some business to take care of.  On the day before we departed for Italy, I dropped my Palm Pilot on our stone steps and smashed the screen.  Ugh!  I had spent considerable time accumulating the various resources for our trip and organizing them into neat files with names of restaurants, monuments, museums – all with addresses, phone numbers and opening times.  It was an essential resource.  I did have a paper back-up, but the idea was be free of books and paper while out and about.  So we opted to transfer all the data to Kris’ Palm Pilot – but it was a Pam V that did not use batteries and had to be recharged after about a week.  There was no way to get a 220v charger, so we decided to go for it, conserving as much energy as possible.  Well.  It was now out of gas.  I had done some inquiring and found that there was one – only one – dealer that carried Palm products – and his office was on the highway we were taking out of town.  I had very, very low expectations for a good outcome.  The Palm V was in very short supply, people paying a premium for them in the US, and the chances that they would have a charger available seemed ludicrous.  But we stopped.  Amazing.  They had a single Pam in stock, and it was a V.  I explained my problem to the young English-speaking clerk.  "No problem," he said.  He unlocked the case, took the shrink-wrap off the Pam V, and removed the charger.  He took me in the back room, plugged in the charger and said.  "Give me your Pilot and come back in a few hours; it will be charged for you!"  Miracles can even be hidden in a young man working in a computer store in Italy.  We headed for the 6th C church.

Basilica of Sant’ Appollinare in Classe

I guess if I were powering through this area and had to pick only one monument to see it would be this ravishingly serene church.  The setting is beautiful, with the church fronted by a green field.  We were struck with the solitude of the place.  There is a small parking lot.  Empty.  No one in sight.  There is a nice statue of Augustus next to the church, reminding you of who built it.  For about a ½ hour we had the place to ourselves.  The mosaics on the apse are justifiably among the most famous in the world.  They are strikingly beautiful in a kind-of folk art way, with the image of Christ depicted as a great jeweled cross and the 1st bishop of Ravenna (Appollinare) praying in the middle of a verdant field filled with pastoral animals.

An interesting anecdote.  When visiting churches from this very early Christian period we have noticed a recurring image of a pair of peacocks generally drinking from a fountain.  We have tried over-and-over again to find the significance of this image.  It always appears prominently, and we have been pressed to understand why it has not been explained in any of the reference books.  It is not something that I associate with Christian symbols.  We particularly noticed this image on the altar screen at the beautiful Basilica on Torcello and in motifs in the floor mosaics at the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, both buildings of the same period as this church. And, too, there are peacocks carved in the Throne of Maximian that we had seen yesterday.  

 Ha!  While we were touring the National Museum the day before, we came upon a room given over to a monumental cartoon – the chalk or crayon drawings directly on the wall where the craftsman would apply mosaics.  It was from the basilica in which we now stood.  A decade or so ago, they embarked on a reconstruction project for the basilica and determined that they needed to completely reconstruct the apse.   When they removed the mosaic (now, that is a documentary I would love to see!) they discovered underneath that the original design was to have a parade of peacocks drinking from fountains – explained on the English wall plaque – " the ancient sign of LIFE."   So it took an image hidden for 500 years to make its way to a museum for us to understand this image.  Apparently, the artist changed the design on the fly as the mosaics were being applied, and the creativity shows in what we have today in the facing rows of white horses.  The apse that is behind the mosaics today is resin, plastic and who-knows-what.  Hopefully it will stand for another 1,500 years.

Examples of Peacock motifs we have seen earlier:


After satisfying ourselves with the basilica, we paused in the tourist caffé adjacent and fronting the parking lot.  We could only imaging what this place was like during the hectic summer.  But, now in November, it was pleasantly serene, and we had the not-too-cold patio to ourselves.  A quick trip back to town (yes, of course, getting hopelessly lost and tangled in the one-way streets) to the computer dealer just before closing to retrieve the fully charged Pilot.  I gave the amazing clerk a 50,000 lire note.  I had to insist to overcome his reluctance, assuring him that it was worth as much and I was ever-so grateful for this kindness.

Picture Gallery from Sant' Appollinare in Classe. 
Click for larger images.

Ravishing Ravenna

Ravenna deserves to be considered seriously as a destination, but for more than the truly deserving mosaics.  Unlike other famous Italian cities that have become caricatures of themselves, Siena comes to mind, Ravenna provides a glimpse of not just history, but a culture alive and vibrant today.  It lives within this beautiful city, preserving the old, cycling around its streets, and sharing its goodness with all comers.  There is no pretension here.  No tourist exploitation mindset.  There is precious little good information available in tourist books or on the Internet to suggest that a sojourn to Ravenna will be as rewarding as we found it.  Our recommendation would be categorically to include Ravenna on your Italy schedule.  Book yourself into the Albergo Cappello for at least one, better two nights and steep yourself in a wonderful experience of ravishing Ravenna.


Go Directly to:

Ravenna Intro.

San Vitale

Battistero Neoniao

Ca’ de’ Vén

Dante's Tomb
San Francisco
Appollinare Nuovo
Teatro Alighieri


All text and photos © Copyright Howard Case 2000-2001
Photos attributed to other sources are so noted.