Friday 3 August 2018

From vision to vision in Ravenna

I first came here on my second Interrail trip in the summer of 1982. Having met up with friends Jo and Simon at Florence station, travelled on with them to Arezzo, Cortona and Rome and continued with Simon to Ravenna, I left him there and embarked on my first independent travel (if you except the journey down to Florence). I remember meeting a French student in the youth hostel who was crazy about John Cowper Powys; I was reading Wolf Solent and didn't really 'get it'. What I decisively did get was Bertrand Russell's The Pursuit of Happiness, and applied it to myself wonderingly alone in a big and beautiful world. If I were to dig out my diary from that time I'd probably find the word 'epiphany'.

Oddly, there don't seem to be any photos of what I saw there - the album goes from Horace's Sabine farm straight on to Padua and Venice - but old postcards were able to confirm that I 'did' the big three Byzantine gems - Sant'Apollinare Nuovo (pictured below), San Vitale and the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (above). I remembered that they were miraculous and looked forward to returning, but wasn't prepared for the overall impact this time, there as a guest of the Ravenna Festival - about which I've written for The Arts Desk - before flying on to Riga.

The Festival included in our greetings bag the best guide you could possibly have to the eight early Byzantine monuments in and just outside Ravenna which were included in UNESCO's World Heritage list in 1996. Three aren't included in the special ticket which admits you to the best-known, but they should have equal status and have to be seen too, along with the archaeological museum and the Zona Dantesca which includes another church with a special wonder. Glad I had two and a half days in which to cover them all, as well as four concerts, a play and a trip to strange and fascinating Comacchio on the lagoon heading towards the Po delta, which merits another entry.

I've always found it worthwhile taking the guided tour our wonderful Lucy Maxwell-Stewart always organises on festival trips, even if I think I know the place, since you invariably get a personal perspective - and that was certainly true of our passionate cicerona this time, Silvia Togni. SPOILER ALERT: if you want the pleasure of discovery and the proper visual shock, read no further.

She took us first to Sant'Apollinare Nuovo - the round tower is typical of the Ravenna style, and a similar one was the first thing I saw when I opened my shutters on the first morning - which like much else we shared with only a very few tourists. This is the great work of Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, whose rule in Ravenna from 475 to 526 AC saw a religious harmony not subsequently preserved when Justinian, who never even came here, initiated slaughter and the suppression of Theodoric's Arian Christian faith (the difference that made the Arians heretical? That they believed in Christ as God's Son but a being separate from him. Yes, folks, that's it - kill the lot of them!)

Eyes tend to rest on the procession of men and women (NOT virgins - two are wives of the figures opposite) that make up the beautifully coloured and flowered friezes either side of the nave. At the west ends of either frieze are the Palatium - destroyed, inevitably -


and the harbour of Ravenna at Classe (now inland, with impressive remains).

The post-Theodoric purification of the mosaics from Arian concepts during Catholic reconsecration means that there are only traces of the Arian figures originally within the Palatium, like this stray hand.

What's not so easily visible is the sequence of New Testament scenes above on both sides. The Last Supper is very different from later representations, and curiously there is no crucifixion scene on the south side - the narrative jumps from Christ carrying the cross to the women at the tomb. You can see the placement if not the details in these views of the two east ends to the friezes, which culminate respectively in the three kings and Christ on one side

and the Virgin on the other.

The gem I nearly missed was the Arian Baptistery tucked away down a nearby side street (I rather liked the cafes in this area). There was no-one except the attendant there when I arrived, feeding my one euro into the machine at the entrance.

Its mother church now belongs to Orthodoxy and though it was locked seems to serve the eastern Europeans living in Ravenna,

Maybe it was the special nature of having the place to myself, or the fact that the beautifully restored dome is in such sophisticated contrast to the bare brickwork beneath, with the remains of a few later paintings on the lower arches,

but this is the building that haunts me the most. The beardless naked Christ and the personification of the river Jordan hark back to antiquity.

Curiously, the similar essence of the earlier centrepiece to the Neonian Baptistery

is more sophisticated in its artistry, though earlier (c. 450-475).

Again, the unusual depiction of Christ and the river god, though this time the other way round.

Not only is this all of a piece, with details extending down to floor level,

but the faces of the Apostles above the beautiful frieze of flowers and libraries

have that same individuality you see in the Fayum encaustic coffin portraits from early Christian Egypt. Couldn't find out which one this is, '

though the full lettering and the central position with the coronet labels Peter.

But I jump forward to the following day's self-steered itinerary. Silvia took us to the other main site via San Francesco, which will have to wait until the Dante-in-Ravenna post, and Piazza del Popolo, Ravenna's busiest square,

in a town that's mostly pedestrianised (it was one of the first in Italy to get the special treatment - not for idealistic reasons, but practical ones; like Venice, the town is sinking, and cars were putting too much pressure on the fundaments).

The two Venetian columns with statues of SS Apollinaris and Vitalis mark where one island eventually joined another. I'd noticed the zodiacal signs on the base of one, decorated by Pietro Lombardo in 1483. Silvia pointed out the thirteenth sign, which I hadn't noticed - Ophiucus, the 'serpent-bearer'.

Much more to read up about Italians and astrology - it plays a huge part in Dante (who, it's gratifying to see him declare, was a Gemini, and a typical one at that. Mind you, so are the American Horror Clown and his miniMe BoJob).

Our walk down the main shopping streets led Silvia to point out that many former ecclesiastical buildings were now temples of commerce.

Ravenna had enough to spare; Boccaccio pointed out that there were as many churches in the city as days in the year.

Amen, anyway, that the main ones, and their mosaics, were preserved. It's quite possible that if Napoleon had not arrived and thrown out the zealous monks, they would have Catholicised each one in decoration as they had already almost succeeded in doing in grand San Vitale.

The zone which also includes the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

is pleasantly planted and fringed with umbrella pines lining the way from San Vitale

to the so-called mausoleum.

and it also has a parish church on the other side of the street with another of those round towers, Santa Maria Maggiore, very busy for mass when I peered in.

I'm sure busloads of tourists must make this over-busy at peak times, but early July didn't seem to be one of them. The girl on guard at the entrance to the Mausoleum told Silvia that she was dismayed because John Malkovich - whom we later heard give a stunning and surprisingly big declamation in Copland's Lincoln Portrait - had been there and she'd been off on her lunch break. 'And he came without a guide, can you imagine?' Yes, of course I can, and had Silvia not been so good I'd have preferred to contemplate this little gem on my own. But the five of us were still happy to have the interior to ourselves, and it was even more magical than I'd remembered.

Like the Neonian Baptistery, the Mausoleum with its figures on the beautiful blue background of the Hellenistic tradition seems in advance artistically of the later mosaics in Ravenna for the individual expressivity of its figures. The Empress after whom its' named originally had it built not, it's thought, as a mausoleum for herself but as an adjunct to the Church of Santa Croce in the second quarter of the fifth century. Over the doorway is a beardless Christ as the Good Shepherd who looks more like an Apollo,

and the saint opposite 

would seem to be St. Lawrence, possible dedicatee of the chapel, with his gridiron.

There's even a cupboard with the Gospels, as in the Neonian baptistery.

The rest, apart from the Apostles, celebrates the natural world. I guess these two harts are biblically desiring the waterbrook,

There are besides the famous doves at a drinking bowl

and floral cornucopias

as well as flowers and stars, with the four symbols of the evangelists flanking the cross in the central dome.

There's one more small gem it's worth considering here, all the more surprising for being lodged within the Archiepiscopal Museum (main treasure: the glorious sixth century ivory throne of Maximian). You have to turn at the end of the passageway to what's known as St Andrew's Chapel to see the bizarre spectacle of Christ as Roman warrior.

The vault is a rich mix of flowers and naively depicted birds, from ducks to peacocks,

while the chapel itself, like Sant'Apollinare and the Arian Baptistery from the golden age of Theodoric, has portraits more in line with the realism of the Neonian Baptistery.

Again I had this room and its entrance way entirely to myself, and sat on the ledge in quiet contemplation for a good ten minutes.

Back to San Vitale, the famous presbytery of which I had two opportunities to contemplate - one with Silvia and the group, the other from a distant perspective listening to a guitar recital which packed them in since the festival was only charging one euro for admission. Nothing quite prepares you for the lofty spectacle, other than perhaps Aya Sophia in Istanbul, from where many of the impressive columns with facings in mottled marble are believed to have been imported.

Even if the clerics had not been interrupted by Napooleon in their task of baroque-ising the whole octagonal building in Catholic rococo, the building itself would remain impressive. As my UNESCO building puts it, 'the internal architecture...creates a space that expands in all directions; it stretches out around us in the exedrae and upward to the high cupola'.

The presbytery is what gleams and glows, though. It has the two most famous mosaical portraits in groups facing each other, rotten old Justinian who never bothered to visit in one group

and his wife, the former dancer Theodora. with her ladies on the other, fashion plates still for imaginative designers.

I've already remarked in a previous post that the cross-vaulting must have been chief among many wonders to inspire Dante to his ravishing descriptions of the Empyrean in Paradiso.

It divides into four triangles festooned with leaves and centred on angels, all praising the Lamb in the centre.

Moving downwards, two angels in flight hold a disc with a cross

while the vault below celebrates theophany in all its splendour; Christ is offering Vitale the triumphal crown.

As in the Mausoleum and the Ecclesiastical Chapels, decoration is ravishing

and this time we get a full depiction of a peacock in display.

The Biblical scenes on the other walls are wonderful, too, but I pass on. So many floor levels in Ravenna's buildings have had to be raised, and in many cases the original mosaic pavements were lost. There are fragments here - one just inside the south door

and another on the wall.

What a feast these must have made in themselves. Another church outside UNESCO's brief, San Giovanni Evangelista, suffered in the Second World War but has been lovingly rebuilt.

Beyond the preserved 14th century gateway (NB: the church is twinned with a counterpart in Brazil),

the walls within display mosaics from the floor like a picture gallery,

and we realise what fun the workmen had with pagan designs. My favourites are a mermaid

and a unicorn.

I realise this chronicle has already rambled on too long and so it's time to conclude for now with the two great buildings outside the city walls. We arrived at Sant'Apollinare in Classe at sunset in time for a very rich concert of music by the Ukrainian composer Silvestrov.

Chronologically this is the most recent of the eight UNESCO buildings, though consecrated as long ago as 549 to be the last resting place for the bones of St Apollinaris, the first bishop.

There he stands in the presbytery apse, against a beautiful and (I think) unique green background with twelve lambs as his followers and in a verdant landscape of rocks, flowers, birds and pines which could be local.

More sheep symbolising the Apostles are seen in the band above, emerging from Jerusalem and Bethlehem towards Christ.

The rest of the church is relatively sombre, at least after dark, throwing all emphasis on to the apse (especially as it was lit for the evening concert),

though the flowing acanthus leaves on the capitals of 12 columns of Greek marble from the Sea Of Marmara are lovely, and close inspection reveals plenty of detail, including more fragments of the original mosaic pavement and some of the sarcophagi which are to be found all over Ravenna.

My last homage, on the morning before I left to take the flight from Bologna to Riga, was to Theodoric, and namely his mausoleum on the fringes of town (hardly far; distances are nothing in what seems like a friendly village). I approached it via the Venetian fortress, part of which is used as an open-air cinema,

where reading the paper in the gardens' cafe within the wall shook me out of the Ravenna dream and into Salvini's xenophobic nightmare (it should be pointed out that most people here are to the left, with communist Bologna just down the road).

Crossing an interestingly graffiti-ed footbridge over the railway lines,

I eventually made my way into the mausoleum's well-kept grounds, within an equally pristine park and running track.

This is the least adorned and most austere of the UNESCO monuments. It was constructed in the Goths' graveyard while Theodoric was still alive. Its special interest to historians is that it was made from Istrian stone cut into large blocks laid in a dry technique without mortar and connected by iron cramps.

There are two levels, both decagonal, the lower with a cross vault,

the upper slightly smaller,

circular beyond the entrance door, probably to place the monolithic cupola.

It's not clear to me from the guide whether the porphyry sarcophagus is the one used to house Theodoric's remains, which was moved around the city many times.

Later, in the Middle Ages, popes were buried here and a Benedictine monastery built alongside.

Ave atque vale...we'll return to the Zona Dantesca in a later post.


David Damant said...

Arius was an amazing figure. His claim was that God the Son had a secondary position as compared with God the Father. No one put it better than Gibbon .....

"Although Christ had existed for a time compared with which the longest of astronomical periods was as but a fleeting moment, nevertheless there had been a time when he did not exist; and although he now sat on his throne in all his effulgent glory, and saw at an infinite distance beneath his feet the thrones of the brightest archangels, nevertheless his light was a light reflected from God the Father, as the light of the Augustus is reflected on the Caesar."

This view was, of course, quite rightly rejected at the Council of Nicea in 325,presided over by the Emperor in person, and hence the Nicene creed which we recite to this day, and which refers to another aspect of the matter. The obvious question arose in the concept of the Trinity - was the Son of the same substance of the Father, or of similar substance? The difference in the Greek words for these two alternatives is only an iota, but the Blues and the Greens killed each other on the streets of Constantinople in defence or denial of the iota. Since then we have grown up - or have we?

David said...

Thanks for more background - I find it all fascinating, and want to read more about the Ravenati's beloved Theodoric, about whom all sorts of local legends have arisen. Why 'quite rightly', though? Who was right and who wrong? And the answer to your question is - not at all (Shiites and Sunnis, to take but one example over a bigger divergence of 'ideas').

Have you been to Ravenna? Surely one of the wonders of the world.

David Damant said...

Yes I have visited Ravenna ( and Aachen) But I was not aware of Theodoric ( but maybe I read about him in Gibbon and had forgotten).

As for my comment on the Arian heresy, I made it in the same spirit as Waugh at the end of the other Decline and Fall.

"So the ascetic Ebionites used to turn towards Jerusalem when they prayed. Paul made a note of it. Quite right to suppress them "

Silvia Togni said...

I've just read this amazing blog about Ravenna: I am stunned! Can I link your blog to my web-site, ?, to which you've linked, is one the web-sites that advertises my three books: 'Una Pigna per Ravenna 'and 'Una Pigna tira l'altra' (two illustrated guide-books for children); the last one is 'Il Cammino delle Pigne'(The Pinecone Route) about the symbolism of one of the oldest archetypes in the world !

Concerning 'Cicerona', I graduated in applied linguistics, so I like neologisms...

David said...

Of course you may, cicerona! I'm honoured.

Anna said...

A joy to read. Now I feel entitled to demand that all travel guides on Ravenna out there be rewritten in your “voice”.

Willym said...

Many thanks for taking back to a city that I spent five days exploring and still did not see enough off. As always you proved a wonderful tour guide.

Did you happen to see the modern mosaic at Porta Adriana. Back in 2011 I wrote a short piece with some photos of it:

I wondered out loud what it meant and low and behold in 2014 received an email from a lady in Ireland explaining it all to me.

Susan Scheid said...

I’m dazzled by the spectacular array of photographs, beyond able to take it all in. I am glad to know you had trouble with Wolf Solent. Friends of ours from long ago bought and lived in the house in Hillsdale where Powys wrote it. We had no idea at all of the author or the book. Thereafter, I gave a shot at reading it, but quickly failed.

David said...

Will - it is indeed, as Geraldine writes, 'as nice a story as you could imagine', and somehow underlines what I sensed, from a superficial visit, about the Ravenati. And isn't that one of the best things, if not THE best, about blogging? My post about my paternal grandfather opened up all sorts of avenues of which I could not have dreamed. Even if it did mean finding out we're not really Nices at all!

Sue - I don't have any strong inclination to return. Whereas the TV adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End made me feel I might have been wrong in not warming to that in my teens.

I know, there are way too many photos. But what the hell...there is little man-made on earth more exquisite than some of those mosaics...

Susan Scheid said...

I am glad for all your photos—which, by the way, are my introduction to Ravenna. Your “vision to vision” descriptor is exactly right.