For a brief glorious time in its history Ravenna was successively the capital of the Western Roman Empire, the capital of the Kingdom of the Ostrogoths and the seat of government of Italian Byzantium. It was during the reign of Theodoric the Great (489-526 CE) that it gained many of its famous churches, palaces, mausoleums and art treasures. Pope Adrian I authorized three looting expeditions that allowed Charlemagne to enrich his own capital of Aachen while stripping Ravenna of many of its glories; however enough remains to make it one of the most fascinating cities on the Adriatic. Its glory days as a capital may be longed passed but its glorious past has left it with nine World Heritage Sites. And the most glorious of its treasures are the many mosaics that adorn the walls, ceilings and floors of the churches and mausoleums that dot the city.
It is almost too easy to post photographs of the wonderful images in the Basilicas of San Vitale and Sant’Apollinare in Classe but as so often happens, as overwhelmed as I was by these fabled works I was also struck by a rather unusual mosaic by the Porta Ardiana. One of the old city gates it was also known as Porta Giustiniana, after a Venetian mayor who ruled the city in the 500s when it was first built. In its initial incarnation it stood guard at the edge of the Padenna River, its drawbridge at the ready to thwart pesky Vandals or unwanted strangers but it was moved to its present position in 1585 by order of the Papal Legate Cardinal Ferrero. Though I was unable to get photos of it at night – the best time to see it – there is a wonderful interactive view of it here looking into Centro.
But, as I so often do, I digress. As I strolled through the gate I noticed an intriguing tableau in the greenery surrounding one of the square towers that had been added in the 1700s. A park bench! Not unusual of itself but the fact that a coat and book had been left on it seemed a bit odd.
A closer look revealed – as it often did in Ravenna – the art and arteface behind the reality. A beautifully conceived and crafted modern mosaic calling to mind not legions of angels and saints nor any heavenly vision but a few commonplace items left out in the open.
The mosaics from the earlier periods are filled with symbols and signs meant to convey the messages of religion to the faithful. I’m wondering what message the artist was giving us with this piece. Secular or sacred? Had someone abandoned the book and coat in a moment of abstraction, had they been suddenly forced to flee the bench leaving possessions behind, had they been assumed into one of the heavenly clouds of an earlier mosaic or perhaps had the owner simply wandered over to look in one of the store windows or have a quick espresso knowing that in a small town things could be left unguarded? Unfortunately I was remiss in making note of the details of the work (title, the artist’s name etc) that perhaps would have signalled the intent of the work. For me, at least, mosaics seem to have an air of the mysterious about them so I guess this one is no different.
01 Ottobre/October – Santa Teresa di Lisieux