With vivid colors and lively depictions, the mosaics of Ravenna can easily mesmerize any visitor. They are not only testimonies of excellent craftsmanship but also reflect the history and cultural changes that took place in the city in the 5th and 6th centuries.
Despite today’s delightful appearance, Ravenna has a rather tumultuous past. The city was the capital of the Western Roman Empire before its demise in 476. It remained the capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom for decades until the Byzantines launched a reconquest in the 6th century. Two hundred years later, the local rulers were ousted by the Lombards, hence ending Byzantine control in northern Italy. Since then, Ravenna has lost its political significance and stood out of historians’ sight for centuries.
As the political and cultural center of subsequent dynasties, it’s no surprise to see why some of the most magnificent religious monuments in early medieval Europe were built in this city. They are simply masterpieces, featuring marble, stuccos, and gorgeous mosaics. All are incredibly lively, with rich colors and imaginative depictions of Christian figures, landscapes, and iconography. They are also Europe’s best-surviving examples of this art form and thus were designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1996.
1. Basilica di San Vitale
From the train station, a stroll through leafy roads and elegant townhouses brought me to the first wonder of Ravenna, the Basilica di San Vitale. Standing tall in a courtyard, this 1500-year-old church is impressive enough on its own. It was constructed under Gothic rule but later completed by the Byzantine authority. As a result, San Vitale comprises both Roman and Byzantine elements, for instance, curved doorways, steeped towers, narrow bricks, and a polygonal apse.
Inside is a marvel of mosaic art. Countless fragments of gold, glass, and semi-precious stones cover the apse and ceiling, creating vivid illustrations of Christ, the twelve apostles, and the imperial entourage. The floor is no less remarkable, featuring birds, geometric and floral patterns, and even a labyrinth. Basilica di San Vitale can be considered the prototype for Hagia Sophia built ten years later. And it also inspired the Doge of Venice to rebuild the Basilica San Marco in the 11th century.
2. Mausoleum of Placidia
Across the courtyard from Basilica di San Vitale stands a humble-looking structure, the Mausoleum of Palcidia. It was part of a now-destroyed complex built in the first half of the 5th century. Aelia Galla Placidia – an empress of the Western Roman Empire – is likely the patron of the construction. But despite its name, she was not buried in this mausoleum. Instead, she was laid to rest in Rome along with the royal family.
In stark contrast to its modest external appearance, the interior is exquisitely decorated. Here, cobalt blue mosaics embrace early Christian symbolisms, from the graceful flowers of Eden Garden to the golden cross amidst a starry dome. Above the entrance portal is a mosaic of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, while mosaics depicting pastoral scenes cover the rest of the interior. With ninety-five percent of the mosaic being original, the Mausoleum of Placidia is a superb example of religious and funerary art in the last years of the Western Roman Empire.
3. Neonian Baptistery
Right next to Ravenna Cathedral is the city’s oldest structure, the Neonian Baptistery. It was erected at the end of the 4th century as part of the basilica. But by the mid-5th century, Bishop Neonis of the Western Roman Empire decided to refurbish the roof and add mosaic decorations; hence the name. The scene of the Baptism, where Saint John pours water over Jesus standing waist-high in the Jordan River, is the central feature of this monument. It is encircled by twelve solemn apostles whose elegant movement put me in awe.
While the original cathedral suffered destruction (and was rebuilt in the 18th century), Neonian Baptistery was miraculously left untouched throughout history. Its octagonal brick structure remains largely intact. The same goes for its interior adorned with marble, stuccos, and vibrant mosaics. Therefore, Neonian Baptistery is seen as the finest and best-preserved baptismal building of the late Roman period.
4. Archiepiscopal Museum and Saint Andrew’s Chapel
A stone’s throw away from Neonian Baptistery is the two-storied Archiepiscopal Museum. It was built in the 18th century to gather fragments, sculptures, and relics from the demolished cathedral. Today, visitors flock here to admire the Byzantine archbishop’s ivory throne – the finest of its kind in Western art and the 6th-century Easter calendar in marble, among many other valuable objects. Yet the pièce de résistance is the mosaic-covered Chapel of Saint Andrew.
Once a private oratory of the Roman Catholic bishops, it was transformed into an Orthodox chapel at the turn of the 6th century. In fact, it’s the only Orthodox monument built during the Gothic reign. Probably inspired by the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the chapel features an apse of golden stars against a dark blue background. Yet instead of the usual image of a sorrowful Christ, there stands Christ as a victorious warrior dressed in Roman armor.
5. Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo
On my way back to the train station, I stopped by another masterpiece of Ravenna, the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. It was built during the first quarter of the 6th century as the palace chapel for Theodoric, king of the Goths. The imposing complex features a cylindrical bell tower, a beautiful cloister, and a mosaic-ornated atrium.
When the Byzantines reclaimed the city several years later, they, however, revamped the interior. Overtly Arian motifs in the apse were erased, while the marble columns and decorations on the sidewalls were preserved. The most impressive part is the gold mosaics depicting two series of masculine saints and feminine saints proceeding to the throne of Christ and the throne of God’s Mother. The moment when the light reflects on the sparkling gold and radiates through the atrium is truly magical.
Tips for visiting Ravenna
- Ravenna is easily accessible by direct trains from Bologna (70 minutes) or Rimini (60 minutes).
- A composite ticket (€ 10,50) is purchasable online at Opera di Religione della Diocesi di Ravenna. This ticket grants one entry to all the above-mentioned monuments within seven days.
- Due to its popularity and size, a time-slot system is applied for the Mausoleum of Placidia and Neoninan Baptistery. Booking in advance is therefore mandatory. An extra charge of € 2,00 is added to the price of the composite ticket.
- If you visit Ravenna on a day trip, I would suggest visiting these two monuments first.