Of Tenacity and Cupcake Sprinkles

How I found connection in the Basilica of San Vitale

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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 cupcakes you’re baking for her birthday party. 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 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 was drenched in 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 took to not only conceive the images contained in the murale, 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 Christ resting on a globe surrounded by angels. The far right figure in brown carries a miniature version of the basilica, offering it to Christ 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.

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 what their concerns were and what motivated them. 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—byartists 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. Miniscule 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 worshippers 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 tenacious pursuit 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 cupcakes.

It wasn’t even about the magnificent golden mosaic masterpieces. It was instead about connecting, in one sense, to 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.

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Verona is the bomb dot com

And other observations my daughter made when she visited on a daytrip from Venice

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From the Arena di Verona, the city bustles with vitality during a spring garden show in Piazza Bra, one of the largest public squares in Italy. Photo: Katherine Yung

My daughter spent three months living in Venice in 2017 as an intern at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a small, yet world-renowned modern art museum located on the Grand Canal. Her time there was magical, challenging, beautiful, and life-changing. On four occasions, she day-tripped with her friends away from the 124 islands that compose Venice to visit these cities: Bologna, Padua, Verona, and Vicenza.

Since her return, we’ve enjoyed many conversations about her time in Italy. This post is about her daytrip to Verona, home to 257,000 residents and located on the Adige River in northern Italy.

The interview answers are just the two of us talking; see the photo captions for more detailed notes and facts about her trip.

 

How did you get to Verona? We left the train station in Venice around 8:45 in the morning and arrived in Verona around 9:30. It really doesn’t take long to get there! And let me just start by saying it was the first sunny and clear day of spring. The weather in Venice during the first month or so of my stay there had been rainy, gray and cold, and we were all ready for some sunshine. I didn’t have to wear a jacket at all. It was absolutely beautiful.

Once we arrived at the train station, we had to walk quite a distance to reach the central historic part of the city. It probably took around twenty to thirty minutes. We walked past a café and decided to get cappuccinos for breakfast and then we kept walking to get to the old city walls. This is considered the heart of Verona. The walls are about fifty feet high.

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The old city walls of Verona mark the historic center of the city. Photo: Katherine Yung

What was first on the agenda? After reaching the center of the city, we decided to go to the arena first to meet Alessandra, one of the interns at the  Guggenheim museum in Venice who had returned on her days off that week to Verona, her hometown. She was going to be our guide for the day.

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Arena di Verona was the third-largest amphitheater in the Roman Empire. The 20,000-seat arena has a packed schedule for 2018. Built during the first century, the arena is home to a full schedule of productions, including an opera festival held every summer. Seats range from 18€ to over 200€, depending on the production and performance. Photo: Katherine Yung

To get to the arena, we walked through Piazza Bra, one of the largest public squares in Italy. There was a garden show going on. Vendors were selling flowers and citrus trees and other plans and lawn supplies. It was very busy. There were people everywhere.

The arena di Verona looks like a coliseum. It’s made entirely of stone and is literally a big stadium. They still hold concerts and theater productions there. It’s crazy old. The day we went to Verona was the first Sunday of the month and throughout Italy, there are discounts to state-run museums. At first, after meeting Alessandra outside the arena, we couldn’t decide if we wanted to go inside, but because it cost only 1€, we went in to see just how large it was.

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Inside the Arena di Verona. There’s not a lot to see, but my daughter and her friends decided to go in anyway, since entrance cost only 1€. Here’s a spectacular nighttime photo of the arena. Photo: Katherine Yung

Where did you go next? After we saw the arena, Alessandra took us down one of the main streets, Via Mazzini. It’s a pedestrian-only street. It has tons of shopping with lots of retail clothing shops.

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Walking down Via Mazzini in the retail heart of Verona. Photo: Katherine Yung

Did you see anything touristy? Yes! That was next! From Via Mazzini, we continued down to Casa di Giulietta, the “house of Juliet” from Shakespear’s Romeo and Juliet. Legend has it that the stone balcony that’s in the courtyard was the inspiration for the scene in Shakespeare’s play.

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The balcony at Casa di Giulietta. Photo: Katherine Yung

The balcony looks exactly like what you would expect it to. There’s also a statue of Juliet in the courtyard. It’s free to see. You pay, however, to stand on the balcony where you can have your picture taken. There’s a sotoportego—a tunnel-like walkway—you walk through to get to the courtyard. There’s a wall where people have written love notes on this wall. It’s totally black with writing and spray paint. It’s covered with notes and anything and everything people can find to stick their notes to the wall with… gum, Band-Aids, whatever.

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The wall at Casa di Giulietta is plastered with notes of love and friendship. Here, my daughter and her fellow interns from the Guggenheim in Venice left their mark. Photo: Katherine Yung

Did you see any art while you were there? Yes, we were in Verona on the very first day of an exhibition of Toulouse Lautrec, the French illustrator and painter. The show was at the Verona AMO-Palazzo Forti. It was a show totally devoted to his work. I really wanted to see it, so another intern and I went. The tickets cost 15€. We were at the museum for an hour and fifteen minutes. It was an incredible show. The galleries were painted in French blue and a dark, muted magenta. There was one room where all of his prints were displayed. This room was arranged like a café with tales in the middle and strings of light bulbs that led to the center of the ceiling. Seeing this show in this gallery was the highlight of the day for me.

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Photos weren’t allowed in the Lautrec exhibition. These are brochures from a page in my daughter’s travel journal.

Where did you go for lunch? We went to a restaurant my friend knew about. It was called Terrazza Bar al Ponte. You can sit outside on a balcony over the river that runs through Verona. We were hoping to find a place on the balcony, but it was so crowded outside that we had to sit inside. I ordered totellini with sausage. The pasta was a very thin dough and there was sausage flavored with rosemary and cheese. It had a spicy flavor, but the spiciness wasn’t overkilled. The tortellini was in an olive oil and light butter sauce. It was super light… a lot of food, but very light. The service was great. We did have to wait around forty minutes, but in Italy no one seems rushed when there’s food involved and there were five of us. Also, the staff let me charge my phone behind the counter.

Where did you go after lunch? After lunch, we crossed the Ponte Pietra, a stone bridge that crosses the Adige River and then we walked to the top of Castel San Pietro, the location of the first settlements of Verona. The settlements date from the 7th century… before Christ! From the castle, you get this amazing panoramic view of Verona. There are restaurants there for lunch, but since we had just eaten, we took a walk to the top of the castle instead. There were stairs everywhere. It was quite a hike to get all the way up there, but I’m so glad we did because the views were incredible.

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Looking up at Castel San Pietro from the walk across the Ponte Pietra (the stone bridge) over the Adige River. Photo: Katherine Yung
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Looking down from Castel San Pietro to the Adige River and Verona. Photo: Katherine Yung

Where did you go after the Castel San Pietro? We went to see the Arco dei Gavi, an arch constructed to honor a family by the name of Gavi. Under the arch, you’ll see stones from an ancient Roman road. We walked over the stones—they’re smooth and rounded around the edged—under the arch. You can see the ruts from wheeled chariots and whatnot that used the roads back during Roman times.

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The famous Arco dei Gavi, one of the few arches not constructed to commemorate a military event, but rather a family. Napoleon dismantled the arch, but it was rebuilt in 1932. Photo: Katherine Yung

What, no gelato yet?! After the Arco dei Gavi, we went to Piazza delle Erbe, a square that’s the business center of the city. And business for us meant, I guess you could say, the business of gelato. I had one dip each of raspberry and lemon-mint from a shop called Pretto Gelato arte Italiana. It was so good. I really preferred the lemon-mint and wished I had ordered two dips of it.

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Raspberry and lemon-mint gelato in Piazza delle Erbe, the political and economic center of the city. Photo: Katherine Yung

What was next on the schedule? After gelato, we walked to the Castelvecchio & Museum. It was old and beautiful. So much history right there.

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The spectacular brick ramparts of Castelvecchio, now Castelvecchio & Museum, which protected Verona in medieval times. Built in 1354, the castle sits alongside the Adige River. Photo: Katherine Yung

In 1957, Carlo Scarpa, who’s a famous modern Italian architect, began renovating the castle. This in effect created the museum. Throughout the museum, there are rooms with paintings and sculpture. There are also rooms full of weapons that were used back during the era when the castle guarded Verona.

When he was doing the renovations, Scarpa put a modern spin right on top of the ancient. He was making the castle usable again and also put his modern style on top of the old. He intentionally made details stand out so you’d notice the contrast between the old and the new.

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This staircase inside the museum shows Carlo Scarpa’s mixing together the new with the old. Photo: Katherine Yung

After touring the Castelvecchio, we noticed it was around five o’clock, so we decided to head back to Venice. We got back to Venice around six o’clock.

Where does Verona rank on your list of the cities you visited? Well, no doubt, I think it’s the most vibrant. It was the most surprisingly charming. Before we went to Verona, I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t expect it to be so packed with activity and with so many things to see. There were so many sights… and maybe the weather spoiled me a little, but it is probably the one city I would go back to first and spend more time in.


I make no apologies. As a writer and parent, I feel perfectly entitled to take full advantage of my daughter’s experiences in Italy by wringing every possible story idea from it! Yes, our family did visit her in Venice for a week, and while we saw so much in that time, we envied the luxury of time her three-month internship allowed.

Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this post, click “like” so more people can find it, and feel free to leave a comment!