The Amazing Mosaics of Ravenna

Ravenna is just about an hour from Bologna. Located near the Adriatic beaches, it is a small, sleepy city with a glorious history. It was the capital of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. Later, it became a major city in the Byzantine Empire, and after that, the seat of the Kingdom of the Lombards.

So! That’s quite a bit of history, right there. All those kingdoms left a wealth of architecture and art in their wake: Ravenna contains eight UNESCO World Heritage sites dating from Roman and Byzantine times.

I remembered some of this from art history classes, but I was still unprepared for the sheer quantity of eye-popping mosaics that we saw during our 48 hours in Ravenna. After all, the locals have been producing them for over 2,000 years, from Roman times until the present. There are several mosaic workshops in operation today.

Here is a small sample of the beauties on offer, starting with the 5th century Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. Originally an Arian Christian church under the Ostragothic King Theodoric, it was reconsecrated as a Catholic church by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.

Rather plain on the outside. (My husband was bummed that we couldn’t climb the tower!)
Justinian I  reconsecrated the church as ‘Sanctus Martinus in Coelo Aureo.”
The interior of the church is a mix of styles.
A 6th century procession of Hellenic style virgins. Male martyrs were on the other side: I thought it was interesting that there was an equivalent number of each.
The Three Wise Men, looking snazzy in their animal-print leggings.
The Virgin and angels.
Jesus and more angels.
Another view of the nave.

So, that was something. Next up, the 4th or 5th century Neonian Baptistery, the oldest monument in Ravenna.

The Baptistery used to be three meters taller: now the floor is three meters underground.
John the Baptist baptizes Jesus.
The twelve apostles circle the ceiling.
One of the apostles giving another the side-eye.

The nearby Basilica di San Francesco is fairly plain by comparison, but does have this very 5th century crypt underneath it. The whole church has sunk until the crypt is well below the water table. Now goldfish swim in it!

5th century mosaics, goldfish, and coins tossed into the pool.

Time for a walk through the modern streets of Ravenna (there may be have been a gelato stop along the way, I’m not telling.)


Next up, the Basilica di San Vitale, again a UNESCO site, and again, dating from the 5th century. More mosaics! Including two famous portraits of the Emperor Justinian and his wife the powerful Empress Theodora. I definitely remember those from art history classes.

The Basilica di San Vitale.
The interior of the Basilica.
The interior of the Basilica.
Jesus and San Vitale.
The Empress Theodora and her retinue.
The Emperor Justinian with his guard and representatives of the church.
More gorgeousness.
We wrapped up the day at this lovely outdoor restaurant beside the Baptistery.

The next morning, before leaving town, we stopped at the Museo d’Arte della Città di Ravenna. This was one of those odd little museums that most tourists skip over. In fact, the staff seemed a bit surprised to see us. But there were some really nice examples of modern mosaic art to see in it; some professional, others created by local art students.

A mosaic rendition of a Chagall painting.
This mosaic was created out of the tops of used spray paint cans!
My personal favorite, a mosaic of birds in flight.

Ravenna pretty much blew my mind. So much to take in, in such a short time! I’d like to go back one day to give it another look, maybe with a guide who could tell me more about the amazing art and architecture.


  1. The artistry in such elaborate mosaics is truly mind blowing — what a great find to enjoy! I think that I would have been hauling around a few extra pounds of mosaic art from the gift shops/markets (and gelato!)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You would think! But actually, what I saw was pretty mind-blowingly expensive! So, I didn’t buy anything–but I did enjoy some great food.


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