The Santa Maria in Porto in Ravenna is the running joke in our family. My better half once mistook it for the much more famous San Vitale and even wrote “San Vitale” on the back of a photograph of the Santa Maria. We had a good laugh about his silly incident when we visited the latter church in June of 2016. And yet I never got round to writing a post about the Santa Maria in Porto. The reason is probably that there is not that much to tell. The church is immense, but it is artistically underwhelming. Its only highlight is the so-called Greek Madonna (see below).
It was actually this Greek Madonna, or rather a copy of it, that prompted me to write this post in the first place. In the summer of 2018, I visited the town of Gubbio in Umbria. I went all the way to the top of Monte Ingino to have a look at the church of Sant’Ubaldo. Inside the church, there was a replica of the aforementioned Madonna, with an explanatory caption that stated that Saint Ubald of Gubbio (ca. 1084-1160) prayed to the original Madonna in Ravenna in 1119. I will no doubt write a post about the Sant’Ubaldo some day, but I will now focus on discussing the Santa Maria in Porto and the Greek Madonna. As it turns out, the two are closely connected.
Our story starts on 8 April of the year 1100, when a marble relief of the Madonna miraculously found its way from Constantinople to Ravenna. Back then, Ravenna was much closer to the sea than it is today (see Ravenna: Mausoleum of Theoderic). Monks found the image of the Madonna on the beach and took it to their church of Santa Maria in Porto Fuori. As the name of the church indicates, it was outside – ‘fuori’ – the city walls and close to the harbour, the ‘porto’. The church still exists, even though it had to be rebuilt from scratch after it was completely destroyed by an Allied bombardment in 1944. The Greek Madonna – as it was now called – was kept there until 1503.
In the fifteenth century, the Canons Regular of the Santa Maria in Porto Fuori wanted to build a convent next to their church. Ravenna had become part of the Venetian territories in 1440, and the Venetians ordered the Canons to build their monastery within the city walls. This was a project that took a lot of time. In 1496 a block of houses near the Porta Nuova was demolished and construction of the monastery began in the same year. In 1503 the monks moved to their new home and took the Greek Madonna with them. In 1509 the monastery was completed, but now the monks were separated from their church, which was located over three kilometres to the east. Plans were therefore made for a new church next to the monastery. These plans were presented as early as 1511, but it was not until 1553 that construction actually started. Rather confusingly, the new church was to be called the Santa Maria in Porto as well, just without the ‘Fuori’ part. By 1570, enough of the new church had been completed to allow the translation of the Greek Madonna from the monastery to a chapel in the Santa Maria in Porto. It has been there ever since.
The new Santa Maria in Porto was consecrated in 1606. The architect Camillo Morigia (1743-1795) – known for his work on Dante’s Tomb – was responsible for completing the facade of the church in 1784. It is an interesting mix of Baroque and Neoclassicism. One of the statues of the facade is that of the aforementioned Saint Ubald of Gubbio. The Santa Maria in Porto survived World War II relatively unscathed. It did suffer damage when, in 1944, a bomb hit the choir area, but fortunately it did not explode. Other churches were not so lucky. The San Giovanni Evangelista, just 400 metres further to the north, was for instance left virtually in ruins after an Allied bombardment. In 1960 the church was granted the status of a minor basilica.
The Santa Maria in Porto does not have much art that is worth discussing here. In fact, one of the most interesting pieces of art used to be in the medieval church of Santa Maria in Porto Fuori, but it was apparently never taken to the new church. I am referring to the so-called Pala Portuense, an altarpiece painted by the Ferrarese master Ercole de’ Roberti (ca. 1451-1496). We have previously seen some of his work in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara. The painting was executed between 1479 and 1481 and features a Madonna and Child flanked by Saints Elisabeth (mother of Saint John the Baptist) and Anne (mother of the Virgin). Below them we see Saint Augustinus (354-430), bishop of Hippo Regius, and Blessed Pietro degli Onesti (ca. 1050-1119). He was credited with building, or perhaps rather expanding the medieval church of Santa Maria in Porto Fuori after the Greek Madonna had been found. The altarpiece had originally been commissioned for this church. It was first moved to the church of San Francesco in the sixteenth century and then stolen by the French during the Napoleonic era. It can now be admired in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan.
Now over to the Madonna Greca or Greek Madonna which has already been mentioned quite a few times. The relief is made of Parian marble, that is marble from the island of Paros in the Aegean Sea. Apparently some like to believe that the image was made in the fifth century, even before the 431 Council of Ephesus declared Mary the Mother of God or – in Greek – the theotokos. There is really no evidence to back up this claim, and it is much more likely that the image was sculpted in the eleventh or twelfth century. The Ravenna Turismo website calls its miraculous arrival in Ravenna from Constantinople a “legend”, and asserts that the image was probably made in Venice. Another more profane explanation for the relief ending up in Ravenna is that it was taken from the Greek East to Italy after the First Crusade, which had ended in 1099. The Madonna is now the patron saint of Ravenna, so the religious importance of the item cannot be underestimated.