Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Ravin' in Ravenna

Last weekend, fed up with the constant whining about the fog & rain, I took my bipedal and god-bipedal attendants on an outing to Ravenna to see its wonderful early Church mosaics – some of which date back to the 400’s – and to visit Dante’s tomb. And also because there was only a 10% chance of precipitation in Ravenna and I thought that might keep them quiet for at least a couple of hours. Honestly, the forecast had better change around here soon or I’m going to have a mutiny on my paws. Why humans just don’t hibernate is beyond me.

Anyway, back to Ravenna … historically, Ravenna was settled,
ruled, invaded and ruled (and invaded) again by various interested parties: a couple of Caesars, a handful of Emperors, and two flavours of Goths: the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths (although I don't think Goths wore black nail polish and heavy eyeliner back then). It was also here that in 49 b.c.e. Julius Caesar mustered his soldiers before crossing the Rubicon River, pitching the country into civil war and changing the course of history.

In 493, Theodoric (the Great), Ostrogoth and viceroy of the Emperor in Constantinople, captured it from Odoacer, the King of Italy, with w
hom he immediately signed a treaty pledging that both men would be co-rulers. At the celebration banquet which followed the signing, Theodoric killed Odoacer with his bare (bare!) hands– but sources tell us that he waited until after the toast. What a swell guy. A bear would never have done that because the guest-host relationship is sacred to us. You didn’t see us kill Goldilocks after she helped herself to our supper and had a nap on one of our beds - and she hadn't even been invited!

But I digress.

Most of the mosaics can be found in Ravenna’s various churches and church-y buildings, and they are quite beautiful in a Byzantine sort of way. If you like wide-eyed people staring at you à la deer-in-the-headlights, then you’ll absolutely love them. Personally, I liked looking at what everyone was wearing – so much brocade and gold and lots of nifty headpieces – but that’s just the former international fashion model in me peeking through. I couldn’t find any bear mosaics though. The closest was that of Saint Ursicino (photo, above-right), and Ursicino sort of sounds like orso, the Italian word for bear - so who knows? Maybe he was in touch with his inner-bear.

I also took my collective bipedal attendants to see the grave of Durante degli Alighieri,
Durante Alighieri – or just plain Dante. Some 700 years ago he penned Divina Commedia or The Divine Comedy, still considered to be the greatest literary work composed in the Tuscan dialect of Italian – Italian, rather than Latin, which was quite revolutionary for the time. It also set the dialect on the road to becoming Standard Italian. But 700 years? – don’t you think that it’s about time some aspiring Italian writer dethrone him? Is Umberto Eco just sitting on his hands?

Anyway, Dante used literature as a means to channel his all-consuming passion for his one true love, Beatrice and his grief over her early death. His wife, Gemma, was never mentioned in any of his works.

Thanks to a very confusing political situation – at least confusing to me – and poor choices in friends & enemies, over the years Dante was condemned to death, fined several times, and sentenced to permanent exile from various cities. The city of Florence threatened to burn him at the stake if he returned without paying his fines. The death sentence was only rescinded last June. He eventually died in Ravenna and the city continues to refuse Florence’s repeated requests to have the poet’s remains repatriated. I can hardly say that I blame them.

… but back to the mosaics.

Some of Ravenna’s most beautiful mosaics can be found in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, who was the daughter, sister, husband and moth
er of four Emperors. It’s fair to say that she was well connected. Anyway, there’s a story bandied about that when American composer & songwriter Cole Porter visited her mausoleum he was so moved by what he saw that he wrote "Night and Day" (click here if you want to hear the classic Sinatra version). I have my doubts about this "origin" though …

Day and night, night and day, why is it so
That this longing for you follows wherever I go
In the roaring traffic's boom
In the silence of my lonely room
I think of you.

There is no roaring traffic near her mausoleum. Of course, Porter himself claimed that it was the muezzin’s call to prayer (he had travelled to Morocco previously) which had really inspired him to write the song. What mosaics, a mausoleum or Islam have to do with the roaring traffic's boom is beyond me. I just don’t get you people sometimes.

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