Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Trying to Find Ravenna

Grandma Ruth in Yellowstone...and Ravenna ?

Ravenna is only one hour and twenty minutes from Bologna by train. If it had its own license plate its motto would be “Great Mosaics, ” to borrow from Idaho’s “Great Potatoes.” And they are the best. The mosaics I mean. For most of us any hands-on mosaic experience took place at summer camp. As lame as most of our efforts were in this regard, at least it gave us a vague sense of the process involved. In fact, the first words out of my mouth upon seeing the mosaics at the Basilica San Vitale were, “Wow ! That’s got to be 100,000 ashtrays worth of tiles !” Seriously though, they are a sight to behold and everyone should see them at least once in their lives.

Upon alighting from the train I noticed how quiet the station was when compared to the bustle of activity at Bologna’s. The first thing we did was go in search of a tourist office and a map. The tourist office, it turns out, is about a ten-minute walk from the station. I don’t have a problem with walking per se, but Ravenna is a rather difficult city in which to get one’s bearings, with lots of curving streets and faded street signs. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have the tourist office and the free maps at the station ? Or maybe we’re all supposed to earn those free maps by taking five or six wrong turns first.

At some point during the last ten years or so a law must have gone into effect decreeing that every town and city of a certain size have a Benetton, a Feltrinelli bookstore and a Max Mara upscale clothing boutique. Apparently the law requires that these shops be located in the historical pedestrian area. Oh, how I look forward to reflecting on our trip to Italy, paging through our photographs and reminiscing: “Oh there’s that orange cashmere sweater from the Benetton in Padova ! Remember? I think I liked it just a little bit better than the sage green turtleneck sweater we saw at the Benetton in Venice. Or maybe I’m confusing it with the olive green cowl-neck we almost bought at the Benetton in Ravenna.” Misty, water-color memories.
So, to get to the unique parts of these cities one is required to run the gauntlet of chain stores. Yes, it isn't only the United States that is replete with those. Finally, we reached the Piazza del Popolo which is easily the most welcoming, prettiest area of the city. There’s a civic building with a clock tower and charming medieval architecture. A few steps away is an indoor market housing all manner of grocers and butchers. Unlike markets in many places which have makeshift, utilitarian exteriors, Ravenna's is substantial with a late-nineteenth century appearance that seemed Parisian to me.

After a quick coffee we went in search of the Basilica San Vitale. It really should not be hard to find a Basilica. A building of that stature is generally conspicuous. And yet, we were continually confused by signs that would point us in one direction and then leave us marooned on the spot where they had directed us. From now on I am going to call this phenomenon Sign Betrayal. We were counting on you, sign with the dome graphic, and you just up and left us ! Of course, when exploring an unfamiliar place you eventually eliminate all the wrong turns and find your way. Basilica San Vitale was wonderful and it was empty, which is amazing to me. I think it is no exaggeration to say that it is the Sistine Chapel of mosaics. The stylized Byzantine figures were wonderful but I was even more fascinated by the decorative motifs, some of which were complicated enough to have stepped out of an Escher print.

For awhile, strange as it may seem when you visit this unassuming city now, Ravenna was the center of the world. It was the center of the Holy Roman Empire and later the heart of the Byzantine Empire. Viewing the mosaics one can well imagine that its inhabitants must have felt they were living in a golden, timeless city. And yet the Ravenna of today is strangely empty and not in a good way. There are streets where buildings of anemic yellow and vanilla just seem to go on forever, monotonous, narrow and vacant. These are streets that practically dare you to walk down them, so forbidding do they appear.

It says a lot about a city—and not good things-- if it takes a half-hour to find someplace decent for lunch. Finally, we found a pizza self-service restaurant. After the food was ready, we took it to a back room furnished with urban hip chairs and nice tables. And yet, everything was wrong. The calzone tasted like something from a high school cafeteria and the dining area was virtually a museum of failed aspirations. There was a raised area, presumably a stage for music. It was now occupied by a cabinet of some sort. There was a bank of three computers and above them a mural with the words Internet Center. The computers looked out-of-date, weren’t being used and weren’t turned on. The walls were blank except for two art prints the size of sheets of notebook paper, too small to see. They flanked a Vietato Fumare (do not smoke) sign. So much for creating an arty ambience.

After lunch we made our way to a couple more churches beginning with Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, It has an amazing sequence of figures on either side of a long wide nave. As I looked at the faces of the women I was interested to discover that each was unique; my preconception of Byzantine art has always been that the individuality of the figures was submerged, but the more I looked, the more it seemed that each of the figures could have been a portrait. And not only that. I kept coming back to one who looked strangely familiar and then realized that she bore a striking resemblence to my grandmother. I have placed her photo next to the one from of the mosaic, so you can be the judge. Just remember, she usually wasn’t so squinty.

Our last stop was the church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe which is reachable by city bus. After passing supermarkets , car dealerships and housing developments we finally saw a church of impressive dimensions in the middle of a field. Since my last visit twenty years ago a hotel has been built on the grounds of the church. I don’t mean that the hotel is merely near the church; I mean that it practically shares an entrance. If you’re not careful you may wind up registering for a room instead of buying an entrance ticket for the mosaics.

The mosaics were, not surprisingly, beautiful with vividly rendered animals and trees of an individuality that was fascinating. Leaving the church, we faced a cold steady rain. We ran to a nearby bus stop located in a flat empty area where the outlying town of Classe just gives out. Luckily the bus arrived in minutes.

I was glad to leave Ravenna. There’s a worn out quality about it that has something to do with the depressing new buildings, the abundance of graffiti and the aggressiveness of the panhandlers and street vendors. There is so much beauty here if you look for it but not a lot of simple enjoyment. Maybe the grim, wet weather has colored my view of the place.

I guess if a visitor stayed long enough s/he would find the real Ravenna. It would include the historical sites and the dispirited modern zones. The visitor would also want to take into account the schools where the fabrication and restoration of mosaics are taught. In a way, we left too soon, but I couldn’t wait to go back to Bologna. I just kept thinking about the strange pizzeria where we'd eaten lunch. It stood as a sorry relic of the owner’s aspirations. Designed to celebrate culture and food, it now seemed more like a bus station diner. The restaurant seemed appropriate to Ravenna: once an Empire and now a half-day field trip.

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