Friday, November 17, 2017

Nightwalks I

We prowl around Rome at night.
A lot.
(And yes, it's pretty safe, actually)

Many Italians take a post-dinner stroll called the passaggiata. You walk (piano, piano! they would say - slowly, slowly!), digest your dinner, speak to people in your neighborhood, take in some window shopping, perhaps get a gelato or a small digestivo (after-dinner drink).

We take ours just at and after sunset during the summer when the heat of day is too much to bear.

(and in said heat, I feel a little like this)

We also do this during cooler months because it's when we have time together (daylight hours are shorter, so....).

We check out what's on sale during a holiday, like Easter.  Look at those gorgeous, hollow eggs the size of footballs.

We marvel at how some things are just more visible with artificial lighting.

Like the Column of Trajan, for instance. 

It is simply easier to see the intricate reliefs of Trajan's successes in the Dacian wars when they are lit from beneath.

Of course, we should imagine them painted in full color if we want to envision them the way they were visible to the ancient Roman viewer
Equally interesting is the relief of military garb on the base of the column.

Some things appear more majestic at night.

At dusk or in the dark, I like to play with photographic options, obviously. 
The vertical, vs...

the horizontal...

Our favorite neighborhood joint.

Moonlight, clouds and cypress trees.

Castle Sant'Angelo (or the Mausoleum of Hadrian, depending on your interest in historical classifications), seen from a different bridge.

The Colosseum and the bella luna - as if she is billowing smoke.

How about a Nutella-filled crepe near the Four Rivers Fountain for a post-dinner-walk treat?

Or gelato by the Pantheon?

A nighttime demonstration, also near the Pantheon?

The Four Rivers Fountain, lit in blue, to commemorate a Rome-based meeting of scientific minds dealing with the health of the world's water.

A few months ago, Rome opened her museums to visitors for late-night visits.  The lines were so long at most places that we bypassed them, but on the Janiculum hill...

...the Garibaldi monument...

...and the Tempietto were quite accessible.  There is a guitarist playing on the steps.

The inside of the structure

The adjoining cloister/courtyard, flame-lit.

And on our walk down the hill to Trastevere, the flowers lit by streetlamps.

A typical scene here, regardless of the season or time of day.

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                                                              And fragrant clematis.

When you visit the city and want to know more about the ancient fora (people think of Rome having just one forUM, but in fact she has several, clustered together), you can get tickets to a nighttime light show that attempts to bring the ruins back to life, so to speak. I brought students with me to the shows for the Forum of Augustus and the Forum of Julius Caesar.

These things are really well done. 

Images are projected onto the walls of the ruins, and you listen to a narrative via noise-cancelling headphones.

On our passagiata, the ancients are imagined on theirs, as well:  walking the rough cobblestones, taking in the wonders of a vibrant place, even in the dark.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Circus Owner's Daughter, Dante's Bones and Submarine Dining

(I don't know about you, but I think that all of those phrases would make great novel titles)

So, for the Spouse's birthday (which is almost exactly a month after mine), I suggested mosaics.  As in, we should go see some.  And we should go to Ravenna to do it.
He's a fan of Byzantine art.  And he's a little too busy for getaway planning, much of the time.
So he agreed.
Three hours by train, with a short changeover in Bologna in the middle, and we were there.

In the 6th century, Ravenna was the site of Emperor Justinian's building projects.  He considered it to be "his" stronghold on the Italian peninsula, and since he was actually spending all of his time in Constantinople (the seat of the Holy Roman Empire at the time) his buildings and additional ones inspired by those projects resulted in this city's concentration of some pretty significant works of art and architecture for the era. Eight of them are classified by UNESCO as world heritage sights. 

If he is anything, The Spouse is ambitious.  In two and half days' time, we saw 6 of those sites.

Before you decide that we don't know how to have a vacation, let me emphasize that the town of Ravenna, located in Northern Italy, in the Emilia-Romania region, is pretty small. 

And in the latter part of April it was remarkably quiet.  Serene, even. 

The structure that houses Dante' Alghieri's tomb. He died in Ravenna, and while Florence has always wanted him 'back home,' they've never gotten him.  At one point, the Florentine request for his bones was answered with an empty coffin. Members of his order moved his bones around a bit, too...the eagerness to keep him hidden actually resulted in the temporary loss of those remains for 350 years.  

But he was located in 1865, and now he is in a proper tomb

Italy has a few things to thank him for, not the least of which is his radical choice to publish his works in the Italian language, as opposed to Latin.  You could say that Dante helped greatly with Italian literacy rates.

I don't know what it was about this particular Italian town, but the street artist known as Space Invader left quite a few of his works here.

Once we arrived, we dropped our bags at our b&b and got started: Sant'Apollinare in Nuovo, with its round, Romanesque bell tower

You can easily get a sense of the typical Roman basilica shape (long rectangle) as well as the 'orientalizing' influence of richly decorated walls in the clerestory (the upper portions of the walls above the column/arch combination).

That's a representation of a temple - fancy and classical, no?

These magi have some pretty nifty outfits. We should all have similarly blingy leggings.

It's that central mosaic - which seems so tiny from below - that I wanted to see.  It's featured in my art history textbook (and has been for ages and ages).  A beardless Christ is pictured in a purple robe like a Roman emperor, and his disciples are assisting him with the miracle of the loaves and fishes.  Mind you, the loaves look a lot like Ritz crackers. 

The glint of gold in the tesserae (mosaic pieces) makes for a dazzling effect in the late afternoon.

Getting off a train, dropping bags in the b&b, hitting the afternoon streets and checking out a church....this can make a person thirsty.  And hungry.  So we went for an early dinner reservation.
And about this wine:  you can see the term 'Sangiovese' on lots of different bottles of wine, here (of course) and also in the States.  This is the name of a popular red grape that would still take on different flavors depending on the particular vineyard's biosphere, including microclimates (think soil, sun, temperature ranges and precipitation) as well as the particular vintner's wine-making processes and equipment.
What you won't find in the States - or anywhere else but here - is THIS wine.  And that's the equal parts fun and frustrating thing about Italy:  a lot of the wine is made by, made for and only sold to the locals.  If I'd had the chance to make a search through an in-town enoteca, I might have found it there (and would have easily purchased a case to take back or ship to Rome).  But once I'm back in Rome, I'm out of luck. I can certainly find other wines made with this grape, but none of them will taste quite like this wine.

'Indicazione Geografica Tipica' would be your indicator of how local a wine it.  Fuzzy translation (as if you can't piece it together with English similarities):  indicative of wine that is typical of this geography. 

A local pasta specialty:  capalletti (which look a bit like papal hats) with a tender meat sauce. SO good.

The Spouse went for gnocchi. Because it was Thursday (this will be explained in another blog post). 

And why not continue talking about food? The next morning's breakfast at our b&b.  It is true that Italians don't really do breakfast the way other people do, but the better vendors in the tourism industry recognize that their clients need fuel. 

And just outside our b&b, an open market sheltered by what was clearly a gateway to the historic center of Ravenna.

Juices, jams, flowers, breads, name it.

This translates to what you most likely have already assumed. 

Ravenna is immensely walkable.

We did what we usually do...stumble across a church that isn't the most visited one and step inside to see whatever is unique about it.  This one spoke to me personally:  the Sweaty Madonna (nope - not kidding).
'Where do you go to mass?'  'Oh, our Lady of Sweat.' (NOPE.  NOT A TYPO)

On the other hand, this church has been on my bucket list for a long, long time.

San Vitale

Seen here is the ambulatory portion of the interior, where you would walk around the center.

When we talk about Byzantine art and architecture, we are indicating a style that was influenced by the east, or what previous scholars would have called the 'Orient.'  Byzantine style is characterized by intricacies in small, geometric patterns effected in dazzling colors and metallic surfaces. 

And most everywhere you look in Ravenna churches, you find such splendor.

Imagine the light from those windows, coupled with candlelight, bouncing off metallic and variously colored tiles in the mosaics that decorate the walls and floors. 

A more modestly colored mosaic:  peacocks were a symbol of immortality for ancient Greeks, and early Christians adopted this symbolism. 

I bet that you can tell what I'm building up to, here.  A fragment of one of two important mosaics is visible in this shot.

This place will give you a bonafide crick in the neck from looking up for so long.

Again with the beardless Christ dressed in Imperial purple, this time seated - and also floating! - on a round form that could be like a mandorla (Italian for 'almond' shape - a holy space - except that it doesn't fully envelop him AND it's a little too circular) or a somewhat flattened earth.  We are looking at a mosaic that dates to the 6th century - which means that the level of naturalistic representation of the forms and figures is still somewhat convincing. Their feet appear to sit more or less convincingly in space.  The folds of their robes feel volumetric.  There are shadows under their jaws.  The basic tenets of perspective - in regards to how the figures are described - are observed. But the Byzantine influence is revealed in the vast, gold-infused space that backgrounds all of the figures.  While there is a green ground - with various types of flowers - beneath their feet, the 'sky' is fully spiritualized with an almost decadent profusion of gold.
Here, Christ is flanked by angels, disciples and the two sons of Saint Vitale (for whom the church is named). In this detail, we also see a bishop offering a model of the church itself. I should add that the red and blue fish-like shapes above them are most likely abstracted forms of clouds.

THIS is what I really came to see, though.  THIS.
Empress Theodora, bedecked in regal splendor.  Accompanied by her fashionably dressed attendants as she prepares to enter the church space (beyond the parted curtain on the left), she carries the wine for holy communion. 

Theodora was a fascinating person.  Legend has always held that she was the daughter of a circus owner, and that she herself worked as an entertainer in that circus.
Most historians agree that this fact would be accompanied by another:  that she was most likely also a 'lady of the evening.' It naturally followed that women who worked in entertainment also worked in the oldest profession.
This makes her all the more unusual as the wife of a holy Roman emperor.  Awareness of these facts about the recently wedded Empress must have inspired some scandalous talk. 

But what we also know about her is that, as the Empress, she was an extremely powerful figure.  She successfully assisted her husband in matters of diplomacy and strategy. It's impossible to say whether this portrayal of her is a 'likeness' in any real sense of the word, but it is easy to perceive her formidable presence.
Here, she wears a purple robe embroidered with a kind of 'frieze' of the Three Wise Men at the hem.  Her crown and shoulders  - backed by a golden halo - are dripping with jewels.  She exhibits a very level, serious gaze.   

And across from her is the equally stern Justinian.  He is pictured already inside the church - because he would have arrived first, of course - and carrying the communal bread. 

Emperor Justinian is accompanied by clerics and Christian guards (who have always looked a lot like John, Paul, George and Ringo - in their St. Pepper's album cover, 1950s-'mophead' + mourning attire - to me).  If you look closely, you can see that many are standing on each others' feet.  Despite this oddity (probably the result of the mosaic artists' flattening of space and the general awkwardness of foot placement), they are mostly individualized, facially speaking.  But their bodies are more or less lost behind stiff, vertically draped robes.
Naturally, Justinian's rich purple robe is complemented by a diadem festooned with jewels.
Be sure to look at the nature of their surroundings, too:  a gold background, a green ground, and a 'frame' (also in mosaic) made to look as if it is decorated with extra large, faceted gems. Such a spectacle!  All intended to overwhelm and impress the viewer.

What makes these mosaics all the more interesting is how this art is invested with a certain kind of power.  While Justinian authorized the building of this church and clearly commissioned these mosaics of himself and his Empress wife, he never actually set foot in the church.
These mosaics therefore perform as Imperial proxies.

A central plan church, which is quite the departure from preceding Roman basilicas (more or less the model of many, if  not most, traditional Protestant churches...a 1 x 2 ratio rectangle).  Those large forms that sort of splay out and away from the building are modest 'flying buttresses,' which support the height and resulting weight of the building. 

And just nearby, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, daughter of Emperor Theodosius. 

The rich and quite well-preserved mosaics inside this small, central-plan building are the reason that it is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

True to Byzantine style rules, the walls and ceilings are jam-packed with both representational and also abstract patterned elements created completely in mosaic. And yes, that's Saint Lorenzo, who was martyred by being grilled alive.

Here is a sampling of many of the designs - all side by side.

While I apologize for the quality of this shot and the next (I just couldn't help the lighting situation, and I was pressed for time because guards hustle you in and out of this tiny space), former students should nonetheless have a slight 'aha' moment. This too is featured in the standard art history textbook. Have a better gander here.

Christ as the Good Shepherd, surrounded by flora and fauna. This mosaic is valued for the same reasons that other Early Christian/Byzantine works are valued here:  they sit in this weird art historical zone, where some Classical elements remain present (Christ is a beardless youth in Classically draped purple and gold, he and the rest of the forms convincingly occupy space and appear to be lit by direct light source) and yet some other, religiously driven elements are being introduced in the way that a sense of truly specific location, the concrete volume of all things are being suspended for the sake of an uber-narrative.  Distinct representationalism is giving way to stylized descriptions of select surfaces (e.g., the v's in the sheeps' fur).

back out into the sun, and a view of the bell tower of San Vitale. 

In a nearby museum are some mosaic fragments for closer inspection.  Here, we can appreciate how the artist uses pieces of color to describe form. 

And up close, those pieces don't even 'read' as form. 

In the courtyard of the adjoining about a Roman burial monument? 

with the emphasis on the vocation of the entombed...

What do you do for the birthday boy's lunch?  You take him to a submarine. Or at least, a place decked out to look like one.

And you feed him choice anchovies, croutons and butter, which is a THING here in Italy.  Once you've had anchovies with butter on either crusty, toasted bread or soft white sandwich bread, your life will have changed for the good...and this is a mild-to-moderate anchovy fan writing this.  Ask The Spouse, and he will wax poetic about the virtues of this salty-creamy experience.

Some street markers are backed with pretty mosaics, here.  And I like knowing that a street was named for this guy. 

An unremarkable church, you say? 

Maybe, until you look beneath it

It has several feet of water.  Goldfish were placed there to determine the water's safety.  As long as they swim, it's o.k. And its clarity affords us a view of an old floor mosaic.

How about a baptism image in yet another building with yet another mosaic?

3 guesses who this is.

Saints Cosmas and Damian.

Symbols of the four evangelists:  ox, eagle, lion and man

An ivory papal throne.  (and can I just say that as long as I lead students on visits to museums and churches, I will encounter the same people who do this for other students.  I've now seen this guy <on the right, with his mouth open> in Florence AND Rome on completely separate occasions, talking to small groups of college students.)

Yep.  Still trying the local wines.

On our last half-day we found an underground excavation of ancient Roman origins.  It is pretty extensive.

Christ as the Good Shepherd - an early Christian preference - and striking a pose.

A little Celtic-ish interlace motif?

Standard ancient Roman floor pavements are comprised of black and white tiles, typically. 

Some bacchanalian revelry?

WHAT is that 'tentacly' thing on that person's head? 

Not that you didn't already know we were art nerds...but look out:
A baptism scene, but Christ is still not as we expect.
He is soft-bodied, round-shouldered and beardless - rather evocative of Botticelli's Virgin on the Rocks. (if you repeat that title on a test, then I have a small newsflash for you:  you'll get points taken off)

The saints featured here fare far better, looks-wise. 

It was clear to me that if we'd had the time, we would have continued to seek out these unique works of art, and do as we were doing in these last moments in our brief trip:  sitting and looking, sometimes talking, but always looking and contemplating.

We had to leave after our underground tour and the final mosaic viewing we squeezed in at the end...because people like us have to go home and work for a living.
So we can afford the wine - however cheap the local fare happens to be.

And as we pulled away, we dreamed of grape vines, mosaic tiles and salty, boney fish.

When you've gone to the 'biggies' for your previous Italian tours, and want to return but still want something different...

try Ravenna.