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Food and TravelMemories of Ravenna: Theoderic’s Mausoleum

Memories of Ravenna: Theoderic’s Mausoleum

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In Late Roman/Eastern Roman times, religion and state were one. Religion heresies were the divisive factors. We live in an America united by a constitution, not the established religious viewpoint. Theoderic was a German Goth leader who tried to be tolerant and create a strong state with a capital in Ravenna: the jewel of Roman civilization in Northeast Italy. What does mausoleum mean? A stately and magnificent tomb. a burial place for the bodies or remains of many individuals, often of a single family, usually in the form of a small building.1
Mysterious. It was never completely understood. It was erected by the order of the Gothic (German) king Theoderic, near the cemetery of his Gothic tribal people. German tradition considers him a hero. The Mausoleum was built by Theoderic in 520 (or 526 AD), as his burial place. Entirely made of Istrian stone, its structure is divided into two decagonal orders placed one on top of the other. The upper level is topped by a big monolithic dome with twelve square arches bearing the names of eight apostles and four evangelists. Its dimensions are surprising: it measures 10,76m in diameter and 3,09m in height. According to recent calculations, it weighs 230 tons.
A niche leads to the inferior order which was probably a former cruciform-plan chapel, originally used for religious services. An external staircase leads to the upper floor, that houses a circular porphyry tub where Theoderic was presumably buried. After Justinian’s edict in 561, during the Byzantine domination, his remains were removed from the Mausoleum that was turned into an orthodox oratory.2
Many questions about the building remain unanswered: Was the upper story inaccessible or reached by an exterior stair or ramp? What was the function of the two chambers? Why are the spurs on the dome pierced? Were they handles intended for ropes to lift the monolith into place? The mausoleum is the only building in Ravenna constructed of limestone. In the West the tradition of stone building came to an end with Diocletian’s palace at Split. If the mausoleum does not represent a revival of this tradition, it must represent a contemporary version of building techniques in Asia Minor and Syria, where the tradition survived into the sixth century.
Possibly the mausoleum was erected by Eastern workmen, perhaps Isaurian builders, who were known to have worked in Thrace, Constantinople, Syria, and the Holy Land. The building design is a late example of Roman imperial mausolea. In the West in the Late Antique period double-storied tombs were no longer built, but they did survive in the eastern Mediterranean (e.g., the tomb of Diogenes in Hass, Syria). The monolithic dome is sometimes said to have been inspired by the tradition of stone-covered tomb mounds of Germanic chieftains, but it is questionable whether the Ostrogoths in the sixth century were familiar with that tradition. Among Late Antique buildings known to us today, the monolith is a unique feature—perhaps a reflection of Theoderic’s wish to be remembered eternally.3
Theoderic’s Mausoleum. Monolithic marble dome with twelve square arches bearing the names of eight apostles and four evangelists.
All photos by Despina Siolas, MD/Ph.D.
Originally, the building was isolated. But after the Gothic German domination, a lighthouse was erected beside it. At that time the sea was very near. The mausoleum survives today because it was converted into a religious convent. Before 1000, a monastery dedicated to St. Maria, a Benedictine convert, was established. The lighthouse has been lost since the 12th century. The monastery was destroyed in the 17th century. The work of reconstruction dates to 1844.4
The author of the Wikipedia article on the Mausoleum of Theoderic makes it very clear that this mausoleum owes nothing to Roman or Byzantine art. This is incorrect and shows a Roman/Byzantine bias towards the art.5. Theoderic was educated and trained in Constantinople. There was no Gothic art or style at time because they were barbarian, uneducated tribes. Theodoric had strong ties with Constantinople, was influenced by their civilization, creating this unusual monument.
Scholar Judith Herrin’s book RAVENNA: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe explains the mausoleum shows the integration of barbarian and Imperial Roman qualities. He dominated the West, governing in the name of the Eastern rulers of Constantinople. The king constructed a dome fit for an emperor. It is the only monument constructed entirely of marble from Istria. Theodoric followed the fourth century, Roman precedent of Imperial tombs which were circular, domed buildings. Ms. Herrin explains that monuments such as Theodoric’s mausoleum survived centuries because they became Christian buildings. They were occupied, renovated, and used as sacred buildings by monastic communities. Secular palaces, and buildings were dismantled, with materials used to create new church buildings.6
We see this in Greece, where pagan, ancient buildings were taken apart and materials used to create Christian churches. A haunting monument of Ravenna.
All photos by Despina Siolas, MD/Ph.D.
4.               Bustacchini, Gianfranco. RAVENNA: Mosaics, Monuments and Environment,
Ravenna. Salbaroli Publishers, 2012, p. 135
6.               Herrin, Judith. RAVENNA: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 2020, pp. 397,137,398.

The copyrights for these articles are owned by the Hellenic News of America. They may not be redistributed without the permission of the owner. The opinions expressed by our authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Hellenic News of America and its representatives.

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