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Monumental glory

Classical, high Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque art treasures are magnets for visitors to Rome, Venice and Florence _ all cities of large crowds and large prices.

But some of Italy's prized artistic gems are tucked away in the uncrowded and inexpensive city of Ravenna, on the Adriatic coast. A capital of the western Roman Empire and later an outpost of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire, Ravenna found its place in the sun.

That was in the fifth and sixth centuries. The "Dark Ages" were enveloping the west, but Ravenna was creating art forms that have survived as perhaps the world's finest examples of early Christian decorative work.

Those treasures are Byzantine mosaics _ sparkling, dazzling, glass-encrusted murals that cover the interiors of Ravenna's churches and tombs. They tell the stories of the Old Testament and of Christ, recording the life and times of Byzantine Ravenna. Romans had put their mosaics on the floor, as pavement; the centuries did not treat them kindly. But early Christian artists elevated them to walls and ceilings, making cloisonne-like images the focal point of interior spaces. There they have been preserved almost perfectly.

The mosaics assumed more importance in art history when they survived the church's eighth-century puritanical edict to destroy decorative religious art. Constantinople's churches were ravaged.

Little seems to have happened in Ravenna since its sixth-century apogee. The Renaissance, like many travelers, bypassed Ravenna (although Dante is buried here). Beach resorts are a few miles away, and the natural moat that once surrounded the nondescript town has given way to flat marshland. Oil refineries intrude on distant vistas: Natural gas was discovered offshore after World War II.

If you come by car, two hours south from Venice _ or by train, one hour east from Bologna _ you transit quickly through the industrial outskirts. Cars are discouraged in the city center, and you'd be wise to drive straight to your hotel to park.

You also need to slow your pace. Ravennans walk _ or bike _ with measured movement. Gear down by unwinding over an espresso in the Piazza del Popolo. It's a good place to read about the monuments and their glorious mosaics.

Thirteen churches were built in Ravenna between the fifth and eighth centuries. Most visitors concentrate on three built in the sixth: San Vitale, Sant Apollinare Nuovo and Sant Apollinare en Classe. The Tomb of Galla Placidia, next door to San Vitale, is an exquisite jewel box.

The structures represent a turning point in Western art _ from the early Roman Empire's emphasis on monumental architecture to a near-denial of exterior trim. The ascetic, sandy-colored brick facade became a Byzantine hallmark. Christianity, still a young religion, was finding expression for its other-worldly focus _ emphasizing the spiritual and the emotional at the expense of the external and the material. Nowhere can that architectural reorientation be seen more dramatically than in Ravenna.

Mosaics are superbly suited by their shimmering, almost supernatural, quality to the depiction of sacred scenes. Tesserae, the tiny pieces of semi-precious stones and colored glass, were made opaque by tin oxide. Gold leaf, compressed between two layers of glass, made the gold tesserae favored by its Oriental originators. Artisans studied geodesy, learning how to calculate designs for curved surfaces to prevent figures from becoming grossly distorted when viewed from below.

A walking tour of Ravenna might begin at the tomb commissioned for herself by Galla Placidia, a fifth-century empress. It's a convenient starting point if you stay at the Bisanzio, a comfortable hotel steps away on a side street.

The squat, plain mausoleum, a dramatic foil for its astonishing interior, is shaped like a Greek cruciform. After entering, let your eyes adjust to the dimness. Unless it's a dark or rainy day, resist the temptation to put money into the metered lamp.

Now you see concentric circles of golden stars studding the midnight-blue ceiling; it seems to glow. Stylized flowers and fruit, angels and animals, vie for your eye with Christ, portrayed as the Good Shepherd. Three marble tombs _ none of which is thought to hold Galla Placidia _ rest on the floor.

The tiny room is breathtaking. And you'll probably find yourself absorbing its beauty with few other visitors around.

The Church of San Vitale, built on the same grounds about 540 A.D., is home to the most lavish display of mosaics in Ravenna. It seems as if every inch of its domed interior is encrusted with jewel-like images. What are probably the world's most famous _ and most photographed _ mosaics flank the altar: Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora, trailed by their retinues.

Both panels are studies in the Byzantine ideal of human beauty: tall, slender figures with tiny feet _ small, almond-shaped faces dominated by large, staring eyes. San Vitale, inside and out, is an art lesson in the Byzantine style.

Sant Apollinare Nuovo, about a 20-minute walk across the city center, is as unpretentious from the street as Ravenna's other monuments _ although it does boast a bell tower, a 10th century add-on. Unlike the octagonal San Vitale, it is a basilica, a rectangular architectural form that became synonymous with the early Christian era.

The large, high interior puts the decorative mosaic panels farther from your eye; binoculars help you view the story of Christ's life. The Passion scenes, thought to be the first such depictions in art history, omit the Crucifixion _ a rule among early Christians.

An easy drive in a rental car _ or an inexpensive one in a taxi _ takes you to the basilica of Sant Apollinare en Classe, eight miles outside Ravenna. It sits in a stand of pines.

Inside, the magnificent mosaic of the transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor covers the curved apse and dominates the cavernous interior. Stand on the top step before the altar; you will be overwhelmed by the great jeweled cross and the snowy sheep in the green and gold pastoral scene.

Perhaps because it's away from town and readily accessible from the highway, this church is one of the few local monuments where tour buses congregate. Here, too, the souvenir shop is a prominent feature; at the in-town monuments, shops are discreetly situated.

Back in Ravenna, cap off your one-day tour (adequate for seeing the monuments described if you get an early start), with dinner at Ca de Ven. An enoteca (wine cellar) that also serves food, Ca de Ven is operated by a consortium of Romagna province wineries.

Wine barrels and racks line the dark, woodsy room where diners gather at trestle tables, family-style. A friendly waiter lets you taste your choice of the robust provincial wines. For supper, sample piadina, a variation on a pancake, served with hams and cheeses.

Outside, the route back to your hotel leads through the Piazza del Popolo _ a safe, unhurried walk through an unhurried town that continues to rest, with good reason, on its sixth-century laurels.

Royce Haiman is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg.


Getting there: Ravenna is a two-hour drive south from Venice along the Adriatic coast. If it's your first stop after an international flight into Milan's Malpensa Airport, count on a three-hour drive on the Autostrada. Get a city map; the narrow streets are a one-way maze, so even a short drive inside the old Roman gates can be a challenge.

Hotels: The Bisanzio and the Jolly, not deluxe but comfortable, are Ravenna's best. The monuments are within walking distance of either. Double rooms at both are less than $100 (at current conversion rates). Parking for the Bisanzio is in a secured garage down the street. If you come in a rental car, you might opt for the Park Hotel in Marina di Ravenna, the nearby beach resort. Prices are comparable.

Seeing the monuments: Guided tours are unnecessary. Audio tapes can be rented at some sites. Illustrated paperback guidebooks in English are available at newsstands and at each monument. Bring binoculars for focusing on the detail in the mosaics _ most of which are well above eye level. Bring plenty of 400-speed film; flash pictures are allowed. Open daily until 4:30 p.m. Small admission fees charged.