The mosaics in Ravenna have brought astonishment and delight to all who behold this glittering tile art. A hub for mosaic artists since ancient times, Ravenna has some of the best preserved mosaic art in the world, with its 5th and 6th century murals earning a UNESCO World Heritage site. Happily, this delicate yet powerful tradition continues to be carried on today by contemporary mosaic artists.
The world has long acknowledged Ravenna as a zenith to the mosaic art form, as well as its reputation as an epicenter for contemporary artists. Gathering inspiration from the artists of Ravenna’s ancient past, modern mosaic artists have taken the art form in a new but still traditional direction.
Let us introduce you to two ancient mosaic masterpieces, as well as a pair of contemporary mosaic artists whose work is evidence that the tradition is going strong in Ravenna.
Basilica of San Vitale and Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
The Basilica of San Vitale and Mausoleum of Galla Placidia are adjacent to each other in an historic zone of Ravenna that is pedestrian-only. I found it fascinating to learn that the Basilica was actually built at the direction of the Germanic Goth queen Amalasuntha, a great patron of the arts. Alas, her alignment with the Romans ultimately got her banished to a Tuscan island where she was strangled in her bath.
Construction of the Church ultimately spanned the tenure of three Ravenna bishops over a 34-year period, and became a pet project of Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora, who are memorialized in mosaics within–although apparently never actually visited. The Basilica is dedicated to St. Vitalis, who is said to have been martyred in Ravenna for his faith by torture on the rack followed by being buried alive in a pit with stones. I suppose it’s only fitting that a monument of such spectacular color has an equally colorful history!
Don’t let the austere red-brick facade of the Basilica of San Vitale fool you–while the church’s exterior is plain, the interior explodes in vibrant colors. Technicolor murals adorn every square inch, conveying Christian stories–yet even if their message doesn’t resonate with you, you can’t help but feel a sense of the divine channeled through the sheer magnificence of their beauty.
History of Mosaics in Ravenna
The history of the Basilica actually pales in comparison to that of Galla Placidia, namesake of the Mausoleum, who is a character of high intrigue. Daughter of Theodosius, the last Emperor to reign over both the Eastern and Western halves of the Roman Empire, she had her own household as a child, received a classical education, and was a major force in Roman politics her whole life. Captured by the first king of the Goths at about age 20, she subsequently became a queen to his successor, Ataulf as part of political wheeling & dealing between the Romans and the Goths. It was a brief marriage; Ataulf was another to meet his demise in the bath at the hands of an avenger.
Galla’s half-brother Honorius then forced her into marriage with one of his favorite generals, Constantius III, who Honorius later named as his co-Western Emperor. Constantius, who happened to be Atualf’s mortal enemy, had a short reign, dying seven months after being named. Not long after his death, accusations soon arose of incest between Galla and Honorius, resulting in Galla being exiled to Constantinople.Two years later, Honoruis died and Galla’s five year old son with Constantius, Valentinian, was named Emperor of the West. Galla served as his regent, or advisor for fourteen years, until he came of age. She died at approximately 58, a year before Attila the Hun ravaged Italy. The Mausoleum named for her is not her tomb, but she was inspired to build it in thanks for her life being spared while crossing the Adriatic in a storm. Indeed, it may be that her thanks were for surviving a stormy life.
Tradition of Mosaics in Ravenna Going Strong Today
Not only do Ravenna’s churches glitter with spectacular tapestries of colored glass created by ancient masters of the technique, but contemporary artisans here are carrying on the tradition of this ancient art form, giving it a 21st-century flair.
The Koko Mosaico workshop and gallery is owned by Arianna Gallo and her husband Luca Barberini, and located at Via di Roma 186. Arianna is a graduate of the Mosaic Institute of Art ‘Gino Severini’ and from the School of Mosaic Restoration (Soprintendenza of Cultural Heritage of Ravenna); Luca graduated from the Mosaic Institute of Art Gino Severini and subsequently worked at a number of the mosaic studios in Ravenna. In 2005, they opened Koko Mosaico. The works created by Koko Mosaico range from copies of ancient mosaics in Ravenna to modern/contemporary pieces, and Arianna and Luca incorporate original or commissioned designs according to the desires of the client.
“No doubt that Ravenna had a central role in the history of mosaic, and it is now a point of reference for the contemporary mosaic tradition,” Arianna observed.
“Ravenna has been bonded to the art of mosaic for more than two millenniums,” she said. “In the 5th century, Ravenna became the capital of the Western Roman Empire and it reached its maximum splendor from an artistic and cultural point of view. It was specifically during this period that Ravenna was enriched with private palaces, churches, baptisteries finely adorned with mosaic decorations. These heritage sites are today part of the UNESCO World Heritage List and attracts tourists from all over the world. The bond between Ravenna and mosaics has never been cut because art conservators and mosaic masters have always been present in the city. It is thanks to these figures and thanks to the art schools that the tradition is still alive.”
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Ravenna Mosaico Festival Celebrates Tradition
“Speaking of this, I invite you to visit Ravenna during the festival “Ravenna Mosaico” that happens every two years and the city is full of events: exhibitions from international mosaicists, conferences about old and new mosaic,” Arianna said. “Hundreds of artists from all over the world meet in Ravenna to admire each other’s art pieces, take inspiration and to get the best from the mosaic tradition. The next festival will start in October 2021 and like the other editions, it will last until November.”
“To perform this art, it is necessary to “fall in love” with the marbles, the varnishes and gold, all the materials that make the mosaic up,” she explained. ”The ability to think about how these materials could turn into an art piece help the mosaicist to affirm himself as an artist. Also, good manual skills and a standout sensibility for color are fundamental.”
“Both my husband Luca Barberini and I were born and raised in Ravenna, and thanks to our laboratory we have the possibility to host everyday clients, artists and students, mainly from abroad that help us to keep an open mind and to be informed about the world, and all of them makes us realize how special our city is” she said. “Ravenna is a small treasure chest. Some of these treasures are well-known to everyone, and I’m referring to all the monuments in the UNESCO World Heritage List, that keep us inspired.”
Inspiration From Dante Alighieri and Everyday Life
“We also get inspiration from the huge number of mosaicists and artists that work in here, or from the literary legacy Dante Alighieri has left in Ravenna–he died in Ravenna and is buried near the San Francesco church,” she continued. “Also, a lot of inspiration comes from everyday life. The biggest treasure is the quality of life this small city can provide, as it allows you to meet your friends while you are going to work, or reach the sea by bike, or to stop and stare at a kid’s astonished expression… maybe also yours!”
“There are various techniques to make a mosaic,” Arianna explained. “I like to think that in our laboratory we hand down the oldest techniques, as in fact, the one we use is the closest one to that used in the past. Each piece of mosaic starts from an idea that first becomes a drawing. The paper project tells the materials that have to be used and that, once they’ve been chosen, are cut into pieces using ancient tools: a mosaic hammer and mosaic hardy (martellina e tagliolo). Afterwards, support has to be prepared with a frame around and inside concrete is put in sections. Portion after portion, day after day, the magic happens. This is how the mosaic artwork comes to life and gets ready to be admired. This method is called “direct technique on a support” (tecnica diretta su supporto definitivo) and it’s the method most used by Koko Mosaico.”
Mosaics in Ravenna Are Dynamic Tradition
Though you may never create a mosaic, it is hard not to fall in love with the artform while visiting Ravenna. The city is so clearly dedicated to this tradition which has been passed down from generation to generation. It seems to be the dynamic nature of mosaics in Ravenna that has inspired artists for centuries. Not only is the artform transformational, but Ravenna itself seems to be constantly evolving into something new, along with the artists that call this place home. It will be exciting to see where this art form goes next!
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