Italy’s museums and churches are full of incredible masterpieces: oil paintings, sculpture, centuries-old frescoes, and more. But mosaics, in particular, are a unique and durable art form steeped in history. Mosaics are made of colored stones or glass (often with a gold leaf sandwiched between two layers) therefore vibrant colors can last many centuries and resist fading. Imagine the amount of work it is to plan the overall image (on a curved ceiling no less!), break it down into its various color components, cut all those tiny little cubes of stone to the exact dimensions, and then painstakingly adhere each one to the pre-planned spot on a ceiling or wall or floor. For any traveler who would like to see amazing mosaics in Italy, we have five recommendations.
St Mark’s Basilica, Venice
This is an easy one. No need to even go off the beaten track! Venice is one of Italy’s “big three” tourist destinations, and St Mark’s Basilica is arguably the city’s main attraction. There are over 8,000 square meters of mosaics inside this Basilica, most of them gold.
When the sun hits them just right, the interior of the Basilica appears to glow, for a definite “wow!” effect. Unsurprisingly, these mosaics depict religious scenes from the New Testament. The ceiling mosaics are from the Byzantine era and date from the 12th century.
Basilica of St John Lateran, Rome
This basilica is in the center of Rome, so easy to visit for many travelers, but it’s surprisingly off the beaten track. The Basilica of St. John Lateran (AKA San Giovanni in Laterano) is actually Rome’s official cathedral. It’s the seat of Rome’s bishop (the Pope), and is Rome’s oldest Basilica, built almost 1700 years ago although extensively refurbished in the 17th century.
Gorgeous mosaics decorate the cathedra, or ecclesiastical seat of the Pope, and are of course religious in nature. These amazing mosaics are not even the most famous aspect of this basilica, which is also known for its obelisk, holy stairway (Scala Sancta), Papal tombs, and a fresco by the painter Giotto.
Travelers who want to make mosaics a highlight of their trip should head straight to the small city of Ravenna and stay for at least a couple of days. Ravenna is known for its beautiful Byzantine mosaics, and eight of the city’s Early Christian Monuments are included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The Basilica of Saint-Apollinaire in Classe, pictured, was built in the 6th century, so those brilliantly colored mosaics that visitors can see today in the apse are – yes – over 1400 years old.
Monreale Cathedral, Palermo
This cathedral, built over 800 years ago, is just outside the city of Palermo, and is one of Sicily’s most important attractions.
The inside of the cathedral is covered almost entirely in glass mosaics, most of them gold-colored. Vibrant and detailed images unfold around and surround the visitor, for a definite “wow” effect.
Villa Romana del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily
The mosaics at the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily are unlike any of the other mosaics in this list. They are not religious-themed and they are not gold. The villa is located in the geographical center of the island of Sicily and is not conveniently on the way from anywhere to anywhere. Yet, these floor mosaics are well worth the detour.
At Italy Beyond the Obvious, we recommend that any traveler who can include the Villa Romana del Casale in their itinerary do so. The villa was originally built in the 4th century for a Roman upper-class class family. Visitors can walk through the ruins of the rooms and admire the extensive mosaics on the floors, which were buried for centuries and excavated less than a hundred years ago. The amazingly well-preserved mosaics depict animals and hunting, games, and people, such as the pictured couple.
Are there other mosaics in Italy you’d recommend? These recommendations are only the tip of the iceberg! Please share in the comments.
Madeline Jhawar is Owner of Italy Beyond the Obvious.