This ancient and refreshingly uncrowded Italian city is a dazzling accompaniment to a colourful festival, as Oliver Condy discovers
Oliver Condy visits Ravenna, Italy
One of the things that draws people to Ravenna is the chance to follow in the footsteps of two somewhat different poets. Dante Alighieri, originally from Florence, completed ‘Paradiso’, the final part of The Divine Comedy, in Ravenna while in exile. He died here in 1321 and was eventually entombed in an 18th-century mausoleum in the city centre (Florence is still cross and wants his body back). The other poet, the colourful Lord Byron, was lured here for racier reasons, mainly in pursuit of the 19-year-old Teresa Gamba who was at the time engaged to Count Guiccioli. Byron, clearly shameless, moved into the couple’s home, Palazzo Guiccioli, and declared himself Teresa’s official lover (although they had what might be called an ‘open’ relationship). He was also something of a political trouble maker, fancying himself as a freedom fighter and helping the notorious ‘Carbonari’ revolutionaries in their failed attempts to liberate parts of Italy from corrupt aristocrats.
But it doesn’t matter if your motives for visiting are righteous or a little reckless: Ravenna is an inspirational place, its complex, centuries-long relationships with divers religions, cultures and empires, both eastern and western, resulting in some of the Europe’s most staggering artworks. At the beating heart of ancient Ravenna lies its magnificent collection of mosaics, testaments to the dying days of the Roman Empire – of which Ravenna was for a time the capital – and the emergence of Christianity. You could do much worse than to base your tours of Ravenna simply on gawking at these ‘artistically perfect’ mosaics, as UNESCO describes them. The best is in the Mausoleum of Galla Placida, a modest cruciform chapel that conceals
a spectacular vaulted ceiling blanketed in stars, the four apostles and other religious imagery combining to rather splendid effect. Next door is the magnificent Basilica of San Vitale (left), with its kaleidoscopic Byzantine mosaics, the best preserved of any outside Istanbul. Then there’s the Arian Baptistry, the Baptistry of Neon, the Basilica of Sant’apollinare in Classe… each with its own breathtaking interior. The list goes on and on. And because Ravenna is tucked up nicely over on the east coast of Italy and isn’t serviced by its own airport, it’s slightly out of the way, and queues for its most popular attractions are unheard of – everyone’s too busy bolting between Venice, Florence and Rome. Ravenna really is an escape, of the best possible kind. And the food and wine on offer (particularly the fish), are quite exceptional, too.
Many of the city’s churches, theatres and palazzos play host to the 50 or so concerts that make up the Ravenna Festival, held during June and most of July (festival artistic director Angelo Nicastro is constantly on the hunt for new venues, he says). One of this year’s themes, ‘We have a dream’, is both a homage to civil rights icon Martin Luther King, murdered 50 years ago, and a call to unite global cultures – as the city has done since the fifth century. ‘We believe that we have to continue our important role of being a link between different cultures in the world,’ says Nicastro. ‘We try to be now what we have been in the past: to be open to new and different cultures, particularly from the East.’ And so within the 2018 programme you’ll discover a concert in the cloister of the Classense Library that brings together Armenian, Jewish, Muslim and SyrianChristian music; a performance in the Alighieri Theatre of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate celebrating America’s melting pot of ethnicities and languages; and, under the complementary theme of ‘The new-found song of the lyre’, a wide-ranging recital
At the beating heart of ancient Ravenna lies its magnificent collection of mosaics
of ancient and modern liturgical choral music presented by The Sixteen in the Basilica of Sant’apollinare that will lend a voice to music written under oppression.
The Ravenna Festival has also grown its own tradition of venturing outside the city walls, its ‘Roads of Friendship’ taking Italian musicians under the baton of conductor Riccardo Muti to far-f lung cities, starting with Sarajevo 20 years ago and including, since, Beirut, Yerevan, Nairobi, New York and, last year, the Iranian capital Tehran. ‘Our annual pilgrimage,’ says Muti, ‘reminds us of the universality of the musical language and the common bonds between us all.’ This year the Italian maestro and his Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra are jetting off to Kiev for a concert with the choir and orchestra of the National Opera of Ukraine – Kiev, like Ravenna, is home to World Heritage churches, complete with their own historic mosaics, dating back to the sixth century.
Next year’s Festival, however, belongs to that old rogue Lord Byron – Palazzo Guiccioli is undergoing a complete restoration and will be open to the public later in 2018. The Ravenna Festival will celebrate, no doubt, with Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony – or perhaps even Verdi’s I due Foscari, based on a play Byron wrote while in Ravenna. It seems the poet made productive use of his time here after all.
Mosaic for while: cellists perform in the Basilica of San Vitale