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Ravenna is an important town situated close to the Adriatic sea, to the east of the Emilia-Romagna region of central Italy. In many ways Ravenna is a typical Italian town, with the 'usual' range of piazzas and churches, historic buildings and a pleasant historic centre to explore. But Ravenna has something extra to offer...
The city was a very important capital in Europe around the 5th-6th century, and numerous important religious monuments were built at that time, and many of them decorated with spectacular mosaics - as a consequence there are eight important historic monuments in Ravenna from this period that together are listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Although the town is best known for these historic buildings and the very fine mosaics they contain, Ravenna also has many other buildings and sights of interest, and is also just a few kilometres from several popular coastal resorts and long sandy beaches.
As a result, although our visitor guide below focusses on the UNESCO monuments you might like to allow several days for a visit and combine a stay at the beach with a historical tour of Ravenna.
Mosaics and monuments in Ravenna
The eight UNESCO listed heritage sites in Ravenna date from the 5th-6th centuries, and all are worth visiting. Here we can do little to convey the spectacle of walls covered with glittering gold and glass in multiple colours, and the wide range of stories that are depicted, even less the experience of being surrounded by these pictures - but rest assured they are often spectacular!
Archbishop's Chapel: this small 6th century private chapel is the smallest of the UNESCO sites in Ravenna, and one of the least visited. It is found on the first floor of the Bishop's Palace and although parts of the original mosaics were replaced by paintings in the 16th century the remaining mosaics in the vault are very impressive.
Arian Baptistry: A small octagonal baptistry dating from around 500 AD, the baptitry itself is interesting but the highlight is the mosaic in the dome representing Christ being baptised, surrounded by the 12 apostles.
Note in particular how Christ is represented in this mosaic by a youthful young man, as was common for the first few centuries of Christianity, rather than the bearded adult that was adopted later. See also the Christ pictured in the Basilica Saint Vitale.
Basilica of Saint Apollinare Nuovo:The interior of this early 6th century basilica is remarkable for the number of detailed mosaics running along both sides of the nave that relate numerous biblical stories
Basilica of San Vitale: constructed to an octagonal design in the 6th century, this is one of the most important examples of Byzantine art in Europe. The church is unusual in that the focus is in the centre of the building rather than on an altar at the end of a long nave, as we expect to see in later churches, with a series of inset arches and marble columns all around this central space.
The church, its fine paintings and decoration are in themselves architecturally interesting and very impressive, but the mosaics in San Vitale are exceptional - laid out in extraordinary detail, they largely represent scenes from the bible and the byzantine era.
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia: This mausoleum is just behind the Basilica of San Vitale and dates from 430 AD, making it one of the oldest religious monuments in the city.
It is also one of the most decorative, with marble at ground level up to about two metres above the ground and several substantial mosaic pictures and a large area of mosaic patterns above.
Despite the name of the mausoleum it is said that Galla Placidia was never actually buried here, although it is possible she commissioned the building to be used for that purpose
Mausoleum of Theodoric:This small mausoleum dates from 520 AD and is 10-sided in shape, on two levels and with an enormous single carved stone as a roof.
Theodoric was interred here but his remains were removed during the byzantine period. This mausoleum is listed by UNESCO because of its architectural interest but does not contain mosaics.
Neon Baptistry: This baptistry is the oldest of the monuments in Ravenna, being built at the beginning of the 5th century - although the mosaics were added later, at the end of the 5th century.
It is octagonal in shape and was built on the site of a Roman bathhouse. The dome mosaics are exceptional and represent the baptism of Christ surrounded by the 12 apostles (as in the Arian baptistry, although the artwork is quite different here).
Note however that the head of Christ, the arm of Saint John the Baptist and the plate he holds are all restorations from much later, and may not be faithful to the originals.
This octagonal style is commonly used in early baptistrys throughout the Christian world - the eight sides represent the seven days of the week and also the Day of the resurrection.
Basilica of Sant Apollinare in Classe: this basilica is the latest of the monuments, being built in the 6th century, and is situated at Classe, a few kilometres outside Ravenna.
Although the original mosaics that lined noth sides of the nave (as in the Basilica of Saint Apollinaire Nuovo) have disappeared, those in the dome above the apse are extremely detailed and impressive.
Other attractions in Ravenna
The centre of the town is around Piazza del Popolo, an attractive square surrounded by impressive 15th century buildings. The streets that lead off from the square are also very pleasant to explore.
You can also visit the Church of San Francesco to see the adjacent marble lined tomb of Dante who lived here from 1302 (after he had been exiled from Florence) until his death in 1321. It was in Ravenna that he wrote his great masterwork, the Divine Comedy, telling the story of his travels with Virgil through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.
There is also a high quality National Museum that has an extensive range of artefacts covering a wide period of history and with numerous paintings, artworks and archaeological finds to enjoy.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Emilia-Romagna guide.