Mucha: The Family Collection Exhibition Diary

I have been a fan of Alphonse Mucha’s Art Nouveau works ever since I came to Prague in the 1990s. While he is best known for his exhilarating posters of actress Sarah Bernhardt, Mucha was a very versatile artist – as is evidenced in this comprehensive exhibition of creations owned by his descendants. The first extensive showing of his works in 30 years is housed at Prague’s Waldstein Palace. The exhibition highlights not only the advertising posters but also his drawings, paintings, sculptures, photos and jewelry, for instance. The family displays some originals to the public for the first time.  

Family portraits evoking Mucha’s childhood add an intimate feel to the exhibition. Born in Ivančice, Moravia, Mucha called home a building that also included the town jail. The Czech lands were under Austrian rule when Mucha grew up. They were part of the Habsburg Empire in which German was the official language. Yet, during that era, the Czech National Revival took place, when Czech nationalists promoted Czech culture and the Czech language.

At the end of 1894, Mucha became a star overnight when he designed a poster for Bernhardt’s production of Gismonda. The following year he created posters that decorated calendars, postcards and menus as well as theatre programs. His work would find enthusiastic audiences in Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Munich, London, New York and other cities during subsequent years.

I loved how, in his advertising posters, Mucha utilized folk features not only found in Czech art but also in Byzantine, Islamic, Japanese, Gothic, Judaic, Celtic and Rococo works. Much of this genre focuses on beautiful, young women with an optimistic and cheerful flair. They are wearing flowing robes in pastel colors. I loved the touches of floral and plant ornamentation plus arabesques and naturalistic elements, too.

The exhibition boasted family portraits and photos, such as those of his friends Paul Gaugin and Auguste Rodin. Gaugin even was Mucha’s housemate for a while. During the Paris Exposition Universalle of 1900, Mucha represented Austria-Hungary as the show focused on the accomplishments of the past century. I had not known that in 1899 Mucha had designed a jewelry collection that was featured at this major show. One of the jewelry pieces on display at the exhibition features a snake-shaped broach that Bernhardt wore during her portrayal as Medusa. I also was captivated by Mucha’s decorations for a German theatre in the USA. He would wind up making three trips to the United States, hailed by The New York Daily News as “the world’s greatest decorative artist.”

Works in the exhibition illustrated how mysticism had influenced him. His philosophy is also apparent in his creations. For example, he believed in beauty, truth and love to guide him on the spiritual path. For a monument he created a triptych called The Age of Reason, the Age of Wisdom and the Age of Love, fusing these three characteristics into one piece of art. Unfortunately, Mucha didn’t get the chance to finish it.

Perhaps what always captivates me the most about Mucha’s art is his emphasis on Slav identity. Indeed, his phenomenal Slav Epic paintings feature the heroic tales of the Slavs in 20 historical, symbolic canvases. Several reproductions of these works at the exhibition reinforced Mucha’s identity as a Czech and Slav patriot.

I saw panels devoted to Mucha’s decorations in the Municipal House, for which he designed numerous pieces – three wall panels, a ceiling painting depicting prominent Czech personalities, eight pendentives and furnishings. I remember seeing these for myself on tours of the Art Nouveau Municipal House, something I recommend to every Prague visitor. It is notable that, while Mucha’s works often were rooted in Slav identity in the past, he also looked to the future for a prosperous Czech nation.

I was enamored by the reproductions of his stained-glass window designs. The originals decorate the interior of Saint Vitus’ Cathedral at Prague Castle. In 1931 he portrayed Saint Wenceslas, the nation’s patron saint, as a child with his grandmother Saint Ludmila in a central panel along with other panels featuring the lives and work of Saints Cyril and Methodius. Seeing examples of his colorful and vibrant stained glass renditions close-up was for me one of the highlights of this exhibition.

Mucha’s life was cut short by the arrival of the Nazis in Prague, where they set up the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia during March of 1939. The 79-year-old Mucha, riddled with health problems, was targeted by the Gestapo. Mucha was a Freemason, Judeophile and a promoter of democratic Czechoslovakia. He was one of the first to be interrogated by the Nazis. Mucha was stricken with pneumonia due to the strain from grueling interrogations and died in Prague 10 days short of his 79th birthday on July 14th, 1939. He is now buried in Prague’s Vyšehrad Cemetery along with other prominent Czechs.

This exhibition takes museumgoers on a unique and unforgettable journey from his childhood roots in Moravia to his time as an outsider in Paris to his experiences in the democratic Czechoslovakia until his untimely death. It stresses his identity as a Moravian, as a Czech, as a Slav and as a European. It shows his accomplishments in the art scene by displaying an eclectic collection of his creations that profoundly punctuated the artistic world.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.



Sorry the photos do not always show the objects described in the text.


The chapel of the Musée de Cluny

One of my favorite museums in Paris is the Musée de Cluny, which houses a treasure trove of medieval art. Converted in 1843 to a museum, it is situated on the site of the former baths of Lutetia, a Gallo-Roman site. At one time, it was also home to abbots of Cluny.


The baths of Lutetia are situated on three levels. They were most likely constructed in late 1 AD and served this function for 200 years. In 1862, they were recognized as a historical monument.  The townhouse that once was the residence of the abbots is another architectural delight. The huge inner courtyard includes an external spiral staircase. The facades are adorned with many Gothic sculptures. The decoration of an oriel amazes, too. Renaissance and Gothic art features prominently there.


The museum isn’t only a showcase for medieval art. I also found Byzantine and Romanesque artifacts as well as metalwork and enamelware made in Limoges workshops. These included crosses, altarpieces and reliquaries, such as the reliquary of the murdered archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett (1170). The gold votive crowns from Visigoth Spain hailed from the seventh century and served as prime examples of early Western art.

However, what fascinated me the most was the Gothic art. I loved the stained glass windows from Sainte Chapelle, a must for me every time I visited Paris. These windows dated from the middle of the 13th century. Three of the Apostle statues from Sainte-Chapelle were also on display. I loved the detailed drapery of the religious figures.


I also saw the Virgin and Child, dating from 1240 to 1250, carved out of elephant ivory with the detailed folds of drapery on both figures. The Virgin was in the midst of making a gesture with one hand. Her hand looked as though it was in motion. The other hand held onto Jesus so gently, so lovingly. The smile on Jesus’ face was so bright, cheerful and contagious.

The objects from 15th century France tended to be morbid in nature. Indeed, even pictures of decaying corpses were on display. These figures were mostly comprised of reliquaries, statues, small altarpieces and stained glass.


A winged vase was covered in brown and blue decoration on a white background and had a dynamic flair. Coats-of-arms adorned the central part of the vase. It hailed from Valencia, dating from 1465 to 1469.


However, my favorite items in the museum were the six panels of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, in which the unicorn and a lady of noble stature were the protagonists. The six tapestries were created in Flanders around 1500 from wool and silk. They are considered some of the premiere works of art made during the Middle Ages. Five of the six panels evoked the senses while the meaning of the sixth one remains a mystery.


In the sixth tapestry, a unicorn standing on two legs and a lion flanked the lady and her servant, a tent and trees behind them. In front of the tent, I saw French words that could be translated as “love desires only the beauty of the soul.” In the pictorial narrative, the servant was holding an open chest while the smiling lady put a necklace that she was wearing in the other tapestries into the chest. It was notable that the lady is smiling; in the other five tapestries, she was not. The background was made up of flowers and animals. The tapestry could have a spiritual or moral theme or could stand for love and understanding.


Other tapestries on display that astounded me included three scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary (1499) and the Tapestry of Saint Stephen (1500). The Grape Harvest tapestry, hailing from the Netherlands in the 16th century, showed figures with detailed clothing making precise gestures as some picked grapes and other pressed them. I recalled all the amazing tapestries I had seen in the Vatican Museums while I stared, in awe, at the many tapestries in the Cluny Museum.


I also loved the altarpieces and triptychs. The triptych of The Mass of Saint Gregory hailed from Westphalia in the late 15th century. It depicts the Pope seeing the apparition of Christ. The Presentation in the Temple is a triptych made in France during the third quarter of the 15th century. I liked the child’s wooden horse and the Gothic vaulting of the temple. The Life or the Virgin Mary was a gem of painted terracotta with much detail, created by Arnt von Zwolle in 1483. The Altarpiece of the Passion came from the Netherlands and Champagne in the early 16th century. Those are just a few examples.


I left the museum with a much more poignant perspective on medieval art. I can’t wait to go back there someday – hopefully, someday soon. . . .



Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

Canosa di Puglia Diary


The Cathedral of Saint Sabinus

When I think of Canosa, this is what immediately comes to mind: the cathedral, archeology and Bohemund. A quiet yet dazzling city, Canosa can trace its history back to the seventh millennium BC, if not farther. Its name most likely derives from the word “cani,” which means dogs.

Canosa’s relationship with the Romans went through drastic changes. In 216 BC, when Hannibal defeated the Romans in the battle at Cannae – I saw this battlefield as well – the Romans were allowed to take refuge in Canosa. Later the city joined the opposition in a revolt against Rome. Then, under the guidance of Marcus Aurelius, Canosa achieved the status of a Roman colony.


In 3 BC the city’s production of pottery received accolades. At that time, Canosa flourished as a rich city that minted its own coins. Construction thrived – many temples and thermal baths were built as well as an amphitheatre. An aqueduct was erected in 141. Canosa became a bishop’s seat under the Byzantines, but then was destroyed.

Under Norman rule, Bohemund of Antioch, whose original name was Bohemund d’Hauteville, took charge and revived the city. He held the titles of Prince of Taranto from 1089 and Prince of Antioch from 1098 until his death in 1111. This hero of the First Crusade gave the city treasures he had picked up in conquests at Antioch and Jerusalem, such as icons and reliquaries. During his reign, the Cathedral of Saint Sabinus was completed.


Normal control of the city would come to an end, and the city would experience many hardships over the centuries, such as numerous earthquakes. The earthquake of 1689 destroyed the cathedral, for instance. Canosa was conquered quite a few times, too. While the First World War did not bring destruction to Canosa, an earthquake in 1930 did. Another tragedy followed 13 years later. There were 57 fatalities when the city was bombed during the Second World War. Canosa officially was given the title of City in 1962. However, the 1980s certainly did not start off well in Canosa. That’s when another earthquake struck. Now the economy derives mainly from agriculture and textiles.


The images of Canosa that remain foremost in my mind are those of the cathedral. It enthralled me that every town in Puglia seemed to have an amazing cathedral. While I had not been a big fan of the Romanesque before this trip, I began to see dazzling beauty in the severity of the style. Architecturally, Apulian Romanesque structures were fascinating. I was only a few days into my week-long adventure in Puglia and already I had set my eyes on so many breathtaking gems. Each place had its own story to tell, and each story proved to be unique and riveting.


The Normans had consecrated the cathedral to Saint Sabinus in 1101. Some elements of the original structure remain. The ambo dates back to the 11th century and has an austere appearance. In contrast, the bishop’s throne from the 12th century is by no means severe. It is decorated in Oriental style. I was mesmerized by the throne. Two elephant figures served as its legs, and other ornamentation included griffons, eagles and sphinxes. The attention to detail was astounding. For me this was the highlight of the cathedral and one of the highlights of my trip.




The crypt was also intriguing with its three naves. The capitals on its columns once topped Roman monuments. The cathedral had undergone many changes during the centuries. In the 19th century, the façade was reconstructed, and one nave was extended in a Latin cross model.


Another feature that had me in awe was the mausoleum of Bohemund, who was buried in a tomb in an adjacent square-shaped, domed edifice that featured one apse. It looked out-of-place next to the cathedral with its strange shape, but it definitely stood out. My favorite elements of this mausoleum were the two doors and their symbolism. One door had arabesque ornamentation and an inscription that praised Bohemund.


The other boasted engraved figures. One showed Bohemund while another depicted his brother and rival, Ruggero Borsa. Two other figures symbolized their sons, Bohemund II and William, who had promised to end the family feud. By depicting Bohemund and his brother, they hoped that the siblings could resolve their differences in Heaven. The historical account rendered by the figures was intriguing, to say the least, and the plea for peace between the quarreling brothers was compelling. The attention to detail on the doors was amazing. I stared at those doors for a long time, unable to take my eyes away from the superb craftsmanship.


The Mausoleum of Bohemund


We also visited the Archeological Museum, home to some 2,000 artifacts found in Canosa. These objects included sculptures, marbles, coins, jewelry and pottery from Roman, early Christian and medieval Byzantine eras. The vases from around 3 BC especially caught my attention. It astounded me to think that this city had existed so long ago with so many ancient civilizations. To be sure, a sense of history seeped through the town. We also had a break, which I used to savor some gelato and a cappuccino.


That’s not all there is to Canosa. Our schedule did not permit us to explore everything the city has to offer. There are also palaces, churches, a theatre, a castle ruin, temples and catacombs, for instance. However, we did get a firm grasp on the historical context of the city, the significance of the cathedral and Bohemund’s influence on the town. Then we were off to another destination, and I knew I would forever hold this city and the tales it told through its architecture close to my heart.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.



Ravenna Diary

When I booked a trip with arsviva to Bologna and other towns in the Emilio-Romagna region, I was most interested in seeing the mosaics at Ravenna. I had heard so much about them and yearned to see them with my own eyes. While the other sights did not by any means disappoint, Ravenna proved to be as magical as I had hoped, even more so.

I was fascinated by Ravenna’s glorious history from the 5th to 8th century AD. The golden days of Ravenna began when the city was designated as the capital of the Western Roman Empire in 402. Though the Roman Empire came to an end in 476, it did not at all mean the end of Ravenna’s influence in the world. During the reign of Ostrogoth Theodoric the Great, who had captured the city in 493, Ravenna prospered, though 19th century poetry would present him as a sinner and persecutor. In charge for more than 30 years, Theodoric was set on Romanizing the kingdom, bringing the splendor of Ancient Rome to his own territory. Indeed, Ravenna’s buildings from that era have many Roman features. He was an excellent ruler and a restorer of ancient monuments. Many of the places of worship filled with dazzling mosaics date back to Theodoric’s reign.

Theodoric the Great from

Theodoric the Great from

Theodoric’s tenure also brought peace to Italy. These were good times. For the most part, at least. However, there was more than a little fiction between Theodoric’s religious beliefs and those of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. Theodoric promoted Arianism, which focused on the relationship between God the Father and the Son of God. Nonetheless, Theodoric demanded that his people be tolerant of other religion, and he did not attack Catholicism.

Ravenna went through many changes when the Byzantines took over in 553, led by Emperor Justinian I. While the Byzantines brought with them a dramatically different culture and religion, Ravenna still flourished with its mosaics. Ravenna’s magical era came to a definitive halt when the Longobards took charge of the city in 751, but the monuments remain a testimony to the city’s past splendor and significance in Europe.

Ravenna includes eight sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List – the Mausoleum of Theodoric, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Neonian Baptistery, the Arian Baptistery, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, the Chapel of San Andrea, the Basilica of San Vitale and the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe.

The Mausoleum of Theodoric

The Mausoleum of Theodoric

First we visited the Mausoleum of Theodoric, which the ruler had constructed in 520 AD. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1996, this structure made of Istrian stone is the only king’s tomb from Theodoric’s era. While I was disappointed that there were no mosaics inside, I was intrigued that the roof was made of one piece of Istrian stone weighing 300 tons. There were two floors, and Theodoric had once been buried on the upper level where a porphyry stood in the middle of the small space. I walked slowly around the porphyry, trying to imagine Goths paying homage to their dearly departed leader. Would they have put flowers on the porphyry? What kind? Or laurel wreaths? I mused that they must have paid elaborate respects here. I imagined the people were pondering over Ravenna’s future, a future without the ruler who had brought peace to Italy and had brought architectural and artistic glory to the city. When the Byzantines came to town, Theodoric’s body was taken away from the mausoleum and the place served as a Christian oratory.
The Neonian Baptistery

The Neonian Baptistery

Next we visited the octagonal-shaped Neonian Baptistery, which hailed from the turn of the 5th century. Even though the structure was small, it held so many delights. My introduction to Ravenna’s mosaics was enthralling, to say the least. The mosaic-covered dome features the baptism of Christ in the center as John the Baptist poured water over Christ’s head. Even though only the dome showed off mosaics, it was overwhelming. To think that these mosaics dated back to the end of the 4th or beginning of the 5th century!
The Neonian Baptistery

The Neonian Baptistery

The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia would only make my morning more fascinating. This structure was built to house the tomb of the daughter of Emperor Theodosius, Augusta Galla Placidia, but it never served that purpose as her grave was in Rome. When her brother Emperor Honorius passed away in 423, Galla Placidia took charge because her son was too young to rule. She was a very competent empress, and the city prospered artistically, for instance.

My head was practically spinning. I was standing in a building dating from the 5th century! The Latin cross-shaped mausoleum featured mosaics on vaults, the central dome and lunettes on each end of the four vaults. The central dome was dominated by a cross studded with jewels. Golden stars and angels clad in gold were portrayed against a blue background. In the lunette over the main entrance the mosaic showed Christ gently caressing a sheep. The flock was totally focused on Him. I loved the gold color – Christ was dressed in gold attire and sported a golden halo. The lush green landscape was rocky, and the sky was a beautiful blue. Two lunettes featured deer about to drink baptismal water from a pool. Other details I loved included the red and white clouds on a blue background in the cupola and the books of the four Gospels depicted in one lunette.

What fascinated me most about this mausoleum and about all the mosaics I had seen so far was the use of color. I could not believe that something so many centuries old could survive in such rich, vivid colors. The brilliant colors transported me back way into the past and also invigorated me with an energy to live life to the fullest in the present, making me feel truly alive.

Dante died in Ravenna on September 13-14, 1321.

Dante died in Ravenna on September 13-14, 1321.

Ravenna has a literary legacy, too. Dante died in Ravenna during the night of September 13 and September 14, 1321 after being exiled from his native Florence for political reasons. The Neo-classical, square-shaped temple that houses the remains of the author of The Divine Comedy and Vita Nova anthology is part of the Church of San Francesco, also called the Church of San Pier Maggiore. A sculpture of “The Supreme Poet” decorates the interior. I was standing in front of the remains of the man whose love for Beatrice had kept him alive. Here were the remains of the man who considered exile a kind of death in itself.

I recalled an intriguing tale concerning Dante’s remains. The Florentines requested that Dante’s remains be returned to them in 1296, 1428, 1476 and 1519. Ravenna refused until 1519. However, when the tomb was opened, the inhabitants of Ravenna discovered that it was empty. It remained a mystery for centuries. Then, in 1885, while reconstruction work was being carried out in the chapel, a small wooden box was found. It included a note explaining that Dante’s remains had been moved there on June 3, 1677. The skeleton was nearly complete. So it seemed that Dante was not destined to leave Ravenna after all.

Small portico of chapel of Church of San Pier Maggiore, where Dante's remains are kept

Small portico of chapel of Church of San Pier Maggiore, where Dante’s remains are kept

Then we visited the Archiepiscopal Museum with its impressive Chapel of San Andrea, which had been recognized by the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997. The chapel, shaped like a Greek cross, consisted of an oratory and atrium with barrel vault. It hailed back to Theodoric’s reign, when it was privately owned. I was intrigued at seeing Christ clad in armor on the lunette over the entrance. I could not remember seeing many portrayals of Christ in armor. I loved the star-studded sky background behind the cross in the apse. The sky made me feel safe, giving me a feeling of tranquility. Medallions showed Christ, his Apostles and saints. The silver cross in the chapel could be traced all the way back to the 6th century. I was amazed by the attention to detail. No less than 40 images were depicted on embossed silver-plate medallions.

My favorite artifact in the museum, besides the chapel, was Maximian’s ivory throne. I inspected the detail of the ivory reliefs covering the throne. The reliefs included scenes from Christ’s life and much more.

The tower of the Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo

The tower of the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo

Next we visited what would become my favorite sight, the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, constructed in the late 5th or early 6th century. Apollinare, sometimes referred to as Apollinaris of Ravenna in English, held a very important place in the history of the town. He was the very first bishop, and his tenure lasted 26 years. It is said he worked miracles. Because he promoted Christian beliefs, he had been banished from Ravenna. Apollinaris paid the ultimate price for his preachings. He was tortured: His persecutors repeatedly stabbed him viciously and poured scalding water over his wounds. He was killed with a sword and martyred. His remains were located in this basilica from the 9th century until they were transferred to the Sant’ Apollinare Basilica in Classe during 1748. The basilica we would visit last, Sant’ Apollinare Basilica in Classe, is located on the spot where Apollinaris was martyred.

Back to the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo. The exterior was simple in design. I noticed the marble portico, and the cylindrical bell-tower from the 9th or 10th century immediately caught my attention. Inside, the décor was not simple at all. The three-nave structure showed off 24 columns with Corinthian capitals but mostly boasted of the mosaics from Theodoric the Great’s reign. Originally this place had been intended as an Arian place of worship.

The Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo

The Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo

I concentrated first on the mosaic of Theodoric’s lavish palace with loggias, arcades and a peristyle. I felt as if I could walk into the palace, even though the rendition had some unrealistic spatial characteristics. Still, the palace looked so real to me. I could almost see Theodoric the Great strolling through the loggias.
The Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo

The Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo

On the opposite wall I saw a representation of the port of Classe. One boat had a white checkered sail that looked as though it could be fluttering gently in the wind. It reminded me of those summers in Maine, staring at the boats floating in the bay.
The Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo

The Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo

The portrayals of the processions caught my undivided attention. On one side there was a procession of 22 virgins and on the other a procession of 26 martyrs. Because some sections were added much later, it was possible to see Roman characteristics as well as the stylized Byzantine features.
The Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo

The Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo

The 22 virgins were clad in golden tunics and donned crowns. Veils covered their faces. They were headed toward the Virgin Mary who held Jesus on her lap. While the Virgin Mary looked expressionless, staring straight at the viewer, in the four angels surrounding her I saw an attempt at differentiating facial expressions. The Three Kings led the virgins to the Virgin Mary. I noticed how their figures seemed to actually move, as they were bending forward toward the Holy Mother.
The Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo

The Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo

There was much more to see. The octagonal-shaped Arian Baptistery had four apses. Even though only the dome’s mosaics have survived the centuries, it was rich in artistic treasures. In the center Christ stands in hip-high water as John the Baptist baptizes Him. Above Christ’s head is a dove. The outer circle is filled with crown-carrying Apostles separated from each other by palm trees. I liked the detail of the blue precious stones decorating the crowns.

Next we visited Basilica Di San Vitale, which was consecrated by Bishop Maximian in 548. Bishop Maximian, often referred to in English as Maximianus of Ravenna, had served as the 26th bishop of the city. Emperor Justinian I had been his mentor, and the people had resented him for this reason, though he was able to convince them to trust him. Not only did he establish this basilica but he also had Sant’ Apollinare in Classe constructed. He was also a patron of illuminated manuscripts. And who was San Vitale? It is not clear. According to one legend, he was a martyred Roman soldier.

I loved the way the light shined into the basilica. It enhanced the beauty and magic of the mosaics that were found on the walls and in the presbytery and apse, where I marveled at a mosaic depicting Christ, dressed in Roman attire, seated on a blue globe. While he presented Bishop Ecclesio with a scroll, the Bishop held up a model of the church. I noticed how lavish Saint Vitalis’ clothes were. I loved the golden background and especially the detail of the red, blue and white clouds.

The Basilica of San Vitale

The Basilica of San Vitale

Another mosaic showed Emperor Justinian with Bishop Maximian and retinue, and yet another depicted Empress Theodora with her retinue. She was clad in purple, which made the mosaic even more brilliant in color. She wore pearls, a nice detail. I recalled that the empress had once worked in the circus as a dancer or bear-tamer. Who would have thought that this circus performer would become an intelligent politician?
The Basilica of San Vitale

The Basilica of San Vitale

In the panel with Emperor Justinian I, loved the detail of the crown with sparkling emeralds. Bishop Maximian stood by his side gripping a golden cross. The detail of the precious stones that decorated the cross was phenomenal. I also noticed that the soldiers, all decked out in gold, were depicted as individuals rather than sporting the same facial expressions. I mused that they looked like they liked their jobs. It was interesting how the courtiers covered their hands in the presence of their rulers.
The Basilica of San Vitale

The Basilica of San Vitale

At the Basilica of San Vitale the panels with the emperor and empress bore typical traits of Byzantine art. In the rendition of Emperor Justinian and Bishop Maximian et al, the figures faced the viewer, and their faces lacked even the slightest hint of expression. Also, the figures were rigid. Yet this was a realistic portrayal as well because emperors were required to stand or sit completely still to impress on their subjects the divine solemnity of their rule. Still, there were some attempts to differentiate one character from another.

What impressed me the most was the detail that had such historical value. I marveled at how a picture could speak a thousand words. Historians learned about the way people of this period dressed and what kind of hairstyles they had. The jewelry and fabrics of clothing were other helpful features for those interested in the era.

The Basilica of San Vitale

The Basilica of San Vitale

There were also many dazzling mosaics in the presbytery on the wall, loggia, women’s gallery and vault. I especially liked the four peacocks perched on blue and white globes. I liked the detail of the feathers. They brought to mind the peacocks strutting in front of Ploškovice Chateau during that visit to north Bohemia in 2005. I also was drawn to the star-studded sky.

Lastly, we visited the red brick Sant’ Apollinare in Classe with its cylindrical bell-tower. The section of Ravenna called Classe had been situated on the seashore before the sea withdrew. Construction started on the basilica in 532 AD, and it was consecrated in 549 AD. There used to be a cemetery here that included Apollinaris’ grave. Inside there were two rows of 24 elegant marble columns with Byzantine capitals. The apse was filled with mosaics of two parts – those above the cross and those below it. Above the cross we could see the transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor. There were 99 gold and silver stars in the background, or so I was told. I was too mesmerized by the stunning artistic treasures to count. The area below the cross was dominated by the figure of Sant’ Apollinare surrounded by 12 sheep among rocks and greenery. Apollinaris was raising his arms, gesticulating as he prayed fervently.

The Basilica of Sant' Apollinare in Classe

The Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe

Ravenna had more than lived up to my expectations. What captivated me most about the mosaics was the use of bright color schemes. The vividness of the images made the time periods when they were created all the more vivid. I had learned about Roman and Byzantine art and the Arian religion and now knew some of the names of the main players during Ravenna’s glorious days. I had seen Goth culture merge with Roman culture. I had seen red brick structures whose exteriors spoke of simplicity and harmony and whose interiors were complex and dazzling, filled with symbolism and color.

We went back to Bologna, and I was more than satisfied with the day trip. I knew that Ravenna would always hold a special place in the memories of my travels.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

The Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo

The Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo