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 

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