Guide To the Mosaics in Ravenna, Italy’s Byzantium

the apse mosaic in Sant’Apollinare in Classe, a must see attraction in Ravenna
the apse mosaic in Sant’Apollinare in Classe

Planning a trip to Italy? If you’re an art lover, put the town of Ravenna on your Italy itinerary. Ravenna is a glittering jewel box of 5th and 6th century mosaic art.

The city owns some of the world’s most important Byzantine mosaics. The poet Dante described Ravenna’s mosaics as “the sweet color of Oriental sapphires.”

Ravenna was once the epicenter of the Western World, when the Byzantine Empire made Ravenna its capitol. The Byzantine rulers decorated Ravenna’s churches with gorgeous mosaics.

ultimate guide to the mosaics of Ravenna Italy

This artistic legacy rivals, or even surpasses, that of Venice and Istanbul. Ravenna has a whopping 8 UNESCO sites to explore.

In this Ravenna travel guide, I give you a short history of Ravenna, describe the mosaic attractions, and tell you exactly where to find them.

This small quiet city in the Emilia-Romagna region of northeast Italy isn’t as well known as Italy’s other beautiful towns. But Ravenna is a lovely off the beaten path hidden gem in Italy, a nice stop on the way from Venice to Florence.

Dante Square in Ravenna Italy
Dante Square in Ravenna

A Short History of Ravenna: the Byzantine Empire Strikes Back

How did Ravenna come to be such an important repository of Byzantine art? Let’s take a look at Ravenna’s history.

In 410, Rome was sacked by Visigoths. In 476, the last western emperor (Romulus August) was deposed, marking the official fall of Rome.

Although the Roman Empire fell in the west, it continued to exist in the east. In 330, Emperor Constantine had made Constantinople (now called Istanbul) his eastern capital. Modern historians simply renamed the Eastern Roman Empire the “Byzantine Empire.”

the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna
the Basilica of San Vitale

After Constantine’s death, the empire began to decline. In 383, Theodosius I ascended the throne when the Roman Empire was in great danger. Theodosius was a successful administrator and secured his borders.

Theodosius decided to recapture the former western Roman territories. In 401, to further this goal, his son Honorius established a new western capital in Ravenna. During this time, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and the Baptistery of Neon were built.

Why does Theodosius choose Ravenna, a backwater coastal town? Mostly because its swampy marshland was a hard-to-attack spot near the Adriatic. If Theodosius had to beat a hasty escape, he could.

mosaic of Emperor Justinian in the Basilica of San Vitale
mosaic of Emperor Justinian in the Basilica of San Vitale

Honorius was a weak emperor though. In 493, he was defeated and Ravenna became the capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy. Under Theodoric the Great’s reign, the Church of Sant’Apollinaire in Classe and Theodoric’s Mausoleum were constructed.

In 540, the greatest Byzantine emperor, Justinian, came to power and took back Ravenna from the goths. Like Theodosius, he wanted to take back western Italian lands as well.

Justinian’s imperial troops conquered the surrounding area and then took Rome, forming an area known as the Byzantine Corridor. It was a land/sea route that allowed Constantinople to communicate with Rome. The pope became the representative of the Byzantine Empire in Rome.

Under Justinian, Ravenna became the sister city of Constantinople, or the “Constantinople of the West.” As Hagia Sofia was being built in Constantinople, the beautiful Basilica of San Vitale was being built in Ravenna. In it, you see an iconic image of Justinian himself.

mosaics in Sant’Apollinare in Classe
mosaics in Sant’Apollinare in Classe

In 750 or so, Ravenna’s golden heyday ended when the Lombards booted the Byzantines out. Shortly after that, Ravenna was conquered by the Franks and relegated to the role of provincial town. But it continued to grow and build, with Gothic and Baroque influences found all over the city.

Through the centuries, many famous artists and writers arrived to admire Ravenna’s sparkling mosaics — George Byron, Gustav Klimt, Oscar Wilde, and Herman Hesse. Perhaps the most famous devotee was Dante Alighieri, the author of the Divine Comedy and father of the Italian language.

After being exiled from Florence for his political beliefs, Dante spent his last three years in Ravenna, dying there in 1321. You can visit Dante’s simple marble tomb to pay your respects. It’s located in a small neoclassical temple, right next to the Basilica di San Francesco in the historic center.

mosaic of Jesus in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna
mosaic of Jesus in the Basilica of San Vitale

Ravenna: Early Christian and Byzantine Mosaics

Ravenna is overflowing with religious buildings decorated with in situ Early Christian Byzantine mosaics. There are 8 UNESCO World Heritage sites. The world’s two most famous mosaics — of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora — are here.

What you see in Ravenna is the transformation from the Roman world to the early Byzantine world. Byzantine art moved away from classical ideals and naturalism. It no longer made sense since the Greco-Roman world no longer existed.

Byzantine artists rejected the faithful reproduction of reality and adopted a flatter and more abstract style. The two dimensional art sought to depict what we couldn’t see, an intangible and ethereal world. No medium better demonstrates the glory and mystery of Byzantine culture.

Let’s tour Ravenna and visit its must see sites for viewing mosaic art. Prepare to be ravished by a golden glow.

interior of the Basilica of San Vitale
interior of the Basilica of San Vitale

Best Ravenna Destinations: Where to Find Mosaics in Ravenna

Here’s where to find the glittering mosaics of Ravenna, spread out over 8 sites.

1. Basilica of San Vitale

Finished in 547 and almost 1500 years old, the Basilica of San Vitale is Ravenna’s masterpiece. It boasts dazzling Byzantine mosaics in the presbytery and choir, meant to evoke a heavenly realm.

In the apse above the altar, there’s a mosaic depicting Christ the Redeemer. He’s sitting on an orb representing the universe. Below him flow the four rivers of paradise. On either side is an angel. Jesus hands a crown to San Vitale and a bishop holds a model of the church.

Just below is Ravenna’s pièce de résistance — two famous panels dedicated to the Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora. They show the pair making offerings to Jesus against a field of gold. They are both resplendent in fine capes and jewels, proving to the world that they’re back in charge. In reality, the mosaic is a piece of political propaganda.

Though the pair were both from lowly origins, Justinian and Theodora wear halos, testifying to their role in the divine. Justinian conflates himself with Christ and Theodora gives off mother Mary vibes. The message is clear: the peace and prosperity of the Byzantine Empire is brought to you by both the emperor and God.

mosaic of Emperor Justinian in San Vitale
mosaic of Emperor Justinian surrounded by his court

In her mosaic, Theodora is in regal purple, wearing incredibly elaborate jewelry, including a head dress. She’s bedecked in pearls (a sign of purity), and carries a chalice with big fat gems. But Theodora wasn’t exactly “pure,” though she was clever.

She started life as the beautiful daughter of a prostitute, with a speciality in showgirl dancing. Then, she became a high paid courtesan. A wily social climber, she caught the eye of Justinian. He was so besotted that he changed a law forbidding emperors to marry actresses and made Theodora the empress of his lavish court.

Despite her humble origins, Theodora became one of the world’s most formidable and ruthless women. Theodora was a real partner to Justinian and held power in her own right. She dabbled in social justice and enacted laws helping women and the downtrodden. But she also ordered the slaughter of 30,000 insurgents in 532.

mosaic of Empress Theodora and her attendants in San Vitale in Ravenna
mosaic of Empress Theodora and her attendants
a mosaic of Jesus, now bearded
a mosaic of Jesus, now bearded

The other San Vitale mosaics illustrate scenes from the Old Testament. They depict images of the 12 apostles and 4 evangelists, with the Lamb of God overseeing everything from atop the vaulted ceiling.

He represents Jesus as the sacrificial lamb. A divine offering, in contrast with the earthly riches held by the imperial couple.

In 1903, Austrian artist Gustav Klimt famously visited San Vitale. He was inspired. Klimt’s visit marked the beginning of his Golden Phase, when he created his best known works, like The Kiss.

READ: Guide To the Klimt Trail in Vienna

mosaics in San Vitale
golden mosaics in San Vitale

If you need even more information, Ravenna’s National Museum is in the monastery of San Vitale. Exhibits include a stone tablet collection, Roman and Byzantine artifacts, and 14th century frescos. It’s not included on the combined ticket though and costs 6 euros (closed Mondays).

Address: Via san Vitale 17

Hours: March to Oct open daily from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm, from Nov to Feb open daily from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm

Entry fee: cumulative ticket 9.50 euros

Interior of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
interior of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, with a starry sky

2. Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

Just across the courtyard from the basilica, you’ll come to the next site on your list, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. This tiny building was intended to be the resting place of an empress. It’s made of reused ancient Roman brick.

Galla Placidia was the wife, daughter, and granddaughter of Roman emperors. She was a powerful woman. She married the Emperor Constantius and acted as regent when her son became emperor. The mausoleum contains three sarcophagi. But Galla died in Rome and was likely buried in the old (pre-Bramante/Bernini/Michelangelo) St. Peter’s Basilica.

The exterior of the mausoleum is austere. In stark contrast, the interior is breathtaking with Ravenna’s oldest (and some say best) mosaics. UNESCO describes the site as “the earliest and best preserved of all mosaic monuments, and at the same time one of the most artistically perfect.”

the beautiful starry ceiling of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna
the beautiful starry ceiling of the mausoleum

On the ceiling, you’ll find the lovliest night sky ever produced. It’s a shallow dome depicting a sky of vivid peacock blue mosaics with white and golden stars. A golden cross is placed at dome’s center, signaling the triumph of the cross over death. The symbols of the 4 evangelists hover around the cross.

Be sure to examine two other mosaics. One is the northern lunette representing a beardless Christ as the Good Shepherd, looking very Roman, just above the entrance. The idea is that Christ is the leader of his flock. It’s very decorative, with a beauty and luminosity.

The southern lunette shows the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. The lunettes also have mosaics of deer drinking from a pond, signifying holy water as a source of life. 

Address: Via Fiandrini Benedetto

Hours: March to Oct open daily from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm, from Nov to Feb open daily from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm

Entry fee: cumulative ticket 9.50 euros

Pro tip: There’s theoretically a time limit (5 minutes) to visit this site because it’s so tiny. On a quiet day, you can go in for another 5 minutes.

mosaic of Madonna among the angels in the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo
mosaic of Madonna among the angels in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

3. Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

Built in the early 6th century by Theodoric the Great, this church was originally an Arian place of worship. The Arian cult was the official religion of the court of Emperor Theodoric.

As Goths, unlike early Christians, the Arians followed the doctrine of an Egyptian priest, Arius. He preached that Jesus was created by God and therefore subordinate in the holy trinity.

Following Justinian’s conquest of Ravenna, the basilica became a Catholic church.

It was re-dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours, a defender of the Christian doctrine against heretics. It received the name Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in the 9th century, when the body of Saint Apollinare, the first bishop of Ravenna, was moved there.

mosaics running along one of the walls
mosaics running along one of the walls

There’s a lot going on inside. On the walls of the central nave, you’ll see dazzling golden mosaics depicting the life of Jesus Christ. On the left side, processions of martyrs and virgins approach Mary and baby Jesus. On the right side, 26 martyrs approach a bearded Jesus.

But the most interesting details in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo are the detached hand and forearm wrapped around the columns of the Palatium. It’s a trace of the original Arian decoration representing the emperor Theodoric and his entourage. Every other bit of Arian decoration was eradicated, to erase the church’s former dedication.

When you’ve had your fill of mosaics, you can linger in the peaceful cloister. Then admire the Leaning Tower of Ravenna en route to your next stop.

Address: Via di Roma

Hours: March to Oct open daily from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm, from Nov to Feb open daily from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm

Entry fee: cumulative ticket 9.50 euros

ceiling mosaics depicting the Baptism of Christ in the center among the apostles in Baptistery of Neon
ceiling mosaics depicting the Baptism of Christ in the center among the apostles in Baptistery of Neon

4. Baptistery of Neon | Battistero Neoniano

Erected in 400, the Baptistery of Neon is Ravenna’s oldest monument. It may be the most well preserved baptistery in the world. It’s a fine example of mosaics with a degree of Greco-Roman influence, in contrast with the Byzantine style found in Ravenna’s other mosaics.

Intensely colored blue, green and gold mosaics decorate the whole ceiling. As befitting the building’s purpose, the images depict John the Baptist baptizing Christ in the River Jordan. There’s an outer ring with mosaics of architectural scenes, characteristic of Roman mosaics. 

Address: Piazza del Duomo

Hours: March to Oct open daily from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm, from Nov to Feb open daily from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm

Entry fee: cumulative ticket 9.50 euros

mosaics in the Chapel of Sant'Andrea in Ravenna
Jesus as a warrior king in the chapel of Sant’Andrea

5. Chapel of Sant’Andrea | Archbishop’s Chapel

Adjacent to the baptistery is the Ravenna’s cathedral museum, the Museo Arcivescovile. In a hidden chapel, you’ll find a mosaic with an extremely rare depiction of Jesus. He’s portrayed as a victorious warrior, his feet on a snake and lion.

The chapel is quite tiny, and not many people bother to see it. But it’s worth going inside to see the Jesus mosaic, the golden starry sky, and the animal mosaics. There are over 99 species of birds depicted.

Address: Piazza del Duomo

Hours: March to Oct open daily from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm, from Nov to Feb open daily from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm

Entry fee: cumulative ticket 9.50 euros

the nave of the Basilica of Sant Apollinare in Classe, with mosaics from the 6th century
the nave of the Basilica of Sant Apollinare in Classe, with mosaics from the 6th century

6. Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe

It’s time to leave Ravenna and travel 4 km to nearby Classe, the ancient seaport of Ravenna. The town boasts two masterpieces – the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe and the Classis Musuem. 

The huge church reflects the town’s former importance. Until the 9th century, it housed the remains of its titular saint. They were taken back to Ravenna to to keep them safe them from marauding pirates.

The church boasts spectacular Byzantine mosaics covering its nave and apse. The apse is especially dazzling. The theme is the divine nature of Jesus. The tip top is golden and dominated by a bejeweled cross, with the effigy of God at its center.

The lower part of the apse represents a green, paradisiac valley with Sant’Apollinare at the center. He’s surrounded by plants, rocks, birds and 12 lambs, symbolizing the 12 apostles. 

Address: Via Romea Sud 224 Classe

Getting there: You’ll have to take a bus or drive. Bus #4 leaves from Ravenna’s rail station and Piazza Caduti.

Hours: Mon to Sat 8:30 am to 7:30 pm, Sun 1:00 pm to 7:00 pm

Entry fee: 5 euros

dramatic entrance of the Classis Museum in Ravenna
dramatic entrance of the Classis Museum

7. Classis Museum

If you want to know more about Ravenna’s history, head over to the Classis Museum after visiting Sant’Apollinare in Classe. 

This recently opened archaeological museum is worth a visit just for its striking architecture. It’s located in a beautiful building, which was a former sugar factory. At the entrance, there’s a striking blue mosaic decorating the entrance staircase, which evokes a wave.

In chronological order, the Classis Museum illustrates the history of Ravenna from its origin to the year 1000. Over 600 exhibits are on display, including examples of Roman mosaics. The collection comes to life with 3D reconstructions, scale models, and films.

Address: Via Classense 29 Classe

Hours: 10:00 am to 6:30 pm

Entry fee: 5 euros, 1 euro for an audio guide

central mosaic in the Arian Baptistery in Ravenna
central mosaic in the Arian Baptistery

8. Arian Baptistery

The Arian Baptistery was built by Ostrogoth king Theodoric the Great at the end of the 5th century, after the Byzantine Empire consolidated its power. It was erected as a political move.

Two influential groups in the empire, the Goths (Arians) and the Latins (Christians), had different views of Christ. Only the Christians had a baptistery. To keep the peace, Theodoric built the Arian Baptistery to distinguish it from the Baptistery of Neon built a century earlier.

The Arian Baptistery is a small octagonal shaped building. The former stucco and decorations are long gone. But there are still beautiful mosaics in the cupola.

It’s a rare example of art from a lost religion. The concentric mosaics show (what else?) the procession of the 12 apostles and the baptism of Jesus. An androgynous Jesus is shown as both an earthly and divine being. A dove hovers above his head, the symbol of the Holy Spirit.

Address: Via Degli Ariani 1

Hours: temporarily closed

Entry fee: 2 euros

the Mausoleum of Theodoric just outside Ravenna
the Mausoleum of Theodoric just outside Ravenna

9. Mausoleum of Theodoric

While there are no mosaics in this mausoleum, it’s one of Ravenna’s UNESCO-listed sites. It’s located just outside the town center. But it’s easy to walk to.

Built in 520, the mausoleum is the tomb of Theodoric the Great. Its roof is made of a single Istrian stone slab weighing 230 tons. Historians don’t know how the stone was moved to Ravenna.

Address: Via delle Industrie 14

Hours: March to Nov from 8:300 am 7:00 pm. From Nov to Mar 8:30 am to 4:30 pm

Entry fee: 4 euros

Ravenna's elegant central square, Piazza del Popolo
Ravenna’s elegant central square, Piazza del Popolo

How to Get to Ravenna

By Plane The closest airports to Ravenna are Bologna (1 hour) and Venice (2 hours).

By Train – If you’re traveling around Italy by train, head to Bologna and hop on a regional train. There are hourly departures. Travel time is 1 hour to 1:15. The train station is an easy walk to the town center. When you arrive, walk straight down Via Farini.

By Car – The closest motorway to Ravenna is the A14. Travel time by car from Bologna is about an hour.

Day Trip With direct trains departing hourly, Ravenna makes a great day trip from Venice, Florence, Bologna, or Ferrara. You could also stop in Ravenna on your way from Venice or Padua to Florence.

Jesus with a herd of lambs in the Gall Placidia Mausoleum
Jesus with a herd of lambs in the Gall Placidia Mausoleum

How To Get Tickets for the Mosaics in Ravenna

You can see 5 of the best Ravenna mosaics (the first 5 listed above) with a combined ticket. You can purchase it online here. It’s valid for a single entry per site over 7 days.

Purchasing the combination ticket is the ONLY way to see these 5 sites. In summer months, there may be a 2 euro surcharge to see the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia.

The other 3 sites listed above require a specific admission ticket that you can purchase onsite.You can also purchase tickets in person at the Ravenna Tourist Office in Piazza San Francesco. You can get a map or rent a bike for the day. Ravenna is very bike friendly and pedestrianized town.

mosaics in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. image source: Petar Milošević
mosaics of the port of Classe in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. image source: Petar Milošević

Sample Itineraries for Ravenna: How To See the Sites Efficiently

If you are only in Ravenna for a half day trip, you won’t be able to see all these sites. You have to prioritize.

With only several hours, you should you focus your time and energy on these three sites: (1) the Galla Placidia Mausoleum, (2) the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and (3) the Basilica of San Vitale.

If you want to see relics of the Arian religion, substitute the Arian Baptistery for the second site. If you’re really speedy, you may be able to squeeze in the other sites after seeing the big three.

Baptistery of Neon
Baptistery of Neon

If you have a full day and are walking from the train station, I suggest you see the monuments in the center of Ravenna in this order: (1) Arian Baptistery; (2) Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo; (2) Chapel of Sant’Andrea; (4) Baptistery of Neon; (5) Basilica of San Vitale, and finally (6) the Mausoleum of Gall Placidia.

If you’re traveling by car and have ample time, consider stopping at the Classis Museum first. That will give you the perfect overview of Ravenna’s history before you see the mosaics in situ.

If you still have more time, drive or take the bus to the two sites in Classe.

Ravenna's local speciality, the piadina
Ravenna’s local speciality, the piadina

Where and What To Eat in Ravenna

If you’re in Ravenna or the entire day, you’ll need lunch. Ravenna’s local speciality is the piadina. It’s a delicious toasted flatbread stuffed with sweet or savory filling and folded over.

In the Piazza del Popolo, you’ll fine one the best piadina spots — Profumo do Piadina Laboratorio del Palato. If you want to sit down, you can try the Antica Trattorio al Gallo or Trattoria la Rustica.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to the mosaics of Ravenna. You. may enjoy these other guides to amazing Italian art.

Guide To the Best Art in Italy

Must See Art in Tuscany

How To See Michelangelo’s David in Florence

Guide to the Uffizi Gallery

Guide to the Piazza della Signoria

Guide to Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio Museum

Best Museums in Rome

Best Museums in Florence

Guide to Rome’s Borghese Gallery

Masterpieces at the Vatican

If you want to seeRavenna’s beautiful mosaics, pin it for later.

guide to the mosaics of Ravenna Italy

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