Next time you’ll visit Italy—and we all hope it will be soon—do not bypass Ravenna for the big four (or five).
Ravenna is where it all began. I know that photographs of the mosaics are everywhere, but this is the place where when you see the real thing you are left with you mouth open in marvel.
Ravenna is a small town, pretty, cozy, and welcoming. Not too far from Bologna and Florence. The Adriatic sea is not too far either. It is a reserved town that doesn’t flaunt its jewels. Ravenna is a simple city; simple as the facades of its monuments, which will then amaze you as soon as you set foot inside them.
Entering Ravenna’s famous buildings, I was truly enchanted by the light and the glow of the mosaics: from the outside I never thought they could really be so alluring.
It was in Ravenna that Dante stopped his whereabouts and finished his Divina Commedia—the Paradise they say—because he found ”Paradise” in Ravenna.
Weekend in Ravenna
Below it’s an itinerary to follow to visit the places in Ravenna that have mosaic as their theme, besides wandering about town, which is also worth your time, there are some must see (in that order more or less):
Teodorico Mausoleum first because I drove to Ravenna and the mausoleum is a little before the downtown, it is also easy to park the car right there.
Mausoleum of Theodoric is the only one, among the eight UNESCO World Heritage monuments that does not contain mosaics; it was built by Theodoric in 520. His remains, however, were kept here only until 561.
I really liked this place, as it is surrounded by a beautiful green lawn and creates an extraordinary contrast with the white of the Istrian stone.
The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo—it is not “new”, but is called so, to distinguish it from that of Sant’Apollinare In Classe—was built in 505 at the behest of the Gothic King Theodoric and was originally dedicated to the Arian cult. In 1996 it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The walls in the central nave are completely decorated with mosaics, the dominant color is gold; in the upper part is the oldest mosaic cycle dedicated to the New Testament still existing today. One of the representations inside the Basilica shows the Port of Classe, which at that time was the largest in the Adriatic.
On the same street stop by the “so-called Teodorico Palace;” it may not be his palace, but it is an interesting sight and it is on the way to the next destination anyway.
Basilica di San Francesco and Dante Alighieri Burial Site
The Basilica of San Francesco was built around 450 at the behest of Bishop Neone and dedicated to the apostles Peter and Paul. In the second half of the 11th century this building was demolished and a new church was erected on the same land; in 1261 it passed to the Franciscan order and was dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi.
Below the presbytery, reachable via a double flight of stairs, from a splendid window, there is a view of the crypt, located below sea level and therefore full of water. Imagine a room with floors decorated with extraordinary mosaics, covered with a layer of water in which goldfish are swimming. Really impressive!
To light up the crypt you need to insert 1€ coin, but it is absolutely worth
In this Basilica in 1321 the funeral of Dante Alighieri was celebrated, whose remains now rest in the adjacent tomb.
Dante burial place was closed for renovations. Next year it marks the 700 anniversary of his death. Big celebrations are planned for the occasion.
Then, it was also raining the proverbial cats & dogs, it was impossible to do anything else but wait for the weather to become less inclement.
Chapel of Sant’Andrea
Chapel of Sant’Andrea is the only example of an early Christian archbishop’s chapel that has survived to the present day. It was built in 495 by Bishop Peter II, as a private place of prayer for the Ravenna bishops of the time, when the dominant cult was the Arian one.
This wonderful place is located inside the Archiepiscopal Museum, structured on two floors: I never expected the Chapel of St. Andrew to be so beautiful. It has a ceiling completely decorated with mosaics—truly fabulous—and is divided into two parts: in the first part, from which you enter, a golden sky is depicted in which various types of colorful birds float; in the second part, however, the symbols of the four evangelists are represented.
While entering I was immediately warned that pictures are not allowed. Many religious site have this imposition, which is really unfair in my modest opinion. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site after all.
I could have included an image downloaded from Google, but I prefer to use my own images. The mosaics are wonderful anyway.
The Neonian (or Orthodox) Baptistery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was commissioned by Bishop Urso in the 5th century, but was named after his successor, Bishop Neone, who had the interior decorated with splendid mosaics.
The baptism of Christ is depicted in the center, immersed in the waters of the Jordan River; this is the first time I saw a depiction of Christ without the ”perizonium.”
Usually Christ is depicted with the “perizonium (Latin term derived from the Greek “loincloth”, περίζωμα, peri “around” and zoma “belt, side”, in the Christian context is also called linteus, cloth of purity or Holy cloth in reference to its figurative use for Christ on the cross ) is a type of underwear that originated in the Minoan civilization in Crete.
All around the figure of Christ the figures of the twelve apostles.
Domus of the Stone Carpets
The Domus dei Tappeti di Pietra, brought to light in 1993 in a completely fortuitous way during some works in Via d’Azeglio, is one of the most important Italian archaeological sites discovered in recent decades; at the time an entire complex of Roman and Byzantine building structures emerged, but the most interesting turned out to be a small building consisting of fourteen rooms and three courtyards, as its floors were decorated with mosaics and marble inlays.
But, at this point I want to mention the mosaics of Aquileia that are visible under the big bell tower from the Basilica. I dare say that Aquileia mosaics are in serious competition with the one’s of the Domus
At the end of this beautiful day I stopped for dinner at the Mercato Coperto. It is a place on the same guidelines of Eataly, with many corners where to eat, but with more space. Here you can find a lot of foodstuffs like flour—every kind of flour present on this planet–and a lot more also, like prosciutto, pizza, wine and everything good.
There are plenty of places to eat in this neighborhood, but I opted for the very nice restaurant at Mercato Coperto.
Then I walked to San Vitale and Galla Placidia just to check it out.
I started the day after with the mausoleum of Galla Placidia and San Vitale.
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia was commissioned by the empress in the fifth century, but it was never used as she was buried in Rome.
Elia Galla Placidia (in Latin: Aelia Galla Placidia), born in Constantinople, 388/392 (approximately), and died in Rome, November 27, 450), was a Roman Empress, daughter of Emperor Theodosius I (who reigned from 378 to 395) and his second wife Galla.
Outside, the monument, also included in the UNESCO World Heritage list, has a truly modest appearance, pretty and small, but upon entering one is catapulted into another dimension.
The place is suggestive, the walls all covered in splendid mosaics representing a starry sky, the small windows allow the right amount of light to make the atmosphere truly special.
You can only stay inside for a few minutes, as it is very smalll and even prior COVID regulations, you cannot enter more than a certain number of people. I stayed with my nose up for the duration of the visit, I couldn’t have enough of the sight.
Basilica of San Vitale
Basilica di San Vitale (right next to Galla Placidia), founded by Giuliano Argentario on the orders of Bishop Ecclesio, was later consecrated by Archbishop Maximian in 548; today it is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. I think it is the monument that best expresses the concept I wanted to convey to you at the beginning of the post. It is located in a complex surrounded by a beautiful green lawn, where peace and tranquility reign; the exterior is simple and bare, but when you get inside, well,… there are no words to describe the magnificence.
The Basilica is divided into two parts, which together create a perfect union: one painted with a wonderful fresco, the other with a series of phenomenal mosaics.
Again, no words, nor my pictures are enough to describe this magnificent place.
The Arian Baptistery was built at the end of the 5th century at the behest of Theodoric. The monument, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is about 2.3 meters underground. The interior is decorated with mosaics only in the dome where, in the central part, the baptism of Christ surrounded by the twelve apostles is depicted.
It was unfortunately closed when I visited.
Dinner with pre-aperitivo was at Albergo Cappello. They have a beautiful restaurant with an inner court—while aperitivo can be served on the table in the main street so to admire “il passeggio,” or to look at the locals taking their evening promenades.
Albergo Cappello occupies one of the most interesting Renaissance buildings in Ravenna. Popular tradition wanted Francesca da Polenta, wife of Giangiotto Malatesta, the unfortunate lover of Dante’s Comedy, to be born here, but the palace of Guido Minore da Polenta, her father, was near Porta Ursicina (now Porta Sisi) and above all the house, current seat of the hotel, is about two centuries later. In fact, it dates back to the 15th century at the time of the dominion of Venice over the city (1431–1509).
My stay in Ravenna was at the Ostello Galletti Abbiosi which I strongly recommend. Do not be put off by the name “Hostel” it is actually a Palazzo! A former orphanage beautifully restored, it is very well located, just a short walk from e erything—well Ravenna is not big. At the reception a friendly chap, also offered the hotel bikes if I wanted to ride all the way to Classe, because, he said, Classe is not far at all.
I declined also because of untrusting weather. Classe is just a 15 minutes by car away.
Off to Classe
Sant’Apollinare in Classe
I saw the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe for the first time a very long time ago, perhaps I was still in grammar school during a school trip. My memories of it faded a long time ago, but i do remenber being astonished in observing all that wonder. At that age you a child is captured by colors, shapes, and figures, but never have a complete perception of what lies in front of him/her. I had Ravenna in my list of places to visit for a very long time.
It is located in a large green area (… with some bronze cows grazing on it 😄), from which it can be admired in all its grandeur.
The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe rises grand and solemn (about 8 km from the center of Ravenna). It was built by Giuliano Argentario on the orders of Archbishop Ursicino during the first half of the sixth century, on a previous cemetery area in use between the end of the 2nd and the beginning of the 3rd century, where the proto-bishop Apollinare himself seems to have been buried.
The church has been called the greatest example of an early Christian basilica. Despite the spoliation suffered over the centuries, the church still preserves the beauty of the original structure and is admired for the splendid polychrome mosaics of its apsidal basin and the ancient marble sarcophagi of the archbishops located along the side aisles.
Of course it is on the UNESCO list!
Ravenna Down Town
I bought tickets online for the sites. I found a little puzzling that they ask to specify the times as well, which for me was impossible to figure it out; i had questions such as “… how long am I going to stay inside Galla Placidia, before proceeding to San Vitale? is an half hour enough, or too much?” or “how far is the Battistero Neoniano? is 20 minutes enough? … do I want to go from one to another,… or do I want to stop for a break?” All important unanswered questions! 😉
In fact, my timing was all wrong, even the day in one occasion, but they accomodated me all the time very kindly, courtesy of COVID that limited the influx of tourists.
I also now realize how lucky I was to have it all for myself or almost.
In any case Ravenna should get on top of your traveling list.