The Stunning Ravenna Mosaics
Ravenna in Northern Italy flies pretty much under the radar unless you are massively into history or Byzantine art. I might be leaning out of the window by saying that the Ravenna Mosaics are one of the most stunning, most beautiful ensembles of religious art and architecture in the world and definitely visit-worthy – and besides: Ravenna is a beautiful destination in its own right, so if you are planning a trip to Northern or Central Italy, it would be foolish not to visit at least one or two of the UNESCO World Heritage listed late Roman and Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna.
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A bit of History
Okay, just to say that this is the history according to how I learned it at school in Socialist Eastern Germany and later in Western Germany and I appreciate different views might exist. The Ravenna Mosaics are considered Early Christian art of the late Roman and early Byzantine era. For us Europeans, the Classic Greek period and the Roman Republic and later Empire are a big deal, since we believe our European “civilisation” is based on these two periods in history, when architecture, science and the arts made huge leaps. It is also necessary to know that these periods, especially Rome, were associated with terrible cruelty, war and persecution of religion.
The Roman Empire, having grown from a kingdom to a republic to an Empire over the course of a millenium had grown so large at the beginning of the common era, that it became a bit difficult to administer and rule. Emperor Diocletian therefore started the division of the vast Empire in 286, and over the next century the Empire was divided into the Western Empire, including today’s Italy, part of Germany and Austria, Hungary and the Balkans as well as Gaul, with Latin as the official language and Catholic Christianity as the major religion, and the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire, comprising today’s Greece, Turkey, the Holy Land, and parts of Egypt, with Greek as the main language and Orthodox Christianity as the major religion.
Ravenna became the capital of the Western Roman Empire in 402 and was the residence of the Western Roman Emperor until the Fall of Rome in 476 following decades of invasion by neighbouring “Barbarian” tribes. Odoaker of Western Roman descent, briefly became king if Italy after some deals with the “barbarians”, but before the end of the century the Ostrogoths captured large parts of the former Empire and Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, became King of Italy and formed a Gothic superstate, all watched but tolerated by Byzantium, which survived a millenium longer than the Western Empire. Later, Byzantium decided to invade Italy and Ravenna fell under Byzantine rule under Emperor Justinian I who briefly granted Ravenna autocephaly from the Rome and the pope. So, you can find Western Roman, Ostrogoth and Byzantine remains in Ravenna! Byzantine rule in Ravenna came to an end in 751 when the Lombards, a Germanic tribe, captured most of the Italian peninsula.
How to visit the stunning Ravenna Mosaics
The Ravenna mosaics are in situ in churches, chapels, baptisteries, and in one case in the Archepiscopal Palace, so all places of historical or present Christian worship. This means they are indoors, usually in a quiet cool atmosphere, but can get very crowded.
My advice would be to start either at Basilica di San Vitale or at the Archepiscopal Museum, buy your ticket there and make a reservation to visit the Battisterio Neoniano and the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia – both being tiny structures with a timed-entry policy.
There are eight monuments inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage as the “Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna”. Seeing the 5 UNESCO listed sites managed by the Archdiocese of Ravenna costs just 12 Euro and is easily done in a short day – or a long one if you like to linger.
For reasons unbeknown to me, the Arian Baptistery appears to be managed by the city of Ravenna and costs 3 Euro to visit. The Basilica di Sant’ Apollinare in Classe is also inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage, but is much less visited and will cost an extra 6 Euro to visit – just pay at the door. Last not least, the tomb of Ostrogoth King Theodoric looks austere and completely free from mosaics and sits in its own little park, and costs 5 Euro to visit.
Most of these sights are a short walk from each other in central Ravenna. The mausoleum of Theodoric is a 10-minute cycle ride outside inte centre, and one of the basilicas is in Classe, a large village about 6km from central Ravenna.
Ravenna Mosaics sites, listed in order of preference
Okay, not wanting to take favourites of Ravenna Mosaics here, but some really are more impressive/easier to visit/ bigger than others. So, if you just had a couple of hours to visit one site, I suggest you head to the Basilica di San Vitale and the adjacent Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. It gets very busy, so it’s best to start as soon as they open at 9 or visit in the late afternoon. The ticket shop is about 100m down the road on Via Giuliano Argentario.
Basilica di San Vitale
We are not going in chronological order here, as this impressive basilica was built and completed under the Ostrogoths just before 550 C.E. Julius Argentarius, a banker and architect, donated funds for the basilica to be built. It was consecrated as a Catholic chapel and was once completely decked out in mosaics, of which only the altar and apsis ones are preserved, but these ones are stunners. Even though guides say they are made from “rather large tess
erae” – you admire them from quite far away, and the colours are just stunning. Incredibly fine and full of details – flowers, angels, the lamb of god, and, later, after Byzantium conquered Ravenna, portraits of Emperor Justinian I and his wife, Theodora.
In terms of practicality, this is probably the most visited site of Ravenna, and it gets very full. Visit early in the morning or in the late afternoon. It is possible to spend as long as you wish inthe basilica, but there are very few places to sit and it feels rather like a train station hall and is, sadly, not terribly contemplative.
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
A mere 70 metres from San Vitale stands the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. It predates San Vitale by about hundred years and although it looks like a chapel, it was intended as a Mausoleum for the Western Roman Empress Galla Placidia. SInce she died while visiting Rome, she never got buried here, so the mausoleum is practically a Chapel and now dedicated to St. Lawrence, a Christian Martyr. The stunning mosaics cover the chapel completely and were added after the death of the Empress – depicting St Lawrence, Jesus as a shepherd, eight of the Twelve Apostles and doves and deer – and one of the most beautiful antique starry skies.
This one isn’t a bunch of fun to visit either because it is tiny and quite low and is a bit claustrophobic when at full capacity. Add to that that many visitors cannot keep their gob shut and it’s not a place for quiet contemplation either.
Ravenna Cathedral with Cappella Arcivescovile di Sant’Andrea and Battisterio Neoniano
The second location you should head to is the Cathedral of Ravenna. While the Cathedral is very pleasant and holds an important revered Madonna image, the stunning mosaics are in the adjacent Baptisterium of Neon (Battisterio di Neoniano), sometimes also called the Orthodox Baptistry. You can buy tickets here easily and get time slots for the to timed entry places – much shorter queues here than at San Vitale where all the groups seem to be heading first.
I am lumping all three together because they are literally 50 metres from each other and part of the same ensemble. The first building at this site was the Battisterio, built as a ROman BAth but made a Baptisterium by Bishop Neon in 452 C.E. who had the stunning mosaics added, depicting the baptism of Jesus Christ, surrounded by the Twelve Apostles and the river Jordan, with eight depictions of altars and Evangelium books below – altogether, symbolizing the picture of the Christian Church which one enters upon baptism.
The mosaics are stunningly preserved and detailed and colourful.
Then take some refuge in the cool and pleasant cathedral. It has been in existence since the 5th Century, when Ravenna became the capital of the Western Roman Empire and the Bishop’s residence was moved to Ravenna from nearby Classe. However in it’s current incarnation, it’s an early 18th Century Baroque church devoid of ancient mosaics, with a pleasant atmosphere and always playing some music – either live or taped.
Last not least, don’t miss the Archepiscopal Palace right next to the Cathedral. The museum is small, but holds one more mosaic stunner. The Chapel of Saint Andrew. It was built inside the Archepiscopal Palace as private oratory for the Bishop of Ravenna around 500 C.E.
One of the mosaics depicts shows Jesus s Christ dressed up as a Roman warrior (which he obviously never was) – evidence of a strong Arian stylistic influence. What’s really striking are the naturalistic depictions of doves, fowl and other birds, interspersed with flowers
The paintings inside the chapel are about a millenium older and 16th Century.
The Apollinaris Churches: Sant’ Apollinare in Classe and Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo
Moving on swiftly to two of the larger churches, one a short walk from the train station,the other one a bus or cycle ride away in Classe, Ravenna’s ancient port.
Let’s start with Sant’Apollinare Classe, the older of the two. Classe is the ancient port of Ravenna, no longer by the sea due to silting. The basilica, following ROman tradition of a three-nave Basilica, was consecrated in 546 CE and is dedicated to Saint Apollinarius. The saint who lived around 200 C.E. to some and around 50 C.E. to other sources, is said to have hailed from Antioch, and was made a bishop by St Peter, the first Bishop of Rome – but numbers don’t quite add up here as St. Peter was martyred around 67 C.E. Anyway… he is responsible for many miracles and the patron saint not just of Ravenna but also of Dusseldorf and Remagen in Germany. His relics were brought to Ravenna and this basilica was built to provide an appropriate home for them.
The basilica is huge and very nice to visit. The only mosaics that are preserved are some monumental ones in the apsis showing Saint Apollinaris among a flock of sheep and a bucolic green landscape, full of symbolism.
Most striking is the huge golden cross, flanked by Moses and Elijah. A bit further down, looking up from a verdant garden, three lambs, said to be the Apostles Peters, Jacob and John, and topped with stunning fish in a sea of gold, with the Hand of God in the middle, symbolizing the transfiguration of Christ . Underneath, Saint Apollinaris with twelve sheep, and higher up, in the triumphal arch in the gable, Jesus in a rather grotty looking mood, with more lambs symbolizing the Twelve Apostles and the symbols of the four Evangelists, a recurring theme in Ravenna’s Byzantine mosaics, depicting St John (eagle), St Matthew (winged man), St Mark (lion) and St. Luke (bull). The latter are thought to be added later, possibly as late as 12th Century.
In the side of the narthex are further mosaics, which appear a little less stunning than the gold-and-green apsis. First, the archangels Michael and Gabriel, then, set between the windows, the ecclesiastical celebrities of Ravenna.
A lot to take in, and it’s easy to hang around this one, too.Again, most people don’t bother with this magnificent basilica but we had a school class, neatly divided into two groups,a snot to cause too much disruption for the sprinkling of other visitors.
Its newer incarnation in town was originally built at the behest of Kind Theodoric and dedicated to Jesus Christ. After the recapture by the Byzantines, Arianism was considered heresy, the basilica swiftly rededicated to Saint Martin and it’s original “Arian” mosaigs retouched to include portraits of Justinian and any undesirable people covered by mosaic curtains.
What survived the Theodoric period were the reliefs of the nave, one showing an assortment of male martyrs including St Martin and St Lawrence. The other side shows female martyrs. 19th Century restaurations altered the mosaics fairly liberally as well.
Here are parts of the Arian martyrs with a palace, its former occupants obscured by curtains added under Justinian – just a couple of faint hands can be seen as evidence of the former occupants.
Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo is a very short walk from the train station and you could even see it if you just had an hour to spare – not that I would recommend that – take at least a half day for Ravenna. Of all the “mosaic churches” it is perhaps the least impressive, not least because of its mishmash of styles from nearly two centuries of constant alterations. Most visitors don;t seem to bother, which makes this one quiet and at times you have it almost to yourself.
Battisterio degli Ariani
Last not least, another inconspicuous little building, hidden behind a row of shops, less than 5 minutes walk from the train station. If you have seen the massive mosaic-covered basilicas by now, you might shrug and wonder whether to bother at all.
So, this little building was a relatively “late” addition to Ravenna’s religious buildings. Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, commissioned it along with the Church of Spirito Santo next door, which was considered the main Arian church of Ravenna. It is debatable whether it was dedicated for the Arian Christians ( an early form of Christianity based on the teachings of Arius, who rejected some of the dogmata from the Nicene Council. It is said that many of the Germanic /”Barbaric” tribes in Europe were christianized under Arian Christianity, but this remains open to debate as the more naturalistic depiction of the baptism of Jesus Christ isn’t clearly considered a distinctive Arian style.
It’s a relatively quiet monument, and quite bare except for the beautiful ceiling mosaic. Again, there is nowhere to sit, so it’s not really that inviting to spend too much time in,a lthough it is relatively little visited, no need for a times entry ticket. It was free to visit until a few years ago, now the guardian will find you and charge you 3 Euro to enter.
How to get to Ravenna
Since Ravenna has limited its through traffic, it makes sense to not bother with a car and use the train. There are direct trains to Bologna and Rimini at least every hour. It’s easy to travel to Florence, Padua and Venice in under two hours. Regional trains are clean, extremely cheap and fast enough, and unless you want to visit places like Cervia, Comacchio or Chioggia, you will not need a car.
We hired a car for a day from Ravenna to go to the Po Delta and Chioggia, but really didn’t miss a car otherwise. We hired our car through Booking.com, getting all the insurance we could get, and paid about 70 Euro per day. The car hire company was Noleggiare. Despite some online reviews, we found them friendly and reliable, our car, a souped-up Fiat Cinquecento, was new and clean. They are based along with some other car hire offices in Via Adria in the Darsena area, an easy 10-minute walk from the train station.
Where to stay in Ravenna
Ravenna is relatively small and walkable. You can stay fairly central to the sights or in one of the Adria beach suburbs. Since we came for the mosaics, we stayed just outside the ancient city walls, a 15-minute walk but a mere 3-minute bicycle ride from the city centre where most of the “mosaic churches” are located.
Yes, we cycle, and that was another argument for Ravenna. It is one of the most cycling -friendly towns I have come across: bicycle shops with great repair service at every corner, city centre closed to motorized traffic, cycle paths that don’t stop abruptly… and easy cycle hire. So… if you love to cycle, then consider staying where we stayed, at the B and B Al Borgo
B&B Al Borgo
We spent four nights at this family guesthouse, located around a courtyard just outside the city centre. The owning family lives on site and looks after the property superbly – lovely little rooms in a coach house, a wonderful green courtyard garden, cats, a dog, tortoises! A little perfect world paradise. Rooms were somewhat on the small side but perfectly appointed, nicely decorated, and you’d want to spend time lounging in the garden anyway. A lovely breakfast every morning and free bicycles for hire make this reasonably priced guesthouse (around 65 Euro for a double) the best value for money. Being outside the city centre, you’ll still have some nice cafe bars, an excellent pizzeria, and a lovely fruit and cheese shop just down the road.
My second favourite, this charming Bed and Breakfast in an aristocratic-style setting has rooms for around 80-90 Euros per night including breakfast. Sat on the edge of the city centre, you can walk comfortably everywhere including the train station. The large rooms are decorated with antique furniture but have all mod cons including air condition and tea and coffee making equipment (a rarity in Italy).
La Maison du Theatre
If you are looking for somewhere super central, look no further than La Maison du Theatre. This is a small tastefully decorated apartment in a historical building, a stone’s throw from the theatre, cafes, restaurants, and a 5-minute walk to the train station. You will have access to a full kitchen also,a nd there is a generous shared salon and the option to store luggage at the property. Expect to pay 90-110 Euro per night.
Where to eat in Ravenna
Honestly, wherever you go, chances are that you will be eating really well. Maybe avoid anything within a 100m radius from San Vitale and you should be fine.
We went to Pizza Futura on our first day, fresh off the plane, which provided a great start to our Italian holiday. One side of the menu had the classics at very low prices, the other artisan pizzas. Highly recommended.
Speaking of pizza, another great pizzeria is Frankpizz – takeaway only, ridiculously low prices, and always busy. It was round the corner from our B&B so we had a couple of very nice meals in our garden, drinking our supermarket wine etc…
Another stalwart of Ravennas restaurant scene is Ristorance Marchesini right next to the Tourist Information. The classics with some very good and fresh seafood are all available here, and the outside dining area is bustling. And yes, there are many others, honestly, we didn’t have a bad meal in Ravenna.
What else to see and do in Ravenna
Now that we’re done with the mosaics, we’ll have spent one very full day or two leisurely days. But let me assure you, Ravenna is more than mosaics!
The final UNESCO World Heritage monument of Ravenna is the tomb of Theodoric, the prominent King of Goths. It is in a nice park – we cycled there before sunset one night. The actual tomb is empty, no mosaics here.
Jumping forward 100 years, the renowned writer and philosopher Dante Alighieri spent his final years in Ravenna and finished his Divine Comedy here. There are often people reading by his mausoleum, and you can visit his former residence.
And, jumping right into the present, Ravenna is a lovely town to visit. It has a university, pleasant car free streets, including some nice smallish shops, cafes, restaurants – all to be visited at a leisurely pace. Most visitors seem to come just for the day, often before embarking on a cruise, and in the evening it’s super relaxed and just full of locals.
The mosaic tradition is going strong, with numerous mosaic artists keeping studios in Ravenna. Some offer courses on mosaics – you can book on the spot for a half-day lesson or buy mosaic kits to take home.
I was quite interested in one of those courses, but having never done mosaics before, I felt that a half day wouldn’t suffice. I accidentally worked into a week-long course and have added it on my “travel wish list” since.
The Small Print
I visited Ravenna in September 2023 at my own expense. As a matter of fact, this was our annual summer holiday, where we visited Ravenna, Ferrara, Bologna, Comacchio and Chioggia during a week’s holiday on a very modest (if you exclude the meals) budget. Atll information is correct at the time of publication in December 2023.
This post contains some accommodation links to Booking.com, meaning that if you make a booking using the link, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. I used Booking.com to book all our hotels on this trip and stayed at B&B Al Borgo in Ravenna.