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Ravenna, a city of art and culture, is known mainly for its early Christian and Byzantine religious buildings. The city enjoyed a period of rebirth from the end of the 10th century thanks to Ravenna archbishops who sponsored the construction of new religious buildings and the restoration of the great basilicas.

Places to visit

National museum in the old Benedictine Monastery of San Vitale

The monumental complex of San Vitale features two of the city’s most important historical-artistic monuments, the Basilica of San Vitale and Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. The former monastery of San Vitale is now home to the National Museum.

The Benedictine monastery outbuilding the Basilica was founded thanks to an imperial concession to build the cloister in 999. Some parts of this structure are still visible in the National Museum of Ravenna.

The most important Benedictine monastery in the city is however annexed to San Vitale. The construction of the cloister near the Byzantine basilica is described in an Ottonian diploma of 999. We can still see some arches and windows in the left hand side of the current entrance, in the first cloister of the National Museum and inside the second room. The history of the monastery’s cloister begins in the Ottonian cloister and evolves to an impressive and articulate building structure that now houses the Superintendence for Architectural and Landscape Heritage for the provinces of Romagna (Ravenna, Ferrara, Forlì-Cesena and Rimini) and the National Museum of Ravenna.

The National Museum of Ravenna houses important works: the classical heritage, the interaction with the East, the relationship between ancient and Christian iconography and the dissemination of models in northern Europe. The textile collection features extremely rare fabrics datable to the Early Middle Ages, such as the Velo di Classe (8th-9th century), an altar cloth embroidered with the faces of Veronese bishops, and the cloths that wrapped the body of St Julian of Rimini, one of them Byzantine, the other Sassanid (9th century) and decorated with lions (now in storage). The coins collection features Italic and Byzantine specimens datable to as far back as the 10th century.

Church of San Vitale

The basilica of San Vitale is one of the most important examples of early Christian art. It was consecrated by the bishop Maximian in 547-48. Byzantine constructive elements were incorporated into spatial forms typical of Roman architecture. The sober brick exterior contrasts with the sumptuous interior, which is richly decorated with marble and mosaics and intended to reaffirm the sacredness of imperial power. The church has an octagonal plan and the apse is facing east. It represented the most direct architectural model for Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel in Aachen. The construction interventions in the basilica continued through the centuries. The Bishop Martino (810-817) commissioned a series of paintings in the chapel of the Sancta Sanctorum: it was discovered in 1903 and now is partially preserved in the National Museum of Ravenna.

So-called Theodoric’s Palace

Theodoric’s palace is depicted in a mosaic of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and historiographical tradition identified it with this brick building. What can now be seen is the narthex of the 9th century church of San Salvatore ad Calchi, traces of what was found during digs. This church was probably built near the entrance of the imperial palace and over its remains. The actual palace of Theodoric was situated in this area: originating from its interior are the mosaics preserved in the portico and in the room on the upper floor of the building that still stands today. A room of the National Museum is dedicated to finds from this area. Mosaics and marbles were taken from Theodoric’s Palace in Ravenna for the construction of Charlemagne’s imperial palace with the authorization of Pope Adrian I, granted in 787.

The building housed the exarchs during the High Middle Ages and later, the Lombard king Astolfo. It is a remarkable case of continuity of a seat of power, used by different political subjects over time.

Basilica of San Severo

Built at the end of the 6th century, it is the last basilica of Ravenna’s great early Christian cycle. In the 10th century, the main basilicas in the Ravenna area had monasteries annexed to them and such was the case for San Severo: it is mentioned in sources such as the ‘monasterium Sancti Rophili’ and was home to the Ottonian court. When Ravenna was under the domination of the Venetian Republic, in the 15th century, the basilica was torn down because in ruins. The marble and columns were in part saved and used for a new church built on a smaller plan (over the perimeter of the walls of the nave) in 1468. By 1822 this church no longer existed either. Since 1963 the Basilica and monastery complex has been the site of diggings that are still ongoing. The original building had a rectangular plan and was divided into a nave and two aisles. Like Ravenna’s other basilicas, San Severo would have been clad in marble and mosaics, above all in the presbytery and apse. The mosaics unearthed during the digs are now in part preserved in the National Museum of Ravenna.

Mausoleum of Theodoric

Situated to the northeast, on the edge of the urban area of Ravenna, it was built after 520 by the Ostrogoth king Theodoric as his own funerary monument, modelled after Roman mausoleums. It was made from large blocks of Istria stone in two decagonal orders with arched niches (lower story) and blind arches in relief (upper story). The mausoleum is topped by a cupola consisting of a single block of Istria stone weighing about 300 tons. Inside, the cross-shaped room on the ground floor was intended to be used for liturgical functions, while the upper story room houses the porphyry sarcophagus which contained Theodoric’s remains (dispersed). The Mausoleum of Theodoric was transformed into a church and took the name of Santa Maria al Faro with an outbuilding monastery. Sarcophagi of famous personalities, including Pope Victor II (1057), have been laid in the lower order niches.

Church of San Francesco

The Basilica of San Francesco was built by Bishop Neon in the second half of the 5th century. The Franciscans took possession of it in the 13th century. It was rebuilt in the 10th century and was altered several times. One of the last has been the important intervention following the 1944 air raid. The remains of the old building are still visible in an arc located in the right hand side of the entrance. It is the upper part of a door which lies at three feet of depth due to the lowering of the ground that has affected the whole area of Ravenna. The bell-tower, with a square structure, dates from the 10th or 11th century and stands up from inside the church. The interior of the church has three naves divided by 24 Greek marble columns. The main altar is made up by the sarcophagus of Liberius III of the 5th century . The crypt of the 10th century was built to preserve the remains of Bishop Neon: has three naves with vaulted ceilings and mosaics and is invaded by water as it is placed below the sea level.

Nearby locations

Arian Baptistery (UNESCO Site)

The Baptistery was built in the small square of the Church of the Holy Spirit, the former Arian cathedral, at the end of the 5th century, when Theodoric had consolidated his dominion and Arianism was the official religion at Court. On the ceiling there is a beautiful mosaic portraying the baptism of Christ and the Twelve Apostles. The building, which has subsided about 2.25 meters into the ground, is octagonal in shape and has four small external apses.

Basilica of S. Apollinare in Classe (UNESCO Site)

Situated 4km from the city, the Basilica was constructed during the first half of the 6th century. It is a perfect example of the architecture of its time and a vestige of the military port of Imperial Augustan Ravenna: in fact, next to the Basilica stands the vast archaeological area that hosted the Roman fleet. The Basilica has a nave and two side aisles and features a splendid array of mosaics and numerous sarcophagi, dating from the 5th to the 8th centuries.

Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (UNESCO Site)

Erected at the start of the 6th century, it was originally Theodoric’s palatine church. In 540, after the city had been conquered by the Byzantine Empire, the Bishop Agnellus modified a large part of the mosaic decoration, replacing the themes associated with the Arian cult of the Ostrogoths with those of Catholic worship. The classic cylindrical campanile was constructed more recently, between the 9th and 10th centuries.

Neonian Baptistery (UNESCO Site)

Also known as the Orthodox Baptistery to highlight the severance from the Arian heretics, the Neonian Baptistery is the oldest monumental building in the city of Ravenna. Built at the end of the 4th century, the Baptistery takes its name from the bishop Neon. As soon as one enters the simple brick octagonal structure, his or her eye is drawn to the splendid mosaic of the dome. The interior also features a number of surviving stucco and marble decorations.

Oratory of S. Andrea - Archiepiscopal Chapel (UNESCO Site)

A unique Orthodox monument built during the reign of Theodoric, the Archiepiscopal or Archbishop’s Chapel, also known as the Chapel of St. Andrew, was the private Episcopalian oratory of Ravenna.

The chapel is built in the shape of a cross, with a marble vestibule at the bottom and extraordinarily rich and unique mosaics at the top with an anti-Arian message: the Glorification of Christ and the representations of the Martyrs.

The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (UNESCO Site)

This is an imperial building with the function of mausoleum, built around 426 and originally connected by a portico to the church of Santa Croce, of which there are few surviving remains. It has an irregular Latin cross shape and is adorned with splendid mosaics, the oldest in Ravenna. The realistic rendition of the figures – so unlike the hieratic figures of the Eastern-Byzantine style – is attributable to Western-Roman artists.

Domus dei Tappeti di Pietra

The Domus dei Tappeti di Pietra, or ‘house of stone carpets’, is a small 6th century Byzantine palace with fourteen rooms and three courtyards. It may have belonged to a functionary of the court of Ravenna. It was discovered in 1993. All the rooms of the building were paved with marble tarsia or covered with mosaics having a refined geometry and inserts of figures in polychrome tesserae. The mosaics can be visited from inside the Church of Saint Euphemia.

Places to visit Nearby locations

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