Monday, September 1, 2014

I visit Ravenna, and I don't mean Ohio

Basilica San Vitale—the highest cuppola. It's all mosaic.
Travel gives me the opportunity
to walk through the sectors of cities
where one can clearly see the
passage of time.
– Jerzy Kosinski

Mosaic on a bend in Ravenna
Since my internet was still out Tuesday (and still is as I write this the following Monday), I decided to head to Ravenna since it’s a short train ride from Bologna, and I thought I would see something a little different.

Ravenna is not one of those cities that tourists usually go out of their way to see unless the city is a stop on a tour or cruise. Located on the Adriatic, it was capital of the Western Roman Empire at one time the Ostrogoths conquered it (The darn barbaric Goths again…). In 540, the Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantines) re-conquered Ravenna and held onto it until 751 when the Lombards invaded and made it part of Medieval Italy.

Piazza del Popolo
There once was a river that ran through the city, but it eventually had more mud than water, and with the mud came the mosquitoes. The people got rid of the river and built a piazza in the city center.  Piazza del Popolo (Plaza of the People) is still popular with locals who gather to talk and watch tourists dodge the bicyclists who ride with abandon through the square. (I’m guessing you know which tourist was huge entertainment last Tuesday morning.)

This photo doesn't do justice to the height of San Vitale
The reason I bring all of this history up is because Ravenna’s popularity is due to the Byzantine flavor—mosaics—that still exist in the town. More importantly, some of the mosaics survived all those wars and are intact today.
Mosaic next to the main altar....I thought it was Blessed Mother, but it's an empress.
In 526, Bishop Ecclesius ordered the building of the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna.  A Greek banker funded its building which, at that time, cost 26,000 gold pieces.  I have no idea how much that would convert to today’s values.

Cuppola over the tomb of Valentinian
The Basilica of San Vitale is the only major church to survive almost completely intact since that time. In addition, except for Constantinople, the basilica has the largest and best-preserved Byzantine mosaic art in the world. More amazing is the fact that it is still in use, and they hold weekly Mass there.

Detail of mosaic work in San Vitale

  My father was Byzantine Catholic, so I went to his church occasionally and was familiar with the mosaic work in it.  Nothing could have prepared me for the mosaics in San Vitale. Just walking in the door stopped me cold. The sheer magnitude of mosaic work in that church took my breath away, and there is no way I can do justice in describing the basilica.  I’m including photos I took with short descriptions. 
Cuppola in Galla Placidia

On the same grounds as the basilica is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. The story of Galla is too long and involved, but suffice to say that she was the daughter of a Roman emperor, widow of a Goth emperor, and widow of an Eastern Roman emperor.  She died in 450, and the mausoleum housing not only her tomb, but those of her son, Valentinian, and daughter, Justa. Many experts believe the mosaics in the small building are the oldest and most beautiful in the city.

Floor in San Vitale
 If religious mosaics are not your thing, you can always buy the image of Jimmi Hendrix (See yesterday's post) or a cow, dog, heart, owl, or whatever made of plastic glass mosaics....or you can buy your own package of loose glass and make your own.

For a mere 40+ euro, one of these can be yours
One final note on all of this (or maybe two): The reason this all amazes me so much is because the churches and mosaics have survived for so long.... 1500 years. They still hold weekly Mass in San Vitale.  Galla Placidia is even older than San Vitale, and it remains intact. If you think about it, Italy fought in many, many wars over the years, including two world wars that involved heavy artillery. That the churches and such made it through unscathed is just remarkable.


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