Former capital of no less than three empires, Ravenna, Italy is nowadays best known for being the proud possessor of eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. As well as being the burial place of Dante and a former home to Byron, the town’s magnificent mosaics inspired Cole Porter’s classic “Night and Day.”
In ancient times, Ravenna was a thriving seaport and rose to power in the first century BC under the rule of the Emperor Augustus. As Rome’s power dwindled, Ravenna became capital of the Western Empire. A century later, it came under the rule of Theodoric and the Arian Ostrogoths, then in 540 became the center of the Byzantine Empire under Justinian I. Following the invasion of the Franks in 751, Ravenna became the seat of the Kingdom of Lombardia.
Although Ravenna has many buildings of historical interest, the majority of visitors justifiably come to the city to see the eight World Heritage Sites and marvel at the glittering mosaics, which are masterpieces of European cultural history.
The Basilica of San Vitale (Via Argentario 22, website)
The Basilica of San Vitale, the only major church from Justinian I’s time to have survived in perfect condition, contains the longest and best preserved series of mosaics outside Constantinople. The construction of the basilica was begun in 526 under the Goths on the site of the martyrdom of San Vitale and finished under Byzantine rule in 547.
Dazzling gold and green mosaics depict Abraham and Melchizedek, the sacrifice of Isaac and other Biblical tales including Cain and Abel and Moses and the burning bush. These life-like figures, with skin made from matte marble, actually appear to be moving. The vault of the presbytery is richly decorated with leaves, fruit and flowers in vibrant colors surrounding the Lamb of God. Other notable mosaics feature the Emperor Justinian I and his entourage and the Empress Theodora.
The decorative floor features mosaics of birds and animals, and just west of the sanctuary, a mosaic labyrinth. Labyrinths, which were used to symbolise the path of salvation from sin to purification, were typical of the time. San Vitale’s probably dates from 1538-9 and is smaller than many, consisting of seven concentric circles rather than eleven.
The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (Via Argentario 22, website)
Behind San Vitale stands a tiny unassuming brick building, which UNESCO describes as “the earliest and best preserved of all mosaic monuments, and at the same time, one of the most artistically perfect.” Defacto ruler of the Western World for twelve years while regent for her son, The Empress Galla Placidia almost certainly commissioned the building as a mausoleum, although it is believed unlikely she was ever buried here.
The entire vault of the mausoleum is covered in breath-taking mosaics dating from around 430AD. More than 800 gold stars are arranged around a golden Latin cross set in a deep azure sky. Other scenes include a tender early depiction of Christ as the Good Shepherd and a saint holding a cross and book next to an iron grate being licked by fire, which is thought to represent Saint Lawrence.
Due to the restricted interior space of the Mausoleum, visitors are allowed to visit for 5 minutes only. These precious minutes are guaranteed to be intense and thought provoking.
The Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo (Via di Roma, website)
Erected by Ostrogoth King Theodoric the Great in the first half of the 6th Century, Sant’ Apollinaire Nuovo was originally an Arian church. Justinian I re-dedicated the basilica to Saint Martin of Tours, a fierce foe of Arianism on 561AD. The basilica was renamed in 856, when the relics of Saint Apollinare were transferred from the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe due to the threat of pirate raids from the Adriatic Sea.
The original mosaics of the interior document the evolution of Byzantine wall mosaics from the era of Theodoric to that of Justinian I. Legend states that Pope Gregory the Great ordered the mosaics to be blackened so as not to distract worshippers and overtly Arian mosaics were destroyed.
The figurative mosaics on the upper level of both sides of the basilica date from 500AD under the Arian King Theodoric and depict Jesus’ miracles along with parables and scenes from the Passion and Resurrection. On the left, Jesus is a young beardless man dressed as a Roman emperor and on the right he is shown with a beard. The lower level of mosaics date from 560 and show a procession of twenty six martyrs on the right, and on the left a procession of twenty two virgins led by the Three Magi, in leopard-print leggings, moving towards the Madonna and Child.
The Archiepiscopal Chapel (St Andrew’s Chapel) (Piazza Arcivescovado, website)
UNESCO’s evaluation states “the significance of this property is the fact that it is the only Early Christian private oratory that has survived to the present day. Its iconography is also important by virtue of its strongly anti-Arian symbolism.” The spectacular mosaics portray Christ as a warrior, crushing hideous beasts while the walls are a tapestry of birds and flowers. The vestibule shows ninety nine species of birds, some of them typical to Ravenna’s natural landscape, in a stunning golden sky. The chapel can be found within the Archbishop’s museum, which houses the intricate ivory throne of Emperor Maximilian.
The Neonian (Orthodox) Baptistery (Piazza Duomo, website)
The octagonal Baptistery, built around the end of the 4th century AD, is the oldest building in Ravenna and was constructed on the site of a Roman bath. The Baptistery was finished by Bishop Neone at the end of the 5th century, when the mosaics were added. The impressive ceiling scene shows John the Baptist baptizing Jesus while standing waist high in the River Jordan. The river is depicted on the right side of Christ, while the 12 Apostles appear on the left.
The Arian Baptistery (Via degli Ariani. Hours March 29 – October 24 8.30am-7.30pm, October 25 – March 29 8:30am-4.30pm. Free Admission)
As in the Neonian Baptistery, the dome of the Arian Baptistery features a remarkable mosaic depicting Christ being baptized, flanked by the River Jordan and the Apostles. The figures are simple and Christ is shown as youthful and beardless.
Mausoleum of Theodoric (Via delle Industrie, 14, Tickets €4, Reductions €2. Opening times 8.30am-7pm until 30th September, October 1 – 25 from 8.30am-6pm, from 26th October 8.30am-5pm)
Situated just outside Ravenna, the Mausoleum was built by Theodoric the Great in 520. Considered unusual for its walls of Istrian stone blocks, the building consists of two decagonal parts, one on top of the other, crowned by a monolithic dome. Combining elements from Roman, Constantinopolitan and barbarian traditions, the Mausoleum became one of the main attractions on The Grand Tour.
Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe (Via Romea Sud, Tickets €5, Reductions €2.50. Opening times- Weekdays 8.30am-7.30pm, Sundays and holidays 1pm-7.30pm)
Located five miles south of the city, the basilica was built in the first half of the 6th century on the burial ground of Saint Apollinare, the patron saint of Ravenna. Most of the basilica’s splendid mosaics date from the same time. The polychrome apse shows a symbolic depiction of the Transfiguration and the Hand of God can clearly be seen protruding from the clouds. The figure of Saint Apollinare is portrayed on a soft green background displaying rocks, birds, plants and twelve sheep representing the Apostles. This is the first known example of a figure other than Christ being chosen for an apse decoration. These mosaics are so flawless that they appear to be frescos.
Ravenna is certainly not short on historical sites. Well worth visiting is the “House of Stone Carpets” (Via Barbiani), the remains of a Byzantine palace containing elaborate floor mosaics.
The impressive Basilica of Saint Francis (Piazza San Francesco), which was rebuilt in the 11th and 12th centuries, features a flooded crypt, complete with goldfish, where the remains of mosaics from the first church can be seen through the water. Dante’s funeral took place in the basilica in 1321 and his tomb, lit by a lamp that burns with olive oil from Florence, is annexed to the church.
Although it is physically possible to visit all the sites in one day, it is advisable to spend at least a couple of days in Ravenna to savor the incredible works of art. Queues for the Galla Placidia can be very long at peak times, so it is best to try and get there early in the morning or around lunchtime.
Individual tickets cannot be purchased for the Basilica of San Vitale, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, the Neonian Baptistery or The Archiepiscopal Chapel. A combined ticket valid for seven consecutive days (€9.50, €8.50 reduced) must be bought at the ticket office in the center of town. Opening times for the above five sites: March 1 to March 31 9:30am – 5:30pm, April 1 – September 30 9am-7pm, October 9:30am-5.30pm, From November 10am-5pm (from 10/1 – 3/31 Basilica of San Vitale & Museum of Galla Placida open 30 minutes earler).
Most of the UNESCO sites are in the center of town and within easy walking distance of each other, apart from The Mausoleum of Theodoric and Saint Apollinare in Classe, which can easily be reached by bus.
All photos courtesy Sarah Humphreys