Ravenna, a world of mosaics
Ravenna is well-known for its mosaics as well as hosting a high number of UNESCO sites.
Capital first of the Western Roman Empire, then of the Ostrogoths under the Reign of Theoderic, and finally of the Byzantine Empire, Ravenna is Roman, Goth, Byzantine, Venetian, medieval and contemporary.
A true city of art, it has a phenomenal heritage of mosaics dating from the 5th and 6th centuries AD within its early Christian and Byzantine religious buildings.
People usually rush through Ravenna because they go to Mirabilandia, the most visited amusement park in Italy. It is a mistake because Ravenna is a charming city really worth a full day or 2-days stay.
Buy the 7 days combined ticket. It includes one entry for the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Neonian Baptistery, Basilica of San Vitale, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and Archiepiscopal Museum and Chapel. No photo in the Chapel.
The Arian Baptistery is worth a look. Have change with you because you pay through a machine.
There are several other combined tickets worth a look in Ravenna:
- Rasponi Crypt + Domus dei Tappeti di Pietra + TAMO but check first the schedule for the Rasponi Crypt.
- Basilica Sant'Apollinare in Classe + Ravenna National Museum + Mausoleum of Theodoric.
8 UNESCO sites
Yes, you have read right, EIGHT UNESCO sites are present in Ravenna and its vicinity.
Sant' Apollinare Nuovo
This basilica was built by Theoderic (493-526) next to his palace, and originally used as an Arian church.
As an orthodox church, it was first dedicated to St. Martin by the Byzantines once they reconquested the region.
When the relics of St. Apollinaris were removed from the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe and transported here in the 9th, the church was dedicated to Saint Apollinaris and called “Nuovo” (new) in order to differentiate it from the church of the same name in Classe.
The mosaic decoration documents the stylistic, iconographical and ideological evolution of Byzantine wall mosaics from the era of Theoderic to that of Justinian.
One of the biggest monumental cycles existing, the christological scenes, dated from Theoderic times, are also the most ancient original mosaic work on the New Testament.
At the end of the 5th Century, Arianism had become the official religion of the Court. The Arian Baptistery was then built. If nothing remains of the internal walls decoration, the cupola, fortunately, still has its mosaics. They depict the procession of the twelve Apostles and the baptism of the Christ.
Inspiration for the Arian Baptistery, the Neonian Baptistery is one of the most ancient monuments of the city of Ravenna. It underwent many restoration works but fortunately those preserved severa of its original elements from the 5th century, including the beautiful mosaics of Hellenic-Roman influence showing one of the oldest mosaic scenes of the Baptism of Christ housed inside a monumental building and the twelve Apostles.
Sant' Apollinare in Classe
A short bus ride outside the city and you will find Sant' Apollinare in Classe often described as the most impressive Basilica of the Early Christian period because it has preserved the splendour of its origins. It also houses beautiful mosaics and sarcophagi of archbishops.
Do not miss the buffalos nearby. From the bus, they really look real.
Mausoleo di Galla Placidia
This little mausoleum was built by Galla Placidia (386 - 450 AD) as her own resting place. It wasnever used as such as the sister of the Roman Emperor Honorius who had transferred the Capital of the Western Empire from Milan to Ravenna in 402 AD, died and was buried in Rome in 450.
Once connected to the Church of Santa Croce, also built by the empress and now a ruin, the mausoleum survived without much damage.
It looks sober and one might thing that after having seen San Vitale, nothing else can brighten more his/her day but the inside is magnificent and magical.
Mausoleo di Teodorico
Only one of the UNESCO monuments without mosaics, the Mausoleum of Theodoric The Great is a bit outside the city. As it is totally bare of decoration, you can skip it if you lack time.
It was built by Theodoric in 520 AD as his burial place. The Ostrogoth King was buried in a circular porphyry tub that can still be seen on the second floor of the mausoleum.
During the Byzantine domination, his remains were scattered.
When Arianism was forbidden under Justinian, the mausoleum was then converted into the church of Sta. Maria della Rotonda.
It was also used as a lighthouse later.
The monument is important mostly because it is the only surviving tomb from a “barbarian” king from late-Roman, pre-Middle Ages period. It is also the only building in Ravenna made in Istria stone and not in bricks in its time.
Basilica di San Vitale
If there is one monument to see in Ravenna, it is this one!
It is one of the most important monuments of Early Christian art in Italy, especially for the splendour of its mosaic decoration and because Eastern art merges with Western tradition.
Cupola and niches were frescoed in 1780 by Bolognese and Venetian painters.
Chapel of Sant' Andrea - Archiepiscopal Chapel
It is the only existing archiepiscopal chapel of the early Christian era that has been preserved intact to the present day. Photographs are forbidden but is is a beautiful place.
But Ravenna is also about...
MAR - Museo d'Arte della Città di Ravenna (Ravenna Art Museum)
The museum is found inside the Loggetta Lombardesca, a monastery from the 16th century belonging to the near Santa Maria in Porto Abbey.
The complex underwent frequent reorganizations and changes of use.
Since 2002, it hosts temporary art exhibitions and permanent collections.
Every other year, a Biennale about mosaics is organised but they also have a permanent collection of contemporary mosaic artworks.
A Mosaic Biennale - Ravennamosaico
(Photos are from the 2017 Biennale)
Domus dei tappeti di pietra
The Domus of the Stone Carpets is a major discovery in Italy.
In 1993-4, the Superintendence for Archaeological Heritage of Emilia Romagna found a complex of buildings dating back from the Roman Republic through the Byzantine time. There was a small palace, made of fourteen rooms and three courtyards.
The floor surface of every room was covered with mosaics showing refined patterns and figures made of polychrome tesserae. The "carpet" was restored and put back to their original location. You can now see it in an underground room that can be entered from the Church of Sant’Eufemia.
It is not a UNESCO heritage but still, it is well worth seeing.
Palazzo della Provincia, Cripta Rasponi and Giardini Pensili
The Palazzo della Provincia is a recent construction (1925-1928). It combines the Neo-Romantic style with some Byzantine-like elements.
The Giardini Pensili are roof gardens. Inside, you will find a beautiful fountain and a neo-gothic tower. The tower is the entrance of the Rasponi crypt.
The crypt was built to be the funeral chapel of the Rasponi family. It never served that purpose. It is the most ancient part of the complex. It has a colourful mosaic floor, originally belonging to the 6th century Church of San Severo (located in Classe).
As it is not open all the time, check the schedule ahead at the nearby tourist information centre.
The Ravenna National Museum can be found in the monumental complex of San Vitale and contains many important archaeological fragments belonging to the Early Christian and Byzantine monuments listed by Unesco as World Heritage sites.
Part of the National Museum, they organise tours and classes open to the public.
TAMO - Tutta l'Avventura del Mosaico
The Complex of San Nicolò hosts Tamo Museum - All the adventure of the mosaic (Tutta l'Avventura del Mosaico), a permanent exhibition dedicated exclusively to mosaics. It is organised as a tour through important findings belonging to the Ravenna heritage of mosaics from antique, late-antique and medieval period, up to modern and contemporary mosaics.
It is not a museum, it is a journey through times and techniques.
Around the city
There are 7 remaining gates all around the city:
- Porta Adriana
- Porta Gaza
- Porta Nuova
- Porta Ravegnana or Portonaccio
- Porta San Mamante
- Porta Serrata
- Porta Sisi
Gaza, Serrata and Sisi are the oldest ones.
Muro di Droctulf o Drogdone
This wall is one of the remains of the Arian bishopric that was built together with the cathedral (now Basilica dello Spirito Santo) and the Baptistery early 6th century. It was part of a large complex destined to the Arian Christian cult. When Arianism was forbidden, the complex was converted. It is supposed to be the residence of Droctulf. Raised among the Lombards, Droctulf was a Bizantine general who fight for the Bizantines. He was burried in the Basilica of San Vitale.
Street art is booming in Ravenna. It is not a surprise as the city has always been opened to arty projects.
Since 2014, there is an annual festival Subsidenze, promoted by Indastria cultural association, in collaboration with the Department for Youth Policy of the Municipality of Ravenna. Renowned artists from all over the world come to the city. As a result, street art is spread all over the city. The Ravenna city dock (harbour) is full of it.
Ravenna and Florence are fighting over Dante's remains since his death. They even were thought to be lost. If there is a life after death, Dante sure had one!
Dante Museum (Museo Dantesco)
It is located inside the Dante Centre of Friars Minor (Centro Dantesco dei Frati Minori), in the Old Franciscan Cloisters, just a few steps from his tomb.
Almost a 100 years old, the museum highlights the role played in Dante’s life by the city of Ravenna. When Dante had to flee Florence because of a change of power, he went to Ravenna where he spent his last days.
Dante died in Ravenna in 1321 but it is not before 1780-1782 that his neoclassical tomb was commissioned by the cardinal Luigi Valenti Gonzaga, from a project by the architect Camillo Morigia from Ravenna.
Before that, the history of the remains of the poet was eventful.
A couple hundred years after his death, Florentines decided that he was after all a great man of Florence and claimed the remains. But the coffin they were sent back was empty as the Franciscain friars stole them and hid them carefully in their monastery. So carefully, they were lost until 1865 because at some point they were moved again and hidden in a wall of the church.
In 1865, when repair work was done on the church in honor of Dante's 600th birthday, a workman opened a wall and rediscovered the poet. Luckily enough, the one who hid the remains had the great idea to leave a letter identifying the remains as Dante's.
From a memorial, his tomb became a burial place whilst his cenotaph in Santa Croce remains empty, to the great annoyance of Florence.
But the story does not stop here because the remains were moved again during WWII in order to protect them. You can still find the small mound near his tomb.
Wait for it. Not finished yet!
Early 1970s, Florence issued an ultimatum to Ravenna that Dante be returned to Florence by 1975, ultimatum to which Ravenna responded with a simple "No."
Every year, Ravenna organised several events around Dante while Florence awaits its hour.
To be continued...
Quadrarco di Braccioforte
It is an ancient oratory. It takes its name from the legend of two people who invoked the "Braccio forte" (strong arm) of the Saviour as guarantor of their contract. Their image was painted in the oratory.
Inside, there are two sarcophagi dating back to the 5th century and reused later.
Zona del Silenzio
Dante's Tomb, the oratory and its garden and the Franciscan cloisters are all part of the so-called "Zona del Silenzio" (Area of Silence).
This is an area of quietness and respect encompassing the places of Dante in Ravenna.
The cathedral was totally rebuilt between 1734 and 1735 on the site where Bishop Urso had erected the former cathedral of the city, the Basilica Ursiana (4th century AD).
Remains of the original construction are preserved in the nearby Archiepiscopal Museum.
Santa Maria in Porto
The Basilica of Santa Maria in Porto was built in the 16th century and completed in the 18th century. This explains the mix of Baroque and Neoclassic on its façade.
From San Francesco, Dante's church, to the old Santa Croce built by Galla Placidia, Ravenna is full of cute little churches.
Ravenna would not be complete without a leaning tower!
Like every where else in Italy, towers were built by the ruling class to show their power and their social prestige.
The Municipal Tower was built in the 12th century. Because of nearby meat shop, it was originally called “Torre dei beccai” (of butchers).
When the papal rector wanted to establish his power at the end of the 13th century, all noble towers and fortilices were demolished. The only one surviving was the Torre Civica.
So why is it leaning? Because, due to its proximity to the ancient river Padenna, there is a slow underground landslide. In 2000, its top was evenremoved in order to prevent the possible collapse of the structure.
Palazzo di Teodorico
The Palace of Theodoric is the name given to the remains of a building dating back to the VII and VIII centuries and located in the ancient Palatina, on the remains of the true palace of Theodoric. Its purpose is still unknown.
The Brancaleone Fortress was built by the Venetians in 1457. They wanted to reinforce the defensive structures of the city. It consists of
a Rocca and a Cittadella.
It now hosts the Rocca Brancaleone public gardens.
Ravenna has a port. Its history dates back to the 1st century B.C. From Augustus to the Byzantine rule, the port remained an important one.
It is depicted in the mosaics of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo.
It is now one of the top twenty Italian ports and an important one in Europe.
Ardea Purpurea fountain
Outside the city centre, in Piazza della Resistenza, there is a monumental mosaic fountain designed and realized by master Marco Bravura, a renowned mosaic artist from Ravenna. Created in Beirut in 1999, the sculpture was duplicated in 2004.
the symbolism is important, as Ardea Purpurea is one of the names given to Arabah phoenix rising from its ashes. It was a symbol of hope for Beirut then recovering from the war.
Built and decorated by Venetian people, it has a beautiful facade.
The Camaldolese Abbey hosts the historical Classense Library. Now a public library, the ancient “Library” founded by the abbot Pietro Canneti in 1707 can still be seen.
Palazzo della Poste
Beautiful building next to the teatro.
One great thing about Ravenna is that post offices are easy to find!
Palazzetto Veneziano or Palazzo del Podestà
The beautiful building built in 1461-1463 by the Venetians served as seat of government until the construction of the Town Hall. It is connected on the right side to the Town Hall by a big vault.
On the left side border, there is the ancient Apostolic Palace, now the Prefecture Palace.
Orologio pubblico, già chiese di San Sebastiano e San Marco
The two connected churches of San Sebastiano and San Marco were changed by the Venetians in the 15th century into an only building with a first public clock. In 1783-85, the facade was renovated and the clock placed on the side of the tower facing the square. Clockwork and face of the clock were replaced in 1789. There were a few more changes in the building before it looks like this.
Giardino delle Erbe Dimenticate (Forgotten Herbs Garden)
Little gem to finish this post, the splendid garden of Palazzo Rasponi Murat, both a garden and a botanical garden open to the public in the center of Ravenna.
For those who are into herbal medicine, there is a big herbalist's shop at the entrance (Erboristeria dell'Orto Botanico).
Looking for a place to stay? B&B Bondi is the perfect place. Quiet, clean, right next to the centre and the train station and the bus to Classe. And the lady is lovely.