Note – I’m sharing close to 40 photos to illustrate a single post which is a tiny sampling of my full Ravenna gallery.
Like most Italian towns which carve out daily life from backdrops steeped in history, Ravenna feels no different. Just six kilometers inland from the Adriatic Sea which is connected via a canal, I’d personally known Ravenna more for its part in Italy’s petroleum and gas industy.
But what makes this town full of character with its cobblestones and colorful architecture around every corner is just how old its relics are and how many UNESCO-protected World Heritage sites are within walking distance within its compact city center.
An impressive eight(8) monuments and cathedrals adorned with intricate mosaics dating back to the 5th-7th centuries of the Western Roman and Byzantine Empires.
Here’s what Encyclopedia Britannica has to say about Ravenna’s vibrant past:
Ravenna was important in history as the capital of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century ad and later (6th–8th century) of Ostrogothic and Byzantine Italy. The fame of Ravenna rests instead on the quality and quantity of its 5th–8th-century Christian monuments.
As the capital city of the Western Roman Empire for 250 years and a major port of entry for the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire, Ravenna reflects in its art and architecture a fusion of Roman architectural forms with Byzantine mosaics and other decoration.
I couldn’t wait to witness these UNESCO mosaics in Ravenna myself so while recently exploring the region of Emilia Romagna, I took a day trip from Bologna out to Ravenna to soak up its essense block by block. The train journey takes about an hour with the high speed train or 1 hour 20-30 minutes with a regional train.
Milling around town trying to gain my bearings, I was already impressed and awed by Greco-Roman architecture and Christian iconography in even the smallest of places like alleyways.
According to the UNESCO World Heritage site, all eight early Christian monuments and buildings – the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Neonian Baptistery, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, the Arian Baptistery, the Archiepiscopal Chapel, the Mausoleum of Theodoric, the Church of San Vitale and the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe – were constructed in the 5th and 6th centuries.
My first stop was the Neonian Baptistery below:
The Neonian Baptistery, built by Bishop Orso in the early 5th century, was decorated with mosaics by his successor, Neone, around 450. The interior consists of four apses, articulated into two orders of arches, rising to the great cupola. The large mosaic medallion at the apex of the dome shows the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist. This is the finest and most complete surviving example of the early Christian baptistry.
Needless to say, this was just a small taste of mosaics to come as I continued meandering through Ravenna’s colorful streets. Vines snaking across cracks in walls that have stood for centuries, flowers adorning rusty window ledges, all a metaphor for life lived within the shadow and magnitude of such an important past.
One of my favorite moments en route to the other mosaics was meeting a few nuns, two of which graciously allowed me to photograph them.
By the time I reached what I arguably feel is the most impressive of them all, the Church of San Vitale, my jaw literally hit the floor. Awed, inspired, and silenced.
The Church of San Vitale was completed around 547. It was fronted by a large quadroportico, converted into a cloister when the church became part of a Benedictine monastery. There are two storeys, the upper one encircling the dome. The apse, which is semi-circular on the interior and polygonal on the outside, is flanked by two small rectangular rooms terminating in niches and two semi-circular sacristies.
Once I snapped out of my trance, it was a quick dash across the courtyard to the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia which felt like a place of solace. A smaller enclosure with a seemingly infinite blue sky of twinkling stars stretching above me reminding me of just how small I am in the very grand scheme of God’s universe.
The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, built in the second quarter of the 5th century, has a plain bare exterior lightened by pilasters that meet in arches and is crowned by a brick dome concealed by a small quadrangular tower. The interior is lavishly decorated. The lower part is clad in panels of yellow marble and the remainder is entirely covered in mosaics. The building is in the western Roman architectural tradition.
I visited several more mosaics along the way and you can view more photos in my Ravenna gallery. What kept amazing me as I visited each building was that I wasn’t looking at 15th or 16th century buildings. These were monuments dating back to the 5th, the 6th, the 7th centuries.
As in 3-digit years. As in Anno Domini (A.D.).
This is what continually floors me every single time I visit Italy. That juxaposition of modern life coursing through walls, alleys, and archways that have borne witness to other lives lived over a thousand years ago.
You can view a ton more photos of Ravenna and its mosaics in my image bank. My trip to Italy was with the award-winning #BlogVille campaign and a collaboration between the Emilia Romagna Tourism Board and iambassador.