Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Ravenna oh Ravenna

Around 20 years ago I passed briefly through Ravenna en route to Venice and promised myself I would return one day. Well that day came on my recent Italian sojourn and I didn't regret one minute of my self-made promise. Historic Ravenna is often called the city of art and is particularly known for its truly magnificent mosaics - you can even take a course there to learn the techniques. And what techniques. I felt my friend was doubtful about going to see a city of mosaics - after all if you have an image of a mosaic table top in your mind (even a beautiful one) the thought of a visit to a tabletop city (!!) would seem a little hard to imagine.
The Basilica Di San Vitale - set in lovely simple gardens
To watch her as she gazed in awe at the magnificent mosaics inside the buildings was a wonder to behold and my heart sang. There is nothing like sharing something special and this city is remarkable. Although modern Ravenna is a thriving city it was the 'old city' we had come to explore. 
Above and below - not a mosaic tabletop in sight!
Our first port of call was the Basilica Di San Vitale - consecrated in 548 and considered the most glorious example of Byzantine art in the west. Set in peaceful grounds with little ornamentation on the outside its simplicity is what I love. But it was the inside we had come to see. And we had the Basilica to ourselves. What luck. No tour groups to spoil our time.
Soft light and no flash make it hard to show - but everywhere you looked above were the stories of the Bible entirely in mosaics
From the Basilica we crossed the garden to my most favourite building. Small and unassuming on the outside and overwhelmingly beautiful on the inside. The Galla Placidia Mausoleum didn't fail to live up to my 20 year old memories. On my last visit I had a 'spontaneous cry' when I stepped inside. It took my breath away. No crying this time but it brought a tear to the eye of my friend. It was World Heritage listed with seven other structures in Ravenna in 1996. 

Galla Placidia Mausoleum - small, intimate and weepingly beautiful
The intimacy of the space seems to make it almost etherial. It was built by Galla Placidia (386-452) the sister of Honorius, the Roman Emperor who transferred the Capital of the Western Empire from Milan to Ravenna. The mausoleum was never used for that purpose as the empress died and was buried in Rome.
No picture can capture the feel or the detail

Every square inch covered in mosaics
Bible stories
Gold and blue mosaics twinkling in the sky
Once we had recovered from mosaic heaven we headed off for more! Next we visited the Sant Appollinare Nuovo - another Byzantine mosaic wonder to behold.
The colonades and ceiling - I could go on - and on - and on
Every panel tells another story - the detail is extraordinary
We staggered on to visit more magnificent buildings and their extraordinary mosaics - and when I looked down there were more in the road!
Here a mosaic, there a mosaic, everywhere a mosaic!
Back in the hotel recovering from mosaicitis we chatted with the the owner of our hotel who told us that during World War 11 both the Germans and Allies agreed to fight their battles outside Ravenna in order to ensure the mosaics and their 'homes' were saved from bombing. This had been agreed between both 'sides' as the German leader - an art historian - knew the value of treasures in the city. Once the owner discovered we were Australian (not American) he wanted to say how grateful the city is/was for the many Australian and New Zealand soldiers who fought in those battles. Sadly many of their headstones can be found in the Ravenna War Cemetery. Neither of us had ever heard this history - we only seem to hear about Gallipoli and the Western Front. Did you know this?

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