We had one long weekend, a bad weather forecast and a demanding toddler, but I planned a trip anyway.
A popular holiday weekend in Italy, flights were prohibitive, trains nearly as much so and long-distance car trips with a car-sick prone baby less than attractive. So I knew we had to stay close to home. We’ve visited much of northern Italy, but there was still one place on my list that I hadn’t yet been to: Ravenna.
It was a tough sell. Sure, Ravenna has pretty art. Sure, a few churches. But in Italy beautiful towns are a dime a dozen. Was Ravenna worth the nearly four-hour drive?
Something told me it was.
Ravenna is a small town near the Adriatic coast. It’s not particularly near to any other major town, so you have to make a specific effort to visit. There are plenty of even smaller nearby towns that make perfect add-ons, but know that Ravenna is at least a 90 minute drive from any other major city: Bologna, Venice, the city-state of San Marino (also in the middle of nowhere).
So why go?
For its mosaics, of course.
Mosaic stonework is one of my favorite artisan crafts. Imagine an intricately laid floor, relief or ceiling with stones the size of your thumbnail fit perfectly together to create a geometrical masterpiece. It’s hard not to be struck.
The capital of the Western Roman Empire for three centuries, from 402 until its collapse in 476, Ravenna is filled to the brim with 5th and 6th century mosaics. In fact, Ravenna is home to eight different UNESCO World Heritage Sites for its magnificent early-Christian mosaics.
I knew the city thrived on this art, but I didn’t completely understand until I saw it for myself. Ravenna’s mosaics aren’t just another stop in a tour of Italian churches. A small town with nice churches, cute. No, they are way way beyond that.
Ravenna’s mosaics are vibrant. They’re enormous. They’re everywhere!
The mosaics are 2,000 years old yet shine as if they were made today. Paintings fade, frescoes fall away and wood panels crack, but these elaborate scenes are still shimmering to this day. Most of the mosaics in churches aren’t made with typical stone, but with cut pieces of glass, so the color doesn’t fade over time. The mosaic shines on.
My knowledge of the process is limited, but you can appreciate just what a process it truly was once you see the incredible detail created with nothing but tiny bits of glass, gold leaf and a lifetime of patience.
The artisans made the design, calculated how many pieces of glass was needed, created the color, cut the pieces and then carefully put them together again piece-by-piece in massive designs that cover the basilicas’ ceilings.
Here is where to find them:
Start in the city center with a ticket from the Religious Works of the Diocese. It covers 6 different mosaic locations:
The Basilica di San Vitale
The Basilica di San Vitale is Ravenna’s most-visited site and one of its UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Technically only an honorary basilica, entitled so for its “exceptional historic and ecclesial importance”, the Basilica’s mosaics are the largest and best preserved Byzantine mosaics outside of Istanbul. The entire apse and altar area is still covered by the original mosaics. The only church from this time period that has remained intact and unchanged, it’s also drop-dead gorgeous. If there is only one mosaic that you see in the city, make it San Vitale.
The Galla Placidia Mausoleum
Galla Placidia was the daughter, sister, wife, and mother of Roman emperors. She was empress-in-charge of Ravenna and is largely the reason for many of the city’s beautiful architecture works and mosaics. Her mausoleum was built in the mid-fifth century next to the San Vitale Basilica. The mosaics are some of the oldest in the city. They cover every square inch of the ceiling and apses of the never-used mausoleum (in the end, Galla was buried in Rome). Still, the atmosphere is undeniable — even with tourists packed in like stones in a mosaic. Small, dense but detailed, the cupola’s glimmering stars are more beautiful than the nighttime sky.
Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo
Unassuming on the outside, Byzantine style mosaics run the length of both walls near the ceiling. Originally a Palatine church, the mosaics reflect its history under Arian leader Theodoric (Arians believing that Jesus Christ was the son of God separate from him and thus not a part of the Holy Trinity. It was declared heretic, but nonetheless followed by the Goth King Theodoric). You can see this in the two different Jesus’ depicted. On the left wall you’ll see 13 small mosaics, depicting Jesus’ miracles and parables along with a young, beardless Jesus dressed in Roman styles. On the right wall are 13 mosaics depicting the Passion and Resurrection with a bearded Jesus, reflecting Arian cult beliefs that Jesus aged.
Archiepiscopal Museum and the Chapel of Sant’Andrea
Located in the Archiepiscopal Palace, this small museum houses artworks and decorations salvaged from the ancient city cathedral and other since-demolished buildings. Though you can visit it in about a half an hour, explore every narrow hallway or else you might miss out on the real draw: St. Andrew’s Chapel. The tiny, cross-shaped chapel is the smallest of the Ravenna’s UNESCO World Cultural Heritage listed sites but also the only Early Christian private chapel that has survived to the present day. It was built during the reign of Theodoric as a private chapel for Catholic bishops when Arianism was the main religion of the court.
This octagonal brick baptistery is one of the oldest monuments in the city. The inside is decorated in tiers. The lowest tier is marble, the second stucco designs and the final tier and ceiling intricate Hellenic-Roman mosaics. The dome shows a detailed imagine of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus in the river, with a dove representing the Holy Spirit. It’s also known as the Orthodox Baptistery, to separate itself from the Arian Baptistery.
Quick History Lesson: Arianism is the view that Christ was created by the Father and thus inferior to him. Orthodox Christianity holds Christ as equally important, as he’s made of the same substance of the father. Arianism was deemed heresy in 325, but it was nonetheless followed by the Gothic King Theordoric. Shortly after Ravenna’s Neonian Baptistery was built Theodoric built a new Arian cathedral (today it’s the Spirito Santo Basilica) with its own Baptistery.
The Arian Baptistery is strikingly similar to the Neonian Baptistery. Pay attention to the image of Christ, who is featured beardless and notably younger than the bearded Christ in the Neonian Baptistery.
The Baptistery is near to Sant’Apollinare Nuovo AND admission is only 1 euro!
Sant’Apollinare in Classe
Located roughly 5 miles from the city center of Ravenna, it’s said that Saint Apollinare – one of the first bishops of Ravenna – is buried here. A UNESCO Site as another example of impressive Early Christian art and architecture, here you’ll find traces of the continued battle between Orthodoxy and Arianism. It’s simple design is offset by the always-beautiful mosaics. You’ll see a cross in a sky of blue in the apse, a detailed mosaic meadow in the nave and replications throughout the church of the Evangelists, the apostles, the transfiguration of Christ and the four bishops who founded the main basilicas in Ravenna, including Sant’Apollinare in the center of the apse.
Tutta Avventura del Mosaico (TAMO) is a museum dedicated to the history of mosaics located in a 14th-century monastery. It’s the perfect introduction to the world of mosaics. The itineraries guide you through the making of mosaics and multimedia services explain the mosaics’ iconography and techniques. One section is dedicated to Dante Alighieri, with 21 thematic mosaics commissioned from contemporary Italian artists.
The Domus dei Tappeti di Pietra
The House of Stone Carpets, located under the Church of Sant’Eufemia, was a relatively recent archeological find and one of the most important Italian archeological site of this decade. Small and inexpensive, you’ll descend underground to see the elegant geometric mosaic patterns of a 5th-century Byzantine home. You can see how mosaics were infused into every day life, what was deemed beautiful at the time. These aren’t your gold-encrusted, sparkling glass mosaics, but real, meant-to-be-walked-upon mosaics that we can still see centuries later.
Want to explore all of Ravenna, mosaics and more? Read A Guide to Ravenna to plan your trip!