Lecture “The Sparkling Mosaics of Ravenna”| Smithsonian Associates by Rocky Ruggiero, Ph.D.
As it moved from backwater coastal town to an imperial and then barbarian capital in the 5th century, and finally to a Byzantine exarchate in the 6th-century with the invasion of the armies of Emperor Justinian, Ravenna’s true cultural identity emerged. The city became the “Constantinople of the West,” enjoying imperial largesse in order to demonstrate the magnificence and wealth of the East.
During this period, Ravenna’s Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna was built as the sister church of the Hagia Sofia in Constantinople and the barbarian church of St. Martin was re-consecrated as Sant’Apollinare Nuovo with its decoration reworked to reflect Byzantine culture. The city’s Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe was built to celebrate the rebirth of the port city of Classe, the former seat of the imperial Roman navy in the eastern Mediterranean. These structures still preserve the world’s most significant corpus of Byzantine mosaics.
No medium better embodies the glory and mystery of both Byzantine culture and Early Christian iconography than does this painstaking technique of inserting tiny colored-glass tiles—or tesserae—into wet plaster to produce figurative and decorative imagery. In fact, the church of San Vitale houses perhaps the most famous mosaic in the world depicting the Empress Theodora and her court.
The shimmering mosaics in Ravenna also reflect the breakdown of Greco-Roman traditions as art turned away from naturalism and idealism towards abstraction and a focus on surface. This new two-dimensional, hierarchical, and exotic art provided mosaic artists with a means to represent both a divine heavenly order and a secular one on earth in their subject matter.
Rocky Ruggiero, a specialist in the Early Renaissance, surveys the fascinating history of Ravenna that shaped the city’s most recognizable artistic marvels, its glorious mosaics.
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