Saturday, March 17, 2007

February 2007 - Ravenna, Italy - The Mosaic City

On our second to last day in Bologna, we decided to hop on a train and visit Ravenna, near the delta of the Po River on the Adriatic Sea. As the capital of the Western Roman Empire (from A.D. 402), the Visigoth Empire (from A.D. 473), and the Byzantine Empire under Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora (A.D. 540-752), Ravenna became one of the greatest cities on the Mediterranean. Ravenna achieved its cultural peak as part of the Byzantine Empire between the 6th and the 8th centuries, and it is known for the many well-preserved mosaics created during that time -- the finest in all Western art and the most splendid outside Istanbul. Although Ravenna now looks much like any other Italian city, the low Byzantine domes of its churches still evoke its Eastern past. The people of Ravenna are clearly proud of their past as the gateway between the East and the West, but if you really want to see them beam with pride, ask about Dante Alighieri. They will tell you about how Ravenna recognized genius and embraced the great poet and first author to write in Italian so that the common people could read his poetry and how they welcomed him with open arms when Florence expelled him for his ideas about democracy.

As we walked from the train station towards the historic center of town, we came upon this old church, San Giovanni Evangelista. Check out that sky!! Another beautiful cloudless blue day in Italy!

We continued through the city and peaked inside an old, somewhat run down building, only to find the gigantic and colorful Mercato Coperto, with an amazing selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, meats hanging from various Salumieri booths, every variety of cheeese that Italy has to offer, and the sweet smell of the pastry shops in the air.

Once we got to the historic center, we went straight to the most historically important building in the city, Basilica di San Vitale, built in 540 A.D. by Justinian, the Byzantine Emperor who made Ravenna a beacon of civilization at the same time that the Roman Empire came crashing down. This was his church standing as a sanctuary of order in the midst of madness. It's covered in lavash mosaics of gold and glass chips the size of your fingernail, most of which portray Justinian as the leader of the church and the state. The church is not only special because it's 1400 years old but also because it's decorated with some of the world's most brilliant mosaics nearly all of which are completely intact. This was truly one of the most awe-inspiring houses of worship that we've ever seen.

We took tons of pictures of the church's interior and the mosaics the but none of them really do it justice.

The church's octogonal design, evident in this shot of the dome, is clearly eastern and similar to the construction of the Hagia Sophia built 10 years earlier in Constantinople. This church's design even inspired Charlemagne, who visited Ravenna in 800 A.D. He was so impressed that he returned to his capital city of Aachen, Germany, and built a church modeled after this one which is considered the first great stone building in Northern Europe.
The walls and ceilings sparkle with biblical scenes conveyed in a 6th Century style. This was a time of transition and the mosaics are considered the last ancient Roman and the first medieval European works of art.

In the apse above the main alter is God in heaven portrayed as Christ overseeing his creation, symbolized by the four rivers.
The vibrant mosaics on the right side of the main altar depict Justinian, wearing a halo and holding a crown to indicate that he's the leader of both the church and the state. Across from him, covering the left side of the main altar in a similar fashion, are mosaics of his wife Theodora, covered in jewels and pearls, consecrating the new church.
This shot reveals the octogonal shape of the church and the many colors in the mosaics and marbles used to decorate its interior.
Here's a picture of the outside of the Basilica. Sepia seemed appropriate for such an old structure.
Here's Casandra in front of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, just across the courtyard from the Basilica. Its a tiny Mausoleum with the oldest and most impressive mosaics in Ravenna. It's the burial place of Galla Placidia, the daughter, sister and mother of various emperors, who died around 450 A.D. Also in this Mausoleum are the tombs of her husband and son (neither of whom were emperors).

In each of the mosaic-covered walls is a thin panel of alibaster which allows light to sneak through and bring a glow and twinkle to the early Christian symbolism that fills the little room. The dome is filled with gold stars along with Mark's lion, Luke's ox, and John's eagle. Throughout the room is the standard Roman depiction of Christ, without a beard and dressed in gold and purple like a Roman emperor.
This is one of the three tombs below the mosaic-tiled design of St. Lawrence, and early Christian who was martyred on a firey grill by the Romans. He was legendary for mocking his executioners and is a famous example of the feisty strength of the early Christians. The eastern influence is most apparent in the carpet-like patterns of the mosaics, like those in the vault above the alibaster window here.

Here is Casandra on a typical street in the historic center. We enjoyed the many pedestrianized shopping areas.

Housed beneath this humble little church is the Domus dei Tappeti di Pietra, an archeological site recently uncovered. The site contains mosaics from ancient Roman times showing that this was probably the home of a wealthy landowner who could afford mosaic tile work decorating and distinguishing the different rooms of his home.

This is Ravenna's cathedral, and though not as historically important as some of the other churches in town, the cathedral is on the lovely, landscaped Piazza del Duomo.
The interior of the cathedral is simple and gothic with a long vaulted nave.

Some of the capellas are decorated in a lavish baroque style using gold leafing and a variety of marbles.
The cathedral's main claim to fame is it's neighboring Battistero Neoniano (the baptistry) which originally served a cathedral that no longer stands. Still somewhat intact, however, is the 11th century campanile (bell tower) pictured above.
This octagonal baptistry was built in the 5th century, and in the center of the cupola is a tablet showing John the Baptist baptizing Christ. Shown below are the remains of the marble basin used for baptisms. The circle around the tablet depicts in dramatic mosaics of deep violet-blues and sparkling golds the 12 crown-carrying Apostles.
The entire room, including the domed ceiling, is covered in eastern style mosaics depicting scenes from the life of Jesus.

We left the baptistry and made a quick stop at the Archepiscopal museum (it was included in the Ravenna day pass we bought). The main item of interest is an ivory throne carved for Archbishop Maximian, from around the mid-6th century.
Next we headed for Dante's tomb which is next to the Basilica di San Francesco a rather plain church that housed Dante's bones for 3 centuries to protect them from theft.

We finally made it to Via Dante Alighieri and here is a look up the street from the tomb.
Dante's tomb is the true site of his remains. He came to Ravenna after being exiled from Florence for his political beliefs. The Florentines forgave Dante posthumously and wanted to bring their famous poet's bones homes to rest but Ravenna to protect the remains from theft by the Florentines hid the bones in the Basilica di San Francesco. For 3 centuries they lay forgotten in the church until they were rediscovered and replaced in his tomb in 1865. The Dante memorial in Florence is often mistaken for a memorial but it sits empty.
Unfortunately the tomb was closed for restorations. But we did not give up that easily, we had travelled this far to see Dante's remains.
So Kenny snuck into the closed courtyard where the pieces of the tomb are being repaired and like paparazzi got this shot of the red marble bust of the great poet.
We then headed to the Basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo an austere 6th century church that houses some amazingly colorful Byzantine mosaics.
With a typical early-Chrisitan-basilica floor plan (i.e., rectangular Roman hall of justice), the basilica has 2 huge and wonderfully preserved mosaic side panels. The altar, in the distance, is baroque and was built 1,000 years after the basilica and its mosaics.
One side depicts Christ on his throne with 4 angels awaiting a solemn procession of 26 martyrs.
The opposite side portrays the procession of haloed virgins each bringing gifts to the madonna and the Christ child.
As we wandered through Ravenna we stopped at this high baroque church simply because of its interesting facade and how magnificent it looked against the blue sky. As evidenced by the octagonal dome prevalent in early Christian and Byzantine churches, this church is much older than its facade lets on. The church clearly got a facelift at the end of the Renaissance.
The interior of the dome was also "redecorated" to add some gold leaf and marble inserts ever so important to show the Catholic church and Pope's wealth during the Renaissance.

On our way back to the train station we took a stroll through the Giardino Pubblico (public garden) that abutts the Pinacoteca Communale (public art museum). You can see the octagonal dome of the baroque church in the distance.
We always enjoy watching italians make good use of their communal lawns. We find it comforting to watch over-indulgent Italian parents coach their children in games of amateur calcio (by now you should know that this is the only true word for soccer). Just over 50% of Italian children are only children and Italy's birthrate is currently so low that Italians have seen a 30% decrease in population in one generation - that does not take into account the massive immigration problem that they have with countries like Senegal, Bangladesh, and Albania sending over hords of illegal immigrants.

We ended the day with a stroll through Piazza del Popolo (piazza of the people) which is the largest and most active square in town. As the bell tower behind us chimed six o'clock, the piazza began to fill with people from babies in strollers to old men on bicycles (a very common mode of transportation, particularly for the elderly, in this pedestrianized city).

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