Let us explore Ravenna, a wonderfully ancient ‘mosaic’ of art and culture.

The city guards the world’s richest heritage of mosaics from the 5th and 6th century, and eight of its monuments are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Let us discover this magnificent ancient Italian town together.

Deeply rooted in ancient history, Ravenna is truly a ‘mosaic’ of art and culture.

Eight of this town’s monuments are featured in the UNESCO World Heritage list, and here is mankind’s richest collection of mosaics from the 5th and 6th century.


Our exploration begins in Piazza San Francesco, where you can buy a single ticket for all UNESCO sites, and then reach the nearby Basilica di San Francesco, built in the mid-5th century.
This simple structure church has three naves and a brick façade with a strong square bell tower. As it was often the case with churches in Ravenna, this one too had been raised: the Basilica’s original plane was in fact 3.6 metres below the current street level. Visible through a window, there is a 10th century Crypt under the main altar, whose floors are always under water, but we can still admire the floor mosaics of the original church.

In 1321 this Basilica hosted the funerals of the great poet Dante Alighieri, whose bones still rest in the adjacent Dante’s Tomb: a neoclassical style monument with a 1483 bas-relief statue of the Poet, immersed in readings, over his burial urn.

Walking along Via Ginanni, you reach the Piazza Arcivescovado, where you can access the Museo Arcivescovile with its many works of art from the ancient Cathedral and other buildings that have been destroyed. Here you will find the famous Ivory Cathedra, one of the finest pieces of ivory carving of all times, made by 6th century Byzantine artists. The museum also features the Chapel of S. Andrea, decorated with magnificent mosaics. The vault of the narthex is exquisite, with its golden sky of lilies and roses interweaved with 99 species of birds.

In the same area, you can also visit the Orthodox Baptistery, the most ancient monument in Ravenna, built around the end of the 4th century. The simple and unadorned brick exterior hides a magnificent trove of bright mosaics inside. At the centre, a Greek marble and porphyry octagonal baptismal font remade in the 16th century that also has fragments of the original.

Nearby you will find the Dome, Ravenna’s first Cathedral.
Erected in the 5th century, it was rebuilt several times and demolished in 1733, in order to begin construction of the current building, which was completed in 1743. At the corner between Via Rasponi and Via Guerrini is the Rasponi Garden or Garden of Forgotten Herbs, a delectable green open to the public. Its strong walls muffle the sounds of the city, creating a quiet space enhanced by the colours and scents of the herbs, including those listed in apothecaries’ recipe books and those used in Mediterranean cooking. It also has a wonderful view over the Dome and its beautiful round bell tower.



The Basilica of San Vitale, consecrated in 548, is one of the most significant paleo-Christian monuments and has been defined ‘the purest glory of Byzantine art in the West’. Eastern influences dominate here, in fact the Basilica is not divided into three naves, but has a central domed octagonal nucleus resting over eight pillars and arches. High spaces and bright-coloured mosaics catch the eye, covering the vault of the presbytery and the apse. As it enters from the alabaster window, the light shines over marbles, capitals and mosaics.

Near the basilica is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia; she was the sister of Emperor Honorius, who ordered this building around the mid-5th century. It is a small building in the shape of the Latin Cross, whose interior appears wider because of the magnificent mosaics that extend over the upper part of the building going upwards, and providing an effect of great depth, in a delicate and understated atmosphere. This monument is very well conserved and had no alteration over time.

After walking along Via Cavour, you reach Piazza del Popolo, where two pillars support the statues of the patron saints: S. Apollinare and S. Vitale. On the sides you can see: the Town Hall, the Venetian Palace (1444), the Government Palace (18th century), now the Prefecture, and the Public Clock Building.



After leaving Piazza del Popolo, a few minutes’ walk will take you to the Arians Baptistery, a building dating back to the end of the 5th century, when Theoderic was emperor and the Arian faith was the official religion. The dome is entirely decorated with mosaics and its two rounds of frescos depict: the baptism of the Christ with John the Baptist, the personification of the Jordan river and the dove of the Holy Spirit, in the outer ring you can see the empty throne of the Hetoimasia (an iconographic theme showing an empty throne with Christ’s insignia, to signify his second coming to the Earth for the Last Judgement) and the twelve apostles offering crowns.

Now let us go back to Via di Roma, from where we reach the Basilica of S. Apollinare Nuovo.
Its façade boasts a 16th century portico and a cylindrical bell tower. As you walk in, it is impossible not to remain speechless: its beauty is overpowering and you will be admiring the largest and most accomplished surface of mosaics from ancient times.
The basilica has three naves, supported by 24 Greek marble columns with Corinthian capitals and a coffered ceiling dating back from 1611. The mosaics on the walls are spectacular: they look like an illustrated book narrating ancient places, myths and customs through minute, precious details.



Continuing along Via di Roma, you will reach the Palace of Theodoric, a ruin with some brick walls, where fragments of the floor mosaic are still visible. Beyond the Teatro Rasi is the church of Santa Maria in Porto, with its late-Baroque façade, and the town’s Art Museum (MAR), located within the monumental area called Loggetta Lombardesca.
This venue hosts many art exhibitions, as well as a permanent collection of medieval and modern art, it includes a mosaic documentation centre and a collection of contemporary mosaics, from the 50s to the present.

The town exploration would not be complete without a visit to the Basilica of S. Apollinare in Classe, which lies some 8 km from the centre of Ravenna.
Built in the early 6th century, it is one of Ravenna’s best kept and most charming churches. Alone and majestic, it rises over a wide green valley with its red bricks standing out from the grass. It was built by Julian Argentarius, commissioned by archbishop Ursicino over an area that was used as burial grounds between the end of the 2nd and the beginning of the 3rd century.
The church has been described as the greatest example of Paleo-Christian basilica. Despite the vandalism it suffered over the centuries, the church still retains the beauty of its original structure and is admired for its splendid colourful mosaics.
The ‘in classe’ part of the church’s name derives from the ancient Roman city of ‘Civitas Classis’, built within the port defence over the Adriatic commissioned by Caesar Augustus. Towards the end of the 1st century, St. Apollinare arrived in that town and created the first Christian community, becoming its first Bishop. Upon his death, he was buried in the burial grounds outside the city of Classe, where the Basilica is now.

The church has three naves, separated by a double row of 24 magnificent columns, made of horizontally veined Greek marble and crowned with very unusual Byzantine capitals. Along the central nave walls you can see a series of medallions representing the Bishops who lived in Ravenna.
The magnificent apse and triumphal arch are entirely covered with colourful Byzantine mosaics. Alongside the side naves are 10 Greek marble sarcophagi, used to bury bishops from Ravenna.

Let us continue our tour with a visit of the Mausoleum of Theodoric. Located outside the town, in a park not far from the centre, the Mausoleum of Theodoric is the Ostrogoths’ most celebrated funeral monument. It was commissioned around 520 AD as Theodoric the Great’s future tomb, and built in a then uninhabited area, near the necropolis of the Goths.
This building is different from all the other monuments in Ravenna, because it is not made of bricks but rather of blocks of Aurisina stone. In Byzantine times, it was used as a church devoted to the Madonna and named ‘Santa Maria ad Farum’ because of its closeness to a port.
The mausoleum is a ten-sided building, centred like many other Roman mausoleums, it has two floors: the first has ten sides to the outside, with niches covered by solid round arches in each side, and a cross-shaped space inside, possibly used as burial room;

The second is smaller, and can be reached through an outside stairway. It is also a ten-sided structure on the outside, but it becomes round at the level of the frieze. The inside space is also round, with only one crossed arched niche. Today it holds the red porphyry basin that contained the body of the King, whose spoils were removed during the Byzantine rule, and has no covering slab.

The most surprising feature of this building is its roof, formed by a single dome-shaped monolith, also made of Aurisina stone, measuring 10.76 metres in diameter and 3.09 in height, and weighing 230 tons.

It travelled by sea and was hoisted over the building using its twelve loops (eyelets). It is still not clear today, how they managed to position the monolith on top of the building. There are two hypothesis: it could have been placed over the building as this was being constructed, or the architects could have built a sort of dam, a ‘pool’ around the completed mausoleum, carrying the monolith over the top with a raft.

This last visit completes our tour of Ravenna. With the outstanding beauty of its mosaics and architecture, Ravenna is surely one of Italy’s most charming cities.


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