VENICE began for me in the front row of the Basilica Cathedral of San Marco where I sat beneath stunning gold and rainbow colored mosaics depicting Jesus and his Apostles, the life of Mary, the four Evangelists and innumerable other subjects al framed in glass mosaic tesserae. Biblical figures carved in marble, angels everywhere, and marble mosaic patterns on the floor were but prelude to hearing High Mass chanted in Latin by an operatic-voiced cleric in white laced robes over maroon velvet who sometimes even led us, the congregation, in choral prayer. A coir of women or were they angels? sang hymns as wel. I’d not come to Venice for inspiration but here it was…a wondrous surprise.
I’d come here actually for the VENICE BIENNALE which was another surprise and delight. Instead of being 95% vapid video and inscrutable installation, this year’s exhibition with the theme “All the World’s Futures”, included many meaningful art works that commented on humanity’s future in telling ways. Roumania’s Adrian Gheni created intense passionate abstractions that evoked the potential disaster of the future in brutal brilliant paintings. Australia’s Pavillion was filled with vitrines of hundreds of objects and prints that together told of ecological and political disaster—the artist, Fiona Hall, transformed clocks of every kind from grandfather to cuckoo into warnings, into pallettes for seeing that our time is up. The artist worked with indigenous women to make found material sculptures of endangered species; she placed plant leaves on world currencies to remind us that rainforests are being destroyed to feed the global economy and the center of her installation held African-like masks from which hung shreds of work clothes, an ominous reminder that Africa, more than any other continent, stands to suffer in the future. Chiharu Shiota from Japan filled a room with a maze of red yard holding keys that draped into and over worn boats used in migration attempts the world over in the hope that flight to the “First World” will solve the world’s and one’s personal problems. And Qiu Zhijie created a mind-boggling installation called “Jingling Chronicle Theater Project” that juxtaposed traditional Chinese imagery and art works with strange grating machinery, traditional Chinese ink painting with the machines he’d made and let loose on the space. Cuba’s Ricardo Brey was represented by his many finely crafted books in gold black and white that seemed more like sculptures hauntingly evoking the Catholic past of Castro’s Embargo-stressed nation. Three days of art was thrilling, and exhausting…inspiring and sad.
So I moved on to the glories of RAVENNA, a less visited Italian city on the Adriatic coast. Here is where the finest in Byzantine mosaics exist in nearly every church in town with San Vitale being its precious best. I never tire of mosaics with portraits and scenery depicted with tiny pieces of stone—tesserae—laid into some kind of concrete. Eyes bold, figures standing in still postures haloes around their heads, many backgrounded in gold glass squares, symmetry the design principle of the style. The churches in Ravenna are basilicas—a Roman term that describes the layout of the original Roman law court architecture—a nave with two side aisles. Early Christian churches co-opted Roman structures and have a plain brick exterior with a pitched roof and a tall square bell tower—this somber simple facade never prepares you for the golden mosaic masterworks within.
Following peaceful days in Ravenna I hazarded a road trip through Tuscany and Umbria and was delighted by hillsides sectioned into vineyards, olive groves, small farms, vegetable gardens. Every turn in the road presented classic picture-postcard views. Then I found myself in the wilderness, in a national park full of pine trees and Autumn maroon and golden deciduous forests on my way to Fiesole, a mountain village outside of Florence with a wonderfully preserved Roman theater and baths. The next day gave me one of the major delights of my stay in Italy—CHIUSI is a town I’d never heard of but which I happened into on one of my many trips down an unintended road. Chiusi was chock full of Etruscan everything—a fabulous museum, a display of Medieval manuscripts, an Etruscan military cave and tunnel structure, an underground tour through tombs with sarcophagi topped with sculptures of big bellied deceased individuals holding plates with coins to pay for good afterlives. In the two underground state-supported tours it was just me led by vibrant young students for two hour long tours and since I have much to learn about the Etruscan culture—they were the early Romans—I was in academic pig heaven. A couple of days more touring gave me wonderful walks through Spoleto, Olvieto and Assisi, all ancient villages of stone clinging to mountainsides, and all with mosaic-filled churches and in Assisi with Giotto painted frescoes—just lovely.
ROME offered the usual magnificence that everyone knows about—the many Roman Forums, the mosaic floors and amazing multi-storied concrete structures like the Pantheon, Trajan’s market and the Colisseum—all stunning, impressive…..What thrilled me the most, however, was a visit to OSTIA, the original port of Rome long since silted up and abandoned. But what’s left is an entire city in ruins—Maybe three kilometers long with a cemetery, a beautifully preserved classical Roman Temple, and many villas with mosaic floors, one with a sweet sculpture of Cupid and Psyche embracing. The ancient road inscriptions were on the walls and the main bath complex had beautiful mosaics of Neptune driving a chariot led by horses and surrounded by all kinds of sea creatures—real and imagined. A large garden area was also filled with black and white mosaics representing various sea-related guilds so there were ships, lighthouses, fish and even an elephant on well preserved floors. TThere was a live dig going on by students from the University of Bologna There were temples scattered around the city too, the most exciting of which was hard to find, unmarked and really a secret to most visitors—At the end of a tunnel under a bath house was off in the outskirts of Ostia was an underground mystery cult shrine to the god Mithras who was represented by a nearly intact marble sculpture of him with his bull. So exciting to discover and touch this magnificent slightly larger than life god.
I’m returning to Rome next month and will visit Naples, Capri and Pompeii so another Italy report will be forthcoming…but now I am in Israel with a whole new story unfurling……