TROUBLES IN THE MEDITERRANEAN

Beijing, 27 May 2014

Ten days ago, this was.

We walked into Camogli from Recco, getting a first glimpse of the little harbour from the road.

Recco-Camogli

We walked down to the harbour, skirted its edge.

camogli port

We passed on to the boardwalk on the other side of the church.  Glancing back, this was the sight which greeted us.

camogli-boardwalk

Our goal was San Rocco, sitting high above Camogli on a steep spur of Monte di Portofino.

san rocco from the sea

We started climbing, slowly, stopping often, huffing and puffing, using one of the old mulattiere, mule trails, which criss-cross the hills around here.

Camogli-San Rocco path-2

We toiled up past rather decrepit houses and semi-abandoned olive groves until we finally reached San Rocco.

There, from the little piazza in front of the church, we had these gorgeous views, south-east towards Punta Chiappa

monte di portofino-1

and north-west towards Genova.

monte di portofino-2

We sank onto the bench and drank in view and sun. And as we sat there, in my mind’s eye I overflew the seaboard of the Mediterranean. Burning, burning, all burning …

Egypt

egypt-2

The West Bank

west bank

Syria

syria

Lebanon

lebanon

Turkey

turkey

Morocco

morocco

Algeria

algeria

Tunisia

Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration to call for the departure of the Islamist-led ruling coalition in Avenue Habib-Bourguiba in central Tunis

and finally Libya

libya

libya-2

from where, amidst all this rage and pain and despair, poor souls are struggling against all odds to cross the Mediterranean and sneak into Europe

pantelleria

a Europe which is itself sinking under its own weight of troubles: Greece of course

Greece Financial Crisis

but also Italy itself

italy

as well as France

France Strike

and Spain

spain

I closed my mind’s eye. Tomorrow, tomorrow, I said to myself, my wife and I would worry about the state of the universe tomorrow. Today, sitting on the bench and enjoying sun and sea, we just let the world go hang.

san rocco-1

____________________________

Recco-Camogli: http://www.mareblucamogli.com/images/Camogli_porto_oggi.jpg?129 [in http://www.mareblucamogli.com/page_31.html%5D
Camogli port: http://blog.marinayachting.it/media/458191_246746435438893_111283799_o.jpg [in http://blog.marinayachting.it/ai1ec_event/13-trofeo-challenge-nicola-dodero/?instance_id=%5D
Camogli-boardwalk: http://www.portofinotrek.com/trek/17-category/da-camogli-san-rocco.jpg [in http://www.portofinotrek.com/trek/17-da-camogli-san-rocco%5D
San Rocco from the sea: http://www.villagoduria.it/media/img/dintorni/s-rocco%20dal%20mare.jpg [in http://www.villagoduria.it/i_dintorni.php?lang=it%5D
Camogli-San Rocco path: http://www.alpioccidentali.it/escursioni/images-esc/Camogli-SanFruttuoso_glicine.JPG [in http://www.alpioccidentali.it/escursioni/Camogli-SanFruttuoso.htm%5D
Camogli San Rocco path-2: http://www.portofinotrek.com/trek/10-246-thickbox/da-camogli-a-san-rocco.jpg [in http://www.portofinotrek.com/trek/10-da-camogli-a-san-rocco.html%5D
San Rocco-1: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/3427674.jpg [in http://www.panoramio.com/photo/3427674%5D
Egypt: http://www.cairoportal.com/media/k2/items/cache/296cd9de158e249f3870555c2eeb013a_XL.jpg?t=-62169984000 [in http://www.cairoportal.com/news/9739#.U4NTHXYUZ40%5D
West Bank: http://stat.ks.kidsklik.com/statics/files/2011/07/1309663247638250606.jpg [in http://elmustakeem.blogspot.com/2011/07/sekolah-anak-anak-palestina.html%5D
Syria: http://www.dw.de/image/0,,17607086_303,00.jpg [in http://www.dw.de/syrias-war-economies-add-fuel-to-the-conflict/a-17609218%5D
Lebanon: http://gdb.voanews.com/B5FAA55E-7326-4D3F-B6F4-97DD2C6863FA_w974_n_s.jpg [in http://www.zeriamerikes.com/media/photogallery/june-23-2013-day-in-photos/1687666.html%5D
Turkey: http://82.222.152.134/imgsdisk/2014/05/22/220520141648544381677.jpg [in https://twitter.com/gokmen%5D
Morocco: http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2011/WORLD/africa/02/21/morocco.protests/t1larg.morocco.feb20.gi.afp.jpg [in http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/africa/02/21/morocco.protests/%5D
Algeria: http://l1.yimg.com/bt/api/res/1.2/Z.PSaSbzYDbmat1.7F6nKg–/YXBwaWQ9eW5ld3M7Zmk9ZmlsbDtoPTQyMTtweG9mZj01MDtweW9mZj0wO3E9NzU7dz03NDk-/http://media.zenfs.com/en_us/News/ap_webfeeds/cb75ae006f10880a4e0f6a7067006b93.jpg [in http://news.yahoo.com/algeria-activists-stage-rare-anti-govt-protest-145742769.html%5D
Tunisia: http://revolution-news.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/3540ab5d-15a8-49c8-91ff-a9649aea4186_16x9_600x338.jpg [in http://revolution-news.com/category/middle-east/tunisia/%5D
Libya: http://wartime.org.ua/uploads/posts/2012-01/1325936226_vyskova-operacya-v-lvyi-rozkrila-slabku-boyegotovnst-nato-5.jpg [in http://wartime.org.ua/648-vyskova-operacya-v-lvyi-rozkrila-slabku-boyegotovnst-nato.html%5D
Libya-2: http://www.bigpicture.si/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/1241.jpg [in http://www.bigpicture.si/archives/tag/sirija%5D
Pantelleria: http://292fc373eb1b8428f75b-7f75e5eb51943043279413a54aaa858a.r38.cf3.rackcdn.com/world_03_temp-1303281776-4dae8070-620×348.jpg [in http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110420/world/Nationalism-comes-of-age-in-anti-immigrant-bailout-Europe.361418%5D
Greece: http://latimesphoto.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/greek-crisis08.jpg [in http://framework.latimes.com/2011/10/19/protest-in-greece/%5D
Italy: http://www.ctvnews.ca/polopoly_fs/1.1773564!/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_960/image.jpg [in http://www.ctvnews.ca/world/anti-austerity-protest-in-rome-italy-turns-violent-1.1773562%5D
France-Marseille: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2013/9/10/1378816498459/3befa5d8-0b5b-4ca9-be36-9ef459246334-620×421.jpeg [in http://www.theguardian.com/business/2013/sep/10/french-unions-hold-protests-over-pension-reforms—live%5D
Spain: http://img.rt.com/files/news/1e/1d/30/00/000_dv1422028.si.jpg [in http://rt.com/news/spain-protest-austerity-corruption-347/%5D
San Rocco: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/3427674.jpg [in http://www.panoramio.com/photo/3427674%5D

DREAM JOURNEY: PART II

Beijing, 24 November 2013

Back in May, I closed my post Dream Journey: Part I in Aquileia, in North-Eastern Italy. I said then that my wife and I would be continuing the journey.  But somehow, I got distracted by other things.  Now the days are shortening and the cold is beginning to bite …

No matter, let’s continue! Even in late Autumn the Mediterranean is beautiful. But we won’t be following my original plan for the second leg of the trip, which was to drive in our open-topped MG from Aquileia to Istanbul through the Balkans following the trace of the old Roman roads Via Gemina and Via Militaris. It’s too cold for that now.  Instead, we’ll backtrack to Venice airport, drop off the MG in the airport’s parking lot for the next dream travelers to pick up, and take a plane to Istanbul.

No sooner said than done. With a click of the mouse we have arrived in Istanbul!

Wonderful city, Istanbul. Since time immemorial, a place of passage and trade between Asia to the east and Europe to the west, between the Black Sea to the north and the Mediterranean Sea the south. Where Jason and the Argonauts passed on their way north to find the golden fleece. Where the Persian King Darius I crossed his troops to chase after and subdue the pesky Scythian horsemen to the north. Where, more prosaically, grain ships from the northern shores of the Black Sea passed on their way south to bring their cargoes to the Greek city states and later to Rome.  Chosen by Constantine the Great as the seat of his new capital of the Roman Empire. Later, capital only of the Eastern Roman Empire when the Empire’s western portion disintegrated and disappeared, and later still of the renamed Byzantine Empire. Conquered one thousand two hundred years later by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, to become the capital of the Ottoman Empire, a role it played for another five hundred years. Set aside by Kemal Atatürk as capital of the new Turkey in favour of Ankara. In the last several decades, swollen to bursting by millions of impoverished migrants from Turkey’s eastern provinces. But still a lovely, vibrant city.

In this dream trip of mine my wife and I are only here to visit the city’s early christian mosaics, so we’ll ignore the Islamic splendours of the city …

blue mosque Istanbul

the breathtaking views of the Bosphorus …

bosphorus views

the fun of the covered spice bazaar …

spice bazaar istanbul

the culinary delights of its restaurants …

restaurants Istanbul

No, we tell the taxi driver instead to take us straight to Hagia Sophia.

Hagia_Sophia external

The edifice started life as the Basilica of Holy Wisdom in 537, was turned into a mosque when the city fell to the Ottomans in 1453, and finally became a museum in 1935. Other than the four slim minarets, it has remained pretty much the same on the outside over the last millennium and a half. The inside has changed more as the obvious signs of its Christian function were whitewashed over or removed and replaced with Muslim symbols. This process of islamicization, together with those natural processes linked to the passage of time – rot, mould, water ingress, along with an earthquake or two – has meant that most of the glittering mosaics which covered every inch of the vast interior have disappeared.

hagia-sophia-interior

We are left with a few modest shards tucked away in various corners of the interior:

A gentle Madonna in the apse, but so high, so remote:

hagia sophia-1-apse

A stern Christ between Mary and John the Baptist:

hagia sophia-7-deesis

The Emperors Justinian and Constantine humbly offering the Madonna the basilica and the city:

hagia sophia-6-justinian and constantine

The Emperor Comnenus and Empress Irene with the Madonna:

hagia sophia-5-comnenus and irene

The Emperor Constantine Monomacchus and the Empress Zoe with the Christ:

Mosaïque de l'impératrice Zoé, Sainte-Sophie (Istanbul, Turquie)

The Emperor Leo VI prostrate at the feet of the Christ:

hagia sophia-4-Leo VI

And lastly, uncovered just a few years ago, a seraph:

hagia sophia-8-seraphim

(As I look more closely at his face

hagia sophia-9-seraphim-detail

I cannot escape the notion that he is saying, “get me out of this stuff!”)

I cannot avoid a certain melancholy as I survey what is left and think of what it must have been. I am reminded of a story from the time of the Ottomans’ conquest of the city. It is said that when Mehmed II wandered around the Imperial palace originally built by Constantine, now lying ruined and abandoned, he murmured some lines from a famous Persian poet:
“The spider spins his web in the Palace of the Caesars,
An owl hoots in the towers of Afrasiyab”.

Still in a state of melancholy, I click the mouse, and my wife and I are now visiting another, much smaller, church in Istanbul, Kariye Camii (the Church of the Holy Saviour). It still has extensive mosaics, executed in early 1300s. We are entering the twilight age of mosaics; in fact, the church also has extensive frescoes, the medium which eventually triumphed over mosaics. Here are photos of some of the mosaics.
Up in its two small domes:

kariye camii-6-christ cupola

kariye camii-5-virgin genealogy

which give us an idea of what the dome of Hagia Sophia must have looked like.

Scenes of Christ’s Ministry:

kariye camii-7-christs ministry

Scenes from the life of the Virgin:

kariye camii-3-paying tax

And finally the donor, the powerful Byzantine statesman Theodore Metochites, humbly offering his church to Christ:

????????????????

(I like the hat!)

The church also has some wonderful frescoes. This one is my favourite, a fresco of the Resurrection

kariye camii-2-fresco

Such a dynamic Christ! So different from the stiff, awkward, reserved Christs of this period’s mosaics.

We come out into sunlight of the noisy street outside. It’s time to move on.  The next leg of the journey will be in Greece.

____________________

Blue Mosque: http://www.beautifulmosque.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Sultan-Ahmed-Mosque-in-Istanbul-Turkey-1.jpg
Bosphorus views: http://www.wallpapersgalaxy.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/suleiman-mosque-in-istanbul-turkey-view-to-bosphorus.jpg
Spice bazaar Istanbul: http://images.fxcuisine.com/blogimages/turkey/istanbul/egyptian-spice-bazar/istanbul-egyptian-bazar-02-1000.jpg
Restaurant Istanbul: http://thumbs.ifood.tv/files/images/editor/images/top%20restaurants%20in%20Istanbul.jpg
Hagia Sophia-exterior: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/22/Hagia_Sophia_Mars_2013.jpg
Hagia Sophia-interior: http://powertripberkeley.com/wp-content/uploads/hagia-sophia-wallpaperhagia-sophia-interior-by–thesolitary-on-deviantart-cjcwsxkd.jpg
Hagia Sophia-apse: http://www.mosaicartsource.com/Assets/html/artists/lilian/mosaic_hagia_sophia.jpg
Hagia Sophia-Deesis: http://www.gradale.com/Media/Deesis.jpg
Hagia Sophia-Justinian and Constantine: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/06/Istanbul.Hagia_Sophia075.jpg
Hagia Sophia-Comnenus and Irene: http://www.turkey4travel.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/hagia-sofia-mosaic.jpg
Hagia Sophia-Zoe and Constantine Monomacchus: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7f/Empress_Zoe_mosaic_Hagia_Sophia.jpg
Hagia Sophia-Leo VI: http://www.cambridge2000.com/gallery/images/P33112366e.jpg
Hagia Sophia-seraph: http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4089/4973697085_028b4ed969.jpg
Hagia Sophia-seraph-detail: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01725/mysteries-2509_1725247c.jpg
Kariye Camii-Christ in the cupola: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/2a/Chora_Christ_south_coupole.jpg/800px-Chora_Christ_south_coupole.jpg
Kariye Camii-Virgin Mary in the cupola: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/00/HSX_Mary_genealogy.jpg/800px-HSX_Mary_genealogy.jpg
Kariye Camii-Christ’s Ministry: http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8069/8213661931_5653c8fd48_o.jpg
Kariye Camii-paying tax: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a6/Meister_der_Kahriye-Cami-Kirche_in_Istanbul_005.jpg
Kariye Camii-theodore metochites: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/turkey/istanbul-kariye-chora-pictures/dedication-theodore-metochites-ccc-access-denied.jpg
Kairye Camii-fresco resurrection: http://www.vikiturkey.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/chora-museum.jpg

DREAM JOURNEY: PART I

Beijing, 8 May 2013

May is a good time to be in the Mediterranean. The weather is good, the temperatures not too high, the vegetation still green, and the flowers blooming. I feel restless, I want to be there. But it cannot be; the rent must be paid, as must the gas and electricity, not to mention the food, the occasional bottle of wine and other sundries. I must earn my living.

The internet is a wonderful thing though. Sitting on my living room couch in the evenings, navigating with my little black mouse and clicking my way through hundreds of internet pages, I can visit all the places I want to be in but cannot. So I have decided.  Riding the surf of the web, my wife and I will take a trip I have long wanted to make: a visit to a string of sites around the northern rim of the Mediterranean which are known for their early Christian mosaics. In an earlier post I have alluded to my fascination with this art form.

It’s time to start. As I sit in front of my computer screen, I have to first wrestle with the question of what car my wife and I will travel in on this virtual trip we are about to make. With the freedom that comes from a trip in my imagination – no cost considerations, no considerations of practicality (is the boot big enough?) – I first think of taking a Smart; I like its cheerfully odd shape and I have never driven one.

Smart-Car

But on further consideration, I plump for an MG convertible, and specifically a model which is as old as we are.

MG car

In my imagination we can have the roof down and enjoy the sun on our faces and the wind in our hair (although the only time we ever drove such a car in the real world it started raining and we had no idea how to put the roof back in position).

So here we are, comfortably ensconced in our little MG. Where do we start our journey? I pick Ravenna, because the city has one of the finest collections of early mosaics still extant. Actually, it’s a small miracle that there are any mosaics left at all, either in Ravenna or anywhere else. Over the millennium and a half that separates us from their creation, they have suffered from the ravages of religion: from outright hostility towards their symbolic potency, to their neglect through changes in artistic fashion. They have suffered from natural catastrophes like earthquakes and fires. And last but not least, they have suffered from the four horsemen of the Apocalypse – Conquest, War, Famine, and Death – sweeping repeatedly across the face of the land; every time the horsemen passed, not only did people die but the beautiful things they had created were destroyed. You only have to see what is happening to Syria’s irreplaceable cultural heritage in this time of civil war to know what I mean.

4-horsemen-apocalypse-1-durer

Ravenna sadly exemplifies what I’ve just described. It became the capital of the Western Roman Empire in 402 AD, when everything was beginning to fall apart there. In 490, it was put under siege for three years and finally captured by the Ostrogothic King Theoderic. In 540, it was captured by the Byzantines after a war with the Ostrogoths. In 751, it was captured by the Longobards after a long war of attrition between them and the Byzantines. In 774, to thank Charlemagne for taking Ravenna away from the Longobards and giving it to him, Pope Adrian I allowed Charlemagne to take away anything he liked from the city to enrich his capital in Aachen. Lord knows how much Ravenna lost, but it must have been a lot. Over the following centuries, lordship over Ravenna swapped hands many times as the papacy’s claim to Ravenna was contested by local families. Finally, in 1275 a local family, the De Polenta, made Ravenna their long-lasting seigniory, which gave the city some stability for nearly 200 years. Then from 1440 to 1527, Venice ruled Ravenna, although in 1512, during one phase of the Italian wars, Ravenna was sacked by the French. Thereafter, Ravenna again became part of the Papal States and stayed there, except for a short interlude during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Empire, until 1859, when it became part of the new Italian State. After that, apart from some bombing by the Austrians during the First World War, Ravenna knew peace. Truly, it is a minor miracle that we have any mosaics left after all this mayhem. And I haven’t even included the natural disasters which the city suffered along the way.

It’s time to start our journey and visit some of what is left. After clicking around a bit, I choose for us to drive up and park in front of the church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, where the mosaics date from the 6th Century. Here’s what greets us when we enter the church.

sant'apollinare nuovo-2

On either wall of the nave, runs a line of men and women, saints and martyrs, processing solemnly towards the altar.  My wife and I prefer to focus on the women principally because among them is the martyr who has our daughter’s name. It gives us a comforting sense of connection.

sant'apollinare nuovo-5

sant'apollinare nuovo-4

Originally, the two lines were processing towards a scene of stately splendour in the apse. But it is gone, victim to a desire to modernize; it was removed during renovations in the 16th Century. The apse itself was so badly damaged by Austrian bombing during the First World War that it had to be rebuilt.

Time to move on to the church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, and in a couple of clicks we’re there. With much the same layout as the other Sant’Apollinare, and with mosaics from the same period, it is its mirror image: the mosaics in the nave have disappeared, victim to the depredations of the Venetians in the 15th Century, but the apse glows with a magnificent mosaic, where the colour of grass dominates: a green and pleasant land for the Christian faithful.

sant'apollinare in classe-3

sant'apollinare in classe-1

This great expanse of mosaic colour makes me decide to visit the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. So with a click, a hop and a jump we’ve gone from church to mausoleum and are gazing up at the wonderfully dark blue ceiling

mausoleum galla placidia-2

There are other early mosaics in Ravenna, but it’s time to leave. We’ll see them another time.

Next stop: Venice.

As I gaze at Google Map trying to choose which road to take, I decide all of a sudden that it would be in keeping to follow the trace of the old Roman roads. To do this, I will rely on the Peutinger map. This is the only existing example of a Roman map of the Empire’s road network. It now resides in the Austrian National Library. It is actually a 13th Century copy, made by an anonymous monk in Colmar in Alsace, of what was probably a 5th Century original, itself a distant descendant of the original made by one Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa for the Emperor Augustus in the last years BC. It is so rare that it has been placed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. This photo shows one section of the map, showing Italy from Rome to Sicily

peutinger map segment IV

Actually, I find the map very difficult to read; it is not to scale, it is not oriented the way modern maps are, and many of the place names mean nothing to me. So it is with considerable relief that I discover that someone has transcribed the Peutinger map onto a modern map. Studying this map, I decide we will follow the trace of the old Via Popillia, which once connected Rimini with Adria and the Via Annia. My intermediary objective is Fusina, just south of Mestre. I’m driving there because in this trip of my imagination I want to enter Venice the way it was meant to be entered before they built the causeway, by sea. And Fusina is the only place where you can catch a ferry into Venice from the mainland.

So we motor up to Fusina, and in my zeal to follow the trace of the old Roman road (I can already see my wife tapping her fingers impatiently at these signs of anal behaviour on my part) we do so through a complicated series of back roads which take us through a number of small towns and villages and finally along the SP (Strada Provinciale) 53, with us cutting down to the right at some point to get to Fusina. In my defence, the coastline between Ravenna and Venice has changed a lot since Roman times; the silt brought down by the River Po and a number of other rivers in this area has pushed the coastline out quite a distance. As a result, the road network in the area has changed considerably over the centuries. In any event, we’ve arrived; by the way, the website I just used informs me that we have travelled about LXXV Milia Passuum (75 thousand paces, or 75 Roman miles), which in Roman times would have taken us about VI dies (6 days) to walk. We park the car and wait for the next ferry; the timetable available online helpfully informs me that there is a ferry every hour on the hour, so I don’t suppose we need wait too long. No doubt there is a bar where we can sit down and have a cappuccino.

With a click we are on the ferry heading across the lagoon. As we get closer, we see this incomparable picture of Venice before us.

view from ferry

All too soon, it is time to get off at Zattere, to the south of the Canal Grande. We start threading our way through Venice’s maze of alleyways, crossing the Canal Grande at the Ponte dell’Accademia, and then after a sharp right in Campo Santo Stefano walking on to Piazza San Marco. Here, I stop and reveal to the reader that Venice is not actually our destination; we are going instead to the small island of Torcello to the north of the main island. It is true that the Basilica of San Marco is full of mosaics, but most of them are relatively modern, pale copies of the paintings of the time – and the church is always so horribly crowded with tourists! So we turn left in Piazza San Marco and head up to the north side of the island, to Fondamente Nova, where the municipality’s website helpfully informs me that I should catch the N9 aquatic bus. In my mind’s eye, when it arrives the bus is crowded with people going to the small nearby island of San Michele, the city’s graveyard. My wife and I squeeze on, and we wait patiently until after the stop at the graveyard and possibly also the following stop at Murano to be able to sit down. Then there’s a stop in the island of Burano before we finally get to Torcello.

Torcello was a place of refuge in the troubled centuries after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. It was here and in the other islands of the Venetian lagoon that people came to escape from the depredations of the passing waves of various barbarian tribes. Until the 12th Century or so, it was a vibrant place with a significant population, but gradual silting of this part of the lagoon not only killed off the island’s more important economic activities but brought malaria to its inhabitants. So everyone left for Venice itself and now hardly anyone lives here. It is very peaceful, with just the church surrounded by vineyards.

Torcello Aerial view

This abandonment might well have saved the mosaics which we are about to see. We walk up the path from the aquatic bus stop to the church, go in, and find this in front of us

torcello-8-front

And turning around, this behind us

torcello-6-back wall

We have leapt forward some six centuries from Ravenna, with these mosaics being from the 11th and 12th Centuries. The style has changed, from one which in Ravenna still echoed the Roman styles to one which is much closer to that rigid style we call “Byzantine” as well as to what was later to become the medieval style. We walk forward to get closer to the mosaic in the apse, which is of the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus.

torcello-5

I love this mosaic, with its gentle Madonna floating in a huge field of gold. I still remember well the impact it had on me the first time I saw it, a decade ago, on a late Autumn afternoon. The memory of that gentle face in its sea of gold has stayed with me ever since.

The mosaic on the back wall, a Last Judgement, is also spectacular, no doubt about it, but it doesn’t hold me as much. There are the usual scenes of naughty people being punished for their sins

Torcello-9-Last Judgment detail

The Middle Ages had a morbid fascination for this kind of stuff. But I find it all rather puerile. It always reminds me of the scary stories we used to tell each other in the dormitories at school after lights out, to give ourselves a delicious thrill of fright.

Onwards!

With a click of my mouse, my wife and I are back in Fusina, driving out of the car park in the little MG. We are now heading to Aquileia (79 Roman miles; 6 days’ marching). True to my promise to myself to follow the old Roman roads, I want to pick up the Via Annia, a major Roman road which linked Padova with Aquileia. We pick our way across the main road into Venice along the causeway and take the SS (Strada Statale) 14, which pretty much follows the trace of Via Annia. We bowl along, with the sun in our faces and the wind in our hair, passing Venice’s airport, and maybe catching sight to our right of Torcello’s tall campanile in the distance. We pass through Concordia Saggitaria, where we meet the Via Postumia, which ran across the whole of northern Italy from Genova to Aquileia, and on to Cervignano del Friuli. At Cervignano, we turn right onto the SR (Strada Regionale) 352 and a few Roman miles later arrive in Aquileia.

Poor Aquileia. During the Roman period it was an important city, guarding the eastern marches of Italy, which was the core of the Empire. A look at a map shows that any tribe from Central and Eastern Europe and beyond necessarily had to pass this way to enter the Italian lands, whether with peaceful intentions or not. When the Empire had its borders along the Danube River, Aquileia was the gateway to the rougher provinces of Illyricum, Dacia and Thrace that backed the frontier. As such, it was the starting-point of several important roads leading to this north-eastern portion of the Empire.

As the Empire’s western half collapsed and its borders were breached, the tribes did come, along those roads so helpfully built by the Romans. And the roads led to Aquileia, which was such a tempting target. It was first besieged by Alaric and his Visigoths in 401, who attacked it again and sacked it in 408 on his way to sacking Rome. Then it was attacked by Attila and his Huns in 452, who so utterly destroyed it that it was afterwards hard to recognize the original site. It rose again, a pale shadow of its former self, but was once more destroyed, by the Longobards this time, in 590. Today, it is just a quiet little village.

Aquileia’s loss was Venice’s gain. After each barbarian invasion, more of its inhabitants, along with those of smaller towns around it, fled to safety in the lagoon’s islands nearby, and so laid the foundations of Venice, but also of Torcello which we just visited, and of other lagoon towns.

We have come to visit the Basilica. From the outside it has all the look of a Romanesque church, and indeed it was built in 1031.

Basilica exterior

But when you go in, you find yourself in front of a vast mosaic floor, which quite takes your breath away

basilica floor-5

basilica floor-6

It was laid down in the 4th Century in a building which was destroyed by Attila’s Huns and around which a new church was built six centuries later. In fact, the builders covered up the mosaic with a new floor, and it wasn’t until 1909, when this floor was removed, that the mosaics once more saw the light of day. The subjects depicted include symbolic subjects, portraits of donors, scenes from the Gospels and dedicatory inscriptions. I show just one detail of it.

basilica floor-particular

These are even earlier than the mosaics we saw in Ravenna, and the Roman influence is clear. We could almost be looking at the mosaic floor of some vast Roman villa.

After admiring the mosaic floor and visiting other mosaics in the baptistery, my wife and I leave and walk around the ruins of the Roman town. As I click around, I am in a melancholy mood. So much destroyed, and for no purpose. We see the remains of one of the Roman roads that led out of the city.

roman road-3

The road beckons. After a rest, we’ll continue our journey north-eastward, from whence came the tribes which destroyed Aquileia.

(Readers who are curious to know how this dream trip continues can hyperlink here to the next leg of the journey)

______________________

Smart car: http://www.kinghdwallpaper.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Smart-Car.jpg
MG car: http://www.msmclassifieds.co.uk/autoclass/stock-images/fliw8myjsf/oilhekvry4/fb173nj5q1.jpg
4 horsemen apocalypse-Durer: http://mcalmont.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/dur_4horse.gif
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo-1: http://apah.lakegeneva.badger.groupfusion.net/modules/groups/homepagefiles/49961-87537-58717-18.jpg
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo-2: http://classconnection.s3.amazonaws.com/256/flashcards/1016256/jpg/22early_christian_and_byzantine_%28student%291351736386614.jpg
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo-3: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fd/Meister_von_San_Apollinare_Nuovo_in_Ravenna_002.jpg
Sant’Apollinare in Classe-1: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/fd/Sant%27Apollinare_in_Classe,_Ravenna.jpg/1280px-Sant%27Apollinare_in_Classe,_Ravenna.jpg
Sant’Apollinare in Classe-2: http://pixdaus.com/files/items/pics/9/49/73949_68edee7b4d49d43caa20681b9709f5bd_large.jpg
Mausoleum Galla Placidia: http://www.cittadarte.emilia-romagna.it/images/galleries/ravennaintro/ra-mausoleo-galla-placidia-mosaico-volta-celeste.jpg
Peutinger map segment: http://libweb5.princeton.edu/visual_materials/maps/websites/thematic-maps/qualitative/peutinger-table-map-1619.jpg
View from the ferry: http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8149/7667954390_2eafc258f6_h.jpg
Torcello aerial view: http://www.venicenews.info/Resource/TorcelloAerial.jpg
Torcello-1-front: http://venezia.myblog.it/media/00/00/1215490241.jpg
Torcello-2-backwall: http://d1ezg6ep0f8pmf.cloudfront.net/images/slides/a2/8812-torcello-cathedral-nave-looking-west.jpg
Torcello-3: http://farm7.staticflickr.com/6094/6362159351_0d3fe8a136_z.jpg
Torcello-4-last judgement detail: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-wKvqFMTU-O8/TuyBuW4hnqI/AAAAAAAAAg8/-L3J_V80UC4/s1600/Last+Judgment+Torcello+Tweede+plaatje.jpg
Aquileia Basilica exterior: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/87/Basilica_Aquileia_1.JPG
Aquileia Basilica floor-1: http://img11.rajce.idnes.cz/d1102/7/7156/7156708_b33224f9e53bf0956558a717bbf58ec8/images/Aquileia_-_Basilica.jpg
Aquileia Basilica floor-2: http://static.turistipercaso.it/image/f/friuli/friuli_qhjf9.T0.jpg
Aquileia Basilica floor particular: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8c/Aquileia,_storia_di_giona,_pavimento_della_basilica,_1a_met%C3%A0_del_IV_secolo.jpg/800px-Aquileia,_storia_di_giona,_pavimento_della_basilica,_1a_met%C3%A0_del_IV_secolo.jpg
Aquileia Roman Road: https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-QkR-yVgM57g/SOy7HQQg_OI/AAAAAAAAYB4/7b6E9opcEuo/w819-h549/Aquileia+-+Roman+road.jpg

MY CRUISE OF FIRSTS

Beijing, 5 April 2013

My previous post about chocolate Easter eggs led me to take a page from Charles Dickens and I allowed myself to be visited by the ghost of Easters past. He took me back through memories of previous Easters, some very pleasant and others not so much. One in particular has stayed with me, the Easter I passed on a cruise in the Mediterranean when I was 14.

My English grandmother had decided that she would like to go on a cruise but wanted company. So she took me and my older brother along with her. It was a wonderful trip, one of those golden-hued memories that each one of us has. Easter itself was celebrated without much fuss and bother in Brindisi, in southern Italy – we were just a few Catholics among a sea of Anglicans and so were packed off to a small room on the ship and a local priest was brought in for the occasion.  A surf through the web tells me that Easter occurred on April 14, two weeks later than this year. We were already towards the end of the cruise. There were a couple more stops in what was then Yugoslavia and is now Croatia, at Split and Dubrovnik, and then it was back to Venice where we had boarded ship. Before Brindisi, we had visited Olympia, Crete, Athens, Istanbul, Ephesus, and then finally Rhodes before starting back (there was also a visit to one of the smaller Ionian islands but I no longer remember which one).

For me, this was a trip of many firsts (well, the whole trip was a first but there were certain things which were more first than others, if you get my drift).

It was my first trip to Venice, one which my wife and I have repeated many, many times, sometimes with the children, first from Milan when we lived there and then later from Vienna. What I fell in love with that first time and keep going back to is not the grand theatricality of St. Mark’s Square

venice-st marks square

or of the laguna, which the cruise ship sailed down as we left Venicevenice-the lagoon

No, what always bring us back is the humbler Venice, the alleys and lanes (it’s hard to talk of streets when there are no cars) far away from the tourist haunts, which widen and narrow with no apparent rhyme or reason, which loop and re-loop over narrow canals, which suddenly bring you, blinking in the light, into small piazzas teeming with life.

venice-calle-1

venice-calle-2

venice-calle-3

venice-calle-4

We spent the afternoon before setting sail wandering around, map in hand – a map is always necessary in Venice, although my wife is not really of that opinion: ask people the way, that’s her motto.

The cruise also took me on my first visit to classical ruins. England and the parts of France I was then familiar with don’t have any Roman ruins to speak of; an odd crumbling wall here and there is about the sum of it. Here, we had a feast!

Olympia

olympia-column-2

Knossos

Knossos-palace-1

Mycenae

mycenae-lion-gate-4

The Acropolis in Athens

athens-acropolis-1

Cape Sounion

cape-sounion

Ephesus

ephesus

Actually, it was more a surfeit than a feast. To be very honest, after I’ve seen three broken columns and five fallen walls the experience begins to pall. Many decades later, when I got to know Shelley’s poem Ozymandias I could relate to all these ruins and many others I have seen since all over the world in a different way:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

But, in all this blur of broken stone one memory stands out, etched for ever more in my mind: wildflowers growing in profusion among the ruins of Olympia. A search of the web shows that I am not the only traveler to Olympia who has been struck by the flowers there:

olympia-wildflowers-6

olympia-wildflowers-5

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA

The trip was also my first real exposure to Greek sculpture. My grandmother had taken me a few times to the British Museum but somehow we always seemed to end up in the section of the Egyptian mummies – at least, that’s all I remember of those early visits. But the visit to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens was a real eye-opener for me. Two pieces I remember particularly well. One was the statue of Zeus (or is it Poseidon?):

Athense-bronze_statue_of_Zeus_or_Poseidon-1

Look at that face!

Athense-bronze_statue_of_Zeus_or_Poseidon-3

Speaking of faces, the other piece that impressed itself on me was the gold mask which Schliemann dug up in Mycenae (our Greek and Latin teacher had often quoted the phrase “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon”, said to have been uttered by Schliemann when he first set eyes on the mask)

agamemnon-1

Another notable first on this trip was my exposure to Byzantine mosaics, in the cavernous interior of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

istanbul-hagia sophia-interior-1

istanbul-hagia sophia-mosaics-1

istanbul-hagia sophia-mosaics-4

istanbul-hagia sophia-mosaics-5

This started an interest – an obsessive interest, my wife might observe – in early Christian mosaics, which I have tracked down in various parts of the Mediterranean basin since then.

Istanbul was the site of yet another first, my first exposure to Muslim architecture, in the form of the incomparably beautiful Sultan Ahmed Mosque.

istanbul-sultan ahmed mosque-exterior-2

Since then, I have been lucky enough to admire Muslim architecture in all its wonderfully different variations in many parts of the world – even here in Beijing, where it has taken on decidedly Chinese characteristics.

beijing mosque

Iran and Central Asia await me still …

On a lighter note, the cruise was the first – and probably last – time I saw the foxtrot being danced. Every evening a three-man band played in the dance room. It started with oldies, and a retired English Major and his wife were assiduous dancers. As the band started up, they would step out, glide through a number of foxtrot numbers, and then retire to the bar.

foxtrot-1

They looked surprisingly like this picture, just somewhat longer in the tooth.

After they had left, the tempo changed and us young things would take over the dance floor and dance the night away. Well, I didn’t. I was far too shy. I would look on enviously at the elder young things. At last, one took pity on me and led me to the floor to dance my first modern dance. Another first …

Last, but definitely not least, it was on that cruise that I first set eyes on the Mediterranean. It was love at first sight.

mediterranean sea-3

______________________

Venice-St Mark’s square: http://www.instablogsimages.com/1/2012/04/25/sunset_on_st_marks_square_image_title_upyro.jpg
Venice-Lagoon: http://cdn2.vtourist.com/4/3990973-looking_back_from_the_water_bus_Venice.jpg
Venice-calle-1: http://renaissancerules.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/venice-2009-294.jpg
Venice-calle-2: http://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/Vx_htYT8ClwJ1DwCpMcy1A
Venice-calle-3: http://www.cepolina.com/photo/Europe/Italy/Venice/Venice-mix/3/Venice-street-narrow-calle-rill.jpg
Venice-calle-4: http://farm2.staticflickr.com/1265/5186001188_065ec8a290_z.jpg
Olympia: http://images.fanpop.com/images/image_uploads/Olympia-greece-585497_1024_768.jpg
Knossos-palace: http://ant3145crete.wikispaces.com/file/view/Knossos_1.jpg/68392549/Knossos_1.jpg
Mycenae-lion-gate: http://www.civilization.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Mycenae-Lion-gate-028.jpg
Athens-acropolis: http://www.limotaxi.gr/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/athens1.jpg
Cape Sounion: http://www.grisel.net/images/greece/sounion11.JPG
Ephesus: http://historyoftheancientworld.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/theatre2.jpg
Olympia-wildflowers-1: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2245/2331955314_1629efb4ab_z.jpg
Olympia-wildflowers-2: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2380/2331125289_93eb068ca2_z.jpg
Olympia-wildflowers-3: http://www.touringtykes.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/olymipia-flowers.jpg
Athens-statue of Zeus/Poseidon-1: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/67/Bronze_statue_of_Zeus_or_Poseidon.jpg
Athens-statue of Zeus/Poseidon-2: http://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/zeus_or_poseidon_national_archaeological_museum_athens-4ecd0b1-intro.jpg
Athens- Gold Mask “Agamemnon”: http://hernandopages.com/agamemnon.jpg
Istanbul Hagia Sophia-interior: http://hansmast.com/images/istanbul/hagia_sophia/IMG_1846_Enhancer-IMG_1857_Enhancer-2.jpg
Istanbul-Hagia Sophia-mosaics-1: http://www.mosaicartsource.com/Assets/html/artists/lilian/mosaic_hagia_sophia.jpg
Istanbul-Hagia Sophia-mosaics-2: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/turkey/istanbul-hagia-sophia-photos/slides/imperial-entrance-mosaic-c-hbetts.jpg
Istanbul-Hagia Sophia-mosaics-3: http://www.turkey4travel.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/hagia-sofia-mosaic.jpg
Istanbul-sultan ahmed mosque: http://www.viitoaremireasa.ro/images/articole/large/2084/Istanbul-Orasul-care-se-intinde-pe-doua-continente-5.jpg
Beijing mosque: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/attachement/jpg/site1/20080815/000802ab80450a0f185656.jpg
Foxtrot: http://ssqq.com/archive/images/foxtrot.jpg
Mediterranean Sea-3: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-4O6DVn4JTeQ/UG6WCS6K7yI/AAAAAAAAFaQ/NHquXzafTsA/s1600/43923144.jpg