Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 26, 2016

A Snapshot of Ravenna

This is one of an ongoing series of brief looks at Italian cities.

In a recent post, I described a too-brief visit to Bologna, Italy. It was brief, because we were determined to see two cities in a single day. We drove 80 km east — about an hour — to Ravenna, on the Adriatic coast.


In the map, Ravenna is in the lower right, east of Bologna, south of Venice. Milan is in the far upper left.

Ravenna has a long history, which includes having been the capital of the Roman Empire from the fall of Rome in 402 A.D. until the Ostrogoths brought an end to the Empire and made it the capital of their kingdom in 476. (The ruler, Theoderic the Great, had his tomb built there.)

The Byzantine Empire seized the city in 540, making it the center of the Exarchate of Ravenna until the Franks took over in 751.

It’s that Byzantine era that provides the art and architecture that’s high on many tourists’ must-see lists, including  ours.

Say “Byzantine Art” and the first medium that comes to mind is mosaics. Mosaics are the principal attraction for many aficionados of the art in Ravenna.

Ravenna San Vitale Brad Nixon 136 (640x480)

That is a small portion of welter of mosaic work inside the Basilica of San Vitale, which was begun in 526 and completed just over 20 years later.

Ravenna San Vitale Brad Nixon 143 (640x423)

Prepare to spend as long as your schedule permits gawking at the astounding display of mosaic work inside San Vitale. My camera and photographic skills weren’t equal to the task, and your eye is your best instrument of study (aided by binoculars to look at the work in the soaring domes).

Much smaller, but even older, is the nearby Mausoleum of Galla Placida, built between 425 and 430. The photo gives you a sense of its relatively small scale.

Galla Placida Ravenna Marcy Vincent 144 (640x430)

The structure was originally the oratory for a church that no longer exists. The interior (again, too dark for my camera to do it justice) is also decorated by a stunning array of ancient mosaics.

Ravenna is replete with ancient wonders, and is also a lively place to shop, eat and tour. Before we took a break to have a gelato and watch the evening passeggiata, we squeezed in a visit to the 6th-Century Basilica of Sant’Apollinaire Nuovo. This cobbled-together view gives you an impression of the exterior.

St Apollinaire pano 2 (340x640)

Inside? More mosaics, row after row ascending to the vault and covering the walls in the well-lighted space.

Ravenna St Apollinaire Brad Nixon 146 (640x480)

Ravenna mosaics Brad Nixon 150 (640x480)

The visit to Ravenna (and Bologna earlier that day) was a perfect example of the conundrum of travel: the desire to fill each day as completely as possible, yet give each site its due. Here, we skated along the edge of not having allowed enough time for either city. Still, the mosaics of Ravenna had long loomed large on our list of must-see places. I encourage you to consider it for a look at art, architecture and culture created during a critical nexus of European history.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Mausoleum of Galla Placida photo © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission.



  1. Looks beautiful!


  2. Ravenna is an amazing place. We spent 3 days there is 2006 and felt like we had only scratched the surface of its wonders!


    • I’m delighted to hear you had the time to explore more fully. I’m sure you filled the days to capacity.


  3. That was an ambitious travel day! Congrats on your accomplishment.

    Thx for the pix. I really like Italian mosaics. The only ones I’ve been able to see in person are at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California.


    • Thought you might’ve caught a glimpse at a few in Venice!


      • Venice was so overwhelming in so many ways on my first visit that I don’t remember seeing any! I remember being struck by the majesty of the paintings that I saw in cathedrals and art galleries and of course the amazing range of architectural styles of the buildings along the canals.


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