Ravenna, The Glittering Jewel in Italy’s Crown

“O lone Ravenna! many a tale is told
Of thy great glories in the days of old:
Two thousand years have passed since thou didst see
Caesar ride forth to royal victory.”

“O fallen! fallen! from thy high estate,
O city trammelled in the toils of Fate,
Doth nought remain of all thy glorious days,
But a dull shield, a crown of withered bays!”

-Oscar Wilde, in his poem “Ravenna

The title of this blog should be preposterously bombastic, but Ravenna is nothing short of a miracle. The town itself did not stun; each town in Italy has its own character and so too does Ravenna, but it was a special kind of northern Italy ritziness that I did not love (or hate…it just didn’t speak to me or enthrall).

Yet, Ravenna was worth the three train rides and bus ride and thirty-one year wait. I started the day with my Italian preference a cornetto con crema and a cappuccino. I purchased my ticket that was good for San Vitale, Galla Placidia’s Mausoleum, the Orthodox Baptistery, the Archiepiscopal Museum, and the church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo.

San Vitale (left) and Galla Placidia (right) are neighbors. Galla Placidia predates San Vitale by about a century and a half (give or take), but I visited San Vitale first. Galla Placidia has always been my favorite and I wanted to save it for last (of the two). It was so strange to see the interior of this church that I knew so well from pictures in person. Strange because it was so very familiar but in three dimensions AND the emotional response was legit.

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Looking into the apse with the sixth-century mosaics.

I won’t go into huge amounts of art-historian detail, but I spent a lot of time looking at the mosaics. I also spent a lot of time eavesdropping on people as they were talking about the mosaics. Fortunately, most of the tourists that day were French, so I could follow along…especially because my French art historical vocab was “on fleek.” (That’s what the young kids are saying these days, right?) There was no source of light besides sunlight from the windows, and the greens and golds of the mosaics sparkled. The purple worn by the most important figures (Jesus, Justinian, and Theodora) highlighted them even more emphatically in person (because of the LIGHT) than is possible in photographs, even good ones.

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One of the mosaics from the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, with the Chi Rho and Alpha Omega, and grapevines all Christian iconography/symbols. 

The Mausoleum itself is very small, though the ground level has risen over the centuries so that it is even smaller. The interior of this small building was magical. It was kept dark so that you can really see the mosaics. I was in there for about 10 minutes before it all went to hell (when about 40 French high schoolers tried to cram themselves into the small building that was already pretty occupied. I left Galla Placidia much faster than I had hoped.

After the super crowded Galla Placidia, the Orthodox Baptistery was a welcome respite. I had the structure nearly all to myself, except a few older ladies and couples. The structure was smaller than I expected and that made the mosaics all the more evocative and impressive.

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After the Orthodox Baptistery, I headed over to the neighboring Archiepiscopal Museum, which was probably the most deserted of all of the sites I visited (I found out that the few friends who have been to Ravenna, none of them actually went to the museum, haha) and that is just too bad. The museum houses the material collection of Ravenna’s cathedral and lord, is it impressive. It includes a lapidarium (stones! usually inscriptions), episcopal regalia and ornaments. BUT the icing on the proverbial cake is the Chapel of San’Andrea and its mosaics (built during the time of Theodoric) and the Ivory Throne of Maximian, pictured above. The bishop’s cathedra is made of so many pieces of ivory (:( poor elephants and rhinossss) that are so intricately carved it took my breath away. Literally no one else came in the room while I was there. A few folks stuck their head in and looked at the chair like “why does this old chair have its own room?”

After lunch and getting a little lost, I went to Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, the last of the churches included on my ticket. By this point, I was SUPER tired and the cobblestones had done a number on my ankle. So few people came to Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (there was one group there while I was) and I was the only person under 50. I definitely was starting to get a little saturated. It’s a term I came up with to refer to what happens after my brain has gotten overstimulated by what I’m seeing. It’s not that I’m not excited or entranced by what I’m seeing, but that sponge that is my brain has reached maximum saturation. It had been dipped into much art-historical liquid to fully retain anything else very well. I took a break for a while at a coffeeshop that was SUPER modeled after an American coffeeshop (I chose it for location) and wrote postcards.

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The last stop was the Arian Baptistery, which I got to see for free. I had it all to myself (besides the very uninterested guard who was playing on her iPad). I didn’t stay super long, just looked my fill at the dome and then headed on my way.

My brief, one full day in Ravenna was just long enough to see nearly everything I wanted to see. I did not get out to see Sant’Apollinare in Classe (it’s a few miles out from downtown), not technically in Ravenna, but in the town of Classe. I walked past, but did not stop at Dante’s tomb (bad girl); I was on a mission that had nothing to do with 13th-century poets. I ate a lot of good food and gelato, and saw nearly all of the requisite late-antique sites, and checked a giant item off my bucket list.

Take my word for it. If you have even a small appreciation for art and history and you’re in north-ish Italy, take a few days and a few extra train trips and say hello to this city that holds so many critical art historical masterpieces that are not visited nearly enough.

Planning the Second Time Around*

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have been putting off replanning my Eurotrip (previously Eurotrip 2016, now Eurotrip 2.0 or Eurotrip 2017). I think it’s pretty obvious why it has been hard. BUT, I finally did the biggest thing necessary and purchased my tickets for Eurotrip 2017. My plane tickets are booked.

My last two visits to France have both been important milestones.

In 2005, it truly felt like a coming of age. The 19-year old that went to Paris came home a 20-year old that knew herself a little bit better, believed in herself a little bit more, and from that point forward she challenged her preconceived notions about the world a little bit more.

In 2016, obviously, my life changed big almost immediately after setting foot in France. Seeing Paris through shocked, grieving eyes was at best what can be described as surreal. Looking back on it now, barely two months later, I recognize that I felt comfortable there, even in the worst possible emotional circumstance (much of that was also thanks to a very dear friend). For a while recently though, the idea of going back made me nervous. Paris will, for better or worse, now always bear the association of being where I learned of and began to grieve my mom’s death. What would it be like returning to this place that I have always loved, that now holds this connection with the loss of one of the most important people in my life?

Before I left for this trip, my mom was so excited for me. Her last words to me were full of excitement, pride, and hope for my time there, for my adventures, and for what I was going to try to accomplish regarding my work. There is no one who would have wanted me to go back to Paris, and enjoy myself, more than my Momma.

EuroTrip 2017 will unfold much like EuroTrip 2016 was supposed to, save one destination. I will not being going to England. My stop in England was essentially only for fun, and in getting reimbursed for my lost expenses by my department, it didn’t feel right to include those monies and London is not cheap. I’m okay with that though — this will certainly not be my last trip to Europe.

Here are the original destination blog posts I made for EuroTrip 2016.

Paris * Besançon * Venice * Pula * Ravenna * Rimini * Torino * Avignon

 

*I had the Step-by-Step theme song stuck in my head the entire time I was writing this post. If you’re a child of the 90s like me, I hope it is in yours now too 😛 

From the Archive: Destination Spotlight, RAVENNA, Italy

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My visit to Ravenna is my second purely for pleasure trip. I have no reason to be there other than some of the most important art historical masterpieces from the late antique/early middle ages are found within its borders. Since antiquity, the city served as an important port on the Adriatic as well as occasionally serving as a capital for the Western Roman emperors and the Ostrogothic monarchs, eventually becoming the seat of the Exarchate of Ravenna (the seat of the Byzantine governor in Italy). In the 8th century, Ravenna was taken over by the Lombards, and thus ends my knowledge of Ravenna’s history. Truthfully, I have no expectations from the city of Ravenna; I’m going for its architecture.

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Check out the details found in the mosaics of San Vitale

I’ll be spending one weekend in Ravenna and I will be going to see a LOT of churches and a few tombs. Number one on the list is arguably one of the most important 6th century churches in Italy, and Europe, San Vitale. The structure and the mosaics are well preserved and I LITERALLY CAN’T WAIT to see them. Notable among the mosaics of San Vitale are the Theodora and Justinian mosaics which depict the imperial couple presenting the instruments of the Eucharist to the church in a process of officials. Richly colored in blues, greens, and golds, these mosaics demonstrate the sensory nature of early-medieval worship.

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Looking into the apse (the holiest spot of the church). In the conch of the apse, you have Christ depicted with full imperial symbolism…he is surrounded by two angels, Saint Vitale, and Bishop Ecclesias who initiated the construction of the church. 

I don’t know if I’ll be able to see all of the churches I want to see, but top on my list besides San Vitale are Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, San Giovanni Evangelista, and the Arian and Orthodox Baptisteries. I’d like also to visit the Mausolea of Galla Placidia and Theodoric.

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Sant’Apollinare Nuovo from an aisle looking into the nave. 

Sant’Apollinare Nuovo was built not long before San Vitale, but instead of the Byzantine central-plan domed church of San Vitale, we have a traditional basilica form (a long church with a center nave, and at least two surrounding aisles, all axially oriented towards the apse where the rituals would be performed). What is interesting about this church is that it was built under Ostrogothic rule as a Palace church for the emperor Theodoric. The Ostrogoths were Christians, but believed in a “heretical” form of Christianity called Arianism (long story short – questions the divinity of Christ and the notion of the Holy Trinity). When Ostrogothic rule ended, the church was not destroyed and we have noticeable examples where the mosaic program of the church was altered to reflect both the change in the political situation AND the religious shift to orthodoxy.

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Sant’Apollinare Nuovo mosaic that depicts the Ostrogothic palace…this mosaic shows obvious signs of being altered…can you spot them? 

The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (so-called) is a pretty early structure that has some remarkable mosaics, both figural and decorative. My favorite of the mosaics is a depiction of Saint Lawrence and the instrument of his martyrdom. Saint Lawrence was an early-Christian martyr that was literally *grilled* to death. In this mosaic Saint Lawrence is standing beside his flaming gridiron; next to the gridiron is a cabinet with the handily labelled books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, or the Gospels.  Fun Fact: St. Lawrence is the patron saint of barbecue….chew on that for a few…PUN INTENDED.

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Saint Lawrence with his grill…..and you can see where I got the image for my blog header

My plans for visiting Ravenna just reinforce, in my mind, how much of an art historian I am. I do not study early medieval/late antique/Byzantine art, nor do I study Christian art, but I LOVE THIS STUFF. I cannot wait to see it…the pictures take my breath away, so I can only imagine the impact it will have in person.

What is a place you can’t wait to visit? The most hyped place you’ve ever been? Did it live up to your expectations? 

This is sixth in a series of blog posts that I will be doing to talk about where I am going during this trip, why I am going there, and what I’m expecting to see.

Paris * Besançon * London * Venice * Pula