Ravenna is a city rich in history and art. The numerous basilicas, often with a simple external appearance, hide unique artistic heritages in the world. The influences of the various dominations that followed one another are still visible in the city today.
Ravenna, in fact, is the only city in the world to have been the capital of three empires: the Western Roman Empire, the Empire of Theodoric and the Byzantine Empire in Europe. In addition, the city is also home to the largest mosaic heritage in the world and 8 sites have been declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO: the Basilica of San Vitale, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Arian and Orthodox Baptistery, the Basilicas of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and in Classe, the Archbishop’s Chapel and the Mausoleum of Theodoric.
Basilica of San Vitale
The Basilica of San Vitale can be the starting point of the tour to discover Ravenna. The Basilica is one of the most important monuments of early Christian and Byzantine art in Italy and in the world, included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1996.
The Basilica of San Vitale was built during the reign of Justinian to testify the greatness of his empire and is the only Italian monument able to compete with the great Byzantine buildings both for the originality of the spaces and for the preciousness of the decorations.
Consecrated in 548 by Archbishop Maximian, the basilica has an octagonal plan. Splendid mosaics cover the dome; among the subjects depicted we find Emperor Justinian, his wife Theodora, and the Christ Pantocrator. On the floor, however, there is a labyrinth, a symbol of sin and the path of the soul towards purification.
Next to the Basilica, there is the National Museum of Ravenna which collects masterpieces donated or found in the major excavation and restoration sites in the city.
Mausoleum of Theodoric
The Mausoleum of Theodoric is one of the most important monuments in Ravenna. Its decagonal plan is composed of massive stone blocks and covered by a large monolithic dome crowned by twelve handles with the names of eight Apostles and four Evangelists. Its extraordinary measurements are 10.76 m in diameter, 3.09 m in height and a weight of 230 tons.
The mausoleum was built in 520 by King Theodoric as his own burial and consists of two levels: on the upper level, there is a porphyry basin in which it is assumed that the king’s remains were contained.
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is the other monument that certainly deserves a visit by the tourist eager to learn more about this ancient city and its history. The Mausoleum is a real treasure chest containing precious mosaics, the oldest in Ravenna.
The Emperor Honorius dedicate it to his sister Galla Placidia when, in 402, he transferred the capital of the Western Roman Empire from Milan to Ravenna. While the outside is very sober, inside the decorations, done in mosaics, are wonderful.
The theme of the mosaics is the victory of life over death, as suggested by the cross-shaped structure. The dome is full of painted stars, to simulate the celestial vault.
Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo
In the center of Ravenna is the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, one of the most popular monuments for tourists visiting the city. This church, in fact, houses the largest mosaic cycle known to date. Inside, the side walls are entirely covered with colorful mosaics.
The decorations of the central nave are divided into three bands: the upper band represents scenes from the life of Christ, the middle band portrays Saints and Prophets and the lower one depicts the Theodoric Palace.
The basilica was built at the behest of the Gothic king Theodoric as an Arian place of worship between 493 and 526 and rededicated to Catholic worship in the time of Justinian, after the conquest of the city by the Byzantine Empire.
Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe
Sant’Apollinare in Classe is the greatest example of an early Christian basilica ever. Not to be confused with Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, it is located 8 kilometers from the center of Ravenna, in the hamlet of Classe and was also declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996. Its construction dates back to the 6th century and is dedicated to Sant’Apollinare, the first bishop of Ravenna.
The interior is striking for the grandeur of the mosaics in the apse depicting the saint in a meadow flanked by 12 sheep – a symbol of the Christian flock – and surmounted by a large cross on a sky where 99 stars shine.
To visit there is also the Cathedral of Ravenna. The cathedral was designed on the occasion of the movement of the imperial capital to Ravenna in 402. It was consecrated in the year 407 and dedicated to the Resurrection of Jesus. Finally it took the name of “Basilica Ursiana” from the name of its founder, Bishop Orso.
The church was originally in the early Christian style, but in 1700 Archbishop Maffeo Nicolò Farsetti decided to completely modernize the building, calling the architect Buonamici from Rimini and saving almost only the cylindrical bell tower of the 10th century and the crypt, now submerged. The mosaics dating back to 1112 were also removed or destroyed.
Between 1734 and 1745 the ancient basilica was then demolished and rebuilt in a neoclassical key, making it lose its original appearance. Today the plan is a Latin cross, divided into three naves by two rows of columns.
From the main nave, you enter the side aisles. On each side there are 3 chapels. On the right side, we find a 5th century sarcophagus containing the remains of the Archbishops Esuperanzio and Massimiano and paintings by Josep Wicar, Filippo Pasquali, Antonio Rossi from Bologna and Giuseppe Milani from Parma. In the niche beyond the transept, the oil painting by Cesare Pronti depicting the martyrdom of Sant’Ursicino is visible.
The arm of the transept is by Pietro Aldrobrandini with paintings by Guido Reni (1514-1516) and his disciples Gessi, Sementi and Marescotti.
The Baptistery of Neon
Next to the Cathedral is the Neonian Baptistery (or Baptistery of the Orthodox). It is the best preserved baptismal building in the world and one of the oldest monuments in Ravenna. Built between the 4th and 5th centuries, it takes its name from the bishop Neone who decided to redo the roof. Unlike other baptisteries of the 4th and 5th centuries, this building has come down to us almost in its original architectural aspect.
Entering this octagonal building you can admire the dome decorated with magnificent mosaics. In the center of the room is the marble baptismal font.
All around are colorful mosaics that are exceptionally well preserved, including those depicting the twelve apostles on a blue background, with alternating robes of gold and white and crowns to offer to Christ and the wonderful “Baptism of Christ in the Jordan.”
The transparency effect of the water, obtained exclusively through a superb mosaic technique, is truly extraordinary.
Archbishop’s Chapel, Ravenna
Behind the Cathedral of Ravenna and the Neonian Baptistery stands the Archbishop’s Palace, whose original building dates back to the 5th century AD.
Today the Palace houses the Archbishopric Museum strongly desired by Archbishop Maffeo Niccolò Farsetti to safeguard the marble and stones obtained from the nearby cathedral, following the restructuring of the sixteenth century.
There is also a collection of sacred objects collected over the centuries, known as the so-called “treasure of the Cathedral”. Here is also preserved the “chair of Maximian”, one of the most famous works in ivory performed by Byzantine artists in the sixth century AD.
There is also a small art gallery of works dated between 1500 and 1800, a collection of sacred vestments dating from the 11th and 12th centuries and the Sala della Torre Sallusta, a remnant of the Trajan era, with precious processional crosses and fragments of mosaics from the cathedral.
The Archiepiscopal Museum, however, is above all known as the seat of one of the monuments that are part of the UNESCO heritage in the city: the Chapel of Sant’Andrea, an early Christian oratory with a Greek cross built by Peter II, bishop of Ravenna, at the beginning of the fifth century AD, the only example of an early Christian chapel preserved.
The Chapel is located on the first floor of the Archiepiscopal Museum. The presence of Christ as a warrior, with the cross on his shoulder, his monogram and his face dominate in various points of the chapel. Even the images of martyrs, apostles and evangelists concur to underline this concept of glorification, as an affirmation of Catholic orthodoxy.
Arian Baptistry in Ravenna
Not far from the Neonian Baptistery, is the Arian Baptistery, built towards the end of the fifth century, during the reign of Theodoric, when Arianism was the official religion of the court. Inside, the only decorated part is the dome covered with mosaics depicting the baptism of Christ and the procession of the twelve apostles.
The mosaic testifies to the Arian doctrine according to which Christ is the son of God but retains human nature: the figure of the Savior, for example, in this case goes towards the East – in a completely opposite position to that of the Catholic Christ. Around the middle of the sixth century the chapel was dedicated to Sant’Andrea, when his relics arrived here from Constantinople.
In Ravenna, we find also the tomb of Dante Alighieri. The Supreme Poet, in fact, exiled from his hometown spent his last years here until his death in 1321. And it is here that, even today, it is possible to visit his tomb. The poet’s remains are housed in a small neoclassical temple at the Basilica of San Francesco.
Dante’s tomb was built in the late 1700s, replacing a small chapel, with the intent of restoring nobility and decorum to his burial. The interior of the tomb is covered with colored marble and there is also a bas-relief with the portrait of Dante.
It was the Franciscan friars who stole and preserved Dante’s bones for several centuries, opposing attempts to bring the remains back to Florence. They were always the ones who saved them from the bombing of the Second World War.
Do not miss the basilica and the Franciscan cloisters with the Dante museum. This church also hides a small “treasure”: at the bottom of the nave of the basilica, there is a small crypt, located at a lower level than the floor. Well, leaning out of the small window, you notice that the floor of the crypt is submerged by water. This is due to the fact that this environment is located below sea level, but this does not prevent you from admiring the mosaics that make the flooring unique. In Pasolini Street you can admire the mural depicting Dante Alighieri, in very bright colors.
But Ravenna is also a city with an ancient culinary tradition. Its cuisine, like that of Romagna in general, finds its maximum expression in first courses, such as strozzapreti, cappelletti, passatelli and maltagliati accompanied by rich meat sauce or exquisite broths.
In the main courses, on the other hand, the grilled meats of all the local gastronomy dominate, such as grilled mutton, sausage and bacon. Then there is the inevitable piadina used to accompany any dish and usually stuffed with meats and cheeses, first of all the “squacquerone” cheese.
The piadina di Ravenna is distinguished from the others by its greater thickness and diameter. Finally, among the traditional desserts stand out the English soup, the brûlé milk (a sort of crème caramel), the donut, the zabaglione, the “scroccadenti” (biscuits with almonds similar to Tuscan cantucci), and the Ravenna-based chocolates of toasted pine nuts.
Finally, we have the Pinza Romagnola, a tasty typical dessert that contains mustard, a delicious black jam made from pears, apples and oranges.
How to get to Ravenna
Ravenna is easily reachable by car and by train. If you arrive from Bologna by car, take the A14 / E45 motorway and exit at Ravenna. From there, follow the directions that will take you to your destination. If, on the other hand, you choose to arrive by train from Bologna Centrale station, you can reach Ravenna station in an hour’s journey.