Here’s a question to pose to someone with a cursory knowledge of Italian history: What was the most important city on the peninsula in the year 402 — and in the 300 or so years to follow?

Rome would be a good answer. But it wouldn’t get many votes in Ravenna, which makes that claim itself.

As the capital of the Roman Empire — or what was left of it — starting in 402, Ravenna was the center of civilization in Italy and remained so until about 750.

The Romans’ rule lasted only about 75 years, when the city fell to the barbarians. Odoacer, calling himself king of Italy, then ruled from Ravenna. Theodric, king of the Ostrogoths, defeated him in 493 and made it his capital.

Several years after Theodric’s death, a Byzantine army took the city, about 80 miles south of Venice, for the emperor in Constantinople. It stayed under Byzantine control for the next 200 years.

Early in the Byzantine period, a series of churches was built. A few structures still stand today. But it’s the mosaics — works of art formed from colored stones — inside those buildings that bring most people to Ravenna now.

The Basilica of San Vitale boasts Byzantine-influenced mosaics that date from the mid-sixth century. Built as an octagon, the church is a mix of red, white and orange on the outside.

Inside, the colors span the rainbow. The domed ceiling and other works higher on the walls were painted much later. But the apse, featuring portrayals of Jesus and other early Christian figures, is original work.

Count the portraits of the 12 apostles — and puzzle through their names in Latin — along with two Christian martyrs and Jesus that adorn the arch at the apse’s entrance.

The price of admission also includes a visit to the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in the same compound. Its small, dark interior contains mosaics that are even older, dating back a century earlier.

Three other venues are also on the ticket to San Vitale. One of them, the baptistery that’s next to the city’s duomo — or cathedral — also boasts ancient mosaics. It’s a short walk through twisting streets away from San Vitale.

There are several other sites with mosaics of varying ages in and around the city. Among them: San Apollinare in Classe and San Apollinare Nuovo.

The famed poet Dante, who died in Ravenna in 1321, is buried in the city’s Church of San Francesco.

Ravenna isn’t always easy to navigate — by foot or car — and doesn’t have as many of the helpful signs for tourists that some other cities do. That may change after the start of the year, when the tourist office hopes to put up more signs.

In the meantime, grab a map at the tourist office and be sure to take a camera to capture as many mosaics as possible.

On the QT ...

Directions: There isn’t a quick way to drive to Ravenna from the north. From Aviano or Vicenza, get on SS309 near Mestre and follow it about 80 miles into Ravenna. Resist the temptation to pass, and watch out for Italians who can’t. Pass the time by counting the (slow) trucks. Alte\rnatively, take A-13 toward Bologna, exit at Ferrara Sud, pay about 6 euros toll, and head toward Porto Garibaldi. Then, take SS16 (Adriatica) to Ravenna. On the city outskirts, follow signs to the center.

Times: The Basilica of San Vitale and Mausoleum of Galla Placidia are open from 9 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. In the summer, they stay open until 7 p.m. The cathedral baptistry and Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, also included in the admission price, share the same hours.

Costs: A ticket that includes admission to five sites, including the basilica and mausoleum, costs 6.50 euros for adults and 5.50 euros for students; children under 10 are free. The parking lot next to the basilica costs 2.50 euros, but it’s difficult to find. It’s off Don Minzoni, a glorified alley that connects to via Maggiore. If you’re facing the Porta Adriano (the large arch where via Maggiore ends), turn left at the light, take the first right and drive slowly until you reach the entrance to the left. It’ll be a 270-degree turn getting in.

Food: Try the local bread, piadina, or one of several pasta specialties: cappelletti, tagliatelle, strozze, preti and garganelli. There’s also a pasta soup — passatelli.

Information: The IAT tourist office is a few blocks from San Vitale. English is spoken. Its phone number is (+39) 0544-35404 or 0544-35755; its e-mail is; and its Web site is

— Kent Harris

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for 40 years.

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