The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia has the oldest Christian mosaics in Ravenna and is a top sight for day-trippers and passengers on shore excursions from Venice.
Galla Placidia’s mausoleum behind the Basilica di San Vitale has the oldest and amongst the most impressive mosaics in Ravenna. The building itself is small and unassuming but the interior is almost completely covered by mosaics from the early fifth century. Ravenna is famous for its early Christian monuments and Byzantine wall mosaics – eight sites here are inscribed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list – with the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia one of the top sights. Ravenna is a very popular day-trip destination from larger cities such as Bologna, Rimini, and Venice. The town and mosaics are also very popular for shore excursions of cruise boats calling in Venice.
Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy
Galla Placidia (AD 392 – 450) was one of the talented women that occasionally leap out of the history pages of late Roman, early medieval history. In a man’s world, she performed extraordinary well.
Galla Placidia was of the nobility. She was the daughter of Emperor Theodocius I the Great – the last Emperor to have ruled the Western and Eastern Roman Empires simultaneously – the half-sister of Emperors Arcadius and Honorius, and mother of Emperor Valentinian III (for whom she acted as regent). She was also a captive of the Visigoths but later married their King Ataulf. After his murder – she was (perhaps surprisingly) not involved – she married the later Emperor Constantius III, who died in 421 after less than a year in office.
Numerous intrigues later, Galla Placidia found herself regent (425 – 437) of the Western Roman Empire for her underage son, who became Emperor Valentinian III.
As regent, Galla Placidia engaged in numerous grandiose building projects in Rome, Jerusalem, and Ravenna. Today, she is mostly famous for her mausoleum, which has the oldest surviving mosaics in Ravenna.
At the end of Galla Placidia’s life, she had the misfortune of daughter trouble, which led to an episode of history more absurd than the cheapest soap opera plot. Her daughter Justa Grata Honoria refused to marry the family’s choice. In a moment of stupidity, Justa sent a letter and engagement ring to Attila the Hun offering her hand in marriage and half of the Western Roman Empire as dowry. Justa Honoria was quickly married off to a Roman.
Galla Placidia had the good fortune of dying in November 450 a few months before the Huns started raiding Italy with Justa’s letter as an excuse (not that the Huns ever needed one). Attila would raid Italy repeatedly until his death in 453 claiming to fight for his honor and rights.
For the Byzantines this was not too bad an episode – Justa’s letter diverted the Huns from their original destination – Constantinople.
The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna
The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is a smallish, unassuming brick building in the garden at the back of the Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna. The Latin cruciform building (12.75 by 10.25 m) is fairly unadorned with even its brick dome hidden externally by a small square brick tower.
The mausoleum was erected during Galla Placidia’s rule in Ravenna making it the oldest of the mosaic monuments in town. (It is roughly a century older than the adjacent San Vitale.)
The Mosaics of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
The UNESCO documents describe the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia as the artistically most perfect of all the mosaics in Ravenna. It is the perfect blend of the Hellenistic-Roman artistic tradition with the iconography of Christianity.
Except for the lower parts of the wall clad in yellow marble, the rest of the walls and ceiling of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is completely covered in mosaics.
The northern lunette shows (a beardless) Christ the Shepherd surrounded by sheep while the southern lunette shows St Lawrence with a gridiron – the symbol of his martyrdom. The upper walls of the central bay have mosaics of eight apostles.
However, the barrel vaults and the arches have in a sense the most impressive mosaics. The dark blue vault with white-golden stars is artistically of an extremely high quality. The patterns on the intrados are almost modern.
The interior of the mausoleum is softly lit with alabaster covering the 14 small window openings. The three sarcophagi are empty and of uncertain origin. It was long claimed – almost certainly erroneously – that they contained the remains of Galla Placidia, her son Valentinian III, and her second husband Constantius III.
Galla Placidia died in 450 in Rome and was almost certainly buried there. It is highly unlikely that her remains were ever interred in Ravenna. Some historians also question if the building was ever a mausoleum at all but rather an oratory or chapel for St Lawrence.
Visiting the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
Admission to the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is controlled with a set number of visitors generally allowed to remain in the building for around five minutes at a time.
On a quiet day, it is no problem to go in for a second five-minutes viewing if desired.
The mausoleum is behind the Basilica San Vitales. Enter the complex through the cloisters that lead to the National Museum and pass through the basilica itself.
See Visiting the UNESCO-Listed Sites in Ravenna for more details on opening hours and admission tickets. At times, a small surcharge is payable to see the mausoleum – this is money well spent!
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