The small city of Ravenna punches well above its weight for its size when it comes to interesting places. It has incredible mosaics dating from the 5th and 6th centuries, it is the final resting place of Italy’s most famous poet, and has been a seat of power for three major dynasties. Located in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, it also has an abundance of delicious traditional foods to try.
The wonder of the mosaics
Beautiful glittery mosaics can be found across Ravenna, housed in structures built in the 5th and 6th centuries. These are evidence of the city’s multiple influences – Graeco-Roman, early Christian, oriental and Western. The city has eight world heritage listed buildings, most famous for their early Christian mosaics. Of these, five are within easy walking distance of each other and can be accessed by purchasing a combined ticket:
- Basilica di San Vitale – a huge and awe inspiring church, the interior is vast with detailed painted ceilings alongside the beautiful mosaics which include various scenes from the Old Testament.
- Mausoleo di Galla Placidia – Galla Placidia was the sister of the Roman Emperor Honorius who moved the seat of the Western Roman Empire from Rome to Ravenna in AD 402. This small building has incredible patterns and pictures in its mosaics, including a picture of Jesus as the Good Shepard. The Mausoleum also houses three sarcophagi. It is not known whether Galla Placidia’s body is actually entombed there as the contents of the sarcophagi were accidentally burned in the 1500s.
- Battistero Neoniano – this baptistery was built in the 5th century and renovated by Bishop Neon who added the mosaics which decorate the interior, with a scene on the roof showing the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist.
- Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo – the mosaics in this building are slightly different as they go the length of the room, rather than in alcoves and domes. They are stunning in magnitude and detail with a line of martyrs and virgins leaving Ravenna, each with their names written in the mosaics.
- Cappella Arcivescovile – this Archbishop’s Chapel is a small room accessed through a museum with historic artefacts from the rebuilding of the Cathedral. The mosaics are from the 6th century and include a picture of Jesus as a warrior which is the earliest known artwork of Christ in this form.
Ravenna has embraced its fame as a city of mosaics and continued the tradition into the present. There are mosaics everywhere, from street signs, to bicycles, to the modern and contemporary mosaics displayed in the city’s Art Museum.
The Mausoleum of a Barbarian King
The ‘Barbarian’ King Theuderic of the Ostrogoths, also known as Theuderic the Great, was a ruler who was able to broker cooperation between the vastly different cultures of the Germanic Ostrogoths and the Latin Roman Empire, whilst living side by side. Such was his influence, the Byzantine Empire rose up and allied with the Franks to overthrow him in AD 540.
Prior to this, Theuderic built himself a mausoleum in Ravenna. Situated slightly outside of the city center, it was built in AD 520 of Istrian stone.
Its decagon lower level, circular upper level and huge dome are not only impressive but quite different from the other Graeco-Roman structures in Ravenna. It is said to be the only surviving example of such a structure from this period.
You can buy a ticket to see inside or simply admire it while walking around the surrounding park.
The resting place of an exiled poet
Dante Alighieri is Italy’s most famous poet. Exiled from his native Florence for supporting the wrong side in a rather potent family feud, he wandered around Italy before being invited to Ravenna in 1318 by Guido II da Polenta. In Ravenna he completed his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, before he died and was buried in the Church of the Frati Minori in Ravenna.
Almost 200 years after his death, the Florentines began to recognise Dante’s genius and demanded the return of Dante’s body, backed up by an order from the Pope. Instead, the Franciscans hid the body and an empty coffin was sent instead. After being hidden for a few hundred years, the coffin was discovered in 1865. Dante’s remains are still in Ravenna, to the frustration of Florence whose last attempt to get the poet was in the 1970s. They were again denied.
Dante’s tomb is a small structure on Via Alighieri. The tomb includes a bas relief of the poet and an 18th century lamp that is run on oil donated by Florence each year in September, as penance for the exile.
“Those ancients who in poetry presented the golden age, who sang its happy state, perhaps, in their Parnassus, dreamt this place. Here, mankind’s root was innocent; and here were every fruit and never-ending spring; these streams–the nectar of which poets sing”
Purgatorio, Canto XXXIV
Ravenna is in the Romagna part of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. In addition to the region’s traditional cuisine of cured pork meats served in platters, parmesan cheese and ragù, there are piadinas.
Piadinas (also known as Piadas) originate in the Romagna part of the region and are crispy flatbreads made from flour, lard and salt and stuffed with vegetables, cheese and meats. They can also be made using olive oil rather than lard.
Try Ca’ de Ven for some traditional cuisine and local Sangiovese wine.