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The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna

The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, 425 C.E., Ravenna, Italy Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

We're in the so-called mausoleum of Galla Placidia in the city of Ravenna in Italy. When you think about the history of the Roman Empire, you think about the city of Rome. You don't think about Ravenna, but Ravenna played a key role at the end of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was in trouble in the Third and Fourth Centuries, that is, 300 years or so after Christ. It had been split. It had been rejoined and split again. It was a complicated history. And there were migrating peoples coming into the Empire. You might know these as the Ostrogoths, the Visigoths, the Huns. Ultimately, Constantine moved the capital of the Empire from Rome to a strategic location in the East, what is now called Istanbul but which was renamed Constantinople. Before it was Constantinople, it was the Greek town of Byzantium, and that's why we call the culture from the eastern part of the Empire, Byzantine. The Roman Expire was basically split at this time between traditions that began to develop independently in the East and traditions that began to develop independently in the West. So, here we are in the early Fifth Century, and Galla Placidia was the daughter of the Emperor Theodosius. And Galla Placidia's brother moved the capital of the western part of the Roman Empire here to Ravenna. Now, Ravenna had been an important port in ancient Rome. Augustus had half his navy situated here because the city was basically surrounded by marsh on one side and the Adriatic Sea on the other. Let's talk about Galla Placidia for just a moment because she's amazing. She's the daughter of the Emperor who ruled from Constantinople, and she's the sister of the man who would rule the western capital. Her father married her off to the king of the Goths in a political alliance. Ultimately, she would remarry, and her son would become emperor, but he was too young to rule. She ruled the western Roman Empire in place of her son until her son was old enough to take over. So, she was a very powerful woman and was responsible for building many buildings here in Ravenna including this mausoleum which was originally attached to a church that she built. Now, we call this the "so-called" mausoleum because art historians used to think that she was buried here. We now believe that she died in Rome and wasn't buried here. From the outside, the so-called mausoleum is quite small. It's made of reused ancient Roman brick. Remember, this had been an important Roman city for the navy, and so the people in the Fifth Century dismantled those older buildings and reused those materials, and that's what we have here. The building used to be taller, but the ground around it rose. But, what everyone comes to see is the interior decorations because outside it really doesn't look like much, but inside it's fabulous. The walls are covered up to about, oh, seven or eight feet with marble, and then above that, amazing mosaics. This is a rare example where the original mosaics are completely intact. Now, the building itself is the shape of a cross, and on each of the four transepts there are barrel vaults. And, then, in the center, there is a shallow dome, and all of that is covered with mosaic. Now, mosaics are small tiles of stone, or, in this case, glass. They're brightly colored in blues and greens and reds and golds. So, in this case, gold was sandwiched between pieces of glass, and these pieces, or tesseraei, are set a little bit on edge. In other words, they're not smooth and flat against the wall, and so they catch the light and glimmer. And that would have been especially true when this room was illuminated not by an electric light with its steady illumination, but instead by the flickering light of lanterns. And, so we really do experience a sense of another world. Let's take a look at a few of the mosaics here. Now, much of the wall is covered with decorative forms. Forms that might remind us of ancient Roman carving. For example, we see acanthus leaves and vines although the vines here are very specifically grape vines, and that refers to the Sacrament of the Eucharist, of taking the bread and wine of the body and blood of Christ. When we first walk into the mausoleum, the first mosaic that we see is one that we don't entirely understand. It shows a saint on the right. He's holding a book. He's holding a cross. He's got a halo in back of him. And, he seems to be running towards a fire directly under a small window. And that fire has a grill on it. We often assume that that's Saint Lawrence because Saint Lawrence was martyred by being burned to death. And he's the saint we most often see in western iconography, but because, on the other side, we see very prominently an opened cabinet revealing four books, the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the four Gospels. And, because the Saint holds the book, one scholar has suggested that this might be Saint Vincent of Saragossa whose legend does involve books, unlike Saint Lawrence. Saint Vincent, or Saint Lawrence, or whoever that is, is also dressed, as are all the figures in this building, looking very much as if you were an ancient Roman. There's this wonderful kind of animation to his figure; the drape flows out in back of him as if he's speeding forward. And the kind of energy that's expressed in that cloth is echoed in the liveliness of the flames themselves. We can see the flames underneath the grill, but we also see their shadow on the wall behind, or what must be the wall behind. It's very difficult to talk about it as a space that makes sense because it's so obviously not very naturalistic. That cabinet doesn't make sense. We have a kind of flat background, and, yet, there are still some naturalistic aspects to it, like the drapery that the saint wears which does have some sense of modeling and three-dimensionality to it. There's also a real specificity. If you look at the grill, it's actually on wheels. There are these decisions to place very specific elements here even if we don't entirely understand them. Now, opposite this mosaic, this lunette, is another, right over the door, and we don't see it until we turn to leave. And here we see Christ as the Good Shepherd. Again, looking very ancient Roman to me, although wearing a halo. But turning his body in a very natural way sitting in a landscape surrounded by sheep. There is that wonderful torsion in that body. It is so classical, and it's such a careful observation of the way that the human body moves. And, yet, at the same time, it has the kind of simplification of the body's forms that clearly locate this in the early Medieval period. And it's also a very symmetrical image with the figure in the center and three sheep on either side. And there's a decorative quality overall. Now, the iconography, or the symbolism, of Christ being shown as a shepherd comes directly out of the Gospel of John. It's the idea that Christ is leading his flock, leading the faithful, taking care of them. Christ looks unusually more young. We normally expect to see him older and with a beard, and here he's young and beardless. It's a beautiful image with those pale greens. There are fronds of a palm that rise up in back of the rocks at the horizon line, and they're flecked with gold. So the entire image has a kind of beauty and a luminosity that's just wonderful.