As we travel, we find one thing leads to another. We discover some interesting historical reference, and that sends us on a search for more information. It never ends there. We follow the new leads, and pretty soon we’ve opened up many interesting avenues each leading in new directions. We’ve learned so much more than we expected and about topics we never knew existed.
We journeyed to Ravenna, Italy for the Mosaic Art School. Only after we arrived did we discover that Ravenna is home to 8 buildings listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. All were from the 5thand 6th centuries. This was when our interest was piqued, and we started to learn more about Ravenna when it was the seat of the Roman Empire in the 5th century and then seat of Byzantine Italy until the 8th century. If you knew these facts – well done and BRAVO! Clearly, we had a lot to learn.
One of the two oldest buildings, dating back to about 430 AD, was the Baptistry of Neon.
The Catholic Bishop Neon finished the construction. The building’s original floor was 3 meters lower than the current floor – which would have given the original building an even grander scale. The octagonal shape symbolized significant numbers: 7 (days of the week) and 1 (Day of Resurrection).
The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia also dates back to 430 AD. “The UNESCO experts described it as ‘the earliest and best preserved of all mosaic monuments, and at the same time one of the most artistically perfect.’” When we walked in on a sunny day, entering the fairly dark interior, the effect for us was literally breathtaking.
Galla Placidia was a patron of the arts in the 5th century and the daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I. An interesting side note: the songwriter, Cole Porter, was said to have been inspired to write “Night and Day” after a visit in the 1920’s.
The question arose: why have two baptisteries, the Arian Baptistry and the Baptistry of Neon, so close together?
Christians at the time were split into two factions: Orthodox Chalcedonians (today’s Roman, Greek and Eastern Orthodox Catholics) and Arian Christians – thus, the need for two baptisteries. Unlike the Chalcedonians, Arians did not believe in the Trinity. In the 4th-7th centuries, several Roman Emperors, the Lombards, and the Visigoths in Spain were Arians.
We visited the Archiepiscopal Chapel (500 AD), but no photos were allowed. The chapel is tiny, the mosaics original, the artwork is anti-Arian.
Within the span of sixty years after the church was built, Theodoric was dead, Arianism had been condemned as heretical, the church had been renamed, and the mosaics were altered to remove any hint of Arianism.
We had learned in school that the Ostrogoths were barbarians, and yet, that was hard to reconcile when we discovered that Roman citizens were allowed to continue to live under both Roman law and judicial system while Goths lived under their own Goth systems. Racial equality was the order of the day. “When a mob had burned down the synagogues of Ravenna, Theoderic ordered the town to rebuild them at its own expense.” Still, Theoderic was a warrior as we later learned.
Who was Theodoric the Great? He was the son of an Ostrogoth king, born near what is now the Austrian-Hungarian border. Trained in the court of the Byzantine Emperor while a hostage in Constantinople, Theodoric learned about Roman systems and military strategy. When the Byzantine Emperor had a problem with Odoacer, the King of Italy, he dispatched Theodoric to take care of the problem. In a banquet to celebrate a treaty with Odoacer, Theodoric struck Odoacer with his sword and killed him.
Theodoric built the Mausoleum of Theodoric (520 AD) to be his future tomb. The most amazing feature of the mausoleum is the single piece of stone that is the roof. The Istrian stone weighs 300-tons and is 10 meters in diameter.
Theodoric was buried in his mausoleum, but, 14 years later when the Byzantines regained power, his body was removed from its tomb and the building used for other purposes over the years. Theodoric’s final resting place is unknown.
The Church of San Vitale (548 AD) “is most famous for its wealth of Byzantine mosaics, the largest and best preserved outside of Constantinople. The church is of extreme importance in Byzantine art, as it is the only major church from the period of the Emperor Justinian I (527-565) to survive virtually intact to the present day.”
If you had told us we’d spend most of our days in Ravenna, Italy absorbed in seeing ancient mosaics in churches well over a thousand years old, we would have laughed at the notion. Once we arrived, Ravenna inspired us. One of the joys of travel is seeing new and unimaginable things – and then finding out more. Ravenna opened a new world for us.