Thursday, August 12, 2021

The Basilica of St Francis in Ravenna, and the Tomb of Dante

For the feast of St Clare, we continue our series on the Christian monuments of Ravenna with the basilica of her friend and founder of her order, St Francis. A church dedicated to Ss Peter and Paul was built on its site ca. 450 by the bishop Neon (the successor of St Peter Chysologus), who also constructed the Orthodox Baptistery, which we saw earlier this month. This was demolished and rebuilt over the course of the 9th and 10 centuries, giving us the basic form of both the building and belltower as we have them to day; it was subsequently rededicated to St Francis after the friars of his order took it over in 1261. Like all of the older buildings of Ravenna, it has subsided considerably, and one of the photos below shows a rather surprising result of this. The complex also includes the tomb of the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri, who died in Ravenna in 1321, making this the 7th centenary year of his death. (Photos by Nicola de’ Grandi.)

The brick façade is punctuated by several holes, regularly distributed; this multiplicity of minor stress points helps to diffuse the force of its weight, so that it doesn’t crush itself, a technique copied from the ancient Romans. The belltower is over 100 feet tall, and mostly original, although extensively restored in the 1920s.
Between 1918 and 1921, as part of the preparations for Dante’s 6th centenary celebrations, the church was despoiled of a great many decorations added in the Baroque period, leaving an excessively sparse interior. These decorations were, of course, not original, and “not original” was in the early 20th century a pair of words to conjure with; more specifically, a pair of words to make things vanish with. Unfortunately, the restorers of the early 20th century mistakenly believed that Romanesque churches were “originally” mostly void of decoration, and stripped more than one such building bare in the light of this belief, replacing one mistake with another. Most or all of the surface of the clerestory and the walls of the side aisles would have been decorated with frescoes shortly after the church was completed.
In many Romanesque churches, especially in northern Italy, the sanctuary is elevated above the level of the pavement of the nave, and has a crypt underneath it, which in this case, is entered through the arch beneath the altar. (We have previously shown a magnificent example of this, the cathedral of St Geminianus in Modena.)
The subsiding of the building has now brought the crypt down below the level of the water-table, and it is therefore always full of water, although the level varies depending on the season and the rain-fall. Some remains of the mosaic from the original 5th century basilica are preserved within it, and, as you can see below, the friars keep goldfish in the water.
“(Is)te locus sancti complectitur (ossa Neonis), (hui)us cana fides altum per saicula (caelum) possidet (et) totos gaudet secura p(er annos). – This place contains the bones of St Neon, whose immaculate faith possesses heaven forever, and rejoices safely through all time.”
“The servants of God Hesychios and Gemella offered to the church a section of the mosaic pavement.”
The altar is made out of a sarcophagus believed to be of the 5th century.
The bones of St Neon.
Although he is, of course, best known as a poet, Dante was very much involved in the very complex political life of Florence, and in 1301, when the faction which he supported had fallen from power, he was exiled from the city, never to return. The last three years of his life were spent in Ravenna as the guest of its prince. He was a third order Franciscan, which is why he was buried in a Franciscan church and wearing a Franciscan habit.
He was originally buried in this 4th century sarcophagus.
A pagan sarcophagus re-made in the 6th century for Christian use with the addition of the lambs and chrismons on the side; the cover was made in the 3rd century. Reused as the burial of a Ravenna family named Del Sale in the 18th century, as indicated by the inscription on the front.
The grave marker of Ostasio da Polenta, papal vicar of Ravenna from 1389 until his death in 1396, a member of the family that ruled the city for 160 years, and hosted the exiled Dante. The two tondos at top were effaced after the Napoleonic invasion of Italy and the establishment of the blessedly short-lived, but no less murderously rapacious French client state called the Cispadane Republic in 1797.
Fragments of ancient mosaics and carved marble balustrades from the original church.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: