San Giovanni Battista - History and culture of a Ravenna church -
with Alessandra Maltoni
Interview by Maria Teresa De Donato
Welcome again to my Amazing Italy Column, to which various friends and colleagues are contributing by telling us about Italian places where they were born or lived or which they visited and found particularly interesting.
This column is having great success, which I am delighted and grateful for: to my colleagues, for their participation and for the information they provide, and to you, readers, for the appreciation you are showing.
Thank you so much!
Today my friend and colleague author, Alessandra Maltoni, from Ravenna, came to visit us, whom we will get to know better on other occasions, always through my Blog and Virtual Cultural Lounge.
Enjoy the reading!
MTDD: Hi Alessandra and welcome to our appointment in the Amazing Italy column.
AM: Thanks to you, Maria Teresa, for inviting me.
MTDD: Alessandra, you are from Ravenna, the city where you still live and work today. It is a city rich in history and art and certainly the most important in the Emilia-Romagna Region in these respects.
What exactly do you want to talk to us about today?
AM: Yes, Maria Teresa. I perfectly agree with you. Ravenna abounds in history and art, and there are many things to see, including various churches. Today I would like to introduce you to one church in particular: the Basilica of San Giovanni Battista, also known as the Onion Church.
MTDD: Why did you opt for this particular church?
AM: The churches of Ravenna (former Byzantine capital) have a certain charm, not for nothing in the Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio in the novella by Paganino da Monaco and by the Judge in Pisa Riccardo di Chinzica, the calendar of Ravenna is mentioned, with the names of the saints to whom Ravenna's churches were dedicated, construction types with a history of medieval and baroque architecture. My choice fell on the church of San Giovanni Battista, located in Via Girolamo Rossi, as its baroque facade and medieval backside represent an emblematic example.
MTDD: Can you give us some historical data?
AM: Certainly. Founded, according to Andrea Agnello (9th century), by Baduario, a character of difficult identification, the Basilica of San Giovanni Battista perhaps coincides with the ancient San Giovanni ad naviculam. The Basilica was built during the sixth century, apparently under the bishopric of Peter III. This toponym would have signaled its proximity to the ferry used to cross the stretch of the Padenna river, at that point lacking bridges.
MTDD: Very interesting. What can you tell us about the layout and structure of this church?
AM: The original plan was divided into three naves marked by twenty columns and preceded by a four-sided portico, perhaps provided by a neighboring monastery since the 13th century. The structure received immense donations in the 15th century under the government of the da Polenta. The parish also set up an adjacent hospital as a shelter for the poor. The original building had taken the popular name of San Giovanni 'of the onion' because, in the four-sided portico, demolished in 1634, a critical town fair of agricultural products was held. For the Ravegnani, it is San Zvan dla zola.
MTDD: From how you talk about it, you seem particularly fond of this church, or am I wrong?
AM: No, you're not wrong at all. I was born in Ravenna, and to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of my grandmother Iolanda devoted to this place of worship, I wrote and published a short essay with traces of the church's history and some characters who attended it for different reasons. Curious, the fil rouge would bind Dante's son to the cult building located in the city's heart and a few steps from Dante's tomb. This inspired the title of the first edition of my book, "The onion church a stone's throw from Dante," for the In.edit types.
MTDD: Have you had any awards for your work?
AM: Yes. The text was considered worthy and awarded in June 2022 at the Sorbonne University in Paris by Prof. Maria Teresa Prestigiacomo, journalist and art critic, with the following motivation for the commendation: the content and reputable initiative of the freelancer. As part of the same award ceremony, I was invited as a guest of the Italian Culture Center in the French capital, where I spoke in front of an attentive and sizeable Parisian audience about the onion church and the figure of Father Torello, grandmother Iolanda's spiritual guide.
MTDD: Can you tell us about this priest and his Christian ministry's role in the community he served?
AM: Gladly. Father Torello Scali of Tuscan origins, a figure of great humanity, regent of the community in question in times of war, and belonging to the Carmelite order, was parish priest from 1928 to 1959. His mortal remains were transferred, in 2001, to the Basilica of San Giovanni Battista and placed in the chapel of the Madonna del Carmine. We all hope we will soon be able to visit it every week on a day and time open to the public. Father Torello is a character known to the faithful, tourists, and historians. The people who have known this man of great moral depth remember him with great affection and are working hard to promote his holiness. Father Torello created various cultural and social activities as a framework for the cult of faith, prayer, and behavioral meditation in a society governed by true and pure love.
MTDD: A man of faith, therefore, and above all, a spiritual guide who gave an excellent example and left a beautiful memory to those who knew him and not only.
Was there any other priest who left an indelible and equally positive memory after him?
AM: Certainly. Another charismatic figure who for many years has borne the baton of this church with multifaceted initiatives was Don Gino, hoping for a publication that would carry on the illustrious memory of the onion church and its architecture: the baroque mask of the facade and the body with the medieval soul. Now an older man, Don Gino is in a retirement home far from Ravenna.
MTDD: Is there anything else you want to add about this church?
AM: Yes, I would like to say that there are many anecdotes and episodes of blood and works of art stolen over time that enrich the bibliography of this church which is currently partially closed for various reasons that we cannot analyze in this context. We send our best wishes so he can carry on the message of love that his predecessors created and spread.
MTDD: If there are readers who want to know more about the subject, what sources can they draw from?
AM: The first edition of The Onion Church on a stone's throw from Dante has a Facebook page where you can write your comment:
Copies of the first edition can be purchased online until sold out:
MTDD: In case there is someone who wants to contact you?
AM: Anyone wishing to contact me can send me an email to the following address:
MTDD: Alessandra, many friends, taking part in this Marvelous Italy column have delighted our readers by ending their interview with a local recipe.
Did you prepare one yourself?
AM: Absolutely, yes. I thought of presenting my favorite Romagna dish to our readers, namely the stew or stew with white wine, a specialty of grandmother Iolanda.
(Photo from Wikipedia - Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic -
Stew - Author: franzconde)
Grandma Iolanda's recipe "The magné rumagnul of the past" - Ancient Romagna mangiari of the Ravenna area, to remember elderly azdori (housewives).
White Sangiovese from Romagna or Tuscan Chianti
The stew is a typical second dish from Northern Italy. The term derives from the ancient way of cooking food when the meat was placed in a cooking container closed on the top of the stoves that served as cooking and heating tools. It should not be confused with braised meat, which involves cooking flavored with wine and spices. When the stew is cut into small pieces, it can take the name of stew [...]
Ingredients and doses for four people
1 kg of meat pulp per stew (pork, veal, beef),
half chopped onion,
1 glass of dry white wine,
500 ml. of broth,
2 tablespoons of flour,
30 g of butter,
1 stick of celery,
6 large yellow potatoes,
extra virgin olive oil (extra virgin olive oil),
Brown the chopped onion, celery, and carrot in a drizzle of oil in a pan over very low heat.
Peel and cut the potatoes into regular pieces.
Take a non-stick pan with water, soak the potatoes for 10 minutes, cook them over medium heat for 5 minutes, and turn off the heat.
In a rather large saucepan, brown the meat and reduce the heat. Add the sifted flour and a little broth to obtain a smooth and homogeneous base.
Pour in the wine and stir until the bottom begins to boil. Add the chopped onion, carrot and celery, salt and pepper, and the potatoes.
Cook for at least 90 minutes, over low heat, keeping covered.
If you want, sprinkle with chopped parsley before serving.
A second faster version of Grandma Iolanda's stew with potatoes recipe is the following:
1 kg of meat stew
1 glass of dry white wine
250 ml of water, 6 large yellow potatoes
extra virgin olive oil,
Peel and cut the potatoes into regular pieces, take a bowl with hot water and soak the potatoes for 15 minutes.
In a rather large saucepan, brown the meat over low heat, pour water, wine, and potatoes, boil until the liquid is absorbed, then season with oil, salt, pepper, and rosemary, close the pan and leave the meat and potatoes to flavor for at least 15 minutes.
Enjoy your meal!