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Home | Destinations | Ravennas Ravishing Mosaics

Ravenna's Ravishing Mosaics

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Dream of Italy

After 15 centuries, Ravenna's luminous mosaics still shine with the golden brilliance of the empires that endowed them.  These shimmering sacred images reveal both familiar and unexpected chapters in Italian history while affirming an artistic climate that thrives today.  

Ravenna attracted conquerors from the north and east during the fifth through eighth centuries.  That period's vibrant blend of Roman, Ostrogoth and Byzantine cultures has drawn the aesthetically-minded to Ravenna ever since.  No wonder when Dante Alighieri was banished from Florence in 1302, he spent his last years here.

About 56 miles east of Bologna, this eminently walkable city was a stop on the Roman road that still traces a path across the region of Emilia-Romagna. With only a day to explore, I'm grateful that local guide Verdiana Conti Baioni promises to weave art and history into every step.  

We meet at San Apollinaire Nuovo on Via di Roma. A soaring basilica its narrow side aisles open to a broad nave where three tiers of mosaic panels draw my attention.  There's majesty in the well proportioned architecture, but the mosaics are the main event.  

Commissioned by Theodoric the Great, who reigned in Ravenna from 493 to 526, the church blends the beliefs of that ruler's Arian Christianity with the Catholic theology of Rome.  Justinian's rule followed and he added Byzantine influences for a vivid mix of visual images. At one time both the apse and inner façade were also covered with mosaics indicating the importance of this edifice, originally a royal chapel.  

Before I'm swept away by the building's beauty, I need a quick primer on its patrons.  Theodoric, the son of a Germanic Ostrogoth ruler, spent his youth as a hostage in Constantinople.  His continued alliance with that court is apparent here. When he subdued Ravenna in 493, Theodoric murdered his chief rival, Odoacer, but allowed the Roman legal systems to guide locals.  At the same time, he maintained Goth principles.  Both philosophies exist side-by-side in this unique church.    

At San Apollinaire Nuovo the mosaic artistry continues today, and a recently-restored section glows with golden brilliance as it recalls the naval fleet that served as an early source of the region's riches. The vigor of the scene feels three dimensional as ships bob in blue-green waves.

Facing the altar, my eyes roam between 26 scenes along the roof line.  On the right, I scan Christ's miracles. Back to the left, I see the events that lead to his death.  My guidebook notes the balance of the Wedding Feast at Cana on the left with the Last Supper opposite. Shifting my gaze down to the next level, prophets dressed in toga-like garments stare back at me from between the arched windows.  The final mosaic cycle skims above the Greek marble pillars in processions of martyrs and saints that conclude with Christ the King and an enthroned Madonna and Child.  Angels flank both figures, but are those celestial hands raised in welcome or warning?          

Fortunately, I've brought along opera glasses so as Verdiana introduces me to the saints, martyrs, prophets and angels she calls “My good companions.”  I can see the myrrh carried by the Magi as well as the crowns in the hands of the wise Virgins.  Facial expressions engage me, they're surprisingly distinct.  All this is set against a background of gold.  My guide also points to an area where the Byzantine authorities removed Arian characters, the original drawings that remain; she calls a “sinopia.”    

With regret for the brevity of my visit, we head down Via Francesco Negri, stopping for a quick glance into IMAD Punto Mosaico, one of Ravenna's 30 mosaic ateliers.  The tourist office on Via Salara has a complete list of the places to find traditional and contemporary work done by artists who come to study and develop new techniques.    

Ravenna, once honeycombed with canals, now flows with narrow streets, but we move briskly to Via degli Ariani.  We descend curved steps that lead six feet below street level to the small, but splendid Arian Baptistery. The octagonal space feels cool.  My eyes look heavenward to the mosaic image of a slightly sensuous Jesus standing stripped to the waist in the Jordan River.  His animal-skin shirted cousin John reaches out a hand as the Holy Spirit descends as a water-spouting dove.  

Verdiana explains that the old man in this tableau is a personification of the Jordan.  This pagan deity is similar to the Roman god, Neptune, but he holds not a trident but a bulrush, while the apostles who encircle the dome are separated by palm trees.  St. Peter has his keys and St. Paul carries a manuscript while they all celebrate their Lord's triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Gold is the backdrop here, too.  The Baptistery was also constructed for Theodoric.  After 540 as the Byzantines took charge, Justinian gave the small building to the Catholics.         

At the gateway to San Vitale, Verdiana wisely suggests lunch.  Over a plate of local bread called piadina and a glass of Trebbianco wine at Bar Mosaico (Via Argentario Giuliano, 26; 39-0544-38655;  she explains the subtle distinctions in religious beliefs.  

Briefly, Theodoric professed a Christian faith that did not believe that Jesus was God and preferred not to emphasize the Crucifixion.  Justinian represents the faith as it grew in Greece and Turkey.  He's a saint in the Eastern Orthodox canon.  The Catholic traditions from Rome embraced a three-person deity and were tied to Roman laws and customs.  Whether from tolerance or pragmatism, edifices in Ravenna honoring both Theodoric and Justinian incorporate multiple points of view.  We scrape back our chairs and head for the gate.

Birds sing and a pleasant breeze inhabits the yew trees as we enter the monastic complex of San Vitale.  Because time is my taskmaster, we bypass the Museo Nazionale where the heritage of Ravenna is on view.  Like the Baptistery, the Basilica of San Vitale is octagonal and sunken below ground level.  It rises to a monumental 90-foot height with perfectly conceived lines.  Again, there's a confluence of styles, perhaps because the church was begun shortly after 526 while Theodoric's daughter, Amalasuntha, reigned but completed around 547 with Justinian as ruler.  

Also likely is Giuseppe Bovini's statement “in the same period, artists were living who followed quite different ideals.” (Ravenna: Art and History) The mosaics echo this, with the sanctuary allied with Greco Roman traditions and the apse in tune with Byzantine.

In the sanctuary natural landscapes frame stern stalwarts from the Old Testament.  No deadpan faces in view here.  A fearful Abraham presents a sacrificial lamb while his pensive wife Sarah awaits the outcome.  Isaac, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Moses are expressive as well.  Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have a writing table complete with pen and inkstand.  

The cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem are set with gleaming jewels.  What makes me smile is the menagerie up there: ducks, a tortoise, dolphins, a heron frolic not far from dignified symbols such as an eagle, bull, lion and lamb.   All the biblical figures are rendered with majesty, yet even Christ cannot quite match the power of the noble processions in the San Vitale's apse.

Emperor Justinian, to the left of the altar, and his wife, Empress Theodora, opposite him, are attended by soldiers, courtiers and clergy.  Everyone faces us boldly, looking straight ahead as they bear the cup and plate for the Communion rite of wine and bread.  Fifteen centuries haven't diminished the red, blue, purple and green mosaics and the gold that beams forth.  

As Verdiana explains the importance of the people in the panels, I unconsciously straighten my shoulder, then bow my head slightly.  The gesture acknowledges the strength of the imperial retinue and the artistry that sustains their royal presence.  Verdiana has seen these figures since her teens, yet she says, “They continue to inspire me.”  

I agree but just across the walkway, I step into the smallest, darkest and, for me, most inspiring site of the day.  Theories and lore vary, but it doesn't matter to me if this oratory was built for, or used as, the Mausoleum of Empress Galla Placidia.  This is a piece of heaven.  As I step through heavy curtains into the 40 x 30-foot cruciform space, I'm spun into a transcendent, midnight blue sky blazing with 570 gold stars.  

They swirl me, metaphorically, into the central cupola.  Like an ethereal compass, they lead me into each corner.  Symmetry is the guiding principal, even reducing the number of apostles to eight so each of the four rotunda lunettes is balanced by two figures at each window.  

Waiting until I absorb a good measure of the scene, Verdiana points out the Good Shepherd surrounded by attentive sheep and St. Laurence on his way to martyrdom.  The vocabulary of symbols, so familiar when these mosaics were created, is refreshed for me when Verdiana notes details such as the flaming gridiron used to torture the saint.

Silent again and aware that we need to move on, I revel in the wealth of blues and golds   Though I know Van Gogh never stepped foot in Ravenna, these intense colors conjure one of my favorite paintings, Starry Night.               

Verdiana recommends the Domus dei Tappeti di Pietra (House of the Stone Carpets) as our last stop.  Behind the sanctuary of San Eufemia on Via Barbiani, steps lead down to a significant 1993 archeological find.  Nine feet below the street, walkways and good lighting make it easy to see the well preserved mosaic floors of a sixth century villa.  

A two-year dig at this location also uncovered the first century paved roadways beneath me.  The Domus site incorporates several structures and a highlight is the wall decoration called, Dance of the Gods of the Seasons.  While it's subdued in color, the scene is lively with movement.  

“This is very rare for that time,” says Verdiana as she notes the use of human figures to represent the yearly cycle.  Details are telling.  Each figure is suitably crowned: summer sports corn, autumn has a harvest headpiece, winter wears bulrushes and spring is festooned with a ringlet of roses.  I wish their hands could part so I might join their merry circle, but it's time to go.  

The night is full dark as Verdiana and I pause at Dante's Tomb on the street that bears his name.  I'm no Dante scholar but I do remember a line from The Divine Comedy.  “L'esperienza de questa dolce vita.”  My day in Ravenna is certainly as he says “the experience of this sweet life.”

  --Barbara Wysocki

The Details

How to See the Mosaics

Visit and for addresses, opening hours and more.

Private Tour Guide

To contact Verdiana or other guides from the Associazione Culturale Ad Arte, visit or e-mail them at  Their fees range from 130 to 200 euros for a half- day and from 270 to 350 euros for a full day.

Photo credit: giasco,

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