July 4th, 2009



Greetings from the last capital of Rome. Ravenna is a much quieter town than Rome or Florence — you get the sense that the Byzantine Empire washed over it in the 5th century, depositing mosaics on all the churches like tidewrack, then things pretty much stopped happening here. (Except for Dante being exiled — and eventually buried — here. In his mausoleum hangs a lamp fueled in perpetuity by Florentine oil, sent by the city in penance for exiling him.) The mosaics are truly beautiful, though, and well worth the visit. I'll post pictures, but pictures can't do justice to the feeling of being surrounded by, wrapped in, embedded in chips of brilliant color and radiant gold, as bright today as they were 1400 years ago. Seen close, the chips of glass break up into crude cartoons and chunky Halloween masks, but as you step back they become graceful and fluid, and the mosaic faces become as expressive as painted ones. In the Basilica San Francesco, where they raised the floor several times due to flooding, you can peer through a dark hole below the altar to see the original mosaic floor. By dropping a 50 cent piece into a slot, you can illuminate it to see the goldfish swimming among the pillars.

In S. Apollinare Nuovo, a church founded by Theodoric the Goth, we were admiring the mosaics when a tour group of unprepossessing seniors, in pastel shirts and knee-length shorts, suddenly broke into choral song. It filled the church like light, all the vaulted glittering spaces suddenly resonant, the sound so big and so fitting that we thought for a moment someone had turned on a hidden sound system.

Cult of the Medici

I suspect something uncanny is going on at the Medici Chapel. From without, it's a pleasant terra-cotta-tiled hump, a gnome's observatory or a Super Mario hill. Inside, it's a vertiginous octagonal marble room done in the colors of the sea and old blood (as though designed by the followers of some ancient briny fish-god), above a crypt filled with dozens of relics in cases of gold and glass and inlaid stone: the gold-chased fingerbone of a saint, a snippet of Mary's tunic, splinters of the True Cross, chunks of the pillar at which Jesus was scourged, part of the shaft of one of Saint Sebastian's arrows, a thorn from the Crown of Thorns. In a small corridor to one side stand two unfinished victory statues by a student of Michelangelo, and wriggling out of the neck-holes of the empty suits of armor are, on the left, a fat worm with a lion's head, looking very much like the chestburster from Alien, and on the right a blind, suckered tentacle. Then, in the next room along, the personification of Night reclines next to Day — but Day's face is a blank smear of marble slumping into his beard.

If I were Tim Powers or Dan Brown, I would be drawing some very unsavory conclusions about the Medici and the beginnings of the Renaissance, and linking them into a tenuous web in a book called Six Spheres of Blood or A Taste of Their Own Medici.