Monday, July 28, 2003

Pieces of Light

Antonello and I drove up to Ravenna on Sunday, leaving a sun-burnt Macerata at 10 in the morning to drive--windows wide open--2 and a half hours up the coast to Emilia Romagna, Italy's food-lovers region. Ravenna is definitely one of the gems of Emilia Romagna, of Italy--of Europe one might say--hiding within its quiet streets one of the finest collections of mosaics in the world. And why not? Ravenna was once the capital of the Western Roman Empire, causing a flood of interest and a Byzantine explosion within the city walls.

But Ravenna barely looks the part. It's streets are defined by cute shops and sidewalk cafes, soft pavement and an almost sea-side feel. It is a charming city, its buildings washed with shades of green and pink and yellow, its piazza much more friendly than foreboding--a sort of wistful place.

It is only once you reach the churches that you notice an overwhelming change in the city. The same colors are there--rich yellows, greens, blues, pinks--but they become the tesserae for mosaics instead. And they are everywhere. Churches were filled, from ceiling to floor, with golden star and blue sky-ed mosaics, or puzzle-pieced doves sipping from birdbaths. Ravenna's San Vitale, a messy circular Basilica of mosaics and frescoes, was the model for one of the world's most famous mosques (once a Catholic church itself), Aya Sofya in Istanbul.

We spent most of our time in these ancient churches whose mosiacs glowed brilliantly from the light of alabaster windows. Some churches had mosaic floors or some sort of other hidden wonder--a surprisingly convincing Baroque chapel, a Napolitan-style cloister, Dante's tomb.

One church, that of San Francesco, was unimposing and simple, until you reached the altar. There, hidden beneath the steps, was a crypt halfway filled with water. We put in 50 cents to light the space, and columns of stone emerged from clear water--a small pond underneath an ancient church. There were goldfish swimming around and a mosaic was pressed into the floor. Antonello and I tried to guess what the pool was once used for--an old cistern for the city maybe? We didn't know.

As we were leaving, I noticed that people had thrown coins into the water. The pale floor was littered with them--small discs of gold and silver. They shone brilliantly, reflecting the pool light at different angles. It was as if they had formed their own mosaic, and I could barely tell them apart from the tesseraes already there, in the pool's ancient floor.



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