Sant' Apollinare in Classe is the largest early Christian basilica in Ravenna.
Ravenna, just a 2-hour train ride from Venice is where childhood mosaic puzzles come to life. Ravenna is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage sites that show the most dazzling mosaics imaginable. The fact that they were created during the Dark Ages, traditionally dated from the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, is even more surprising. It is hard to believe that during those grim times there was created probably the greatest collection of mosaic art in the world. We had always been intrigued by mosaics - perhaps it was a holdover from childhood memories of mosaic puzzles - both their subject matter, their construction and their almost "primitive" beauty. And the overwhelming concentration of mosaics in the churches and baptistries of Ravenna are enough to satisfy the most ardent lover of ancient art and architecture.
Perhaps most dramatic - a first among equals - is the Basilica of San Vitale (the city's patron saint). Consecrated in 548 A.D. it is a forest of pillars amidst walls, vaults and apses of spectacular portrayals.
Tucked behind it is a smaller gem - the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, 100 years older. Dedicated to the woman who was daughter and wife of two of the last Roman emperors and who herself ruled Ravenna in peace for some 25 years. The simple brick exterior hides a treasure trove of mosaics largely in blue.
The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (above) with its blue motif mosaics (below)
The Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo resembles a large hall, with pillars along the sides supporting depictions of saints and biblical scenes.
Not to be confused is the Basilica of Sant' Apollinare in Classe, named because Ravenna was once home to the Roman Fleet ("classis"), before the shoreline became silted in. It is a couple of miles and a short bus ride outside of town. Particularly beautiful is the apse pastoral mosaic of Christ amidst a flock of sheep.
The octagonal Neonian and Arian Baptistries constitute other big surprises in small packages.
The Arian Baptistry was built by the Gothic King Theodoric at the end of the 5th Century.
And an interesting final footnote: Ravenna is home to the tomb of the Florentine poet Dante. Having been exiled, he wandered Italy, completing his famous Commedia, until his death here in 1321.
Apparently realizing their historical mistake, Florence has been attempting for ages to obtain the return of the poet's body, but to no avail.