Le zoo de Rome – a charming novel intertwining reality and fiction, written by Pascal Janovjak

A year ago, in May 2019, Pascal Janovjak gave me his book “le zoo de Rome” (1) with the following words: “Tu sais que les animaux sont la matière première des fables (you know that the animals are the basic material of fables).”

Let me tell you more about this beautiful novel that evoked memories of “my” zoos, that taught me much about the zoo of Rome integrated in the history of the XXth century and that made me enjoy the related fictional story lines.

 

Prologue: “Le zoo de Rome” evoked memories; it might evoke yours as well

“Le zoo de Rome” evoked memories of “my” zoos in Basel (Zolli) and in Karlsruhe (Stadtgarten). You may have such memories as well.

At kindergarten age, in the 1950’s, my grand-ma invited me to the Stadtgarten in Karslruhe, whereby I was very cautious, when being confronted with animals.

Some ten years later, our teacher took us to the Basel Zolli to practice drawing animals; “my” pelicans and “my” penguin are from that time.

As a student, I took photos in the Basel Zolli and developed them in the kitchen-darkroom. The black-and-white polar bear is resting calmly on its paw on a frosty-cold winter day.

No more polar bears in the Basel Zolli today. However, polar bears still live in the Stadtgarten of Karlsruhe, in their “icebergs” built in 2000 (colour photos taken in 2009). A hundred years ago, the Swiss Urs Eggenschwyler created an iceberg in the zoo of Rome; it will play a role in Pascal’s novel.

Now I go to the Basel Zolli with my grandniece and grandnephew. They very much like the flamingos – or flamands in French. The “lagoon” is near the main entrance of the zoo.

Pascal also seems to like flamingos. He has selected this flamingo for the cover of his book.

My “le zoo de Rome” shows signs of use… I have read it three times and I have read it with great pleasure.

 

“Le zoo de Rome” is a puzzle of essays telling intertwined stories: My summary in a nutshell

Pascal tells his novel “le zoo de Rome” as a puzzle of small essays (two to four pages long) rolling out intertwined story lines. The real story of the zoo of Rome starts shortly before 1911 (construction and inauguration), ends in 2013 (two years after the centenary) and interacts with the historical events of one century.

Superimposed to the real history of the zoo, I identified fictional story lines that begin in 1940, focus on 2009/2010 and end in 2013.

  • The first fiction is the life of the architect Chahine Gharbi (born in 1970) and his tender love story with Giovanna Di Stefano. Chahine comes to Rome in December 2009, because a sponsor from Riyad has asked him to evaluate the project of a shopping city to replace the zoo. Chahine orders his room until 16th of January 2010. Mid-January, he has to leave his hotel room, as his sponsor has stopped paying for it. He lives in the iceberg for some time and leaves with unknown destination in May 2010.
    Chahine and Giovanna meet in the zoo. They are both about 40 years old. Their love culminates end-January or beginning-February 2010, when they make love in the zoo.
  • The second fiction is the saga of the family Leonardi that worked as guards from grandfather to grandson Salvatore. Salvatore was born in 1949 (there was rinderpest in the zoo then). Salvatore works with engagement for his animals and imagines the zoo being Noah’s Ark and himself being the captain. Salvatore meets Giovanna and Chahine several times. He is the guard of the last tamandin anteater, until sent to retirement in July 2010 – which leads over to the third fiction.
  • The third fiction is about the last tamandin anteater (a fictional animal) alluding to criminal energy and overtourism. During the war, in 1940, the zoo takes over his first tamandin from another zoo. In November 2009, the veterinarian Moro of the zoo of Rome kills the two tamandins in the London zoo. By doing so, he achieves that the old tamandin anteater of the zoo of Rome, Oscar, is the last representative of this species. For the zoo, so far having attracted only few visitors, the last surviving tamandin changes everything. Visitors flood the zoo. They are channelled to the Grande Volière (aviary), where the animal lives. It is a hype, which Giovanna supports with her marketing actions.
    Meanwhile, the veterinarian of the London zoo, Nadia Monk, finds out that Moro has thrown infected ticks into the cages of her tamandins, which was the cause of their infection and death. Moro is arrested in May 2010.
    During the tamandin hype, Salvatore looks after Oscar day and night. In July 2010, the faithful guard gets the announcement of his retirement, kills the tamandin Oscar and ends up in prison. No one asks why he has shot the tamandin. Small detail: It turns out that Oscar was a female, despite its name.
    At the same time, in July 2010, Giovanna visits the gynaecologist to get the confirmation that she is pregnant. She must have been five to six months pregnant.
  • Fourth, without having a name (I could not find it), Giovanna’s husband supports her calmly during the exciting months at the zoo. During that time, they also make love in late winter/early spring 2010. In 2013, a happy future opens up for Giovanna and her husband: Giovanna has left the zoo and is again successful at her former job in government, and the couple enjoys the life with their son that they had no longer expected.

I enjoyed the rich and dense language of Pascal. The words are concise and placed exactly where they fit. I took notes to keep track of the artfully intertwined story lines presented in small puzzle pieces with hints dispersed all over. Some of the hints I only understood, when reading the novel for the third time, for example:

  • In the first chapter, the architect Chahine Gharbi notices a metallic sphere, when settling in room number 324 in the hotel adjacent to the zoo. A metallic sphere? Reading the novel the third time, I understand: What Chahine sees, is the “Grande Volière”, the “Large Aviary”, built in the 1930’s at Mussolini’s request.
  • Soon after having started work as the head of communications and administration of the zoo, Giovanna visits the animals and notices the tamandin, marked as “in danger of extinction”. Coming back to the office, she finds an angry letter from the zoo of London asking the zoo of Rome to deliver the tamandin immediately. First, I thought, Giovanna has taken over a messy office. When reading the third time, I understand this hint: Moro, the veterinarian of Rome, has recently thrown ticks carrying viruses into the cage of the tamandins in the London zoo. Now he waits for the tamandins to pick up the ticks, catch the infection and die. For that reason, he has no intention to send his tamandin to England, as there is a good chance that Oscar will be the last anteater of its species, which will attract visitors to his zoo of Rome, desperately needed visitors.

 

The novel taught me much about the zoo of Rome… and about “my” Basel Zolli

These are some of the facts that Pascal’s novel told me about the zoo of Rome and other zoos:

  • I was shocked to read that Hagenbeck, the designer of the zoo of Rome (and of the Tierpark of Hamburg), was a trader of wild animals; by designing zoos, I believe, he cleverly created the market for his business. I was also dismayed to read, how many animals did not survive the transfer from wilderness to Rome, when the zoo was to be inaugurated in 1911. I was appalled that just a few years after the inauguration, cost saving efforts deprived the animals from food.
  • Urs Eggenschwyler was an eccentric Swiss who knew how to build artificial cement rocks. In the zoo of Rome, he built various rock landscapes and the iceberg. In the Basel Zolli, he built the rock for the seals. I had never thought about this rock around the pool being artificial, when watching the seals playfully “hunt” their food. The iceberg landscape in Karlsruhe should show the visitors, how the polar bears live in the Arctic. Hagenbeck was the first architect of zoos to have planned landscapes that reflect the habitat of the animals shown. Pascal describes nicely, how Hackenbeck dreamt of the animals living in their habitats, when reviewing the plans for the zoo of Rome.
  • I shivered, when “a crazy man” entered the cage of his lioness called Italia. Pascal resolves the mystery later: It was Mussolini. He ordered to enlarge the zoo, because it was smaller than other zoos of Europe. The architect de Vito was in charge of the construction. I liked to follow, how de Vito proceeded: He watched the animals intensely, he visited other zoos to gather ideas, and then, accidentally, he saw the cylindric gas reservoir of the community of Munich that became the model for the “Grande Volière” or “Large Aviary” allowing the birds to fly in circles, which is natural for them. Furthermore, he built his aviary in a sustainable way – more than 80 years later, the metal shines in the sun (as Chahine noted, when entering his hotel room with the view of the zoo). I would love to see de Vico’s aviary one day.
  • I have mixed feelings about zoos. Might be, the student Guido watching animals is right: Zoos are like Noah’s Ark. In Mongolia, I saw the Przewalski horses. They had become extinct in the wild, but they survived in various zoos. Resettlement was a success. It was beautiful to watch these elegant horses against the horizon of the Mongolian steppes.
  • Another finely observed detail: Chahine and Giovanna struggle with the zoo map. Zoo maps do seem to be a challenge; with the map of the Basel Zolli I always get lost.

 

The zoo is the backstage to caricature observations about people in fictional story lines 

The zoo of Rome is the backstage for creating caricatures about people and their behaviours. The observations, painted using fine brushstrokes, resonate with me. Let me give you some examples.

  • With pleasure, I observed the tender love emerge between Chahine and Giovanna, which culminates, when Chahine helps Giovanna to get rid of her wet cloth, after having been in the pouring rain during the move of the tamandin to the aviary. Wet cloth is hard to take off – I have also experienced that. Then Chahine wants to disappear in Giovanna’s body. Later I understand what he suffers from. While hiding in the iceberg until May, he visits Salvatore Leonardi guarding the tamandin in the Grande Volière and, as they do not speak the same language, he uses gestures to describe, how his seven years old daughter died in the car accident and that he was at the steering wheel. I feel sorry for Chahine devouring the soup that Leonardi offers to him, because probably he is very hungry.
    After their love night, Giovanna looks for Chahine, but cannot find him – she just finds his accessories, including the white plush polar bear that he had bought, perhaps with his daughter in mind; he has left the plush bear on the iceberg.
    I feel sympathy for Chahine’s wife that probably never saw her husband again – she had let him go to Rome saying: “What you need, is a project”, when the request to plan the shopping city came from Riyad. What a sign of love.
  • The calm love between Giovanna and her husband ends happily with their newly born son. Pascal leaves open the detail who might be the father of their son, Chahine or Giovanna’s husband. He gives a small hint: Giovanna’s husband loved their son that resembled Giovanna so much – what a tender loving care.
  • From the very first moment, I have felt bad with the veterinarian of the zoo of Rome, Moro. I hated that he thought, he knew everything better than the director of the zoo and that he disdained Giovanna by telling her that she had ink at her fingers, while she was explaining to him her ideas about the next steps to be taken for the zoo (occasionally, I came across such unfair behaviour at work…). Later, I felt Schadenfreude (malicious joy, a word that only exists in German, I believe), because Moro failed to go unnoticed, when attacking the two tamandins in the London zoo, though he had prepared everything in detail acquiring an English coat and an umbrella as well as paying cash for the bus and metro tickets to Regent’s Park. But at the entrance gate to the zoo, he felt stressed because of the long queue and he got engraved in the mind of the cashier, as he forgot the change in coins and his umbrella, his coat was too warm for the sunny day and he was too stingy to make a donation. I can imagine the man clearly.
    The veterinarian Nadia Monk of the London zoo wanted to know, why her tamandins had died and found viruses from ticks. One tick had a tiny thread of wool around its body, as she noticed in the microscope. She spent eleven nights in the office of the night shift security guard to watch the video surveillance films. The guard was not amused, as he loved to read poems during his night shifts – great caricature. After eleven nights, Nadia Monk identified a man in a coat throwing ticks at her tamandins. The cashier remembered the man. Due to Nadia’s persistence, Moro was arrested (Pascal only says that two policemen knocked at the door leaving the conclusion to the reader).
  • I relished reading about the touristic turmoil around the last tamandin anteater. The tamandin was shy and hid away in its bush. The visitors could hardly ever see it. Nevertheless, hordes of tourists came to the zoo and to the Volière, where it stayed, guarded by Salvatore Leonardi. Leonardi, also hidden, observed that the visitors were not interested in the tamandin, but only in themselves. The hype around the tamandin is a well-pictured allusion to overtourism, I find. It reminds me of what I saw in Petersburg in the Hermitage Museum: Tourists rushed to “Madonna and the Child” by Leonardo da Vinci, stopped, turned round, took a selfie “me and the must see tableau of da Vinci” and went off, without looking back – they were not interested in this magnificent work of art.
  • With sympathy, I followed the saga of the Leonardi family up to their grandson, Salvatore Leonardi that felt engaged for his animals, while he was just a bit talkative. I am sad to see him end up in prison. No one asked Salvatore Leonardi, why he killed the tamandin. I believe he wanted to protect the old animal from having to adapt to a new guard or he just felt sorry for the tamandin being the object of gawping crowds that were not interested in the animal as such. This is another detail that Pascal lets the reader solve himself.

I love history and I love novels that unfold their fictions in a historical setting. One of my favourite novels is “natural history” (historias naturales) by Juan Perucho who selected the Spanish Carlist War of 1840 to intertwine the fiction of “pursuit of the vampire by a young scientist and the scientist’s happy end with his love” (2).  With Pascal’s “le zoo de Rome”, I found a second favourite novel that joins history and fictions.

 

Epilogue: Animals are the basic material of fables and the rose colour of flamingos conveys happiness

Let me come back to what Pascal wrote in the dedication, when giving his book to me:

“Tu sais que les animaux sont la matière première des fables (you know that the animals are the basic material of fables).”

In fables, the animals act like humans and convey a moral lesson. In “le zoo de Rome” the animals remain animals (some of them fictional) and are a wonderful backstage for the fictional story lines. Nevertheless, I sense some moral reflections that resonate with me: For instance Mussolini entering the cage of his lioness is underlining his delusion of grandeur. The bear Fritz greeting like a fascist does not know, what it does. The chimpanzee Bungo that the animal welfare activists save from the bar to transfer it to the zoo asylum seems to suffer in its cage (good intention of the activists, but…). The rose flamingos had to move to a pond near the entrance to convey the feeling of happiness to the visitors, but they suffer, because the pebbles on the ground are too large for them to walk on (the new owners of the “Natura Park” look more for appearance than for the welfare of their protégés).

Perhaps it is for the rose colour conveying happiness that Pascal placed the elegant flamingo on the cover. Do you remember the song “la vie en rose” by Edith Piaf (3)? It gave hope to the generation of 1945 to find happiness again, now that the war was over.

I sense that the novel begins and ends with optimism: It begins with the rose colour of the flamingo on the cover to greet the reader which invited me to open the book. In the last chapter, we see the happiness of Giovanna and her husband with their son, which may makes me dream about their future.

Let us look for facets of life that makes us happy, now, that this virus confines our freedom to meet. It was wonderful to use video conferencing for discussing “le zoo of Rome” within the framework of the Solothurner Literaturtage (4).

 

Footnotes

(1) Pascal Janovak, “le zoo de Rome”, Actes Sud 2019

(2) See my blog about Juan Perucho, “historias naturales”, edhasa, Barcelona 2003.

(3) Edith Piaf, “la vie en rose”, YouTube officiel  written in 1945.

(4) Solothurner Literaturtage 2020

Ravenna: In search of Byzantine mosaics – Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and in Classe

Saint Apollinaris is said to have brought Christianity to Ravenna in the 1st century. Two basilicas are named after him, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and Sant’Apollinare in Classe. “Nuovo” is the older church, already inaugurated in 504 as an ostrogothic Arian Basilica dedicated to Christ the Redeemer. Under Byzantine rule, this church became othodox-catholic, and in the 9th century the relics of Saint Apollinaris were transferred from Classe to Sant’Apollinare Nuovo – hence called “nuovo”. The original Basilica for Saint Apollinaris was built in Classe, near the port. It was consecrated in 549 by Maximian, when Ravenna was under Byzantine rule. Both basilicas are just wonderful – let us dicsover them.

But first let us recap again: In March 2018 we spent five days in Ravenna to see the town with its eight sites of UNESCO World Heritage:

  • two from the Western Roman Empire (402-476): the Mausoleum Galla Placidia and the Orthodox or Neonian Baptistery.
  • four from the Ostrogothic Rule (493-540): Theoderic’s Mausoleum, the Arian Baptistery, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (remodeled during Byzantine times) and the Archbishop’s Chapel.
  • two from the Byzantine Rule (540-751): San Vitale and Sant’Apollinare in Classe (both started during Ostrogoth times, but inaugurated in Byzantine times).

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Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

Yes, the older of the two basilicas named after Saint Apollinaris is called “Nuovo”. This is the view from outside. The bell tower is round with the typical double and triple windows. The narthex has been added later.

Inside the basilica measures 35mx21m. The nave is flanked with two rows of twelve columns in Greek marble. The mosaics are above the columns.

On the left hand side women martyrs are walking towards…

… Maria and Jesus with the three Magi.

On the right hand side, martyrs are walking towards Christ sitting on his throne and flanked by four angels.

It is assumed that the processions of the martyrs have been added by the Byzantines. The former decoration of the Arians was different, perhaps a line of courtiers.

Above the processions are 26 panels that describe the life of Christ (13 on each side). The example below shows the healing of the lame and the separation of the sheep from the bucks.

Most interesting is this Last Supper. Christ and the apostles are lying on long chairs as the Romans used to do for their meals. Never before have I seen such a “Roman” Last Supper. But why not? Why should the apostles and Christ not have behaved like the Romans, when eating?

Ursula and Leni intepret each of the 26 panels. It is like reading the Bible, and I have to admit, I read the stories from the Bible like people did at that time. With such beautiful mosaics it is a great pleasure to discover them and to enjoy, how the artists made the essence clear. For instance, a lame that carries his bed on his back has just been healed – it is simple and clear.

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Sant’Apollinare in Classe

On a sunny day, we take out our car and drive south to Classe, the ancient port of Ravenna. Here we find the basilica originally dedicated to Saint Apollinaris, namely Sant’Apollinare in Classe.

The nave is even larger, 55.5mx30.5m. The mosaic is in the choir.

It shows Christ, symbolized by a cross. The cross is flanked by two angels. Below the cross stands Saint Apollinaris that the church has been dedicated for. He is preaching and talking to the audience in the church and to the sheep surrounding him on the meadow. Stones, trees, bushes, flowers and birds surround the Saint.

In the middle of the cross, there is a small portrait of Christ.

The evangelists are flying above the scene. I am surprised to see the bull of Lukas: It is portrayed from the side and from the front at the same time – very much like a Picasso painting. May be that Picasso has visited this Basilica as a young man?

The lion of Mark looks very, very gentle, but may be this is what his evangelium is about… a story that should convey joy.

At the side we find three old acquaintances that we have come across in San Vitale: Abel sacrifying a sheep, Abraham about to sacrify his son Isaac and Melchisedec bringing wine and bread.

Beautiful, beautiful, just beautiful.

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Taking a break from all that culture

After all that culture we need a break and we benefit from the fact that the sun has started to warm Northern Italy. We drive to Fosso Ghaia and go for a walk in the pine forest.

Then we drive to the Lidos or the beaches south of Ravenna. They are empty, empty and just empty. One lonely man is raking the sand. If he continues at that speed, he will never complete his work until Easter in about four weeks, when the first guests are expected and the beaches start to fill up with lines of arm chairs and umbrellas. I cannot imagine the crowd looking at this empty sand beach.

We find just one (only one) restaurant open. It is full with craftsmen. They may be repairing the many holiday chalets and appartments that have their shutters closed right now.

Back in Ravenna we have a farewell dinner in the restaurant Capello, where I can also buy wines from the Emilia Romagna. I take with me Sangiovese, Lambrusco and Albana. The area is known for excellent food. Names like Parma (ham and cheese), Modena (vinaigre) or Bologna (spaghetti sauce) are resonating with me. And there is also more culture to see here. Perhaps I should plan to return soon…

References:
Clementina Rizzardi: “Ravenna, Eight Monuments World Heritage”, Municipality of Ravenna
Carola Jäggi: Ravenna, “Kunst und Kultur einer spätantiken Residenzstadt”, Schnell+Steiner, Regensburg 2016
Jutta Dresken-Weiland: “Die frühchristlichen Mosaike von Ravenna”, Schnell+Steiner, Regensburg 2016.

Ravenna: In search of Byzantine mosaics – San Vitale

The Basilica San Vitale has been inaugurated during Byzantine Rule, by Bishop Maximian in 547. The Ostrogoths had  started building San Vitale in 526.

Let us recap: In March 2018 we spent five days in Ravenna to see the town with its eight sites of UNESCO World Heritage:

  • two from the Western Roman Empire (402-476): the Mausoleum Galla Placidia and the Orthodox or Neonian Baptistery.
  • four from the Ostrogothic Rule (493-540): Theoderic’s Mausoleum, the Arian Baptistery, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (remodeled during Byzantine times) and the Archbishop’s Chapel.
  • two from the Byzantine Rule (540-751): San Vitale and Sant’Apollinare in Classe (both started during Ostrogoth times, but inaugurated in Byzantine times).

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San Vitale is a beautiful octogonal building with mosaics in the choir

The building plan of San Vitale combines Roman and Byzantine elements. A Roman element is the use of clay pipes for the dome. A Byzantine element is the octogonal plan. Charlemagne liked the octogonal plan of San Vitale so much that he modeled his palatine chapel in Aachen after it (Rizzardi, p. 74 and Dresken-Weiland also mentions that).

Inside the choir is beautifully decorated with mosaics. They are the best preserved Byzantine mosaics from Early Christianity (id est around 500, Rizzardi, p. 72).  Let us discover the San Vitale choir with the mosaics shining in green-blue-golden-white.

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Central cupola of the choir topped by the Lamb of God

In the center of the cupola the Lamb of God or Agnus Dei looks down at us as a symbol for Christ. He is flanked by four angels that stand in beautifully decorated gardens with birds and animals. The portrait of Christ himself is in the arch, along with the portraits of the apostles – next to Christ Petrus (grey hair) and Paulus (bald head).

In the front niche sits Christ, flanked by the two archangels and then to the left San Vitale (his martyrium is said to have happened here) and to the right the Bishop Eclesius who initiated building the cathedral. They all stand on a meadow with flowers and birds.

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Both sides of the choir Jare dedicated to the Byzantine emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora

To the left of the choir there is a mosaic panel that shows the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the middle amidst his men and warriors. The Bishop Maximianus who inaugurated San Vitale in 547 is labeled.

To the right stands his wife Theodora amidst her accompaniment. She is said to be the daughter of a bear trainer and she became a very influential empress in Byzantium.

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At the entrance to the choir: Biblical scenes

At the entrance to the choir there are two Biblical scenes.

The first scene below shows Abel sacrifying a lamb and Melchisedec bringing bread and wine. To the left from the scene stands Moses as a good shepherd (caressing a sheep) and again Moses  taking of his sandals to climb Mount Horeb where he finds the burning bush. To the right above the prophet Isaiah looks down at the scene with Abel and Melchisedec.

The second scene centers around Abraham. He is serving food to the three vagabonds that turned out to be angels. Three bread loaves are on the table and Abraham brings a lamb while his wife Sarah watches the guests from the doorstep. To the right, the hand of God is stopping Abraham from sacrifying his son Isaac. Above the scene are the prophet Jeremiah (left) and to the right Moses receiving the Ten Commandments.

Another overwhelming assemblance of mosaics in Ravenna after the baptisteries and the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia… and there will be more – we have not yet seen Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and Sant’Apollinare in Classe.

References:
Clementina Rizzardi: “Ravenna, Eight Monuments World Heritage”, Municipality of Ravenna
Carola Jäggi: Ravenna, “Kunst und Kultur einer spätantiken Residenzstadt”, Schnell+Steiner, Regensburg 2016
Jutta Dresken-Weiland: “Die frühchristlichen Mosaike von Ravenna”, Schnell+Steiner, Regensburg 2016.

 

Ravenna: Comparing the Ostrogothic Arian Baptistery and the Roman Orthodox Baptistery

Now I will tell you about the Ostrogothic Arian Baptistery and for comparison of the christening scene recall the Roman Orthodox (Neonian) Baptistery. To conclude, we will visit the Mausoleum of Theoderic to say good-bye to him and his Ostrogoths.

Let us recap: In March 2018 we spent five days in Ravenna to see the town with its eight sites of UNESCO World Heritage:

  • two from the Western Roman Empire (402-476): the Mausoleum Galla Placidia and the Orthodox or Neonian Baptistery.
  • four from the Ostrogothic Rule (493-540): Theoderic’s Mausoleum, the Arian Baptistery, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (remodeled during Byzantine times) and the Archbishop’s Chapel.
  • two from the Byzantine Rule (540-751): San Vitale and Sant’Apollinare in Classe (both started during Ostrogoth times, but inaugurated in Byzantine times).

(In the fourth ostrogothic World Heritage which is the Archbishop’s Chapel with Christ as a warrior it is not allowed to take pictures).

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Let us return to the Orthodox (Neonian) Baptistery and compare the christening scene with the Arian baptistery

Remember the christening scene in the Orthodox Baptistery from my previous blog? Saint John holds a bowl to baptize Christ and the pigeon flies above – to me it seems to bless the water in the bowl. Historians assume that this christening scene has been altered later and that the scene in the Arian Baptistery reflects the original mosaic with Saint Joan holding his hand on Christ’s head and the Holy Spirit really flowing from the pigeon on to the head of Christ (see farther down).

By the way you can clearly discern the apostles Petrus with his grey hair (bottom left) and Paulus with his bald head (left from Petrus).

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The Arian Baptistery – smaller and more intimate – again  just aaahhh

The Arian baptistery is smaller than the Orthodox Baptistery. The short absidioles at the bottom of the facade indicate that the building used to be much higher.

Inside I utter another “aaahhh”. The room is full of modest solemnity with the christening scene and the procession of the apostles in the cupola. The apostles move towards the throne of Christ, and Petrus (with his grey hair) as well as Paulus (with his bald head) are on both sides of the throne.

As mentioned abovem this christening scene is different from the one in the Orthodox Baptistery. In the Ariane Baptistery, Saint John holds his hand on Christ’s head and the pigeon pours Holy Spirit on to Christ’s head. Furthermore, Saint John, dressed in his fur coat, holds a walking stick instead of a cross. The god of the river Jordan is of the same size as the main figures and he has crabs on his head. The two scenes are very similar, but different, and the setup of the Arian Baptistery is deemed to be original. I love how gently Saint John looks at Christ.

The Arian Baptistery was built  around the year 500 by the Ostrogothic Arianic Christian community. The Ostrogothic king, Theoderic the Great, belonged to the Arianic community. Arians believe that Christ is the son of God, “but that he is distinct from the Father and therefore subordibate to him”, wikipedia explains, as opposed to the Orthodox-Catholics (still one church at that time) that believe in Trinity –  God, the Holy Spirit and Christ are one God in three divine persons. The Orthodox-Catholics declared the Arianic concept to be heretic and they persecuted them.

The Arianic community in Ravenna was small. This might explain, why their baptistery is smaller. Historians say that their mosaic had been completed in two stages. They conclude this from the fact that under the throne, the grey-headed apostle Petrus and the bald headed apostle Paulus as well as under the third apostle next to Paulus the lawn is of much darker green color than under all the other apostles. Only around the throne, there are flowers. And in addition the palm trees look different. The historians assume that, when the throne, Petrus, Paulus and the third apostle had been accomplished, the Arians run out of money – and only later they were able to complete the procession of the apostles.

I love the unostentatios solemnity of this small baptistery. Being baptized here must have been a great experience.

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Good-bye Theoderic

I think that Theoderic was a very modern person. He is said to have been tolerant and cosmopolitic – I sense, as if he had lived through the times of Enlightment. In his mausoleum, we say good-bye to him.

The mauseoleum is one of the eight monuments of Ravenna in the World Heritage List. It consists of carefully cut Istrian stone blocks and excels by its 10.76m monolithic dome weighing 230 tons (Source: Rizzardi). On the second floor stands the porphyry sarcophagus of – as historians think – Theoderic.

When the Byzantines took over in 540, they removed his body, because they were against Arianism. Why? A belief that allows for a tolerant and cosmopolitic attitude is wonderful – and I would love to see more of that right today.

References:
Clementina Rizzardi: “Ravenna, Eight Monuments World Heritage”, Municipality of Ravenna
Carola Jäggi: Ravenna, “Kunst und Kultur einer spätantiken Residenzstadt”, Schnell+Steiner, Regensburg 2016
Jutta Dresken-Weiland: “Die frühchristlichen Mosaike von Ravenna”, Schnell+Steiner, Regensburg 2016.

Ravenna: The heritage of Galla Placidia and Neone (Roman times)

Let us recap: In March 2018 we spent five days in Ravenna to see the town with its eight sites of UNESCO World Heritage:

  • two from the Western Roman Empire (402-476): the Mausoleum Galla Placidia and the Orthodox or Neonian Baptistery.
  • four from the Ostrogothic Rule (493-540): Theoderic’s Mausoleum, the Arian Baptistery, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (remodeled during Byzantine times) and the Archbishop’s Chapel.
  • two from the Byzantine Rule (540-751): San Vitale and Sant’Apollinare in Classe (both started during Ostrogoth times, but inaugurated in Byzantine times).

Let us start with our impressions from Roman times, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and the Orthodox (Neonian) Baptistery. The latter we will compare later with the Arian Baptistery.

 

The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia – solemnity in blue and golden colors

Galla Placidia was the daughter of Theodosius, the last emperor of the unified Roman Empire . In her second marriage Galla was the wife of Constantius, Magister Militum of Honorius, the first emperor of the Western Rome Empire (after the partition of Rome in 395). For some years Constantius ruled together with Honorius. Galla’s son, Valentianus III, became emperor of the Western Roman Empire in 425. Until 437 and until he was 18 years old, she managed the empire. During this time – in 425 – she had her mausoleum built. This is the outside view of the mausoleum with its four transepts. The transepts are ornated with blind columns and arcades.

Inside, we find a solemn atmosphere primarily in the colors blue and golden. The cupola is a blue sky filled with stars, with the cross in the middle and the four evangelists in the corners. I love the decoration band around this sky full of stars.

Below the cupola there are four mosaics with two men, a fountain and pigeons. In two of the mosaics, the pigeons are drinking from the water. These two pigeons drinking water decorate many, many souvenirs in Ravenna – cups, plates, mouse pads, scarfs, tablecloths, t-shirts etc. The elegant men next to the pigeons have not been identified.

Two of the mosaics in the four transepts show deer drinking water alluding to the psalm “like a deer drinking from a stream, I reach out to you, my god.”

The third transept hosts the mosaic depicting Christ as the good shepherd – he is caressing one of his sheep – and the animal obviously enjoys that.

Last the fourth transept shows the martyr Laurentius or Lawrence moving towards his martyrium, the grill, which is next to a bookcase with the four gospels.

The decoration in primarily blue and golden colors creates a solemn atmosphere. Very, very beautiful. Galla Placidia was surely an intelligent woman, but in addition she had a good taste. We looked around and around, we checked out every detail and, after having stepped out, I had to go back to get another glance.

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The Orthodox or Neonian Baptistery – another “aaahhhh”

The Orthodox Baptistery is the second testimony of Ravenna as the capital of the Roman empire. It has been accomplished by Bishop Neone (450-476). This is why it is also called “the Neonian Baptistery”. The baptistery is what remains from the Basilica Ursiana which in the 18th century has been replaced by a new cathedral. This is the view from outside.

An interesting detail are the pilaster strips (Lisenen) and round-arch mouldings (Rundbogenfriese) – blind columns and arcades. This decoration has been in use in ancient Roman times, in Byzantium and in Ravenna. In Ravenna the Langobards picked it up and integrated it in their Lombardian architecture. From here the Romanesque architecture spread throughout Europe in the 11th century.

As this is a baptistery, the decoration centers around christening. The top of the cupola shows Christ standing in the river Jordan. He is being christened by Saint John, while the god of the river Jordan watches the procedure. Around this scene the apostles form a procession.

The outer circle contains a band of four double niche constructions alternating between a desk with the bible surrounded by two chairs (see below) and the throne of Christ in a garden (see above).

Windows give light to the baptistery. Next to the windows are plaster figures – perhaps prophets.

Below the windows are absidioles that once were much higher and contained (lost) mosaics showing biblical scenes. The spandrels connecting the absidioles are decorated with mosaics showing (unidentified) men sourrounded by blue and golden.

When entering the baptistery, I opened my mouth – aah – and just stared up at the cupola. Far away I heard a voice say something, but I did not listen. Only after some time I understood that this voice wanted me to show my ticket or buy one. A ticket? I came back to the world – oh yes, the cash point is inside the baptistery. The voice was very friendly, repeated “ticket please” and obviously enjoyed that I was so much overwhelmed by the beauty of the mosaics.

We will return to the scene of christening shown in the Orthodox Baptistery and compare it to the same scene in the Arian baptistery.

References:
Clementina Rizzardi: “Ravenna, Eight Monuments World Heritage”, Municipality of Ravenna
Carola Jäggi: Ravenna, “Kunst und Kultur einer spätantiken Residenzstadt”, Schnell+Steiner, Regensburg 2016
Jutta Dresken-Weiland: “Die frühchristlichen Mosaike von Ravenna”, Schnell+Steiner, Regensburg 2016.

Ravenna: My history overview

“No, no, I only visit Ravenna in winter,” Ursula says. I take a break from my favorite winter activities which relate to skiing, take out my car and off we go in the beginning of March 2018 to explore Ravenna and its eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

When we arrived in Ravenna in the first week of March, winter was still present, as the snow heaps on the Piazza del Popolo show.

It was very cold and it was raining. Even the cyclists used their umbrellas. Fortunately, by the end of our week in Ravenna, we could again sit outside to enjoy our Italian espresso in the warm sun.

Before exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Ravenna, let us get an overview of Ravenna’s history. It may not be complete, as I am not a historian, but it helped me to navigate in Ravenna and understand the background of the sites we visited.

Source: See references below, and sometimes I would use Dr. Google to verify my understanding.

To summarize, the eight sites of UNESCO World Heritage at Ravenna are:

  • from the Western Roman Empire (402-476): Mausoleum Galla Placidia and the Baptistery of the Orthodoxs.
  • from the Ostrogothic Rule (493-540): Mausoleum of Theoderic, Arian Baptistery, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (remodeled during Byzantine times) and the Archbishop’s Chapel.
  • from the Byzantine Rule (540-751): San Vitale and Sant’Apollinare in Classe (both started during Ostrogoth times, but then inaugurated in Byzantine times).

See, where you find the sites in Ravenna.

Source: Clementina Rizzardi: “Ravenna, Eight Monuments World Heritage”, Municipality of Ravenna.

Let us explore these eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the coming blogs.

References:
Clementina Rizzardi: “Ravenna, Eight Monuments World Heritage”, Municipality of Ravenna
Carola Jäggi: Ravenna, “Kunst und Kultur einer spätantiken Residenzstadt”, Schnell+Steiner, Regensburg 2016
Jutta Dresken-Weiland: “Die frühchristlichen Mosaike von Ravenna”, Schnell+Steiner, Regensburg 2016.