|View of the interior of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy|
My relationship with Italy is 40 years long and just about as deep. Usually, when I go there, it's to reconnect: with friends and family, with familiar places both urban and rural, and with Italian life as it is lived today. Though I try to make a point of also going to new places when I'm there, it isn't my habit to check in with the art treasures of the past that made the peninsula so popular to begin with.
|Pattern detail from the mausoleum|
|Natural detail from the mausoleum|
|Detail portrait of the Empress Theodora|
in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna
Mosaics have special qualities that speak easily across time. Because they are constructed of tiny cut pieces of colored stone, there is a directness to them that is absent in painted images - you can see exactly how they are made; there is no mystery to the technique. But in the presence of a work like the mausoleum, you are knocked out thinking of the effort that went into creating this richly beautiful imagery: the collecting and cutting of the stones in so many colors (plus, of course, real gold - after all, this is Byzantine art); the laying out of the highly complex patterns; the planning of the naturalistic imagery, and so on. How many hands, and how many years, were required to accomplish such a construction?
|Detail from the Camera degli Sposi, Mantova|
But if you did want to think of an artist, our visit to the Camera degli Sposi in the Ducal Palace in Mantova would provide you with just the right one. Andrea Mantegna, a native of Padova who died in Mantova, worked from 1465 to 1474 on this roomful of frescoes, demonstrating a level of naturalism that hadn't been achieved in European art before that point (and certainly not in fresco, a notoriously tricky medium). Like the mausoleum in Ravenna, this is a room that is decorated over every surface (including the flat ceiling, transformed into a stunning illusory "oculus") and it leaves your jaw hanging open.
Its charms are many, including numerous gaily clad figures, accurately rendered animals, and fanciful images of Rome (a city Mantegna never saw in life). It also features a famous self-portrait by the artist, hidden in the curls of ornamental trompe l'oeil architectural details. In contrast to the egoless immersion of Ravenna, here we have the self-referential Renaissance man on full display. And he was awesome. Sometimes, it's hard to think that any artist working today can honestly measure up.
|Fresco of the court of the Duke of Mantova in the Camera degli Sposi, Mantova|