Built to mark the triumph over the Ostrogoths and the first golden age of Byzantine art, the Basilica di San Vitale, one of the city’s many masterpieces, contains the architectural and mosaic splendours of the West and East.
The basilica was commissioned in 525 by Bishop Ecclesius, who had just returned from Constantinople, from where much of the stone material used was brought. Thanks to the considerable sum of 26 thousand gold coins allocated by Giuliano Argentario, the basilica was consecrated by Archbishop Maximian in 547.
Legend has it that this place was chosen because of the presence of a fifth century sacellum, where the remains of the soldier and future saint Vitale lay. What is certain, however, is that it was allocated a valuable site (in the vicinity of the basilica of Santa Croce and the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, as well as many stately homes).
The basilica stands on two prismatic blocks in brick, one higher and one lower, with an octagonal plan. Around the drum of the central dome there is a two-storey ambulatory (corridor) with a sector reserved for women. Looking east, the polygonal apse is flanked by two rectangular sacristies. On the opposite side, the entrance portico (narthex), curiously set obliquely to the apse, has two exedras at the end to access the two towers and the upper sectors.
When you enter the basilica, which was later frescoed in the Baroque period, your gaze is immediately drawn toward the beautiful mosaic decorations in the apse and the vast open space. So, you do not immediately notice that in the presbytery, on one side of the octagonal floor, there is a representation of a labyrinth. Finding one’s way out of it is already an act of rebirth.
The exquisite interior, over and above the precious marble, is a further source of wonder and ecstasy: in fact, you can gaze at a splendid example of mural mosaic with a vertical development, which gives the basilica an imperial aura and is emblematic of the political and religious power of the time.
In the presbytery, if the figures depicted in the mosaics recounting numerous episodes from the Old and the New Testament on the sacrifice of Christ for the salvation of Humanity appear active in a worldly setting, the figures depicted in the apse (the emperors Theodoric and Justinian and the Archbishop Massimian), stand out hieratically on a golden, almost abstract background, as though intended to deepen our sense of the transcendent and metaphysical power of the Church, but also that of the dogmatic and political force of Justinian’s religious conception.