Ravenna was the seat of the Roman Empire in the 5th century and then of Byzantine Italy until the 8th century. It has a unique collection of early Christian mosaics and monuments. All eight buildings – the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Neonian Baptistery, the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, the Arian Baptistery, the Archiepiscopal Chapel, the Mausoleum of Theodoric, the Church of San Vitale and the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe – were constructed in the 5th and 6th centuries. They show great artistic skill, including a wonderful blend of Graeco-Roman tradition, Christian iconography and oriental and Western styles.
The early Christian religious monuments in Ravenna are of outstanding significance by virtue of the supreme artistry of the mosaic art that they contain, and also because of the crucial evidence that they provide of artistic and religious relationships and contacts at an important period of European cultural history.
In the reign of Augustus the port of Classis was established at Ravenna. Following the barbarian invasions of the 5th century, Honorius made it his capital. His sister, Galla Placidia, lived in Ravenna during her widowhood in the first half of the 5th century, and made it a centre of Christian art and culture. With the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476, Ravenna entered into a period of prosperity and influence. It was taken by Belisarius in 540 and remained the centre of Byzantine control in Italy until 752. Its subsequent history was one of decline and stagnation. After 1441 it was under Venetian and then papal rule.
The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, built in the second quarter of the 5th century, has a plain bare exterior lightened by pilasters that meet in arches and is crowned by a brick dome concealed by a small quadrangular tower. The interior is lavishly decorated. The lower part is clad in panels of yellow marble and the remainder is entirely covered in mosaics. The building is in the western Roman architectural tradition.
The Neonian Baptistery, built by Bishop Orso in the early 5th century, was decorated with mosaics by his successor, Neone, around 450. The interior consists of four apses, articulated into two orders of arches, rising to the great cupola. The large mosaic medallion at the apex of the dome shows the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist. This is the finest and most complete surviving example of the early Christian baptistry.The Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo was built in the early years of the 6th century. Inside the interior is divided by 24 marble columns into a nave and two aisles, with a rounded apse. At the present time mosaics cover the two side walls at the foot of the nave, from the ceiling to the tops of the supporting arches, in three decorated fascias. Those in the upper two fascias are in traditional Roman style whereas those in the third show strong Byzantine influence.
The Arian Baptistery, built by Theodoric next to his cathedral, was reconsecrated with the overthrow of the Arian heresy in 561 and became an oratory dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It is a small brick building, octagonal in plan with four flat sides and four with protruding apses. Only the dome retains its mosaic decoration. The iconography of the mosaics is of importance in that it illustrates the Trinity, a somewhat unexpected element in the art of an Arian building as the Trinity was not accepted in this doctrine.
The Archiepiscopal Chapel, the private oratory of the orthodox bishops, was built around 500. The chapel is in the shape of a Greek cross with an apse on the eastern arm; it is covered by a cross-vault and preceded by a rectangular vestibule. The Iower part of the walls is covered with marble, with mosaics above.
The Mausoleum of Theodoric wasbuilt by Theodoric shortly before his death in 526. It is in two storeys, the lower 10-sided with a niche and a small window in each side. The significance of the mausoleum lies in its style and decoration, which owe nothing to Roman or Byzantine art, although it makes use of the Roman stone-construction technique of opus quadratum , which had been abandoned four centuries before. It is the unique surviving example of a tomb of a barbarian king of this period.
The Church of San Vitale was completed around 547. It was fronted by a large quadroportico, converted into a cloister when the church became part of a Benedictine monastery. There are two storeys, the upper one encircling the dome. The apse, which is semi-circular on the interior and polygonal on the outside, is flanked by two small rectangular rooms terminating in niches and two semi-circular sacristies.
The Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe was built in the first half of the 6th century, commissioned by Bishop Ursicinus. The narthex is incorporated in the central body of the facade, framed by two pilasters.