Sometimes called the city of mosaics, Ravenna is known for its spectacular early Christian mosaics, dating from the fifth and sixth centuries, that decorate the walls of its churches and monuments. Ravenna was the western capital of the Roman Empire and of the Byzantine Empire in Europe from early fifth to the eighth centuries and the mosaic art shows a Byzantine influence. Ravenna is still one of Italy’s top producers of mosaics and its Mosaic Art School is a great place to take a course.
In addition to the mosaics, Ravenna’s sights include Roman sites and several museums. Piazza del Popolo, the elegant main square, was created in the 15th century when the city’s canals were covered over. Most of the historic center is a pedestrian zone, making it easy to sight-see on foot.
Ravenna is in the Emilia Romagna region of northeastern Italy near the Adriatic coast. Ravenna can be reached by train from Bologna and cities on the coast including Rimini and Venice. The center is about a 10 minute walk from the station. If you’re arriving by car, take the A14 autostrada and park outside the historic center, where traffic is limited.
Ravenna’s Mosaics, Monuments, and Museums
See Opening and Times on the Opera Religion of the Diocese of Ravenna for current hours and admission prices. Eight of Ravenna’s early Christian monuments decorated with mosaics make up a UNESCO World Heritage site.
- Mausoleum of Galla Placidia: Some of Ravenna’s oldest and most spectacular mosaics are in the this mausoleum with a plain exterior that was built in the mid-fifth century for Galla Placidia, a daughter, sister, wife, and mother of Roman emperors. Its cupola is covered with stars. Inside are three sarcophagi, one fifth century, one sixth century, and a Roman one without decoration.
- Basilica di San Vitale: One of Italy’s most important monuments of early Christian art, the church has an elegant cupola and its apse is decorated with beautiful 6th century mosaics representing Saint Vitalis, Ravenna’s patron saint, receiving the crown of martyrdom and Justinian and Theodora, the imperial couple of the Byzantine Empire, with their court. It was built on the site of a 5th century oratory.
- Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo: Originally a Palatine church, it’s unusual because of its Byzantine-style mosaics that reflect both early-Catholic and Arian cult beliefs. A series of mosaics depicts the life of Christ and others depict the Three Wise Kings and Ravenna’s Roman port of Classe.
- Arian Baptistery: One of the few remaining monuments of the Arian cult, the official religion of the court of Theodora, this baptistery also has a dome covered with beautiful mosaics, the scene depicting the baptism of Christ surrounded by the 12 disciples. The Church of Santo Spirito was originally the Arian cathedral in the 6th century but it has been remodeled several times since then.
- Orthodox Baptistery: Built in the late fourth to early fifth centuries, the baptistery is the oldest of Ravenna’s monuments. Its dome is decorated with breath-taking mosaics of Christ being baptized by John the Baptist, the group of apostles preparing for the baptism, and the heavenly paradise.
- Mausoleum di Teodorico: Built in 520AD for Teodorico, king of the Ostrogoths, this stone tomb is Ravenna’s only monument without mosaics. It is decorated instead with beautiful friezes.
- Chapel of Sant’Andrea: Housed in the Archiepiscopal Museum, private chapel is decorated with mosaics of flowers, figures of Christ, and at least 99 species of birds. Also in the museum are early Christian relics, including the stunning Byzantine era Ivory Cathedra, or bishop’s seat.
- Domus dei Tappetti di Pietra: The House of Stone Carpets, below the Church of Sant’Eufemia, has mosaics from a Byzantine palace.
- National Museum or Ravenna: Housed in the ex-Benedictine Monastery of San Vitale, things to see include Roman and Byzantine artifacts, a stone tablet collection and 14rh century frescoes.
- The Municipal Art Museum of Ravenna has a collection of mosaics and medieval and modern art.
- Dante Museum and Tomb: Dedicated to the poet Dante, the museum has works inspired by him. Dante’s tomb, built in 1780, holds his remains.
The Basilica of Sant’Appolinare in Classe, outside Ravenna in the ancient Roman port of Classe, is the eighth monument included in the UNESCO World Heritage site. The church’s apse is decorated with mosaics and inside are the sarcophagi of former archbishops. Also in Classe is the archaeological park with Roman ruins.
Faenza, inland from Ravenna, is known for its ceramics and it has a top International Ceramics Museum. To the north is Comacchio, gateway to the Po Delta wetlands, and to the south is the pretty coastal town of Cesenatico where there’s a good Maritime Museum.