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A glimpse into the 1,500-year-old Byzantine soul of Ravenna



A few years ago, I spent a couple of weeks in Istanbul, which is a fascinating city. I actually prefer the city's original name, Byzantium. To me, that sounds so much more exotic and conjures images of a fascinating period during the final centuries of the Roman Empire. For it was Roman Emperor Constantine I who changed the name of Byzantium to Nova Roma in about 330 and after his death, it was changed again to Constantinople( the city of Constantine).

Just a few hundred years later, artistic attention shifted to Ravenna. Briefly a capital of eastern Rome during its fall, Ravenna became a western outpost of the Byzantine Empire in about 540 under the Byzantine emperor Justinian. I definitely felt that connection between ancient Byzantium and modern Italy when I visited Ravenna in mid-June.

I've written before about my day trip to Ravenna, which is almost on the Adriatic Sea, not too far south of Venice. But today, I thought I would add my own photos from my visit, as well as a bit more history gleaned from a wonderful book simply titled Ravenna and loaned to me by Colleen (a fellow Slow Traveler.)

I took the top two photos in Ravenna's Neonian Baptistry, a small jewel box and the most ancient remaining monument in Ravenna (Colleen's book suggested it might have been built over a Roman bath.) Completed at the end of the 5th century, this was also my favourite site in all of Ravenna.

The very top photo shows the mosaic covering the domed ceiling in the Baptistry (which is one of eight Ravenna structures designed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.) The ceiling mosaic depicts John the Baptist baptizing Jesus as He stands waist-high in the Jordan River, depicted as veils. To one side stands a pagan water god with a reed in one hand and a garment in the other, representing the Jordan. A procession of the twelve apostles is shown in a circle around the center mosaic, ending with Saint Peter meeting Saint Paul.

The second top photo shows one of the eight columns that circle the interior, and covered with an arabesque mosaic of acanthus leaves.


Ravenna once served as the seat of the Western Roman Empire and later, the Kingdom of the Ostrogoths and the Exarchate of Ravenna. In 49 BC, Ravenna was the site where Julius Caesar gathered his forces before crossing the Rubicon. Ravenna later become an important military harbour, and remained a seaport on the Adriatic until the early Middle Ages (which helps to explain the Eastern influences in the city.)

The above photo is from the most famous of Ravenna's sights, the Basilica of San Vitale. It shows mosaics in the bowl-shaped vault of the apse and depicts Christ, the Redeemer, sitting on the celestial globe. The mosaics in San Vitale are incredibly lively, with rich colours and vivid depictions of the landscape, plants and birds.

San Vitale has been described as among the most important monuments of early Christian art in Italy, and is perhaps best known for its magnificent mosaics, strongly influenced by Byzantine artists. The basilica, built on a central octagonal plan, was founded by Giulianus Argentarius, commissioned by Bishop Ecclesius and consecrated by the Archbishop Maximian in 548


The above photo, also from San Vitale, shows the Emperor Justinian, with other important figures including the archbishop Maximian, representing imperial religious politics.


This rather blurry photo (above) is of mosaics in the presbytery showing Moses receiving the sacred tables from Mount Sinai -- part of a larger piece showing various scenes from the Bible.


Continuing that same theme, this photo shows details from the life of Abraham; specifically, Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son.


Even the floors in San Vitale are decorated with beautiful mosaics!


There were so many other gorgeous sites where I couldn't get photos, including the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. But what visit to Ravenna would be complete without quick stop at the tomb of the brilliant Dante Alighieri whose funeral was held there in1321.

Comments (13)


Stunning photos Sandra! Ravenna sounds amazing, I'd love to see these mosaics someday. And I agree that Byzantium has a much better ring than the other names! Fascinating entry (as usual), thanks!

What a treat to find your wonderful blog entry this early morning as I sip a first cup of coffee! AND thanks for such a wonderful "refresher course". Maurizio and I have decided that we will go back again this fall for a weekend. Wish you could join us!

Kathy (Trekcapri):

Hi Sandra, this is a wonderful and detailed post describing the beautiful mosaics in Ravenna. Brought back so many great memories of seeing them in person for me. It really has to be ranked as one of the most memorable visits for me because of their history and beauty.

Thanks for sharing your photos and experiences seeing them. Have a great day.


Hi Anne, welcome home from your vacation on The Rock! Ravenna really is remarkable.

Hello Mary, thanks so much for your kind words. I'm glad to hear that you and Maurizio are planning a fall trip to Ravenna (it was so incredibly hot when I was there in June, it was almost painful to move between sites.)

But it is such a remarkable city, with so very many UNESCO World Heritage Sites of enormous beauty, close together in one place. I will return, if only to see S.Apollinare in Classe. You've recommended it so highly and I regret not getting there -- this time.

Kathy, I'm glad to help refresh your memories about such a beautiful site!


As usual, an amazing post. Thanks for all the history, and the beautiful photos.I especially love the mosaics floor in San Vitale, and the ceiling mosaics in the Baptistery is stunning.

Thanks for sharing.

Great post to read with my cappuccino this morning. :)


Very nice. Thanks for posting images that I don't usually see of Ravenna's mosaics. Definitely on my must-see list next time (Oct. 2010?).


Candi, Leslie, thanks so much!

Vicky, I hope that it works out for you and that you're able to travel again to Italy next year. Ravenna is definitely worth seeing!

I really want to vist Ravenna someday. The mosaics are gorgeous! And I didn't know that Dante was buried there - that's a beautiful altarpiece for him.

Barb Cabot:

Dear Sandra, Thank you for this most interesting history account on Ravenna. I learn so much from your blog! Many many years ago I got sidetracked to Ravenna because a travel partner became ill while there. We stayed for a week which was unplanned but has remained so memorable a time. After seeing your post I think I do need to go back. the memory of the mosaics I saw still call to me.


Annie, I think you would really enjoy Ravenna (and it's not too far from Venice for a day trip.) I think I mentioned before that nothing can top Basilica San Marco for the most spectacular, well-preserved mosaics that I have ever seen -- in a single venue.

But one of the amazing things about Ravenna is how many different sites there are, all boasting wonderful, interesting mosaics. It really is a bit like stepping back in time.

Barb, I didn't know that you had spent an entire week in Ravenna. My stars -- your travel partner must have been really ill! But what a wonderful opportunity to really get to know Ravenna and its wonders.

Sandra, fascinating post and so informative! It brought back so many wonderful memories of my visit in 2001. I marveled at these superb and well-preserved mosaics. These are my favorite in all of Italy, along with the mosaics in San Marco in Venice and in the Duomo in Monreale (Sicily).

Thanks for this informative post. I really enjoyed seeing your photos and reading more about the meaning behind each. I rushed right through Ravenna and did not take the time to read up very much first before either trip. I even downloaded some podcasts on each place to visit but then forgot that I downloaded them until a few days after my visit this summer.

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