For more than 1500 years, Ravenna has been guarding eight gemstones – eight monuments that were declared Unesco World Heritage in December 1996.
From that moment, Basilica of San Vitale, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Arian Baptistery, Neonian Baptistery, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, St. Andrew Chapel and Mausoleum of Theodoric are not just a heritage of Ravenna, but of all humanity.
Thanks to this two-day itinerary, you will get to know seven of them, the ones that preserve magnificent mosaics, and enjoy two surprises.
Naked and imposing on the outside; marvellous marbles, mosaics, volumes and perspectives on the inside. Erected in the 6th century, the Basilica of San Vitale is a perfect starting point to discover the mosaic tradition in Ravenna, capital of this immortal art for thousands of years.
Designed to witness the grandeur of the Byzantine Empire, and especially of Justinian’s reign, the building stands out for the originality of its spatial solutions, materials and refined and precious decorations.
At a stone’s throw from the basilica, you will find the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia – characterised by the contrast between the simple and humble exterior and the richness of the mosaic in the interior.
Thanks to the light filtering from the alabaster windows, the images manage to convey a mystic atmosphere. The splendid starred vault, that never housed the remains of the empress, captures the eyes of visitors and has inspired poets and musicians of all times.
A little baroque church, nestled amidst the ancient buildings of the historical centre, is the unusual gateway to the underground visit to one of the most important archaeological sites of recent decades – the Domus of the Stone Carpets.
Dating back to the 5th-6th century and accidentally found under layers of other modern, medieval and Roman buildings, it is the most ancient Byzantine residence in Ravenna. It is made up of 14 rooms and two courts, a paved Roman road and marvellous mosaic floors – true stone carpets. The banquet hall is magnificently decorated and hosts one of the most admired decorations: the Dance of the Geniuses of the Seasons.
Like other priceless treasures of Ravenna, the St. Andrew Chapel is well hidden from view. It is located on the first floor of the Archiepiscopal Museum, next to the Cathedral, and is the only Orthodox monument still in existence in the city. The chapel was built under Theodoric’s rule (who was Arian) as a private oratory for Catholic bishops.
All the images made of mosaic, from the one depicting Christ as a warrior, to the Apostles, martyrs and Evangelists, highlight the central figure of Christ in the Catholic orthodoxy.
The chapel was named after St. Andrew after his remains were brought to Ravenna from Constantinople around the middle of the 6th century.
The first day following the paths of mosaics goes on with two other treasures. The Neonian Baptistery is located right next to the Cathedral and is another paleochristian building that witnessed the grandeur of Ravenna during the 5th-6th century.
Both from an architectural and decorative point of view, the building is the best preserved one dating back to that period. The octagonal-shaped baptistery houses in its dome the most ancient mosaic representation of the baptism of the Saviour in a monumental building.
Located in the area that was once occupied by the Goths, the Arian Baptistery has a structure that is similar to the one of the Neonian Baptistery. It was built at the behest of Theodoric for Arianism, which lived together with the Catholic faith in the capital of the Empire – an extraordinary example of tolerance and civilisation.
On the interior, the only well-preserved part is the dome, which is embellished with mosaics depicting the baptism of Christ. The image is also present in the Neonian Baptistery, but it differs from it for the earthly nature of Christ’s figure, as Arianism didn’t embrace the gospel of the Most Holy Trinity and believed that the son of God was a simple man.
The itinerary of the second day starts from the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, located in Via di Roma, along the line that leads to the second stop, in Classe.
Set among ancient buildings and adorned with palm trees, this basilica is simple on the exterior, but – like the other buildings – hides mysterious and suggestive mosaic walls, that miraculously survived the bombings of World War II.
Inside, it is possible to admire one of the world’s most famous series of mosaics dating back to the early Christian and Late Antiquity period – an extraordinary decoration made of millions of tesserae along the entire central nave.
It is a masterpiece of immense value that will allow you to follow the evolution of mosaics from Theodoric’s to Byzantine times and from a stylistic, iconographic and ideological point of view.
The majestic cycle of the New Testament is the most ancient one made of mosaics that has come down to us.
Just outside of Ravenna, in the little town of Classe, there is a majestic basilica built to host the remains of the patron saint of the city, Saint Apollinaris. With its 30-metre-high façade and almost twice as long, it has been defined the greatest basilica of the Early Christian period known today.
The stunning polychrome mosaics are very symbolic and depict, among the others, Saint Apollinaris and God together with a cross studded with gemstones and a sky dotted by 99 silver and golden stars.
After having been elated by colours and decorations, why don’t you try and realise a little and colourful work of art with your own hands?
In Ravenna there are many mosaic laboratories that offer guided tours and the opportunity to learn more about the tradition of this ancient art. What better way to keep a lasting memory of Ravenna than by creating your own souvenir?