If Ravenna is not on your top five list of must-visit places in Italy, you would not be alone. Even if you have never heard of it, well . . . you could be forgiven. Ravenna is a bit off the beaten path and away from the crowds of tourists. Within its pedestrian-zoned historic center, Ravenna has beautiful cobblestone streets, nice squares, traditional Italian restaurants, and plenty of public gardens and parks. But the true treasure of Ravenna is the breathtakingly beautiful mosaics that showcase the beauty and historical significance of Byzantine art.
Ravenna is a city in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, renowned for its stunning Byzantine mosaics that adorn its ancient churches. These remarkable artworks, dating back 1,400 years, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a must-visit destination for art and history enthusiasts.
Ravenna has a rich historical past – it was a Roman city, then became the capital of the Western Roman Empire, then capital of the kingdom of Theodoric the Goth, and eventually the center of Byzantine power in Italy.
One of the most significant periods in Ravenna's history was the Byzantine era, which began in the 6th century when the city became the capital of the Byzantine Empire in Italy. During this time, Ravenna experienced a period of great artistic and cultural flourishing. The Byzantine emperors, particularly Justinian I and his wife Theodora, commissioned the construction of magnificent churches and mausoleums adorned with intricate mosaics. These mosaics not only served as decorative elements but were also used to convey religious narratives and political messages, solidifying the Christian message during the Byzantine era.
The Ravenna Mosaics, found in eight UNESCO-designated buildings, showcase the artistry and devotion of the time. They depict biblical scenes, saints, and emperors, and were designed to convey religious narratives symbolizing the triumph of faith over adversity.
The mosaics were created by Byzantine artisans, likely from Byzantium, who employed intricate techniques to bring these artworks to life. Using thousands of tiny tesserae, artisans meticulously crafted the mosaics, allowing for the creation of intricate details and vibrant colors. The tesserae were made from colored glass, marble, and other materials, and were carefully arranged to form intricate patterns and images. The artisans used a technique known as opus tessellatum, which involved placing the tesserae directly onto wet mortar to ensure a secure and long-lasting bond. The durability and longevity of Ravenna's mosaics are a testament to the skill and craftsmanship of their creators.
Six of Ravenna’s eight UNESCO monuments are in the city center, within walking distance of one another. So even if you have just one day in Ravenna, you can still see all of these sites. We comfortably saw all 6 in a single day. And, while it would be understandable if you thought, “do I really need to see 6 different mosaics? They’re probably going to all look the same after a while” . . . I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how unique and captivating each site is - no two are alike.
We even had time to visit Dante’s Tomb. The great Florentine poet is one of the most famous residents of Ravenna - having moved there in exile in 1318. He died three years later in 1321. Despite Florence’s attempts to have his body returned to his birthplace, his remains still rest in Ravenna in a small mausoleum.
The Ravenna Mosaics are truly a testament to the rich history and artistic brilliance of this enchanting Italian city. Each site offers a unique glimpse into the splendor of Byzantine art and the devotion of early Christianity. Visiting these extraordinary mosaics is like stepping back in time, where beauty and spirituality converge in a mesmerizing display of colors and craftsmanship. Ravenna truly stands as a treasure trove of history and art.
And on a personal note, for those like me, whose background or faith is not Christianity, I encourage you not to let that get in the way of this magnificent experience of art. Even as they depict deeply religious themes, Ravenna's mosaics are spectacular, inviting visitors from all walks of life to appreciate their timeless splendor. Regardless of your religious background or belief system, Ravenna welcomes you to delve into its rich mosaic heritage and discover the wonders of its art, culture, and history. First and foremost, the mosaics are art . . . spectacular and beautiful. The rest is simply history.