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June 21, 2019

Italy: Aquileia and Ravenna, the Mosaic Tour

A mosaic ceiling in Ravenna Italy

Mosaics, it turned out, became an unplanned theme of the Northern Italian segment of our 2018 road trip.

The first mosaic encounter came on the way from Trieste to Ravenna. With a short detour off of the autostrade we stopped at Aquileia to see the commune’s UNESCO World Heritage designated basilica. The decision to visit this UNESCO site was made at the last moment. Consequentially we didn’t have much of a notion of what we might be seeing. It didn’t take much time in Aquileia to realize it is a “can’t miss” stop, which we just almost missed.

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The main church, the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta, is particularly interesting. Impressive on entry is the expanse of intricately crafted mosaic tile floors dating from Roman rule in the 4th Century. The mosaics are in particularly good condition having spent most of their existence covered over. Indeed it was only in the late 19th and 20th Centuries that they were rediscovered.

Mosaics were expected at our next stop, Ravenna. Indeed, the commune, also a UNESCO World Heritage site, is considered Italy’s City of Mosaics. With that, there was nothing that fully prepared us for the spectacle of seeing Ravenna’s expansive mosaics in person. It’s even more impressive when you realize that the buildings and art date from the era around Justinian the Great’s rule of the Byzantine Empire in the 6th Century.

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Ravenna also has a collection of mosaics from the modern era. The Parisian street artist Space Invader has “invaded” the commune’s streets in conjunction with an exhibit at a local museum. Though we’ve seen hundreds of Invaders in many cities around the world they seem to fit most naturally in Ravenna. As usual Invader’s tile mosaics are placed just out of the usual sight line. You have to look to find them, which is part of the fun.

Both Aquileia and Ravenna were relatively lightly touristed. There was no phalanx of tour buses or armada of cruise ships pumping in armies of visitors. It could be the time of year, but I’m willing to guess that both Florence and Siena were still packed to the gills with tourists this late in October. For us the lower tourist numbers was a big plus.

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