Ravishing Ravenna

Ravenna has been on my radar as a “Place I Want To Go” for forty-two years. I know the exact number of years because it was in the fall of 1973 when I was in my first year of university that I first saw pictures of Ravenna’s famous Byzantine mosaics in my copy of Janzen’s History of Art. The course was Fine Arts 125: A History of Western Art and it’s thanks to that course that to this day I still stumble across great artworks that I first saw in the dim light of the Frederic Wood Theater in my 9:30 am class. I had a tendency to snooze through quite a few of my lectures in my first year but I don’t remember ever nodding off in the Fine Arts 125 lecture. Thirty years later, my daughter signed up for the same course only to discover that a great deal had changed. On the first day, the lecturer told students that if they were the “type” who went to art galleries and bought postcards of their favorite masterpieces, then the course was not for them. People who bought postcards were just too bourgeois, clueless, duped, etc., etc., for words. After several trips to Europe as a child and teenager, my daughter  already had several albums crammed with postcards we’d bought from galleries and museums. Silly us–we thought it was educational! Needless to say, my daughter dropped out of the course which is a shame because she missed out on such a wonderful survey of western art from the Caves of Lascaux to the 20th Century.

By I digress. This blog is about my recent visit to Ravenna where, finally, I stood before the mosaics that had first captivated me when I was seventeen years old. I had expected to be pretty blown away by the two most famous mosaics in the Church of San Vitale. The mosaic to the left of the altar depicts the Emperor Justinian and his entourage and the mosaic to the right depicts the Empress Theodora and her entourage. I was, of course, blown away, but what I didn’t expect was all the other amazing mosaics in Ravenna and the city itself. Ravenna is quite simply a really lovely place to spend a few days. It is small enough to be easily walkable, there are enough mosaic sites to satisfy all levels of interest, the crowds are sparse, and the city feels like a place where people cheerfully live and work. Pedestrian and bike-only streets make for easy strolling in this northern Italian town that feels, architecturally, like a cross between Milan and Venice.

We were enchanted.

Now back to the mosaics. Here is a rundown of the principal sites in Ravenna for viewing mosaics. We missed only one of the biggies–the Basilica of Sant’Appolinare in Classe which is about four miles outside of Ravenna. Well, we had to leave something to see the next time we come to Ravenna! And since I became fascinated with the story of the Empress Theodora, there may very well be a next time.

After arriving in Ravenna in the mid-afternoon and checking into a soulless and delightfully modern and easy-to-drive-to hotel on the edge of the city, we took a taxi to San Vitale. Side Note: When driving in Italy, save your sanity and your relationships by staying in hotels on the outskirts of historical cities and taking taxis. Yes, taxis cost money but so does parking and divorce court. Driving into Italy’s fiendishly convoluted centros is not for the faint-hearted and can also result in hefty fines if you inadvertently drive into traffic-limited areas. The cameras are watching and you’ll get a bill back in your home country.

And back again to the mosaics. San Vitale, as mentioned earlier, is the home of the two most famous of Ravenna’s mosaics. We bought our combo ticket – at 9.50 euros it covers entry to all five of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Ravenna for a full week. Another side note: this combo ticket is one of Europe’s best sightseeing bargains. In Venice we routinely paid 15 to 20 euros each for one museum (some quite mediocre), never mind five of the most amazing places I’ve visited in Europe.

We entered the dimly lit basilica, walked a few paces past a series of gloomy arches and suddenly.

Holy cow!

The mosaics glitter with clear, vivid colors slashed with gold. They look as if they were made yesterday and yet almos 1500 years has passed since artists cut the tiny tiles in 547 -most the size of a fingernail–and arranged them to form patterns and figures that look strikingly modern. I was particularly entranced by the abstract patterns used to delineate and separate arches and columns and figures. Here’s a picture of the mosaic showing Christ as a beardless young man at the front of the basilica. Notice the mosaic patterns under the large and smaller archways. The famous Justinian/Theodora mosaics are below and to the right and left of the mosiac showing Christ. Powerful as the Emperor and Empress undoubtedly were, they still took second place to the image of Byzantine image of Christ. I learned that the Byzantines were not exactly nice guys when it came to imposing their version of the religion on Ravenna. These fabulous mosaics were meant to replace the “Arian heresy”–an earlier form of Christianity which was pretty much obliterated by Justinian and the gang. Later we visit one of the few surviving Arian mosaics.

But back to San Vitale. The mosaics of Theodora and Justinian are quite simply amazing. I was particularly taken by the image of Theodora. I bought a short biography of her and discovered that she was quite the force of nature. Of humble birth, she grew up to become an actress and a courtesan of some renown. She attracted the notice of Justinian who eventually managed to over-turn the law forbidding him from marrying an actress. Theodora was apparently an extremely astute and powerful ruler, pretty much equal to her husband in power and superior in intellect (according to the biography I read). I think there is great “scope for imagination” in the story of Theodora. I’m putting it on my creative “back burner” to simmer for awhile. In the meantime, I’ll start doing some research on her and the period. I find it particularly interesting that Theodora never actually made it to Ravenna from Constantinople to see the fantastic mosaics she commissioned, but that she sent a trusted friend in her place. Theodora also never provided Justinian with an heir and died in terrible pain from what was probably cancer when she was in her late forties. During her reign, Constantinople was transformed. I gather Theodora was pretty bad ass for her time and yet also instituted reforms for prostitutes and actresses. It will be interesting to investigate further.

I’m obviously not the only person who is fascinated by Theodora. Her image graces a wide array of the tacky souvenirs for sale at the gift shop attached to each of the main sites. But her ubiquity doesn’t detract from her fascination. Who knows if the image of her face is realistic, although apparently Theodora was reputed to be a great beauty and certainly she looks pretty darn good in the mosaic. The depiction of her husband Justinian, a man twenty years her senior, is not nearly as flattering.

Here are two close-ups of the rulers. My own photos are not great so these photos are from Wikipedia. Click on them to see the original pages. Thank you to Petar Milošević for permission to use his photos.


Empress Theodora in San Vitale, Ravenna

Emperor Justinian in San Vitale, Ravenna

We stared up at the mosaics until our necks stiffened, then crunched them back in place and walked out of San Vitale and across a peaceful courtyard to the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia. The daughter, sister, wife, and mother of Roman emperors, Galla Placidia had the mausoleum built in the mid-fifth century (that is the 400s). The mosaics are some of Ravenna’s oldest and yet, again, they look like they were created in the last few decades. The entire domed ceiling glows with breathtaking mosaics. Standing under the dome feels like standing under a starry sky. Each cluster of stars picked out in gold and varying shades of blue from robin’s egg blue to deepest midnight is just a little bit different. Photos are forbidden so here are shots from Wikipedia of the dome and of the principal freize showing Christ as a shepherd. These depictions of Christ in the very early days in the development of Christianity as the state religion are very appealing. If only that peaceful, shepherd guy could have remained.

Mosaic depicting Christ as a shepherd in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy

Mosaic depicting Christ as a shepherd in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy

Close-up of mosaic stars in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy

Close-up of mosaic stars in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy

Reeling from the incredible skill and beauty left to the world by 5th and 6th Century artisans, we wandered through the streets of lovely Ravenna in the warm light of early evening. On our way to a restaurant we’d made reservations at earlier in the afternoon (see my blog on Tasty Italian Trio), we came across the opening of a “mostra” — an art exhibition featuring two painters. The gallery was quite small and since we had a bit of time to kill before our reservation we decided to go in and check out the work. We were welcomed with big smiles and plastic glasses filled to the brim with excellent white wine. No one spoke much English and our Italian is pretty nonexistent but we were able to communicate well enough to let them know that Gregg was a painter from Vancouver and I was a writer. We admired the work of the two artists exhibiting, exchanged cards and brochures and Facebook contacts, then stumbled back out onto the street. After an afternoon of admiring ancient mosaics, we enjoyed the opportunity to connect with local contemporary artists. Great traveling is made up of such unscripted, unplanned moments.

After an amazing meal and a restful night at our big business hotel on the outskirts of Ravenna (sometimes comfort trumps charm), we set off for a full day of mosaic madness in Ravenna. We had three more UNESCO sites to see on our five-site ticket plus I wanted to check out the Mosaic Museum, the flooded crypt in the Church of San Francesco, and the House of Stone Carpets.

First up was Basilica of Saint’Apollinare Nuovo. I didn’t know what to expect and so was pretty blown away by two massive mosaics marching along both sides of the very long nave of the basilica. On one side a troupe of holy virgins–each dressed slightly differently in gold lamé togas–leads to a representation of the Virgin Mary. Here’s a shot of just a few of them–I counted at least twenty in total.

Mosaics depicting women from the 6th century in the Basilica of Saint'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna

Procession of virgins in Basilica of Saint’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna

On the other side dances a conga line of white toga-clad of martyred male saints. Two more layers of mosaics rise toward the ceiling–a bewildering variety of  biblical subjects. I was particularly taken by the depiction of the three wise men wearing leggings that would not be out of place in an eighties aerobics class.

Sixth Century mosaic of the Three Wise Men in the Basilica of Saint'Apollinare Nuovo

Sixth Century mosaic of the Three Wise Men in the Basilica of Saint’Apollinare Nuovo

No pictures can convey the sheer size and scope of the mosaics–most of which date from the sixth century, with a few from the fifth century. I’ve been in my share of cathedrals over the years and never have I seen such a spectacular display of art. The only thing that finally dragged me away from my open-mouthed staring was the need to again uncrick my neck. If only the mosaics were at eye level.

We wandered through lovely old Ravenna–a delightful town with few cars, many bikes, and almost no tourists.


Next / Previous Post Navigation: