Mosaics and Crypts of Ravenna

Ravenna has been my favorite field trip thus far… I wrote about it for 8 whole pages in my notebook! We visited this past Thursday, September 13, 2018 and boarded the bus bright and early at 7:30am at the Borgo Mercatale and took the roughly hour and a half drive to our first stop in Classe. I had no idea what to expect and had not yet investigated what there was to see in Ravenna (or anywhere else for that matter… I won’t be making that mistake again!) and I was blown away as to what was waiting at the end of the sleepy ride north to the region of Emilia-Romagna.

Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe

In Classe, we stopped first at the Basilica di Sant’Apollinate in Classe which was our first introduction to the gorgeous mosaic artwork of Ravenna. We waited outside of the Basilica while Professor Olenbusch and Roberta, the GEV coordinator, bought the tickets for entry. If I had thought what was on the outside would match the inside, I was sorely mistaken.

It was at this point that I knew that this place would be unlike any other that we had already been. The entire apse of the basilica was covered in intricate mosaics to create scenes from the Bible. This Basilica was consecrated in 549 A.D. when Classe was the main port for the region. Since then, the town of Classe has shrunken and Ravenna nearby has grown into a much larger city with the large canal and sea port.

In the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare, the bricks used to build are typical of Roman bricks and there was even a section that had the original roman-style mosaic flooring (there’s a picture of this above and more pictures of these types of floors from another location when you scroll down some more).

We boarded back on the bus and drove to the center of Ravenna for the long walk (shorter than other days at only six miles walked instead of over seven!)

Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

Don’t let the name of this Basilica confuse you. It is the “new” version of the church in Classe, but is actually almost 50 years older than the one in Classe, being consecrated 504 AD as an Arian church (not that kind of Aryan…) and dedicated to Christ the Redeemer. The mosaics that line the sides of the nave (the middle section with the pews of the church) are original, but the apse mosaic has been modernized over the years. In the photos below, the “close up” pictures are the original mosaics. They have gold shiny mosaic pieces that are just stunning and catch the light… if I had a better camera (no offense, iPhone X), I might have been able to get a better representation of what we saw, but the low lighting in these old churches isn’t helpful for photographs.

I visited the gift shop at this basilica and found a fabulous book mark of a mosaic even though I hadn’t actually seen that piece of mosaic artwork, but I did find it later at the grand finale of mosaics (you’ll see!). At this point, the architecture students in our group stopped to sketch a section of the basilica and the engineering students found the bathrooms before we headed off to my favorite part of the trip.

Basilica di San Francesco and the Flooded Crypt

Okay, this is the really good stuff… creepy places and interesting stories. We walked over to the Basilica di San Francesco (they’ve got a bunch of churches in these old cities) where the crypt that lies beneath the apse has been steadily filling with water. “Filling”, though, is the wrong word for what is happening in the crypt. We visited this place as a part of the “educational” portion of the “education field trip” because of the civil engineering concepts that are prevalent. As we walked up, we could see that the ground level of the church was significantly lower than street level (about 2.5-3 feet). Why would this have happened, you ask? Ravenna is built on marshland and soggy soil, so over the years the weight of the structure has caused it to sink into the earth. That is what has happened here with the flooded crypt.

While it used to be above ground, the crypt has slowly been sinking and the water table has risen up into the room. It is fabulously creepy and for some reason they now have goldfish living in there which gives you a good perspective of how deep the water is… about 2.5-3 feet (sounds familiar?). The fish look like they are floating! It is said that the Bishop Neo had the Basilica built for him in 450 A.D., meaning that this was the oldest structure we entered all day. Guys. It is 1500 years old. Mind. Blown.

Anyway… Bishop Neo was buried the crypt but I could not find any information on if he was still in there (under there?) or if his remains were moved when there was an attempt to restore the original floors, some of which have been salvaged and can be seen in the photographs below. When I got to the little viewing window (large enough for one person, so there was a queue behind me), the church organ began playing creeeeepy organ music. It was perfection! (I got a little video… watch it below!) Also, if the lights turn off in the crypt there is a slot where you enter €1 and the lights will turn on again. I’m glad I got to piggy back off of someone else’s coin, because I was fresh out having spent my last money on a morning cappuccino.

The Basilica di San Francesco is also the resting place of famed Italian poet Dante Alighieri, though he is buried outside in a tomb instead of inside in the flooded crypt. The group that had been playing the church organ invited us to join their tour to go view Dante’s tomb with a small performance and reading from the tour guides (in Italian and French so I couldn’t understand, but it was still entertaining!) The tour guide saw that we were students and suggested we join them to “get some culture”.

It was at this point that we went to lunch for piadinas – the engineering students with our architecture student friend Joshua. While at lunch, Joshua was sketching a nearby building on his placemat and Alex joined in and drew his hand on the same placemat. When we finished, our waitress was in awe at the sight of the drawings and asked if she could put them on the wall in the restaurant! Now we have famous friends!

Domus dei Tappeti di Pietra

As I mentioned in the flooded crypt and also in the Basilica in Classe, Roman-style mosaic floors were very common and are usually restored when they are discovered since they are regarded as ancient artwork essential to the Roman heritage. While undergoing construction on a new building in downtown Ravenna, a construction worker spotted some of these floors and called up the archaeological and historical authorities who found one of the greatest examples of Roman floor mosaics ever uncovered. The archaeological dig site is now a tourist destination called Domus Dei Tappeti di Pietra or Domus of the Stone Carpets. It is stunning! While the flooring “rugs” look amazing, there are art pieces in the middle of a couple of the rooms discovered. One of them called Danza Dei Geni Delle Stagioni, or Dance of the Geniuses of the Seasons features dancers in a ring-around-the-rosy type circle. Another work called Buon Pastore or The Good Shepherd was on display showcasing that it had been partially destroyed by past construction where a foundational pier was forced through the pastor’s face. It is disappointing that this happens, but it illustrates the importance of researching what was located at the site where you are constructing. One of the important points that our Italian professor pushes, teaching us Italian and European building codes, is the idea of heritage and how essential it is to preserve the works of the past. I think we do a better job of that now, thankfully, but we have a long way to go.

Mausoleo di Galla Placidia and Basilica di San Vitale

Now it was time for the “grand finale” of our visit. This site was truly spectacular and if you only can visit one place in Ravenna, this is it. Remember when I wrote that I got the bookmark? Well, this is where it is from! The Mausoleo di Galla Placidia. This place is described by UNESCO as “the earliest and best preserved of all mosaic monuments, and at the same time one of the most artistically perfect”. To my untrained eyes, no statement has been more accurate. The structure was originally commissioned and built as a mosoleum for Galla Placidia, the daughter of Roman Emperor Theodisius I. What is totally freaky and interesting is that when she died, it is reported (on Wikipedia… you can read more if you want) that upon her death she was placed in the mausoleum embalmed, clothed, and in a sitting position in the largest sarcophagus, but her remains were accidentally burned at a later date. Come on, you guys… don’t accidentally burn the remains. Now, here are some photos. Swoon.

After the mausoleum, we walked next door to Basilica di San Vitale and it truly was the grand finale. I didn’t catch too much information about this place and I haven’t done all of my homework, but the mosaic-clad apse must have been five American stories tall. Y’all can google it if you’re up to it. The ceiling of the dome was covered in frescoes. I don’t think I could have pulled up my jaw from the floor if I had tried.

Mausoleum of Theodoric

This place was really weird. It was built in 520 AD to be the tomb of Theodoric the Great. The upstairs has a big ol’ bathtub looking thing that was supposedly the sarcophagus where he was originally buried, but later on his remains were removed and are somewhere else now? Also, the lower and upper level exteriors are both decahedrons (ten-sided). There isn’t really anything inside, but here’s something to think about… the entire dome is one piece of Iranian stone that weighs 230 tonnes. How the heck did they get that up there?!

Take me back here someday 🙂

Ravenna, Italy

Posted in Study Abroad Italy and tagged , , .


  1. This was absolutely fascinating and amazing. I’m sure it is more so in person. Thanks so much for the adventure and education!

  2. When I see the mosaics and the paintings on the roof, you have to consider how little folks must have been paid back then. Think about the manpower that was invested in making these things. .

    Keep up the travels and the pictures. We miss hearing you sing.

    • I completely agree! The amount of time it must have taken to lay each little tile in the correct pattern (choose the tiny triangle instead of the trapezoid!) gives me anxiety haha! Oh and don’t get me started on the roof frescoes… how the heck did they do that?!

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