We bumptious Americans are always being reminded by everyone from Henry James on, that things in Europe are old, historic, and ancient. We are told that some places are piled thick in layers of events, famous people and great art, like some sort of historical sachertorte – and to a student of history, certain places in Europe are exactly that sort of treat. What they hardly ever mention is that most usually, the most ancient bits of it are pretty sadly battered by the time we come trotting around with our Blue Guide, and what there is left is just the merest small remnant of what there once was. The sanctuary at Delphi once was adorned with statues of gold, silver, bronze – and they were the first to be looted and melted down (all but one, the great bronze Charioteer) leaving us with the least and cheapest stone, sadly chipped, battered and scarred. (My daughter at the age of three and a bit, looking at a pair of archaic nudes in the Delphi museum asked loudly, “Mommy, why are their wieners all broken off?”) The great Athenian Akropolis itself was half-ruined, many of the blocks of which it was constructed scattered across the hillside like gargantuan marble Lego blocks. In Rome, most of the ancient buildings had been stripped long ago of the marble and stone facings, leaving only the battered concrete and tile core to hint at what splendor had once been – and again, only the smallest portion left to us to admire, the smallest, cheapest portion, or that hidden away by chance.
But there was one place, just one place where the last few artistic relics of the classical world looked as fresh, as unmarred as if they had just been installed the day before, in the little provincial town of Ravenna, where the VEV (the Very Elderly Volvo) needed a new air hose and some other essential innards, and fortuitously mushed to a halt right in front of the very garage capable of providing it, although the junior mechanic had to rush off on his Vespa to fetch the essential parts from another source. I was driving to Spain from Greece, having taken the car ferry from Patras to Brindisi three weeks before, in a bright orange Volvo sedan with AFG plates and all of my daughters’ and my luggage crammed into the trunk and the back seat.
We had just come from the grand artistic buffet that was Florence, crowded with tourists and tour guides, and touts, enormous motor-coaches everywhere, and everywhere the grasping hand, wanting a substantial payment to see this or that. It was actually a relief to get to Ravenna, which in contrast seemed like a graciously hospitable place, proud in a casual sort of way about the monuments and churches with their splendid late classical mosaics, imbedded into their pretty little town like raisins in a loaf of raisin bread. The Arian Baptistery was, if I remember correctly, down a little side street in back of a large chain drug store. Most of the other places that drew tourists were in similarly modest locations; no crowds, no touts, no being nickeled and lire’d to death. Local residents just seemed enormously pleased that people came all the way to Ravenna to marvel at their lovely, historical chapels and churches, and some smaller sites asked nothing more of the tourists than to feed some coins into a meter that would turn on the spotlights in the Mausoleum of Galla Placida, so we could better admire the mosaics in the ceiling.
There was no need for the meters and lights in the New Church of St. Appollinaire, with its splendid procession of saints and martyrs along the nave. Windows allowed the autumn sunlight to spill into the church, and outside when the winds rippled the tree leaves, the whole wall seemed to shimmer, in a blaze of gold and rich colors. Much of the mosaic was made of glass, tiny squares and slips of jewel-colored glass, or clear glass backed with gold-leaf. In San Vitale, Justinian and Theodora looked down from amidst their courtiers, generals, priests and ladies, and in the old sanctuary of St. Appollinaire-in-Classe (Classe, which had once Ravenna’s port on the Adriatic) the Savior was enthroned in a lush green garden, amid a flock of sheep under a golden sky full of angels – all of it as jewel-bright, new, and unchipped by time, as if the artists, and tile-cutters and plasterers had just finished the work last week, not twelve hundred years ago, a last splendid blaze at the end of the Roman Empire in western Europe. For a very brief time, this out of the way little provincial town had been the capital of the Western Roman Empire, the last flickering light of civilization in a darkening western world, rent by war and barbarian invasion, and the memory of times when things had been much, much better.
When these mosaics were being installed, the dark ages were already falling, the Legions gone from Britain, the roads and forts and harbors in Western Europe falling derelict without the skill and direction to keep such massive works functioning. There was no one left to see to the waterworks, to protect the essential trade and communication which was the lifeblood of the Empire. Science and literacy were useless luxuries in the face of the brute barbarian tide, and the stifling hand of religious orthodoxy. The eastern remnant of the Empire remained for another millennium in Byzantium – renamed Constantinople, the city of Constantine, which stood bravely – but after a certain point, all its battles were defensive; static and schlerotic looking to the past, to the way things had always been done. There is a sadness and resignation to the mosaics of Ravenna, as if those who were pictured, and those who did the work already knew their world, where Rome had ruled so long was in twilight, and not much could be done to hold back the night, but it didn’t matter, because the next world would be a better one.
There was no confidence left in their society, no belief in their ability to make things better; all they had was a determination to hold on to what they had, to put off acceptance of the inevitable as long as possible. In the end, Constantinople would fall as well, and the last of the Roman Empire would be gone forever, but the mosaics of Ravenna remain. For now, anyway.