Basilica of San Vitale - Architecture Basilica of San Vitale. The Mosaics

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Basilica of San Vitale - Architecture

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The church of San Vitale dates back to the 6th Century and was begun by Bishop Ecclesius under the Empire of Justinian, who had arrived from Constantinople between 525 and 532.

The church is dedicated to Saint Vitalis, and rises in the place where he was killed, according to the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Varagine. The construction of the church was financed by Julius Argentarius (a Greek banker who made fortune in the Greek-Gothic war). It is thought that he was an agent for Justinian, in charge of promoting big construction companies to assert the Bizantine cultural power in Italy.
Bishop Maximian consecrated the church in 547-48.
In its shape, San Vitale refers mainly to the big early Christian buildings, like San Lorenzo in Milan, but also takes inspiration from Santa Sophia church in Constantinople. Despite using the same models, it is anyway an original monument, unique in its kind.


The church has a complex shape: it has an octagonal body, wide and short containing a higher octagonal tower (tiburio, or crossing tower).
The external body is on two orders showing very prominent windows and pillars. Then two stepped towers are added, the porch on the façade and the apse with two cylindrical bodies (Diaconicon and Prothesis) at the rear. Noteworthy corner pillars go up to the roof and carry a pediment on their tops.
The walls are made with bare soft bricks from the time of Justinian, covered with a layer of lime of the same thickness.
The bell, added on the top of one of the two stepped towers, dates back to around the 10th Century, but was reconstructed after the 1688 earthquake. The buttresses that contrast with the thrust of the internal vaults date back to the 9th Century.

Plan and Route’s Function

Originally, the octagonal plan was preceded by a quadriporch, lost over time. The forceps-shaped narthex remained, and is placed tangentially to an edge of the central plan, instead of being placed in axis with the octagon as usual. The shape and the positioning of San Vitale’s porch, represent both a functional and symbolic solution. It acts like a monumental access to the church and like a filter between the external (earthly world) and internal (divine world), indicating also a clear psychological function to the visitor on arrival.
Actually, there are several entrances and they follow different routes. The first two routes are the ones correspondent to the intercolumniation and which are near the two small apses: two lateral doors lead to the stepped towers and not directly into the church. In the past, these accesses were reserved to the women to go up the matroneum.
Two other entrances open from the porch’s central part: on to the right and another to the left. The deambulatory is found going through right entrance, where one can perceive a circular space and turn around the round gallery. Through the left entrance one is found in axis regarding to the body of the church and directly in front of the presbytery, and here one perceives a longitudinal space.
Going towards the centre of the church one perceives finally the radial and centralized positioning of the space.
Everything contributes for the faithful entering the church to get an impression of being lost and disorientated. It is hard to grasp immediately the shape and directions of this monument.


The spacious interior is characterized by the articulated rhythm of the mass and the many arches that make the geometrical shape less clear and make the space seem indefinite.
A hemispheric dome supported by eight big arches that stand on gigantic fan shaped pillars covers the broad central room. An arch opens towards the presbytery. The other seven arches form big exedras, divided in two orders of arches over columns.
The matroneum corresponds to the superior order and the octagonal ambulatory to the inferior, which turns around and breaks up at the presbytery.
These shapes give a very particular impression: the architecture and their positioning create an expansion effect from the centre towards the exterior. It’s as if the exedras were inflated by a mysterious energy and the central empty space cause to expand. A repetition of concentric waves and rhythm can also be felt because of these arches. These exedras don’t have a structural function, but aesthetic and symbolic, and belong to a metaphysics idea of space. It refers to the concept of God as infinite power, expanding in all directions.
Originally the decoration was much richer: the floor was made by mosaics, but only a few fragments remained. The capitals of the columns, delicately sculpted in relief and fretwork, present the dosseret (1).
The whole interior has a rich decoration of precious marble and mosaic.

 A. Cocchi

 Trad. A. Sturmer


 1) Block of stone above the capitals in a Byzantine church, used to carry the arches and vault


N. Pevsner Storia dell’architettura europea. Il Saggiatore, Milano 1984
G. Bustacchini Ravenna. I mosaici, i monumenti, l'ambiente. Edizioni Italcards, Bologna 1984
La Nuova Enciclopedia dell’arte Garzanti, Giunti, Firenze 1986
G. Cricco, F. Di Teodoro, Itinerario nell’arte, vol. 2, Zanichelli Bologna 2004
AA.VV. Moduli di Arte. Dal Rinascimento maturo al rococò. Electa Bruno Mondadori, Roma 2000
E. Bernini, R. Rota, Uno sguardo sull'arte. Vol. 1 Dalla preistoria al Trecento. Editori Laterza, Bari 2008
G. Dorfles, M.Ragazzi, C. Maggioni, M.G. Recanati, Storia dell'arte. Vol 1 Dalle origini al Trecento. Istituto Italiano Edizioni Atlas, Orio al Serio 2008


Stile:Arte del Medio Evo.

Per saperne di più sulla città di: Ravenna


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San Vitale. Church exterior. 6th Century. Ravenna, Italy

Plan of San Vitale Church. Ravenna, Italy

Dome of San Vitale Church. Interior view. Ravenna, Italy

Column's capital. San Vitale Church. 6th Century. Ravenna, Italy

San Vitale Church. Interior view of apse. Ravenna, Italy

San Vitale Church. Interior view of exedras and matroneum. Ravenna, Italy


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