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Published: April 18th 2015
These are the ceiling mosaics found in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, sister of the Roman Emperor Honorius. This building is just behind St. Vitale. The pieces of glass are incredibly tiny and twinkle in the dim light of the mausoleum.
In mid-March I got on a train with few belongings and fewer expectations. To set off so unburdened confers a freedom I have sought to replicate in my life over and over again: the freedom of travel. On this day, success.
We set off early in the morning in a group of six: my family of four, a student, Katie, and our R.A., Matt, on a train bound for Bologna. I stepped off the train at Ferrara, alone, and sent them on their way. Once on another train, this one headed to Ravenna, I found that feeling of utter freedom steal over me. I had no responsibilities for the moment, and was bound by nothing but my own whims and desires. I was, briefly, a traveler once again.
The Italian countryside unfurled before me as the train rushed onward, with vineyards and fields, rivers and towns punctuated by terra cotta rooftops and church bell towers. Birds danced in the air, swooping down level with the train into my line of vision and then back up again, out of sight. Towns rolled past with musical names: Montesanto, Argenta, Lavezzola, Voltano.
I arrived in Ravenna, a nice Italian town with
Floor of St. Vitale
This is a small labyrinth at the foot of the apse.
the prosperous look of many northern Italian cities: a large pedestrian center, cobblestoned mazes of streets lined with high-end shops and trattorias and gelaterias. I wandered a bit and went into a beautiful cafe for an espresso before heading to the main event: the 5th and 6th century structures and mosaics that make Ravenna a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ravenna used to be the seat of the Roman Empire. Naturally, there were churches built, and lots of them. It is the Basilica of St. Vitale in Ravenna, along with a few other sites, that is the focus of visits here.
From the outside, San Vitale is a big, blocky octagon with lots of windows, constructed of unassuming brick from old Roman buildings. The many windows have a purpose: to enhance the mosaics inside. These mosaics are considered perhaps the most beautiful and best-preserved in the world.
The entire vaulted apse is covered in richly colored, stunning mosaics featuring Christ, angels, and San Vitale in the center, along with Old and New Testament scenes all around. In the Byzantine tradition, these feature gold backgrounds and flattened figures. Flanking the center are mosaics featuring the Emperor Justinian and his wife;
the prominence of these figures establishes the dominance and power of the Orthodox, or Eastern church during that time and place. The sumptuousness and glory of the mosaics were likely intended to elicit awe in the viewers.
They did in this viewer. These were, in fact, the most spectacular mosaics I had ever seen. When I first entered the Basilica of San Vitale, I just kept saying to myself, "oh, oh, oh." I knew they would be great, but I was fairly speechless when I entered S. Vitale. The clarity and intricate detail, the intensity and brilliance of the colors outstripped everything I'd seen. The sunlight filtering through the windows in the apse intensified the brilliance. No doubt this was the intention of the creators. None of my photos do these justice.
Behind S. Vitale is the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the sister of one of the Roman Emperors. This tiny building is spectacular! The ceiling is meant to represent the stars of heaven and is indeed heavenly. The blue, blue of the night sky and the twinkling of the whites and golds were dreamy. The skill and painstaking work that went into this and the other mosaics
of Ravenna were--and here I reclaim an oft overused word--amazing. I was amazed.
That night, in fact, I dreamed of the mosaics, and in the dreaming the mosaics were as vibrant, glowing and colorful as they were in waking, for even dreams could not improve upon such beauty.
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