The title pretty much says it all: In Ravenna (just off the eastern coast), you will find the greatest concentration of collectively the most beautiful mosaics in the world, IMHO. I’m surprised and sad that Ravenna’s tourism is less than flourishing – I was literally the only guest in my hostel – but I guess it just means I’ve found Italy’s hidden gem (and really, the quiet in Ravenna was so necessary after the hordes in Florence).
Ravenna in a nutshell: In 402 AD Ravenna became the capital of the Western Roman Empire (this is post-Constantine, so the empire had already been split into two halves, Eastern (Byzantine) and Western), and remained the capital until the final collapse of the Roman Empire in 476. The seat of power was located in Ravenna just long enough for lots of building and construction to take place – and remember too that by this time Christianity was already the official religion of the empire, so they’re not building temples in Ravenna, they’re building churches.
People don’t give Early Christianity much credit, artistically. The basilicas are large, inelegant things designed only to hold as many people as possible, and the imagery doesn’t yet have those story-tropes that developed during the Middle Ages and feature so prominently in Renaissance art.
But the one thing that Early Christians did well was decorate the crap out of churches and tombs – with mosaics.
If you’ve ever taken a European history class or an art history class, you’ve probably seen these two images:
These two panels face each other across the altar of the Basilica of San Vitale. The first is of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (most famous for rewriting and codifying the laws, and for having built the Hagia Sophia), and the second is of his wife, the Empress Theodora (most famous for having been an actress and prostitute before marrying the Emperor). But besides housing these two super-famous pieces of art, San Vitale was 1000% percent worth the visit, because the entire altar is encrusted with more of these gorgeous, vibrant, and colorful mosaics.
More pretty pictures from San Vitale:
(Please do click on the pictures so you can see the large, high-quality versions!)
As you can see, the artist used a LOT of gold in the decoration, but the best part is that because of the unevenness of the mosaic surface, the gold glitters and sparkles so spectacularly. I tried to get a picture of it:
Also in Ravenna, completely worth saying you’ve seen it, Dante’s tomb:
So basically, if you ever get the chance, don’t pass up a side trip to Ravenna – all these things, Sant’Appolinare Nuovo, San Vitale, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Mausoleum of Theodoric, and Dante’s Tomb are easily done in one afternoon. Definitely my favorite day of sightseeing so far!