From the World Heritage inscription:
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 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.
Of the three world heritage sites I visited in Emilia-Romagna, Ravenna was by far the most impressive.
Ravenna was the capital of Western Roman Empire at the time it fell in 476 and remained the Byzantine capital of the region afterwards. There is very little which can be thought of as “roman” in the city, especially compared with what you will see in Rome. The most significant buildings are the Byzantine era churches from the 5th-7th Century.
There are a total of 8 buildings in the Ravenna area which are part of the site. 6 of the 8 are located within walking distance of each other in the middle of town. The other two are located just outside of town and are accessible by car.
The most significant of the churches are the Basilica of San Vitale and the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. Both are located on the same property. Both buildings are romanesque designs with exquisite, well preserved mosaic artwork. The octagonal basilica is very reminiscent of the Aachen Cathedral in Germany, which is also of a similar romanesque design.
I found Ravenna to be one of the most overlooked attractions in Italy. It doesn’t get the attention of a Venice or Florence, but is well worth a visit. It is only a 45 minute train ride from Bologna and can easily be visited on a day trip.