Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mo' saics, Mo' beauty

Saturday I resisted the urge to sleep in and instead woke up at the crack of dawn to train to Ravenna, the city of mosaics, in the region of Emilia-Romagna.  I've been wanting to go since I lived in Bologna (when I was geographically much closer) and now that my departure date is approaching, I'm starting to find these destination goals ever more pressing!  

I adore mosaics (but really, who doesn't?) and was thrilled to see so many churches decorated with these tiniest fragments of glass that 1,500 years ago were magically transformed into glorious instructional pieces of Byzantine art.  The mosaics are built into centuries of Ravenna's fascinating history as a crossroads where east met west.

My first stop was the octagonal Arian Baptistry with an awe-inspiring mosaic of Christ being baptized in the River Jordan, surrounded by the 12 apostles.  Jesus is shockingly human (and quite naked in the transparent waters) which exhibited his human rather than divine nature (the main deviation point in Arian Christianity).  Built in 526, it was very controversial and considered heretic in its day.

Aside from its mosaics, Ravenna is famous as the burial place of Dante Alghieri, who was exiled from Florence and later died in Ravenna.  There continues a feud between the two cities to this day, as Florence posthumously forgave Dante his transgressions and still wants his poetic bones back.  I was expecting a bit more pomp and circumstance for the father of the unified Italian language, but at least the fence surrounding the tomb's garden was pretty ornate.

The most spectacular sight in the city is the Basilica di San Vitale, built by Emperor Justinian in 540 as the Roman empire was falling.  The mosaics are overwhelming in their story-telling ability, with beautiful scenes mostly from the old testament.  I can just imagine priests effectively using them to preach the bible to their illiterate congregation.  The art seems perfectly conserved and that in itself is some kind of miracle.

Right nearby San Vitale is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, whose golden mosaics literally twinkle in the sunlight emanating from the windows.  The most interesting scene was of St. Lawrence looking sprightly as he prepares to be martyred on his flaming grill. 

For a break from all the religiosity, I headed to lunch at a great place called Ristorante la Gardela, where I ate cappelletti in ragu accompanied by a much-missed Sangiovese.  After any Italian lunch, I mostly feel sleepy on account of all the food, tipsy thanks to the wine, and finally somewhat agitated as a result of the espresso.  Then I'm inflicted with the fear of a heart attack on account of mixing said wine with said coffee.  But mostly I'm just content with the ease of the Italian dining process and the quality of the food, until I'm reminded that soon I will be lunching with grab and go turkey sandwiches and Caesar salads.  Sigh.

After my cultural philosophizing I jumped right back into my mosaics, visiting the Archiepiscopal Museum (with the Chapel of Sant'Andrea), the Neonian Baptistry, and the fantastic Basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo. 

The Basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo had wonderful art, but it was harder to appreciate because everything was very high up on the walls and dimly lit.  One side of the basilica is lined with a procession of virgins and the three kings (check out the fabulous pants) delivering gifts to the Madonna and Child. 

Later in the afternoon I sat on the Piazza del Popolo drinking a coke and reading my book until I got the itch to be more active (big mistake).  I checked out a too-big but free bike from the tourist office and attempted to navigate my way through the town, without fail heading the wrong direction down every one-way street, hitting every pothole, and frightening hoards of people as I almost crashed into them and once even a baby stroller, too.  So after a very short while I returned the bike and went shopping instead, where I bought a beautiful mosaic cross from a local artist before heading back to the station.

It was a colorful day, and this picture of me crashing on my (super cheap regional) train is just to prove that I really was there, since I was too focused on documenting the art to get any shots with my mug in them!

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