Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Lull Before the Storm

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Mostly Mosaics

Ravenna, Italy, is just a hop, skip and jump from San Marino, one of the smallest independent political units in the world. San Marino is known primarily for its colorful stamps. We didn’t go there even though it would have meant an additional pin in the map. Instead, we had a walking tour of the antiquities of Ravenna.

Our guide, Brigida, was waiting for us at the shuttle bus drop-off point. We wasted no time in heading through the town to our first destination, the Church of San Vitale. Ravenna’s reputation as a historical destination point is based on the mosaics found in its churches. Perhaps the oldest are in San Vitale. The church is a vast space with tremendously high vaulted ceilings. The original floors which exist are done as stone mosaics; indeed, most of the streets we walked today were mosaics as well. The walls of San Vitale are bare brick now but were once covered with marble. The marble has been stripped and vandalized for use elsewhere, an early example of recycling.

San Vitale, which is approximately 1400 years old, is supposed to be one of the best examples of Byzantine mosaic work. The ceiling both before and over the altar was filled with fine stone mosaics depicting religious and historical figures. Light entered through windows set throughout the church but was filtered not by glass but by thin sheets of alabaster. Most of the original alabaster has been lost to the ravages of time, but replacement sheets of alabaster have been used in order to keep the “feel” of the original.

After Brigida gave us more information than we could ever remember, we moved behind San Vitale to the mausoleum of Galla Placidia. Unlike traditional round mausoleums, this one was built in the shape of a cross. It was commissioned by Galla Placidia after she survived a harrowing sea voyage. History records that she died elsewhere and was buried in Rome, so no one knows who is entombed in the three sarcophagi in the arms of the cross. Of course, the interior is covered with mosaic work with ambient light provided by alabaster windows. The mausoleum was bigger than our first house.

We also visited the Church of St. Francis, a rather plain church. Its significance is that its remaining mosaics are under water. They were once on the floor of the church, but the church, and much of old Ravenna, is sinking like Venice. We saw the evidence in other buildings as well, but none illustrated the problem as well as St. Francis. With the support columns still visible [for the altar above], we were reminded of the Cistern in Istanbul.

Ravenna was also home for a while of British poet George Gordon Lord Byron who is usually referred to simply as “Byron.” There is a plaque commemorating his temporary residence just a block from the tomb of the Italian poet Dante Alligheri. The local story is that when scholars open the tomb years ago, it was empty. Only later did someone discover a box buried nearby; the box contained bones and a note from a priest who had moved the bones as a safety consideration. Now, there are several plaques noting Dante’s burial site as well as a walk-in mausoleum.

We also visited the Basilica of San Apollinare Nuove whose vaulted ceiling was painted but whose walls above the colonnade were once again filled with brightly colored mosaics. The area over the alter, however, was not done in mosaics.

The shuttle bus back to the ship was literally standing-room-only, but we were among the first aboard so rode home in comfort. Ravenna is such a small town, for our purposes, that even with a rest stop for the WC and a Coke, we were finished with the tour by 12:30. We ate a leisurely lunch and had plenty of time before the 2:30 sail-away. There was a mandatory boat drill at 2:45 and then Trivia at 3:15. The usual time on port days is 3:30 and Linda missed the game because she came too late. We pulled off an undisputed victory and won another $2 apiece. Wa-hoo! Our record is now 4 first place finishes and 13 second places, not bad considering there have been 34 contests [and we have missed several for day trips].

The evening entertainment was a “clean” comedian who also did impressions of singers of the 50’s and 60’s. It wasn’t bad but was not as riveting as the vibraphone player.

Tomorrow – A day at sea, a night in Venice

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