Basilica of San Vitale – Ravenna, Italy - Atlas Obscura
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Ravenna, Italy

Basilica of San Vitale

This 6th-century church has the largest and best-preserved collection of Byzantine mosaics outside Constantinople. 

Completed in 547, this cathedral is world renowned for its Byzantine mosaics. All the mosaics are depicted in the Hellenistic-Roman tradition, the most famous being the image of the Empress Theodora, born in Cypress in the year 500.

Theodora was the wife of Roman Emperor Justinian I, who ruled the Roman Empire from Istanbul between 527 and 565. She was one of the most powerful and influential Roman empresses.

Earlier in life, she may have worked on stage as an entertainer, and up until Justinian’s time, an emperor couldn’t marry an actress as their reputations were considered unsavory. But strings were pulled for Theodora, and the law was changed. Theodora was a strong influence on Justinian and his decisions, and her personality was in many ways the polar opposite of his.

The best time to visit the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna is when the sun is shining, and you can see the light reflecting off the mosaics.

In the backyard of the church, there is a small building called the “Mausoleo di Galla Placidia.” It also features intricate mosaic work. According to some, one of the songs written by jazz musician John Coltrane was inspired by its deep blue starry brilliance.

Know Before You Go

Just a few doors up the street from the church, at the central tourist information hub, you can buy a 7-day pass ( circa 10 euro ) for all the historical sites including the mosaics in Ravenna. All but one are within walking distance in central Ravenna. The other you can reach by bus from out front of the train station.