The Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna, in northern Italy, are a major tourist attraction. Spread across eight buildings from the early Christian period, these magnificent artworks are now part of one of Emilia-Romagna’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Early Christianity In Ravenna
Ravenna played a crucial part in western civilisation during the 5th and 6th centuries, first as the capital of the Western Roman Empire (from 402 until the fall of the empire in 476) and then as a centre of the Ostrogoth empire under King Theodoric.
Gallia Placidia, sister of the Roman Emperor Honorious, settled in the city and made it a centre of Christian art and culture. Under her patronage many religious buildings were constructed and decorated with fine mosaics, and this work continued into the Ostrogoth period.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Eight of Ravenna’s Christian buildings from this period were designated as part of a World Heritage Site in 1996. Most of these include mosaics from the Roman and Byzantine traditions. The most important are:
- The magnificent Basilica di San Vitale, built in the middle of the 6th century and featuring mosaics commissioned by the Archbishop Maximian. These include depictions of local dignitaries such as the Emperor Justinian. The ornate presbytery shows the Lamb of God and four angels surrounded by a profusion of animals, birds and flowers.
- The Mausoleo di Galla Placida, in the grounds of San Vitale. Despite the name, and the presence of three sarcophagi, it is not known whether the building was originally intended (or used) as a mausoleum. Built in the shape of a Greek cross, it is one of the best preserved monuments. The interior is covered with mosaics, including famous scenes featuring the Good Shepherd and Saint Lawrence. The ceiling is tiled like the night sky: dark blue with hundreds of stars and a golden cross.
- The Battistero Neoniano, the oldest monument in the city. Built on the site of a Roman bath-house around the end of the 4th century, the building was finished and the mosaics added by Bishop Neon a century later. It features a ceiling mosaic of John the Baptist baptising Jesus in the Jordan River.
- The Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, built as a palace chapel for King Theodoric in the 6th century. Some of its mozaics were later destroyed for reasons of religious orthodoxy but two walls survive. The scenes here include processions of martyrs and virgins, as well as illustrations of parables and miracles.
- The tiny Capella di Sant’Andrea, housed within the Museo Arcivescovile. The museum has a number of other exhibits including the Byzantine ivory throne of the Archbishop Maximian.
Opening times and other information about all of the above can be found on the official tourism site. The other heritage sites in Ravenna are:
- The Battistero degli Ariani, built by King Theodoric as an alternative baptistry for Arian Christians. The wall mosaics no longer exist but there is a baptism scene in the dome.
- The Mausoleo di Teodorico, just outside the city, where King Theodoric was buried.
- Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe, a 6th century basilica a little way from Ravenna.
You may also like to visit the Domus dei Tappetti di Pietra (House of Stone Carpets), below the Chiesa di Sant’Eufemia, where you can see the remains of the mosaic floor of a Byzantine palace.
Ravenna has good rail connections, and it makes a good day trip from Rimini or Bologna. If you have spare time in the city, you could also explore the sites connected with the poet Dante in Ravenna.