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Monday, October 30, 2017

Dazzled by Millennia

View of the interior of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy
When it seems that contemporary art is over-hyped, too gimmicky, or just generally full of crap, it can be a tonic to go back a few centuries - or more - to experience some of the art that has stood the test of time - and that's just what my spouse and I did on a recent trip to 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
But, on this trip, I broke with tradition. The new places we visited, while still lively and lovely in 2017, also featured some not-to-be-missed historical sites. So we bought the tickets and lined up to see the best of those, in Mantova (aka Mantua), a delightful city on the eastern edge of Lombardy, and in mosaic-centric Ravenna, at the Adriatic end of Emilia-Romagna. Both cities are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites, and there's no doubt they are worthy. We were well rewarded for our trips there and would gladly go back to both.

Natural detail from the mausoleum
I will not try to describe the mosaics we saw in Ravenna - pictures fail to do it, and so would words. The experience of seeing them for the first time was literally breathtaking. We began with the top draw - the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, a modest brick structure built around 425-450 AD that is encrusted over every interior centimeter with the most dazzling images and patterns imaginable from that era or any time since. You duck in from a bright day to an intimate space, your eyes adjust to the soft light that filters in from alabaster windows - and speechless awe is the only possible response.

Detail portrait of the Empress Theodora
in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna
Equally powerful are the mosaics that adorn major parts of the large Basilica of San Vitale, also in Ravenna. These were installed over a longer stretch of time, and completed in 547 AD. The capstone piece of the group is a rectangular mosaic that depicts the Empress Theodora and her court (across the apse is a matching picture of her husband and his entourage, but the guys are nowhere near as pretty). This image could be right out of Vogue magazine - presumably designed by the Richard Avedon of the day - and it is just as astonishing as Galla Placidia's little tomb.

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
You think not so much of an artist (clearly, there was a large crew of skilled workers involved) as of a culture that brought this into being. The people of this culture wanted to show us everything in their world - its animals, its plants, its sky, its people ... and then added their own clever illusory patterns of stars and feathers and geometry, maybe just to show off. Unlike paint, the colors in these stones would never fade - and so they are stunningly rich and vivid today, more than 1,500 years later.

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