The UNESCO series: Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna


Today I am presenting you a Unesco site that, despite it’s incredible artistic and historic value is still pretty quiet.

Ravenna is a medium sized Italian city of approximately 160.000 inhabitants, whose Early Christian Monuments are listed by UNESCO in world heritage since 1996. The city has been the capital of the italian District of the Bizantine Empire (called Exarchate of Italy) between 584 and 751 a.c. and that is why it is home to a group of monumental buildings that not only display the mastery and the architectural abilities of the early christians but also a unique example of the mosaic decorative style of Byzantium (nowadays called Istanbul).

If you follow the traditional Bell’Italia route which usually starts in Venice, proceeds to Florence and ends in Rome, you need to make a short detour to reach Ravenna, halfway between Venice and Bologna. It’s worth the extra mileage.

Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna. Photo from the web

All eight buildings – the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Neonian Baptistery, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, the Arian Baptistery, the Archiepiscopal Chapel, the Mausoleum of Theodoric, the Church of San Vitale and the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe – were constructed in the 5th and 6th centuries. They show great artistic skill, including a wonderful blend of Graeco-Roman tradition, Christian iconography and oriental and Western styles.

Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna. Photo from the web

The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, small but lavishly decorated in the inside with inspiring mosaics against a dark blue background, reflects the Western Roman architectural tradition. The Neonian Baptistery, ornate with its inlaid marble, stuccos and multi-coloured mosaics in the cupola, is the finest and most complete surviving example of an Early Christian baptistery. From the peak of the Goths’ reign, the Arian Baptistery preserves mosaics showing the baptism of Christ and iconographic details that reflect principles of the Arian faith. The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo was also built during the reign of Theodoric as a Palatine chapel, with mosaics in traditional Roman style that also show a strong Byzantine influence.

Mosaics of Ravenna. Photo from the web

The Mausoleum of Theodoric is a unique and singular architectural work, constructed out of large blocks of Istrian stone around a central space, and is the only surviving example of a tomb of a barbarian king of this period. The Archbishop’s Chapel, on the other hand, is the only orthodox monument built during Theodoric’s reign. The Basilica of San Vitale, from the time of Justinian, is one of the highest creations of Byzantine architecture in Italy, and combines elements from both the Western and Eastern traditions. Lastly, five kilometres from Ravenna we find the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, an imposing building with its impressive forms, cylindrical bell tower, spacious interiors and rich marbles and mosaics.

Mosaics of Ravenna. Photo from the web

The Early Christian buildings of Ravenna are unique testimonies of the artistic contacts and developments in a highly significant period of the cultural development in Europe. They constitute an epitome of religious and funerary art and architecture during the 5th and 6th centuries AD. The mosaics are among the best surviving examples of this form of art in Europe and have added significance due to the blending of western and eastern motifs and techniques.

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna. Photo from the web

2 thoughts on “The UNESCO series: Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna

  1. I really enjoyed this post. I visited Ravenna for a single day in fall of 2019; it was a day trip from Bologna where we were staying for 3 months. For those with only a day to spend, it’s manageable with planning but I could have easily spent two days enjoying this lovely city. I plan to return (hopefully as part of our “Fingers Crossed Tour of 2021” this fall. The one thing I didn’t have then, but do now, is a good set of binoculars to view the mosaic works that are higher up and on the ceilings. The distance perspective is wonderful too, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also great to view the intricate works.

    While visiting one of the sites we were able to watch some young mosaic students working on projects.

    I highly recommend visiting Ravenna and thans so much Matteo for this great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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