Destinations Magazine

Ravenna and Her Mosaics

By Aswesawit @aswesawit

Most people have never heard of the Italian city of Ravenna, a city which lies on the coast between Florence and Venice. A shame, that. They are missing out on a true treasure: Eight ancient sites that have mosaics so superb that they rival those in Istanbul.

Ravenna and Her Mosaics

Ravenna mosaic of Christ

As a matter of fact, Ravenna has such exquisite Arian and Byzantine mosaics that it has earned the distinguished designation of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A bit of Ravenna history

Back in Roman times Ravenna went by the name of Classe. It was an imperial port for the empire’s massive naval fleet and was even—for a brief time—the capital of eastern Rome. Then, in the mid-500s A.D., the Byzantine emperor Justinian decided that Ravenna would be the westernmost pillar of the Byzantine Empire. In a nutshell, this explains why there are so many high-quality mosaics here.

Ravenna mosaic of naked man

Day tripping Ravenna

It seems to me that very few cruise ships dock here, and I’m not quite sure why. Ravenna was on our 2013 Adriatic cruise itinerary and the ship offered quite a few options for our day in port, including:

  • Visit Ravenna and see its mosaics
  • Check out the postage-stamp-sized country of San Marino
  • See the Ferrari Museum
  • Visit Bologna

Cruise or no, Ravenna is worth one day on your itinerary. And don’t let the location deter you: it’s easy to get to. If you are traveling between Florence and Venice, it is only a 90-minute detour on the train line.

Ravenna and Her Mosaics

And then there’s piadina

Ah, piadina. Our lunch was another highlight of our day in Ravenna, and we discovered it through a tip from a local. Piadina is a thin, unleavened Italian flatbread that is typical of the region (Emilia-Romagna). It is usually made with white flour, olive oil, salt and water … but not all. We had to make sure ours were vegetarian-friendly because some restaurants make it with lard. Ew.

Piadine are usually made on-the-spot and served immediately. The warm, crispy rounds are filled to order. Choose a variety of cheeses, cold cuts and/or vegetables, or get it with sweet fillings such as jam or Nutella.

Ravenna and Her Mosaics

Ravenna has a local bread called piadina, and they put all sorts of things on it.

Ravenna and Her Mosaics

Even though I’m sensitive to wheat I couldn’t resist sampling the fragrant local bread. Mmmm…crisp outside, soft inside. Worth it? Yes.

Ravenna’s eight UNESCO sites

The eight early Christian churches/monuments that qualify as UNESCO sites in Ravenna include:

  • Baptistry of Neon (c. 430)
  • Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (c. 430)
  • Arian Baptistry (c. 500)
  • Archiepiscopal Chapel (c. 500), also called the Archbishop’s Chapel
  • Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (c. 500)
  • Mausoleum of Theodoric (520)
  • Basilica of San Vitale (548)
  • Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe (549)

We couldn’t visit every one of the sites because we were only in Ravenna for one day. Okay, maybe we could have but we wanted to see as much of the city as we could. Still, the mosaics we did manage to see were exquisite. Jaw-dropping, even.

Detail of a Ravenna mosaic

I couldn’t help but wonder how much time each of these mosaics must have taken to create. What talent they had!

Each was done with obvious painstaking care. (Can you say stunning?) What looks like a lovely collection of tiny, bright tiles on close inspection will, when you step back, transform into a vivid image of a sea voyage, an image of Jesus, or a choir of angels.

Mosaic of man with horse.

This is the full view of the closeup in the previous photo.

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

According to UNESCO this mausoleum is “the earliest and best preserved of all mosaic monuments, and at the same time one of the most artistically perfect.” I don’t know how they could have chosen. Every one of the sites is just as artistically perfect, in my opinion.

Galla Placidia, daughter of Roman Emperor Theodosius I, was a well-known patron of the arts. Legend has it that she had this built as a mausoleum for her and her family. Three sarcophagi are there and while no one is certain, one is said to he hers, a second belongs to her husband, Emperor Constantius III, and the third is for either Galla’s son, Emperor Valentinian III, or her brother, Emperor Honorius.

Jesus seated as an emperor with lambs nearby

The “Good Shepherd Mosaic”

The mausoleum is illuminated by luminous alabaster window panels.

Ravenna and Her Mosaics

Ravenna and Her Mosaics

Arian Baptistry

The Arian Baptistry was erected by Theodoric the Great, king of the the Ostrogoths. The Goths (Arians) and the Latins (Orthodox) had different views of Christ. To keep the peace Theodoric built this baptistry “of the Arians” in order to distinguish it from the Baptistry of Neon (of the Orthodox) that had been built a century before.

Ravenna and Her Mosaics

Ceiling mosaic of the Arian Baptistry

The dome mosaic depicts and a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, above an androgynous and naked Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist. (The white-haired, old man in a green cloak is the personification of the river Jordan.) Circling them all are the Apostles, led by Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

Ravenna and Her Mosaics

Peter and Paul lead the procession

Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

The same man who built the Arian Baptistry, King Theodoric the Great, built this as his chapel and dedicated it to Christ the Redeemer in 504. Fifty-some years later Justinian I changed its name to Saint Martin in Golden Heaven and dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours, a foe of Arianism. It earned its present name in the 800s when some relics from Saint Appolinaris were transferred here.

Ravenna and Her Mosaics

I think this basilica could easily be nicknamed for its most memorable feature: The Leaning Tower of Ravenna.

Ravenna and Her Mosaics

Ravenna and Her Mosaics

Ravenna and Her Mosaics

They say Pope Gregory the Great ordered that all the mosaics in the church be blackened. He felt that their “golden glory” distracted worshipers from their prayers.

Ravenna and Her Mosaics

Basilica of San Vitale

The Basilica of San Vitale is the best known and most popular of UNESCO’s eight sites. Its Byzantine mosaics are the largest and best preserved outside of Constantinople, so if you don’t want to go to Turkey, you need to be here.

We had no clue what we were getting into when we walked through its doors, but oh, I’m glad we did. 
Ravenna and Her Mosaics

Oh. my. gosh. They were everywhere, and I mean everywhere. Wherever we looked we saw mosaics. They were on the floors, on the walls, on the arches, and on the ceilings. And they were all so exquisite we didn’t know where to look.

Ravenna and Her Mosaics

Ravenna and Her Mosaics

Ravenna and Her Mosaics

Ravenna and Her Mosaics

Mosaic of Jesus and angels, Basilica of San Vitale

Dan had a really hard time knowing where to focus his camera as well.

Mosaics cover the walls and ceilings in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna

Ravenna and Her Mosaics

Stand in an archway and look straight up, and this is what you’ll see. 

And not only mosaics, but fabulous paintings as well.

Ravenna and Her Mosaics

Dome, Basilica of San Vitale

Must. Visit.

Dan tried, he really did, but photos just can’t do justice to the city’s mosaics. I am sure you’ll agree if you get an opportunity to visit yourself.

In the meantime, please go through our Ravenna photo gallery and let us know what you think. We have photos of the city itself, the mosaic museum, Dante’s Tomb, some pretty churches, and of course, a whole lot more mosaics. Oh, and food. There’s always food. View our best photos from Ravenna here.

large unesco logo The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated certain places in the world as of outstanding cultural or natural importance to humanity.
Read more about why Ravenna is a UNESCO Site on their website.
Or if you prefer, enjoy our stories about the UNESCO sites we have been to.
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