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Municipality of Ravenna

Carl Gustav Jung

Piazza Duomo, 1 - Ravenna
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“Since my experience in the baptistery in Ravenna,
I have known with certainty that something interior can appear to be exterior, and that something exterior can appear to be interior”.
(C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Collins 1971)

After the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung also visited Ravenna in 1913, and returned once again twenty years later, in 1933. He was not only greatly fascinated, but also deeply unsettled, so much so that, in his writings and reflections, he would fully describe the power of the imagery and the awe he experienced in the presence of such masterpieces of mosaic art.

Perceiving the splendour of the decorations of the Battistero Neoniano (Neonian Baptistery), the light, colour, strength and infinity, Carl Gustav Jung would also recount having gone through “one of the strangest events” of his life.

In the volume Memories, Dreams and Recollections (published in Italy in 1965), Jung writes that “Even on the occasion of my first visit to Ravenna in 1913, the tomb of Galla Placidia seemed to me significant and unusually fascinating. The second time, twenty years later, I had the same feeling. Once more I fell into a strange mood in the tomb of Galla Placidia; once more I was deeply stirred.”

When he then visited the Battistero Neoniano with his assistant, he said that he was at first struck by the mild blue diffused light: “Here,I did not try to account for its source, and so the wonder of this light without any visible source did not trouble me. I was somewhat amazed because, in place of the windows I remembered having seen on my first visit, there were now four great mosaic frescoes of incredible beauty which, it seemed, I had entirely forgotten. I was vexed to find my memory so unreliable. […]The fourth mosaic, on the west side of the baptistery, was the most impressive of all. We looked at this one last. It represented Christ holding out his hand to Peter, who was sinking beneath the waves.(…) Initiations of this kind were often linked to the idea that life was in danger, and so they served to express the archetypal idea of death and rebirth. Baptism had originally been a literal immersion, alluding to the danger of drowning”.

Back home, however, Jung’s surprise and dismay were enormous when, in search of photographic images that could document the scene of this interesting archetype, he discovered that the mosaic actually represented the baptism of Jesus Christ in Jordan. Jung and his assistant, therefore, had merely perceived it.

At that moment, according to the psychoanalyst, the vision did not differ at all from reality.



Ravenna also played a part in the study of the human psyche. Both fathers of psychoanalysis, Freud and Jung, visited the city, and both of them were left with traces of it in their subconscious minds.

Carl Gustav Jung, one of the major intellectual figures of psychological and psychoanalytic thought, claimed that paranormal phenomena are signs of the collective unconscious, just as dreams are indicators of the individual unconscious:

“The psyche possesses particular faculties, whereby it is not completely confined within space and time. One can have dreams and visions of the future, one can see through walls and so on. Only the ignorant deny these things, it is absolutely clear that these phenomena exist and have always existed…”.

For this reason Jung’s mystical experiences include the episode of his double visit to Ravenna (1913 and 1933), during which he first felt a disturbance and a fascination in the mausoleum commissioned by Galla Placidia, for the sense of being almost in front of the very presence of his soul. Then, inside the Battistero degli Ortodossi, he had had the impression of studying a mosaic depicting Christ saving St. Peter from the waters of Lake Tiberias, which the psychoanalyst interpreted as an unconscious symbol of psychological rebirth, when in reality the mosaic represents the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan.

In his writings Memories, Dreams and Reflections (1934), Jung links both episodes to the evocative power of mosaics (even respect to the original intentions of its builders), and that is why they had captivated his imagination so strongly.

50 years earlier, in 1869, Ravenna had already attracted (and repelled) the Father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Although disappointed by the degradation and decadence he encountered in the city, the philosopher would later note in his Interpretation of Dreams that he had had a “surreal” experience in Ravenna, a city he visited − he says − “never while awake”.

The experience will allow him to tell his own dream with a double symbolic value:

“I have discovered the elements of the dream landscape, the white flowers indicate the city of Ravenna, which I know and which, at least for a short time, snatched from Rome the privilege of being the capital of Italy. In the marshes of Ravenna, we gathered the most beautiful water lilies in the dark water… it was very difficult for us to pluck them in the water…”.

In Freud’s dreamlike story, therefore, Ravenna is “physical decadence” (the city’s condition at the end of the nineteenth century) and “symbolic decadence” (the decline of the empire). On the other hand, the city is also a symbol of “rebirth” (white water lilies in black water).

Further information

A cura della Redazione Locale

Last edit:8 February 2022

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