The austere façade of many of Ravenna’s early Christian buildings hide the golden richness of exquisite mosaics. Three in particular—the Galla Placidia Mausoleum, the Arian Baptistery and the Church of San Vitale—house jaw-dropping artwork from the three greatest periods in the history of Ravenna: the Western Roman Empire, the Ostrogoth reign, and the Byzantine Exarchate.
Sun-flooded squares lined with genteel palazzos, elegant domes soaring to the sky, the grey, forbidding bulk of a Renaissance fortress. Dozens of churches, rich and Baroque or medieval and sober. And golden, sapphire and ivory white mosaics, the miniscule tiles meticulously aligned to shape a star-studded sky, a graceful dove spraying water on Jesus Christ’s head, or a bemused sheep looking at a haloed Christ.
This is Ravenna, thrice capital of kingdoms and empires, bulwark of the Italian Resistenza against Fascism and the Nazi occupation, and the undisputed temple of mosaic art.
Each Ravennate reign—the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, the Kingdom of the Ostrogoths in the first half of the sixth century and the Byzantine Exarchate in the second half—bequeathed mosaics to the city. Over the course of three hundred years, thousands of tiles became the emperors, saints and lambs that grace the walls and ceilings of Ravenna’s churches, baptisteries and mausolea.
The UNESCO has recognised the “outstanding universal value” of Ravenna’s early Christian buildings, citing “the supreme artistry of the mosaic art that the monuments contain” and “the crucial evidence that they provide of artistic and religious relationships and contacts at an important period of European cultural history,” as the reasons for naming them a World Heritage Site.
All the buildings mentioned in the UNESCO listing—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—are worth visiting, of course. But if you only have half a day and want to see the evolution of Ravennate mosaics over time, make sure you don’t miss these three:
Galla Placidia Mausoleum
A tiny, austere brick chapel laid out as a Latin cross, Galla Placidia’s mausoleum seems a small thing to honour a woman that was daughter, sister, wife and mother of Western and Eastern Roman emperors, and first queen, then empress in her own right.
Until you step inside, and the walls almost dissolve under a million minuscule tiles to become two fragile doves drinking the crystalline waters of a small fountain, the flowing cream robes of a saint facing martyrdom, a handful of meek sheep gazing adoringly at a beardless, golden-haloed Jesus Christ, while the dome is a night sky studded with bright golden stars—so beautiful that it apparently inspired Cole Porter to write his Night and Day in the 1920s.
The mosaics, which are some of the earliest and finest in Ravenna, make the mausoleum a fitting tribute for Galla Placidia—even though it didn’t become her final resting place after all.
The Galla Placidia Mausoleum is situated in Via Fiandrini, Ravenna (+39 0544 541688). It is open from 9.30am to 5pm, from November to February, from 9am to 5.30pm in March and October, and from 9am to 7pm between April and September. Tickets cost €8.50 and allow entry both to the Mausoleum and the Church of San Vitale (but there is an additional fee of €2 payable for the Mausoleum from March 1 to June 15).
Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, entered Ravenna in 493 under the false pretence of negotiating a treaty, and promptly put a tragic end to the reign and life of king Odoacer, when he treacherously slew him after having agreed to rule jointly over Italy.
Despite this cowardly start, Theodoric proved a strong ruler, who managed to maintain peace in his kingdom—a rare feat given the racial, linguistic and religious differences between Goths and Romans. The Goths were Arians—they followed the doctrine of an Egyptian priest, Arius, who believed Jesus Christ to be created by God the Father and possibly inferior to him.
Arianism was the court religion in Ravenna, and Arian churches cropped up across the city. Among them was the octagonal Baptistery close to the Church of Santo Spirito, then the Arian Cathedral. After Theodoric died, Arianism was obliterated by the Roman Catholics, who believed Son and Father to share the same divine substance.
They removed all decorations from the Baptistery, leaving it humble and bare—except for the extraordinary, concentric golden mosaic of Christ and the Apostles that graces the dome. In the innermost ring, surrounded by a garland of golden leaves against a deep red background, a naked Christ stands in the waters of the river Jordan while a pure white dove christens him by spraying water on his head. Beardless, long haired and frighteningly young, he moves towards the East, which for the Arians was a symbol of his journey towards becoming divine.
And that’s the greatest charm of the Arian Baptistery—it is not only a rare example of art from the Goths’ period, but also one of the few remaining testaments to a lost religious doctrine.
The Arian Baptistery is situated in Vicolo degli Ariani, Ravenna (0039 0544 543711). It is open from 8.30am to 7.30pm, and entry is free.
Church of San Vitale
If there is one mosaic that crystallises this art form in the collective imagination, it is the long, severe, hieratic face of Empress Theodora crowned by a dazzling headdress of diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires, which stretches on the right side of the apse in the Church of San Vitale.
Opposite Theodora—a wily, ruthless, astonishingly beautiful social climber who was dancer and courtesan before becoming an empress—stands the mosaic portrait of her husband, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, stiff and solemn among his courtiers. The golden halo crowning his head deliberately recalls that of the Enthroned Christ that takes up the apse, an obvious reminder of the emperor’s God-anointed authority on earth.
It is hard to believe that such a shameless piece of political propaganda could become an exquisite work of art, but the mosaics of San Vitale bring together the skill of Byzantine craftsmen—who probably followed the imperial army into Ravenna—and the local tradition.
For UNESCO, this is precisely what makes the church “one of the most important examples of Byzantine art in Europe, because of the clarity with which it expresses the ideology and religious fervour of the age of Justinian and at the same time the use of architecture as a means of asserting imperial dominance,” while subtly and skilfully incorporating elements of Western art.
But on a simpler level, what makes it really striking is the contrast between the church’s plain, unadorned façade, and the dripping riches of a purple-robed Christ, the delicate white hand of a lady in waiting in Theodora’s retinue, or the golden-haloed lamb standing white against a sapphire-blue background, which dazzle the eye once you step inside.
The Church of San Vitale is situated in Via Fiandrini, Ravenna (+39 0544 541688). It is open from 9.30am to 5pm, from November to February, from 9am to 5.30pm in March and October, and from 9am to 7pm between April and September. Tickets cost €8.50 and allow entry both to the Church and the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (but there is an additional fee of €2 payable for the Mausoleum from March 1 to June 15).