Visit: Ravenna

ARTIST: Unknown

ARTWORK: Mausoleum of Falla Placid, Basilica of San Vitale, Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Leonian Bapistery

DATE: c. 500's


LOCATION: Ravenna, Italy

Ravenna's town center was a pleasant surprise. It is closed off to cars and invites people to walk and pedal around the city. The streets are clean, quiet, and have street signs decorated with mosaic. The entire revitalization of this community seems to revolve around the amazing art and architecture that, back in its heyday, proudly announced the Christian religion to the world using a specialized art of mosaics. In all, Ravenna houses eight early Christian monuments dating from the 5th and 6th centuries that are so well preserved and of such high caliber that they are designated UNESCO world heritage sites.

GETTING THERE: Getting to Ravenna via the train will likely require all train travelers change trains in either Bologne or Ferrara. Bologna's train depot is clean, large, impressive, and has free toilets. Ferrara's train depot is very small and customer services stop fairly early in the evening. Ferrara requires coinage to use toilets BUT they are not open all night - one might be forced to use a lingering train's toilet! [NOTE: Always get your open tickets stamped/validated by the machines near the counters - we saw someone forced to pay a $35.00 fine on the train who didn't know to stamp their ticket!]

Upon arrival to Ravenna it is a short walk to the UNESCO sites. Just follow either of the main streets out of the station (Farini or Carducci) and there will soon be white arrow shaped signs that point to the sites. You'll need to purchase a ticket at an Information Center (signs will direct you there) or gift shop to enter the sites (one ticket = five sites) and they will then give you a map. This trip is totally walkable, but if I were to do it again, I'd rent a bicycle for added adventure.

ABOUT RAVENNA: Ravenna's rise is due to Caesar Augustus who, in 1 CE, reorganized his empire and chose Ravenna (known back then as Classe) as the port for his East Mediterranean fleet - perhaps the strongest fleet in the Empire. The location of Ravenna was able to provide Rome with a defense against attacks from the north and a launch post to the Adriatic Sea. In 402, Ravenna became the capital of the Western Roman Empire where it remained until Rome fell in 476. The artworks that make Ravenna an UNESCO world heritage site are largely due to the occupation of Theodoric the Great. Theodoric was the king of the Ostrogoths who ruled over the Romans and Goths from 493 - 526 CE soon after the fall of Rome. The Byzantines took Ravenna in 540 and many of the works begun under the Goths was finished under the Byzantine ruler, Emperor Justinian.

Ravenna, between then and now, was reduced to the rank of an outlying village with no particular cultural life of its own. Gladly, it is currently undergoing a cultural revolution largely due to UNESCO and I highly recommend a trip to Ravenna. I simply cannot think of another place where one might witness such a commitment to the art of mosaics.


Consecrated on April 19, 547.

The exterior of this basilica has the regular Romanesque characteristics of rounded windows and a short/squatty appearance, with the baptistery and bell tower as separate buildings. Its thick walls are supported by newly emerging technology: the flying buttress.

The Basilica of San Vitale, from the time of Justinian, is one of the most spectacular examples of Byzantine architecture in Italy. It combines elements from both the Western and Eastern traditions and has several interesting anomalies. Most evident, is that it has an octagonal shape rather than a traditional nave layout. Inside, the central apse and presbytery vault are densely covered with mosaics, however, the central core is dominated by a dome that is supported by arches and column that is, to my surprise, adorned with fresco! This painted area was made in 1780 -- over 1,000 years after the mosaics were created. Somehow the merge of the paint vs. mosaic flow seamlessly together but I can't help but feel intense awe for the laborious task of the mosaic makers (even though I am a painter). Furthermore, the light that shimmers on the edge of the broken mosaic tiles provide a living pulse that is not as evident in the fresco, which I suppose was the charm of using mosaics in the first place. The true glory of this building relies on the intricate patterns and designs found in the mosaics central apse.

Central Apse area (ALL mosaics!) with a definite feeling of vertical importance:

Frescoed Dome area (= fresco!) :

The Church was begun by the Orthodox bishop of Ravenna, Ecclesius (522-32), shortly after the death of Theodoric in 526. The details in the imagery also have some anomalies, including both a beardless (young) and a bearded (older) Jesus; highly decorated capitals that are not of a Classical order (Doric, Ionic or Corinthian); and a prominently featured emperor (Justinian) and his showgirl wife (Theodora) depict a reassertion of Eastern Imperial control and the Orthodox religion. Interestingly, Justinian never visited Ravenna. Here are some detail shots:

Here are some cell phone videos (by Joe Curcio):


425 - 450 CE

Located just across the courtyard of the Basilica of San Vitale. It contains the oldest mosaics in Ravenna and features alabaster covered windows and examples of early Christian symbolism (Jesus as Shepherd, Mark as Lion, Luke as Ox, John as Eagle). Jesus is beardless and the chi-rho monogram is highlighted. Chi-rho is the symbol that looks like the English alphabet's P with an X. In Greek, these letters are chi (looks like X) and rho (looks like P). They also happen to be the first two letters of "Christ" in Greek (Christos). Hence the chi-rho monogram is used as a symbol of Christ. [The chi-rho is repeated in many of the artworks mentioned in this blog post.]

The masoleum is in the shape of a Latin cross adorned with simple arches and narrow windows. The bricks are re-used from ancient Roman buildings. Inside there are three tombs made of marble and about seven feet of inlaid marble tile around the base. But like everything in Ravenna, the spectacle is in the mosaics. These begin midway up the wall and continue upward. They slather the ceiling with shimmering broken tiles of colored glass with speckles of gold.

Some say the tombs were not placed in the building until the 14th century. The tomb made for Galla Placid [who has a fascinating biography and is the daughter of Theodosius] is unadorned and empty. Galla was buried in Rome. One of the tombs is for her husband and the other is for her son.

The overall theme of the mausoleum is the triumph of life over death. This is noted in the foliage, deers, and the widely reproduced image below showing doves quenching their thirst:


This Orthodox baptistery is a simple, octagonal brick construction with four niches spreading from the center. Inside, the central well is a repurposed ancient Roman well. The mosaics feature a variety of decorations of empty thrones and open bibles, but are difficult to interpret. The central image illustrates the baptism of Christ. Here, Jesus is shown waist high in the River Jordan (which is stunningly portrayed). John the Baptist is wearing his traditional goatskin and holds a patera (a shallow libation bowl) in his right hand and a cross in his left, and is pouring water over Christ's head.

Cell phone video by Joe Curcio:


Consecrated in 504 AD

This basilica was erected by Theodoric the Great as his palace chapel. It has a traditional three nave layout, supported by twenty-four Corinthian style columns. The ceilings are from the early 17th century, but were originally so stunningly adorned with mosaics that it was known as "the golden heavens." This building has been renovated and altered after being being converted to a Catholic entity and having been damaged during World War I. The apse area seems entirely out of kilter with the rest of the interior, but lovely nonetheless.

Of all the buildings I entered in Ravenna, this space felt the biggest - yet the emptiest. The main side walls contain three stacked panels of imagery. The row nearest to the ceiling depict various episodes in the life of Christ and are the oldest images in the building.

The middle row of mosaics is occupied by white-robed standing prophets, 16 on each side. They each have different features and carry a scroll.

The bottom row contains a procession of saints and martyrs moving to the east end of the church, labeled with their names above. On the left (north) side, 22 female martyrs move towards the Virgin and Child, who are surrounded by angels and receive gifts from the Three Magi. On the right (south) side, 26 male martyrs approach Christ Enthroned.

Cell phone video by Joe Curcio:

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