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Art & Architecture Italy

Sins of the flash in Torcello, Italy

The quiet rebellion of women who take pictures anyway

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Photo: Joel Valve on Unsplash

When you visit the island of Torcello in the Venetian lagoon, you observe a sign inside the basilica that forbids photography. Ugh, you think. But it’s so beautiful. Inside, the apse—a half-dome of sorts—is encrusted in gold mosaic. The Virgin Mary resides in its center, alone, regal, royal. It’s graphically arresting and elegant in its simplicity; it contrasts with the opposite wall, a riot of colors, shapes, lines… Biblical scenes of the Last Judgment.

The cathedral is exquisite. One simply must have pictures to remember. So you plan to purchase them in the form of postcards from the adjacent gift shop when you leave. Problem solved.

Why then, the click? Why then is that woman over there snapping away? Lost in thought, she roams the chapel, gazing at the art, studying the expressive scenes, recording her visit on her sleek 35mm Canon.

Your immediate thought: she must have special permission. She must be a researcher working on a project. You explain as much to your husband. No, he says, she’s just ignoring the sign. His nonchalance startles you. As if this is just what people do, and in this case, a woman.

Oh, you reply, secretly envying this woman’s quiet rebellion that allows her a certain freedom that you will never claim. Disobey a sign that clearly states no photos? You shake your head. It’s right there in 96-point Times New Roman even. You roll your eyes at her audacity. This disregard for convention and rules astounds you.

You wonder how much inevitable damage each click does to the Byzantine masterpieces. Over the decades, who knows? She could be causing irreparable harm, you think. This should go down on her permanent record, wherever those are.

You ask your husband about the inevitable damage. Probably doesn’t hurt the art at all, he explains, adding something he read reported most cameras have filters that limit or remove UV waves.  Doesn’t damage a thing, he says.

Here I’ve been, you think, following all the rules all this time.

You continue to stare at this renegade designing her destiny, staking her claim with a few flashes that you still cannot bear to sneak on your measly iPhone. It’s true, you think, this woman has shown you to be the fool that you are.

She clicks another shot and checks the tiny screen. It must have been good, you think.

Her crimes finally and fully committed, the woman strides purposefully across the nave, stuffing her camera into a turquoise canvas tote bag. On the side of the bag is a design: two kitschy, feathery angel wings protruding from behind a shield. The design is cliché and you abhor that about things.


Thanks for reading! This is another story generated by a week-long trip to Italy I took in 2017. There are more stories on the way. Feel free to leave a comment and click follow for more.

Categories
Art & Architecture Italy

How I found connection in the Basilica of San Vitale

Of tenacity and Easter cupcake sprinkles in Ravenna, Italy

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These aren’t paintings, but mosaics made of thousands and thousands of tiny glass tiles known as tesserae. The gold tesserae are actually two clear glass tiles that sandwich a layer of gold leaf. The entire surfaces of these walls are mosaic; the only areas that aren’t mosaics are the windows and the marble columns.  | Photo: Katherine Yung

Here’s a scenario: Your daughter requests sprinkles on the Easter cupcakes you’re baking. However, pretend the shaker needed to sprinkle on the dotted decorations has not been invented yet, and the only way to get the sprinkles perfectly placed and evenly dispersed on the cupcakes is not by scattering them with your fingers, but by applying them one by one… with tweezers perhaps.

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Photo: Unsplash

Adding sprinkles to the cupcakes now will take days, weeks or longer. The task will be one of intense devotion and labor, simply because of the time involved and the perseverance needed to complete it.

Now imagine that each one of those precisely placed sprinkles is similar—I know it’s a stretch, but stay with me—to a shimmering miniature glass tile positioned into a mosaic inside the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, a city of 160,000 near the Adriatic Sea.

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A detail of Empress Theodora, from the mosaic in the apse of San Vitale. | [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
One by one, each tile is placed into the scene. One by one, each tile forms a bit more of the image. This will take twenty years at least. It’s a painstaking process and creating the picture would be much faster with brushwork, but glass is the medium and a stunning mosaic is the goal.

Each tiny piece of glass—some are half the size of your pinky nail—symbolizes perseverance and an acute attention to detail and artistry, and—by extension—to Jesus Christ.

Cupcake sprinkles are the comparison that came to mind when I began to write about the mosaics inside the Basilica of San Vitale. My family visited the basilica in March of 2017, during a much too brief daytrip to Ravenna. The church, whose namesake was a Roman soldier martyred during the Christian persecutions, was begun in 526 and consecrated in 548.

The mosaics of San Vitale are so well-known in art history circles that they have earned the basilica the description, “the most glorious example of Byzantine art in the West,” according to Ravenna: City of Art.

On the morning we visited, the interior of San Vitale glowed in the sunlight that streamed in through the windows of the church.

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A photo from across the basilica. Notice the intense patterning even in the marble floor. It’s difficult to stand close to the tesserae at San Vitale. Most of the mosaics are positioned above eight feet. The patterns you see below the windows are mostly marble mosaics. | Photo: M. Yung

As I stood in the grandeur of San Vitale, sheer awe at the handiwork overtook me.

Sheer wonderment… 

…at the dedication and tedium.

Sheer astonishment…

…at the skill and collaboration it required to not only conceive the images contained in the mural, but also to source the materials, create the artwork, and execute their application and installation on the high walls of this old, old church.

In the sunlight, the golden tesserae dazzled.

These are actually pieces of gold leaf sandwiched between pieces of clear glass. When they were pressed into place by medieval workmen, the gold tiles were angled to best reflect the sunlight, or the glow of a candle or lantern.

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A closer photo of the apse and the mosaic that shows Jesus Christ resting on a globe surrounded by angels. The far right figure in brown carries a miniature version of the basilica, offering it to Jesus in service. | Photo: M. Yung

As we took our self-tour, I stared up and pondered the mosaics and felt nearer to those laborers and artists who spent many years of their lives creating these mosaics. I marveled at their tenacity to produce these works without power tools and machinery, electricity, plumbing and other conveniences.

Would this sort of devotion be practiced today?

I don’t think so, but then maybe it was different for these medieval workers.

Even though creating the mosaics may have been their “job,” would the tedium of producing these masterpieces have been more endurable for those to whom the time of Christ was only four hundred years earlier? True, four hundred years is a long time, but wouldn’t the time of  Christ have been within their mental grasp?

To compare, would I find it easier to devote myself to glorifying the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock? I don’t know of anyone from that era, but I do feel a connection of sorts. I know about their concerns and their motivations. I can identify with them to a degree, while I find it nearly impossible to identify with people of Biblical times. Perhaps medieval workers could.

As I continued in my thoughts, my husband and daughter sought the two mosaics-within-the-mosaics below.

The mosaics of Byzantine Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora are considered the masterpieces of San Vitale.

The first photo below shows Justinian surrounded by his court, clergy members and soldiers. The emperor holds a bowl that contains bread for the Eucharist. Justinian never visited this basilica, according to Dr. Steven Zucker in this Khan Academy video lesson, but this mosaic was his way of asserting his power and authority from Constantinople, the Byzantine capital.

The figures in both mosaics are highly stylized. Laura Morelli, art historoian and author of The Gondola Maker, explains it this way:

“A more eastern aesthetic characterizes the mosaics completed in Ravenna during this early period. Elegant, slender, flattened figures on a shallow spatial plane stare out with huge, staring eyes.”

The two famous mosaics clearly reveal this style.

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The mosaic that shows Emperor Justinian with his court, clergy, and soldiers at left. Even the borders and frames that surround the central image are mosaic. | Photo: Katherine Yung

The mosaic of Empress Theodora rests on the opposite side of the apse and mirrors Justinian’s mosaic. In this piece, the empress carries a chalice of wine for the Eucharist. Wearing a finely detailed gown, Empress Theodora is surrounded by her imperial court and attendants. She wears elaborate jewelry, and, like Justinian, is surrounded by a halo.

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The mosaics of Justinian and Theodora are the “pieces de resistance” of Basilica San Vitale. They are found in art history textbooks as supreme examples of medieval Byzantine art. | Photo: Katherine Yung

Ready to finally move my gaze from the brilliance of the gold, I focused on the frescoes that cover the ceiling of San Vitale.

They were completed much later—in 1780—by artists from Bologna and Venice. While they are beautiful, they cannot compare, in my opinion, with the luster of the mosaics.

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Frescoes, water-based paintings on plaster, adorn the center dome of San Vitale. Photo: M. Yung
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My husband and son, at left, gaze up at the frescoes that surround the mosaic-drenched apse. | Photo: M. Yung

I felt our visit was coming to its end, and I noticed that even the floors of San Vitale were intricately decorated. Minuscule marble tiles did their best to distract me from the golden “eye candy” above. Over the centuries, the floor tiles do show some wear, but are amazingly colorful and durable. The most wear is to the floor surface itself, which, in some places within the basilica, contains depressions from heavy traffic patterns from worshipers and tourists.

The detail in the flooring reinforced my thoughts about the devotion of those early medieval artists; they spared nothing—not even the floor—in their pursuit to create a beautiful place to glorify God.

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Photo: M. Yung

As we exited the basilica, we took photos of its rustic appearance and its unusual structure of two stacked octagons. Its unusual shape does not follow cathedrals designed in the typical shape of the Latin cross, but instead evokes eastern influence from Byzantium.

From the outside, one would have no idea of the grandeur within.

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The contrast between the exterior and the interior of the Basilica of San Vitale is striking. The bricks were repurposed from demolished structures in Rome. Photo: M. Yung

Visiting the Basilica of San Vitale was a lesson in humility, reverence, and connection.

As I walked across the same floors, gazed up at the same artwork, and whispered in the same hushed tones that countless others whispered down through the ages, I knew that my visit was not about sprinkles on Easter cupcakes.

It wasn’t even about the magnificent golden mosaic masterpieces. It was instead about connecting to Jesus Christ and historical Christianity… and in a broader sense, to humanity.


Thanks for reading! Please click “like” so others can find this post more easily. Feel free to leave a comment about what your mind wanders to when you gaze at something truly beautiful.

Categories
Art & Architecture Life lessons Memoir & Narratives US (Southwest) US Travel

How Not to Live in the Southwest

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Photo: AZcentral.com

One day in 1992, my husband and I were invited to visit an acquaintance who happened to be occupying a house designed by the world-renowned architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. We had seen the house from a distance and had admired its unusual appearance with its exterior winding walkways, circular windows, and austere concrete masonry. It was intriguing and beckoned a closer look.

Wright originally designed the 2,200 square foot structure for his son, David, and his wife, Gladys. It was built in 1952. We’re not sure about the arrangement between the homeowners and our acquaintance. We can’t even recall her name now. Maybe she was renting it or acting as caretakers while the owners were away temporarily. We accepted our acquaintance’s  invitation to visit the historic home and stopped by one sunny afternoon for a tour.

Perched near Camelback Mountain, the spiral home was indeed stunning and modern and magical. It was also trashed. Our acquaintance, who was fortunate to occupy Wright’s last residential masterpiece named ironically, “How to Live in the Southwest,”  was, in short, a slob.

Bedroom floors held oceans of wadded-up loads of laundry. Dirty dishes lined the kitchen counters. Smudges and stains sullied the bathroom mirrors and floors. Crumpled junk mail littered the hallways. We were dumbfounded. All this disappointment obscured the home’s jaw-dropping features: an entrance preceded by a winding walkway ramp; Philippine mahogany ceilings, cabinetry, and furniture; ubiquitous concealed built-ins; custom carpets; a rooftop deck; panoramic views of the rocky desert terrain. Without a doubt, we had seen it at its worst and even then, it was beautiful.

As we roamed through the home, with its desert views, calming circular structure, and ingenious use of space, our acquaintance apologized for her poor housekeeping habits. “Oh, well… yeah,” we answered, laughing nervously, embarrassed for her — and the house.

Not too long ago, I was curious as to the status of the home and wanted to see what had become of it since our move to Missouri about a year later. So I googled the house  while my husband and I reminisced about our Phoenix experiences. Yes, the house did survive that messy time.

And somebody, many people in fact, care about the house’s existence and condition today. After their deaths, the Wrights passed on the house to a granddaughter, who later sold it to a developer who wanted to demolish it. Concerned citizens stepped in, and the house was eventually saved. In fact, another developer is now devising a strategy to preserve and operate the home and grounds for tours, weddings, and cultural performances. It seems a fitting purpose for the architectural gem now known as the David & Gladys Wright House. Still, there is controversy surrounding the whole ordeal, which I likely don’t fully appreciate or understand, since I no longer live in the area. To find out more, go here. As I understand it, the developer wants to expand his concept and residents of the surrounding neighborhood are upset about the increased traffic and congestion they expect to occur.

I hope, even though they disagree on a number of points, that the developers, area residents and preservationists are united in their gratitude that the house previously survived a greater controversy: the disrepair and poor treatment it received when it was in the care of our acquaintance.