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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Ravenna, Italy

Ravenna, Italy's Piazza del Popolo, so Italian you can almost smell the Ciechetti.
When you mention Ravenna, Italy, the famous Byzantine mosaics of San Vitale and Sant' Apollinare Nuovo come to mind. Okay, in truth, the most common reaction in mentioning Ravenna is a blank stare. Most people, indeed, I dare say most artists even, have never heard of the place. That's no reflection upon the city, which is a quite lovely locale just down the eastern coast of the Italian boot from Venice. The blank stare comes from the fact that Ravenna represents a period in history, and art history in particular, that is woefully ignored or at best, underappreciated. From the fall of the western Roman empire in 480 AD, to the Renaissance a thousand years later, there exists an enormous blind spot commonly referred to as the "dark ages" (with good cause, in that people are "in the dark" regarding this era) but more accurately termed the Medieval period.

Ravenna's San Vitale apse.
Ravenna once replaced Rome as the capital of the western Roman empire (briefly, 402-476) and again was the seat of the Byzantine empire in Italy from 550 to 761. It was during this latter period the city acquired its standing in the history of art with its spectacular mosaics housed in notably unspectacular Medieval architecture. Two major basilica churches dominate the list of surviving structures from this era along with a couple baptisteries, and a couple mausoleums. And, as mentioned from the top, apart from their extensive mosaics, these architectural artifacts would be unimpressive, indeed, fairly unimportant. I won't deal further with the history of Ravenna as it is mind-bogglingly complex, reflecting the ethnic, religious, and military conflicts in the vacuum left by the fall of the Roman Empire. Thus, it's little wonder few people know (or care) anything about this period.

Sant' Apollinare Nuovo mosaics, a sort of "who's who" of the Theodoric court.
(The curve is an optical distortion required by the narrowness of the nave.)
Sant' Apollinare Nuovo is the larger and arguably more important of the two basilicas. It's actually located in Classe, a suburb of Ravenna. The church was once the palace chapel of Ostrogoth King Theodoric the Great (471-526). The church was dedicated to Apollinaris, said to have been a disciple of the apostle, Peter. Theodoric also constructed a cathedral, a baptistery, and his own mausoleum, all of which feature slightly less impressive mosaics (this was before frescoes became popular).

Ravenna's San Vitale. Notice the slope down to the entrance, indicating how much the
structure has subsided in the past 1500 years.

San Vitale dates from roughly the same period as Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, though it was built by the Bishop Ecclesius in 527 so it's slightly older and slightly less impressive both architecturally and mosaically. However, as one of the few surviving examples of early Christian church design, its importance in the history of architecture cannot be overstated. San Vitale also contains what may be the most impressive examples of mosaic portraiture in the world, that of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and his court along with the Bishop Maximian (labeled just above his head) and generals from the Palatinae Guard (below, left). On a panel opposite the emperor is a mosaic depicting the Empress Theodora (below, right).
San Vitale's mosaic of the court
of the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I.
And on a nearby panel,
his lovely wife, Theodora.

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