Mad about Mosaics in Ravenna, Italy

48 hours in the city where some of the world's best mosaics are preserved in 1,500-year-old churches.  
Ravenna
The distinctively octagonal, exposed-brick structure of the Basilica of San Vitale (left) is known to be one of the finest examples of Byzantine architecture in Italy, and has a fetching mosaic of Empress Theodora decked up in elaborate Byzantine attire (right). Photos by: Prathap Nair (building); Antonio Ciufo/Moment Open/Getty Images (golden mosaic)

Much of Ravenna seems perpetually soaked in the colours of autumn. Amid alleys crammed with tabaccherie (tobacco shops), cafés, gelato and souvenir stores, fifth- and sixth-century churches, mausoleums, and baptisteries stand out with their ochre and fawn brick facades. The real surprise however lies inside, on their walls and domes, where millions of mosaic tiles sparkle in gold, blue, orange and yellow to tell the stories of Ravenna’s place in history.

Located in north Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, the city was the capital of the Roman Empire in the early fifth century, ruled by the Goths circa late fifth century, and was under Byzantine Italy until the eighth. The rulers passionately nurtured mosaic art, the results of which are beautifully preserved within eight UNESCO monuments in the pedestrian-only city centre. The whirr of glass cutters in mosaic artist studios peddling lampshades and jewellery is a constant soundtrack for those rambling in and out of these sites.

Ravenna also has modern mosaic sculptures at the outskirts of the city, which make for a good half-day jaunt. The mosaic hopping can get a tad overwhelming: go armed with a map from the tourist centre, or download the mosaic app, Talking Ravenna, at www.turismo.ra.it.

 

Day 1

Mad about Mosaics in Ravenna, Italy

Every nook of the sixth-century Basilica of San Vitale evokes awe. Its best mosaic artwork is the one depicting Christ sitting on the orb-like Earth, flanked by four angels. Photo by: Ken Welsh/Photolibrary/Getty Images

9 a.m. Before getting to the mosaics, start at the modest chapel on Via Alighieri Dante, 9, which holds the tomb of Dante. Exiled from his hometown Florence in 1302, the Italian poet spent his last two or three years in Ravenna, and finished his epic poem, The Divine Comedy here. He died in 1321. In 1519, the Pope ordered his bones to be transferred to Florence, but the monks of the nearby Franciscan monastery stole them as an act of protection. They were rediscovered in 1865. Till date, the olive oil for the lamp hanging from the chapel’s vaulted ceiling is provided for by Florence.

A few streets away, at Piazza Duomo, 1, lies the fifth-century Neonian Baptistery. Its marble and stucco work is masterful, but for the cynosure, look up—the domed ceiling has gold tiles arranged in a medallion to depict the Baptism of Christ. Circling him, in ornate yellow robes are the 12 Apostles set against a deep, indigo background.

A 10-minute walk away, at Via Di Roma, 52, is the gabled facade of the Basilica of Sant’ApollinareNuovo. It boasts truly overwhelming mosaic art—one side of the walls come to life with a procession of 22 virgins and the three Magi dressed to the nines. On the other side is another procession of 26 martyrs—believed to be the oldest existing mosaic on the New Testament.

 

1 p.m. Relegate your pizza craving to Naples—this region’s speciality is the tortilla-like piadina. The classic version has a thin flatbread stuffed with arugula, prosciutto and the region’s wobbly cheese, squacquerone (a softer version of mozzarella) and is pan roasted to perfection. Pop into the no-frills La Piadina del Melarancio in the city centre and pick a piadina from their wide-ranging menu for a toasty meal on the go (lapiadina.biz).

 

Mad about Mosaics in Ravenna, Italy 1

Faith is chiselled into each tile in the fifth-century Neonian Baptistery, especially in the rendering of the baptism of Christ on its dome. Photo by: De Agostini/G. Carfagna/De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

2 p.m. Before the piadina slows you down, walk five minutes over to Via San Vitale, 17, to the National Museum. Marvel at its mosaic floors and archaeological fragments from Roman and Byzantine monuments, stone tablets, ancient weapons, ivories, ceramics and Renaissance- era bronze statuettes. The museum’s most treasured exhibit is a series of remarkable 14th-century frescoes, retrieved from ancient churches around Ravenna.

In the same complex lies the Basilica of San Vitale, known to be one of the finest examples of Byzantine architecture in Italy. It is a distinctive octagonal, exposed-brick structure. Alabaster windows let in ample sunlight, which illuminates the mosaic tiles in every imaginable colour. Don’t miss the apse’s vault where Christ, flanked by four angels, sits on the orb-like Earth, as four rivers of paradise flow beneath his feet.

 

7 p.m. Admittedly, you have over-mosaiced yourself with a whirlwind of art heavily influenced by religion. So how about treating yourself to an impeccable selection of wines and some of the region’s best seafood at the Michelin-starred OsteriaL’Acciuga? Their specialities include pickled anchovies served with spaghetti, or had fresh as tartare. There’s more: octopus roasted with artichokes and Taggiasca olives, Adriatic prawns, and scallops and sea bass on mashed mountain potatoes with juniper drops (www.osterialacciuga.it).

 

Day 2

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For a break from mosaic-hopping, grab a piadina, a local delicacy made of flatbread stuffed with prosciutto and squacquerone cheese. Photo by: Byzantine School/Getty Images

9 a.m. Day two involves walking—a lot of it. Do your feet a favour and rent a bicycle. It’s practical, and what’s more, you will be riding alongside some of the best mosaic art of Ravenna. Rent one at the Cooperativa San Vitale at Piazza Farini, 1, located next to the train station (€1.5/Rs120 for each hour, €12/Rs960 for a day).

Start your day at the open-air mosaic museum, Parco della Pace (Peace Park) at Via Marzabotto, 1, a 15-minute-ride away outside the city. Amid the park’s weeping willows are about a dozen mosaic sculptures designed by local and international artists to convey a message of universal peace and friendship. One work “The Wings of Peace” is a 13-foot-high mosaic sculpture of a dove’s wing, while another wall mural depicts the tree of life.

Next, cycle a kilometre away to Piazza Della Resistenza to see the mosaic fountain ArdeaPurpurea. Two large monoliths studded with golden, purple, red tiles rise in spirals—like flames—making for a captivating sight. Ravenna’s master sculptor Marco Bravura designed the sculpture, which is named after a phoenix, and symbolises rebirth and reconstruction.

 

1 p.m. Score a table at restaurant Passatelli 1962at Via Ponte Marino, 19. Try their signature dish passatelli, in which thick, cylindrical pasta made with bread crumbs, eggs, parmesan, nutmeg and lemon zest is cooked in oodles of chicken broth. The restaurant serves its vegan version too. You could also sign up for their pasta-making lessons (www.turismo.ra.it; reservation recommended; classes €75/Rs6,000 per person).

 

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Score a table at an al fresco café at Ravenna’s main square, the 16th-century Piazza Del Popolo, and watch the city go by. Photo by: Walter Bibikow/AWL Images/Getty Images

3 p.m. The building that houses MAR, Ravenna’s art museum, was originally a 16th-century monastery. Walk around its ground floor for the modern twist Ravenna gives its mosaic heritage—from the zen-inducing “The Enchanted Mountains,” to more abstract artworks, MAR is a window into how contemporary artists in Ravenna use mosaic to highlight the city’s heritage.

Essentials

Getting There

Ravenna lies a 3.5-hr train ride away from Rome (in.trenitalia.it-inter.com; from €23.45/rs1875. The nearest airport is in the city of Bologna. Ravenna is 1.5 hr away from Bologna by train (from €7.35/Rs590).

Explore

It is a good idea to buy combination tickets to major attractions including Basilica of San Vitale, Mausoleum of GallaPlacidia, Basilica Sant’ApollinareNuovo, Neonian Baptistery, Archiepiscopal Chapel and Archiepiscopal Museum (ravennamosaici.it; €9.5/Rs800).

Shop

Local artist Barbara Liverani, at Via Girolamo Rossi 21/A, makes chic and contemporary mosaics, be it bookends and life-size mirror frames or delicate jewellery. Her studio is an explosion of colours and inventive design (barbaraliveranistudio.com). Koko Mosaico sells adorable photo frames with patchwork mosaic designs. From quirky and contemporary designs to ancient Byzantine patterns, Koko’s artists create the mosaics in their showroom which doubles as their workshop (kokomosaico.com).

  • Prathap Nair quit his job to travel and write a few years ago. He has travelled on the TransSiberian train, walked the Flaming Cliffs of Mongolia and hiked up Mt. Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia. He likes the unpredictability of loosely planned solo travels.

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