Sunday, June 17, 2018

Cryptic Ravenna

Ravenna may not be associated with Dante the way Florence is, but it is the proud owner of his bones. The "tomb" in the church of Santa Croce in Florence is really just a memorial. Dante died in Ravenna, where he was living in exile, and was buried there. The Florentines have wanted him back for a long time - in 1519, Pope Leo X even ordered his removal to Florence, but the monks of Ravenna refused and hid his bones for centuries. They were found in 1865, and his current tomb is small a modern (19th century) structure in an unassuming part of Ravenna.

Dante on his bike

Like a kid in a sweet shop
Just next to Dante's tomb is the Basilica di San Francisco, one of my favourite of the many fantastic spots in Ravenna. The Basilica is pretty unremarkable except for its flooded crypt, which dates to the 10th century but over the years has sunk into its soft marshy foundations and flooded. They gave up the fight to keep the water out, and today it is an attraction in its own right. You have to peep through a small window - pay the small fee to turn the lights on. It is home to goldfish and lucky coins, and when we visited also featured an underwater table with stone tablecloth and goldfish bowl. This latter doesn't appear in photos I see online, so is presumably a temporary installation highlighting the gentle absurdity of the place.

Grave of the charmingly-named ruler Ostasio da Polenta (d. 1346)
All this and we still didn't see absolutely everything Ravenna has to offer! Very much recommended.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

House of the Stone Carpets, Ravenna

The core set of elaborately glittering golden mosaics in Ravenna are indubitably the most famous, but they are not the only show in town. We also visited the so-called "Stone Carpets", a set of Roman/Byzantine mosaics with a backstory almost as fabulous as the mosaics themselves.

You reach the House of the Stone Carpets via the next-door church of Saint Eufemia. There, you pass underground, three metres below current ground level, to an excavated Byzantine palace which was only discovered in 1993 during the (attempted) construction of an underground garage. Covering around 1200 sq metres, the 14 rooms and three courtyards of the small palace are covered with intricately patterned "carpets" in stone, as well as a couple of stand-out figurative mosaics. The mosaics were restored and the returned to their original location, albeit now in a modern excavation space that allows visitors to walk "through" the house on raised platforms. It only opened to the public in 2002.

It was peaceful and not crowded when we visited (luckily, otherwise it might be unpleasant to have to queue along the platforms), probably because it is less known, less flashy than the main sites, and not included in the combination ticket to the religious buildings. It's a nice chance to see a secular building with a more intimate and low-key mosaic decoration.

The dance of the seasons

Lighting didn't quite work out for a photo with the dancing mosaic

Christ as the Good Shepherd. This is apparently quite different from the standard representation, although none of the sites I've consulted say how exactly. I would guess his very youthful, countrified appearance

Monday, June 11, 2018

Archbishop's Palace, Ravenna

Our last stop on the mosaic trail was at the Archbishop's Palace, now a museum, which contains a tiny oratory dedicated to St Andrew from around 495 AD. Photos were not allowed in here, so I took a couple anyway (sorry).

A militant Christ trampling the beasts
The rest of the museum contains a bit of a hodgepodge of various paintings, mosaic fragments, ivories, statues etc. To be honest, I didn't find it all that memorable, but I enjoyed looking back through my photos and remembering what there was to see there. 

One highlight is the reconstructed chapel frescoes by da Rimini, from the church of Santa Chiara (early 14th century)

The lighting and damage made them hard to photograph, but they had a delicate beauty

As usual, I also enjoyed taking photos of various quirky objects:

Sexy boar
Sexy mermaid (hello Starbucks)

'Tis but a scratch
Pharmacy reconstruction

Wolf infestation

I didn't take any pictures of one of the glories of the museum, the ivory throne of Archbishop Maximianus (who showed up in the San Vitale mosaics), and the internet doesn't seem to have many pictures of it either, but it's pretty special:


Saturday, June 02, 2018

Imperial splendour: the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

Just next to the Mausoleum of Galla Placida is the Basilica of San Vitale. It's the most cathedral-ly in feeling of all the mosaic sites we visited, thanks to its proportions and size. Construction began in 526, under the rule of the Goths, but was completed in 548, by which time Ravenna was part of the Byzantine Empire, something which is clearly reflected in its beautiful mosaics. I put about a million photos of it below because it's so pretty, especially in the chancel area above the altar.

Exterior of San Vitale by night
Abel and Melchizedeck offering sacrifices to the Lord

The cupola on the right is the only substantial part of the Basilica which has been redecorated. It provides an interesting contrast to the rest of the Byzantine interior. The arch between the two has a central medallion of a bearded Jesus, flanked by the Apostles and two other saints

The vault shows the Lamb of God in the centre, supported by four angels against a background of vines and small animals on a blue, green and gold ground

Two horses prepare to fight to death for possession of the cross

Note the peacock beautifully fit into the co

The whole Basilica glowed with a soft yellow light reflecting off the marble on the floor and walls

Isaiah below a depiction of the evangelist Mark with his lion

The central mosaic over the altar shows a younger-looking Christ, with the church's namesake, Saint Vitale, on his right, and the founder of the church, Bishop Ecclesius, on his left. Christ offers a martyr's crown to St Vitale, but it can also be interprested as an offering to the Emperor Justinian below him

I didn't manage to get a great shot because of the angles, but bottom right depicts the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and his court. He is flanked by church and civil officials, representing his central authority in both realms. However, the Bishop Maximianus, on Justinian's left is actually standing slightly in front of the Emperor, perhaps reflecting tension between Church and State. Justinian is carrying a bowl of bread for the Eucharist, implying they are processing in to the Mass at the altar

There was a moody, Russian-looking model doing a photo shoot in this area when we visited. Here's my attempt

The angels above the arch, holding a medallion, are flanked by depictions of the City of Jerusalem, representing the Jewish/Old Testament Church, and the City of Bethlehem, for the Gentile/New Testament Church

Moses and the burning bush (top) and watching his flocks (bottom)

Abraham offers bread to the "mysterious strangers" (angels), before having a go at sacrificing Isaac. Above, Jeremiah stands on the right, and Moses ascends Mt Sinai on the right. Below Moses is Aaron with the Twelve Tribes of Israel

Facing Justinian is his wife, the Empress Theodora, and her court. She holds the cup for the Eucharist and the bottom of her gown features an embroidery of the three Magi bearing gifts, thus associating herself with these Biblical kings