Ravenna was the last, short-lived, capital of the western Roman Empire (from 402 to 476). Following that it was the home of the Ostrogothic kings of Italy, before a brief return to the Eastern empire’s fold. It’s known for its mosaics heavily influenced by that empire in Constantinople. So when a chance of a day trip came up, I grabbed the opportunity.
The city stands near the Emilia Romagna coast, and is an easy hour long train ride from either Rimini or Bologna.
It’s also the home of Dante’s tomb – the author died here while in exile from his native Florence.
But mosaics are what most people are here to see.
Our first stop was the Basilica of San Vitale. This is one of five sites which are accessed via a combined ticket (purchased across from the entrance to this particular basilica). Its stern brick exterior fails to prepare for the wonders within.
The brick basilica was built in 548, and contains some of the best-preserved Christian mosaics of the era. As well as stunningly vivid depictions of Biblical scenes, we get an insight into the court of (Eastern Roman) Emperor Justinian I, and his wife Theodora.
Back outside, and in the same complex stands the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, one of the most intriguing imperial women. She was the daughter of Theodosius (who’s depicted in the famous Obelisk of Theodosius in modern Istanbul), sister of western emperor Honorius, wife of Constantius III, and mother of Valentinian III. She was also married – willingly or not isn’t clear – to the brother of Alaric the Goth, who sacked Rome in 410. The two had a son and lived briefly in Barcelona.
It’s unlikely that she was buried here, despite some myths around a body visible in one of the coffins. That met a grisly end thanks to a schoolboy and a match. Instead, it’s more likely that she’s buried in Rome under old St Peter’s Basilica. It’s an impressive little site, with its blue mosaics repressing the sky, and Egyptian alabaster ‘windows’ providing natural light from outside. It’s a small space so wait for the space between tour groups if you’d like to have it all to yourself!
We also took the opportunity to visit the National Museum of Ravenna right beside San Vitale. Its cool cloisters were a welcome retreat from the heat – and a reminder that this was once a medieval monastery attached to the basilica. It also housed an old pharmacy in situ, as well as artefacts from more ancient times
After a lunch of local piadine, and a mooch around a modern day mosaic workshop/shop, we were back on the ancient mosaic trail again, and our next stop was the Neonian (or Orthodox) baptistery. The octagonal brick building was built by Bishop Neon in the early 5th Century. Its colours remain stunningly vivid.
It stands beside a more modern Duomo – while it started life at around the same time as the little baptistery, its present appearance dates from the 18th Century.
Our final stop of the day – and getting closer to the station again – was the Basilica of St Apollinare Nuovo. Devoted to the rather tenacious and long-suffering patron saint of the city, this is another art history classic that was the heart of the city’s post Roman history. Founded by Ostrogothic (and Arian) King Theoderic, it would later be adapted by Byzantine ruler Justinian, who would try to remove all traces of the earlier court’s heretical beliefs. Could those ghostly hands on the pillars of the ‘palatium’ (palace) below be those of Arian courtiers?
A day wasn’t enough to see everything that this little city has to offer, but it was a great opportunity to get a flavour of some of the wonderful mosaics.
Have you been to Ravenna – what was your favourite site?