SAN LORENZO ALLE COLONNE

Milan, 1 April 2019

Many, many years ago – it must have been the Easter of 1976 – I visited my wife-to-be in Milan during the Spring holidays. After the dark, cold Scottish winter we had just endured in Edinburgh, the tepid spring temperatures in Milan were a godsend. On my first day there, my wife(-to-be) took me on a walk around the district. We rounded a corner and I found myself confronted with this:
It was even more striking closer up: a froth of tender green partially masking the ruddy red of brick in the walls of a venerable-looking church topped off with a very fine dome.
I took these two pictures from the same spots a week or so ago. Nothing much seems to have changed in the intervening 40+ years.

It was a vision – after that cold, dark winter – of the coming of spring that has remained with me ever since. I put my eventual decision to “pivot” away from grey, rainy, cold UK towards sunny, warm Italy down to that first spring visit to Milan and in particular to this vision of tender green on brick red.

A walk around the back of the church through a little park made the church look even more interesting.
I have always been very fond of this seemingly higgledy-piggledy pile of venerable-looking buildings, all in that warm red brick so common in this part of the world. Over the intervening 40-odd years, whenever I’ve been in Milan I have always tried to find a moment to come back to this spot to admire the view.

The church is just as interesting on the front side. There, the first thing that meets the eye is a row of very worn Roman columns.
They enclose one side of the piazza in front of the church, a piazza which is as orderly as the back of the church is disorderly. Facing the columns, the church’s facade rises up to the church’s imposing dome, adopting the clean lines of classical-looking architecture.
The canon houses on the other two sides of the piazza continue this projection of orderliness, balance, and harmony.
As a finishing touch, in the centre of the piazza stands a statue of a Roman emperor, calmly gazing down on passing visitors.
Meanwhile, in the near distance those same visitors can make out one of Milan’s few remaining gates in its Medieval walls, the Porta Ticinese.
This church is the Basilica of San Lorenzo. It is a very ancient church; the latest archaeological digs put its foundation at the end of the 4th-beginning of the 5th Centuries. Its history is not nearly as orderly as the piazza in front would have us believe; the disorderliness of the back is a better metaphor for its passage through the centuries.

Like many ancient churches in the lands of the old Roman Empire, the church was built atop a Roman temple. This aerial view of what Roman Milan probably looked like has been put together by some clever fellow.
San Lorenzo was built over that square grey temple close to the amphitheatre which readers can see in the bottom left corner. This is a close-up of what the clever fellow thinks that temple might have looked like.
My guess is that the columns now standing guard over the piazza in front of the church were reused from this temple. But it’s just a guess; no-one seems to know for sure where they came from. What is sure is that stones from the nearby amphitheatre were dragged over for use in the foundations of the church.

That reuse of stone and columns strongly suggests that this was an imperial basilica – you needed imperial permission to mine old public buildings for their stone. It’s further believed that the basilica was built close to an imperial palace – at this time Milan was the imperial capital of the Western Roman Empire – as a counterweight to the four basilicas which St. Ambrose, the powerful bishop of Milan, had been busily building in Milan (and which still exist today, although in much modified form).

We don’t know for sure what the first church looked like, although archaeological excavations and the sparse written records have helped the experts form an opinion. Based on this, some other clever fellow has come up with this cut-away drawing of what the first church might have looked like.
Very little remains of this complex today: the four towers (two are visible in this drawing), the two octagonal side chapels, and the recycled Roman columns at the front. What also remains is the ghostly outline of the central part of the church, a very striking space composed of a large square with each side having a shallow apse, and with a wide circular deambulatory corridor around that central space.
Anyone who visits many churches, either for religious reasons or – like me – to admire their art and architecture, cannot but be struck by the uniqueness of this space. Very few old Christian churches have this kind of floor plan.

The drawing above doesn’t give any indication of the decoration of the church, but if this was indeed an imperial basilica then the interior would have been richly decorated with mosaics. If we had been lucky, if San Lorenzo had passed through the centuries relatively unscathed, we might have been able to admire something as glorious as the church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna.
But it was not to be.  Almost all of San Lorenzo’s mosaics are gone, swept away by water leakage, poor maintenance, rebuilding after fires or structural failures, and changing tastes. What little is left is tucked away in one of the old octagonal side chapels, the chapel of St. Aquilinus. The best conserved mosaic is this one, depicting Christ among the Philosophers.
A much more damaged mosaic is tucked away in another corner of the chapel. Experts believe this to have shown the Christ-Sun in his chariot (presumably borrowing from the classical representation of Apollo in his chariot moving the sun through the sky) – one can still see the horses’ legs against a golden background.
Two fires and an earthquake did it for the first church of San Lorenzo, with the central dome probably collapsing. Major rebuilding programmes took place in the 12th and 13th Centuries to rebuild the dome in “modern” style. While the basic plan of the church was left untouched, various other things were added: a few more side chapels and no doubt other things here and there. No-one seems to have committed to paint or paper this newer version of the church. The best we have is some miniatures painted by Cristoforo de Predis in a book of 1476, Leggendario libro della fine del mondo. They show Milan as background to scenes drawn from the New Testament. This one in particular, which depicts Jesus returning to Nazareth where he is presented with a paralyzed man, has Milan standing in for Nazareth. The paralyzed man is being brought out of the Porta Ticinese, which has the old medieval walls attached to it as well as the defensive moat in front of it (now a busy ring road), while in the background we see the church of San Lorenzo with its fine new dome.
The interior decorations were of course also renovated, this time in the “modern” fresco style. Again, if we had been lucky, we might have found ourselves today gazing on something as glorious as the interior of the Collegiata in San Gimignano:
But no. As time went by, these frescoes were also attacked by their enemies: water, fumes from candles, neglect, structural damage, and changes in taste. In the final indignity, someone decided to whitewash over what was left of them to make nice white walls. In the last fifty years or so, modern conservationists have scraped away the whitewash and have revealed some scraps of the frescoes that adorned the church:
Of the first generation of frescoes, we have a Descent from the Cross
St. Helena, holding that same Cross, which she is purported to have found in Jerusalem
The Virgin and the Christ child, enthroned
Later frescoes were added, or substituted the earlier ones, like this Last Supper from the early 16th Century.
Things were definitely not helped by the dome collapsing again in 1573. Once more it was rebuilt, and that is the dome which I admired 40 odd years ago and which we still admire today. But one can imagine that the collapse of the dome brought down a lot of the interior decoration with it and putting it back up again put paid to a good deal more.

Meanwhile, things were changing around the church. At the beginning, the church had been outside the city, but when the city expanded its walls in the Middle Ages, it had been brought within the city boundaries. With the greater protection this afforded, people had decided to build houses all around San Lorenzo. These pressed right up to the church’s walls. In fact, in the front of the church, houses had invaded the space between the church’s front doors and the old Roman columns so that these were now completely isolated from the church, as this painting from about 1815 shows.An exception was the back of the church. There, the ground was marshy, being low-lying and the point where several streams and canals met. As a result, an open no-man’s land was left there, which during normal times was used by the city’s tanners. As anyone knows who has been anywhere near a tannery, the smell in the neighbourhood must have been overpowering, so it was not a place that the good folk would have wanted to live. Tanning was still going on here in the 1830s, as this painting from 1833 attests – note the skins stretched out to dry in the foreground.
To make matters worse, it was on this no-man’s land that until the mid 1800s the city’s authorities carried out their executions, and of course executions included all the hideous tortures that the poor bastards were subjected to before being allowed to die. This print shows vividly what could await those being executed in this space – San Lorenzo stands as a mute witness in the background.
Definitely not an area for the good folk to have their houses! And so the area behind the church was what we might politely call a lower-class neighbourhood, or impolitely call a slum. In the late 1800s, the city authorities decided it was time to spruce up the area. So the no-man’s land was upgraded to a piazza, piazza Vetra, houses were built along its edges and buildings were built in the piazza to house weekly markets. This one, for instance, was built in 1866 for the weekly market in dairy products. We see behind San Lorenzo looking on benignly.
In the first three decades of the 1900s, the city authorities cleaned up the area further. In 1911, as this postcard shows, there were still houses located between the old Roman columns and the front door of the church.
In the 1920s, the city fathers decided to give San Lorenzo back its piazza, and by the 1930s the houses were all gone. In keeping with the period’s desire to stress Italy’s glorious Roman past, a copy of a bronze Roman statue of the Emperor Constantine was placed in the re-formed piazza; no doubt Constantine was chosen because he was the co-author of the Edict of Milan which proclaimed religious toleration throughout the Roman Empire and which led to Christianity becoming the official religion of the Empire.

The city authorities were also busy behind the church clearing the slums but what really did it for that area were the Anglo-American bombings of Milan in 1943 and 1944. The church itself was unscathed but whole swathes of housing were destroyed.
The damage was so extensive that the authorities decided to simply clear away the rubble and create a park. This is what the complex looked like by 1960.
Nothing has really changed since except that the tram lines have been shifted to the other side of the columns.

What of the interior? Did grand paintings and sculptures take the place of the frescoes which disappeared? I’m afraid not. Walking around the church, one rather gets the feeling of being in the church’s attic: various pieces plopped down here and there, many of dubious artistic value. Here are some pictures to show what I mean, from the good
(a Pietà in polychrome terracotta from the late 18th Century)
(a baptism of Christ; the author is not given, nor is the date, but from the style I would guess late 16th Century)

to the bad
(I don’t know why so many Catholic churches insist on having these horribly sucrose statues of the Virgin Mary; the church has a few more statues of this type dotted around)

to the downright ugly
(it took me a few minutes to figure out that this carved wooden statue was meant to be Pope John XXIII).

I must confess to a certain melancholy when I walk around the interior of San Lorenzo. What splendours we could have had, if only the church could have slipped through the ages unscathed! I console myself with not quite a splendour but at least something lively and fun to look at, murals that have been recently painted on the walls surrounding one of the canon houses.
I’m not really sure what the artist is trying to tell us, but they bring a smile to my lips whenever I see them.

DREAM JOURNEY: PART IV

Bangkok, 22 May 2015

Normally, we would be rather groggy as we drive our MG off the ferry in Bari at 8 am in the morning, coming in from Dürres and the previous post. I certainly would be; I never sleep well on ships. But this is a dream, so I decree that we are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as we roar off the ferry. Our goal is Otranto, very near the end of Italy’s high heel. We head down the old Via Traiana, now more boringly called the Strada Statale 16, as far as Brindisi. There we take the SS 613, which follows the trace of a previous local Roman road that was too modest to have a name. We pass through Lecce, where we pause. Lecce is known for its plentiful baroque buildings constructed in the 1600s, all using a beautiful local white stone, so I throw in a picture of a square there as a visual memorial to this city.

Lecce

We continue on to Otranto, and drive straight up to the Cathedral. For this is the objective of our visit to Otranto – or rather the floor of the church is. When visitors enter the church, they are greeted by this magnificent floor.

otranto-mosaic-1

It is the largest floor mosaic in Europe. It brings me back to that other floor mosaic which we visited in the first leg of our trip in Aquileia, although eight centuries separate them. Some clever fellow took this photo from the ceiling, showing more or less the full extent of the mosaic.

otranto-mosaic-2

The subject of the mosaic is a Tree of Life, and you can indeed see the trunk of the tree working its way up the nave. Strangely enough, the narrative of this tree flows from the top down, and so near the high altar we have various scenes from the story of Adam and Eve, of which I throw in one photo.

otranto-mosaic-3-adam eve snake

Honestly speaking, the story is difficult to read, so I shall just insert a couple of photos of other parts of the floor. This is King Arthur

otranto-mosaic-4-King Arthur

and this, Satan

otranto-mosaic-5-Great Satan

while this is said to be a self-portrait of the floor’s designer, a monk by the name of Pantaleone who hailed from the monastery of San Nicola di Casole, a little to the south of Otranto.

otranto-mosaic-6-Pantaleone_ self-portrait

The mosaic was laid down in the 12th Century when this part of Italy was Norman, along with Sicily. In fact, the design of the floor rather reminds me of that other great masterpiece of Norman art, the Bayeux tapestry. I include here one photo of that tapestry, the famous scene where Harold Godwinson is killed by a Norman arrow through his eye.

Tapisserie de Bayeux - Scène 57 : La mort d'Harold

Next stop: Palermo in Sicily. We’ll get there by cutting across Italy’s heel to Taranto and then along the instep and sole of the Italian boot all the way to Reggio Calabria, where we’ll catch the ferry over to Sicily. I take the back roads to get to Taranto, because I want to drive through the small town of Copertino. As far as I know, this town is known for nothing special except a large castle and a saint. But to us, it has a great importance: my wife’s maternal grandfather came from Copertino and so it is the source of one-eighth of my children’s DNA. He emigrated to Milan in the early 1900’s, part of the massive migrations out of the south of Italy at the turn of the 20th Century. In typical migratory fashion, his departure eventually brought all his brothers and sisters up north. Family lore has it that his father ruined the family by taking the new Italian State to court over the expropriation of some of his land. He took the case all the way to the Court of Cassation, where he eventually lost the case, by which time he had also burned through all his money. Even though this is a very modest place with nothing special to write home about, I feel I must throw in a photo to commemorate it.

copertino

Onwards to Taranto, although in truth as we approach the city we turn our heads away and drive on. Taranto has been devastated by the plans of successive Italian government in the post-war period to develop the south of Italy through the implantation of heavy industry (I’ve already mentioned this in another post on Sicily). What were then the biggest steel works in Europe were plonked down here in the 1960s, and other heavy industry followed. By the 1980s, when my wife and I went to Taranto for the first time, the investment was in trouble. But the government couldn’t let it go down the tubes, it was politically too important. So money – half of it wasted through corruption and graft – was poured in to prop everything up. It’s stayed propped up – just – but in the meantime the industrial complex has poisoned half the population. Talk about sustainable development …

taranto

We are now driving through what was once Magna Graecia, Greater Greece, that string of Greek colonies which dotted the underside of the Italian boot as well as the coasts of Sicily (and even the shin and calf of that shapely Italian boot). The glittering stone in this string of cities was undoubtedly Syracuse in Sicily, where Archimedes – he of the original eureka moment – was born and was killed. But all the cities along here, from Taranto in the East to Selinunte in the West, were once flourishing and prosperous city-states. One of them, Sybaris, even became a byword for self-indulgent opulence – it was said of one of its citizens that he slept on a bed of rose petals, and if even one of them was folded over he could not sleep. The town’s name has entered the English language, a sybarite being a voluptuary or a sensualist. Now, Sybaris lies under four meters of mud. The only claim to fame of the surviving Calabrian towns is that they are infested by the ‘Ndrangheta, Calabria’s answer to Sicily’s mafia. It is said that John Paul Getty III, kidnapped in Rome back in 1973, was kept hidden in these parts. He was returned after his family forked over a ransom of $3 million – paid a good deal reluctantly (his grandfather is reported to have said, “I have 14 grandchildren. If I pay one penny now, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren”) and only after one of his ears had been cut off and sent to a newspaper. It is whispered that many a new house around here was built with Getty money.

We stop for a moment in Crotone, on the ball of Italy’s foot, not because it’s any less dreary than the other towns we’ve passed through, but because something momentous happened here: Pythagoras set up his first school and came up with all those clever mathematics, among which was his theorem which I, like every child of 11 or so, learned in geometry class: “a2 + b2 = c2“, or in plain English, “in a right triangle, the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides”. At least, that’s what I was told by proud Crotonesi when I was here 20 years ago to do an environmental audit. Alas! It was not so. Pythagoras did indeed come to Crotone, but all he did was to set up some sort of mystical, esoteric sect which dabbled in the quasi-magic of whole numbers. It’s very unlikely that he personally came up with any of the mathematical cleverness attributed to him; his disciples did, but later. I think this painting, by a 19th Century Russian painter, captures nicely the strongly mystical (and to my way of thinking, rather weird) overtones of the initial Pythagorean movement.

pythagoreans celebrating sunrise

What Pythagoras and his sect did do in Crotone was to eventually take over the city’s government, and it was during his time in office that Crotone destroyed Sybaris. Several other cities in the area also espoused Pythagorean forms of government, but after a while there was a backlash. Back in Crotone Pythagoras was chased out, to end his days in nearby Metapontum, another city now lying under meters of mud. But Pythagorean schools continued, although they restricted themselves to maths and “natural philosophy” and left politics to others. Probably better that way …

I take one last look at the industrial plant I audited all those years ago – another industrial works plonked down here, and another one that has closed, leaving nothing but bitterness in its wake.

pertusola

It’s time to move on.

When we reach Reggio Calabria, although my wife is reluctant I insist: we must go to the Museum of Magna Graecia to see the two Bronzes of Riace. Neither of us have ever seen them, and it would be a pity not to take advantage of our passing through Reggio to have a peek. I know the objective of our trip is early Christian mosaics, but other wonders along the way should not be ignored. No sooner said than done! With a click of the mouse, I have us parked in front of the museum and magically transported past the queues of people waiting to enter the climate-controlled, earthquake-proofed room where they stand.

bronzi di riace

What magnificence! And what we see today are stripped down versions of the original. Each would have been coiffed with a Corinthian-style helmet, would have carried a shield on that raised left arm, and would have held a lance in the other. The latest theories hypothesize that they represent two of the Seven Heroes who set off from Argos to fight against Eteocles, king of Thebes and son of Oedipus (he of the complex), and died at the city’s seven gates. One expert suggests that they were originally part of a group of seven statues which stood in the Agora of the city of Argos. How they ended up on the sea bed off the coast of Calabria is anyone’s guess. My guess, for what it’s worth, is that during Roman times Argos was hard up, and rich Romans, avid for Greek art, came along and offered to buy the statues. Why not … In later centuries hard-up Italians sold their Renaissance treasures to rich Englishmen, avid for Italian art, and later still these Englishmen, hard up in their turn, sold these same treasures to rich Americans. In any event, they were being shipped to Rome, but when the ship was off the coast of Calabria a violent storm blew up, and the captain, rather than losing his ship and his life, tossed the heavy stuff overboard.

Time to catch the ferry over to Sicily, home to some of the most beautiful Byzantine-style mosaics still extant, created when the Normans controlled Sicily. The web helpfully informs us that there is a ferry over to Messina every hour or so. In this dream trip, we will not have any difficulty in catching the ferry, unlike real life 30 years ago when my wife and I decided to take her mother to spend Christmas and the New Year in Sicily. We arrived in Reggio Calabria on the evening of 23 December, along with a horde of Sicilian migrant workers returning home from Northern Europe for the holidays. We discovered to our horror that the ferry boat crews had just decided to strike for more pay. Those bastards had chosen this particular time to strike because they knew it put the owners under huge pressure to settle. Settle they did, but not before we had spent a miserable night in the ferry car park. When those ferry boat crews arrive, as they assuredly will one day, before the Pearly Gates, I hope they will be kicked off down to Hell, to roast in its fires for Eternity (anyone curious to know what that might look like can refer back to the posting with which I started this dream journey and study the photo I inserted there from the back wall of the church on the island of Torcello).

Once on the other side,  we set off for Palermo. I firmly decide that we will take the normal roads to get there. In this dream we’re in no hurry, and I prefer by far the “reeling roads”, the “rolling roads”, that “ramble round the shire”, as G.K. Chesterton wrote in his most famous poem “The Rolling English Road”. Yes, I prefer by far his “merry roads” and his “mazy roads” to the smooth monotony of sterile highways. We pass Milazzo, where you can catch the boat to the Aeolian Islands – a trip for another day – and where I did yet another environmental audit 20 years ago for another struggling industrial complex, which mercifully has not closed – yet. We hum along until we arrive at the small town of Cefalù, nestling under the mighty headland which gives it its (Greek) name. We head, yet again, for the Cathedral, constructed by the Normans in the first half of the 1100s. There, some beautiful mosaics still cling to the apse and the last bay of the choir.

cefalu-duomo-1

The Pantocrator gracing the apse is “for many the greatest portrait of Christ in all Christian art”, in the words of John Julius Norwich (I am quoting from his history of Sicily).

cefalu-duomo-2

The style is clearly mature Byzantine, a style we’ve already seen in Istanbul as well as in the lagoons of Venice, and would have seen in Daphni and Saint Luke in Greece had we made the detour from Thessaloniki. The Normans got Byzantine artists, or artists trained in Byzantine workshops, to make the mosaics.

It’s time to go on to Palermo, which is our final destination on this leg of the journey. We hug the coast, coming into the city on its seaward side. Once we reach the port, we swing up Via Vittorio Emanuele (there’s one of these in every village, town, and city in Italy, along with a Via Garibaldi), which is the main thoroughfare through the city’s old center. When we get near the Martorana church, we miraculously find – free! – parking (this is a dream, after all) for our little MG and head over to the church.

The church has been much modified over the centuries, not least of which by a brutal Baroque make-over in the front part of the nave in the 17th Century. But once we get past these horrors and enter the upper nave, we are greeted by some lovely mosaics: Christ in majesty in the dome of the church

palermo-martorana-1

the annunciation

palermo-martorana-4

the nativity

palerno-martorana-7

the dormition of the Virgin Mary

palerno-martorana-6

As we leave, I want particularly to see these two mosaics. In this first one, we have the greatest of all the Norman kings of Sicily, Roger II, having himself cheekily crowned by Christ himself, as if he were a Byzantine emperor

palermo-martorana-2

It was he who first brought this Byzantine art form to Sicily.

And here we have the original donor of the church, George of Antioch, Roger II’s admiral, humbly offering his church to the Virgin Mary (much like we saw in Cariye Kamii in Istanbul)

palermo-martorana-5

A final note about this church: it belongs to the Italian-Albanian community in Sicily, the remnants of the Albanians who fled to Italy in the 15th and later Centuries as the Ottomans methodically went about conquering their home country. So it is not just geographical proximity which led the modern Albanians back in late 1990s to escape by their thousands to Italy as Albania imploded after the collapse of Communism (with many of these new arrivals squatting in and around Otranto, as it so happens).

We go back to the car and continue up Via Vittorio Emanuele to the Palazzo dei Normanni, the Palace of the Normans, which actually was originally built by the Arabs. This rather severe building houses the Cappella Palatina, which was built by Roger II as the King’s private chapel. It houses some magnificent 12th Century mosaics.

palermo-cap-palatina-1

palermo-cap-palatina-6

palermo-cap-palatina-5

This last one shows also the ceiling, a wonderful piece of Arab carpentry work, an example of which we last saw in the Alhambra palace in Granada.

palermo-cap-palatina-4

Roger II understood that in this island with large Greek and Arab populations, he had to be open to their cultures if he was going to maintain the peace. Indeed, he welcomed this mixing of cultures. It is part of Sicily’s tragedy that later rulers did not continue this practice of toleration and openness.

We are not finished yet! We vault into the car (after constant badgering by our children we’ve taken to doing a lot of exercise recently, so I can imagine ourselves vaulting jauntily over the doors and dropping into our seats) and we keep on going up Via Vittorio Emanuele, which has now morphed into Via Calatafimi. We go on and on until we hit the hills behind Palermo, at which point we start climbing and finally find ourselves in Monreale, once a village on the outskirts of Palermo but now a suburb. We head – of course – for the cathedral and casually park the car in front of the cathedral. We walk into this late 12th Century church and I suddenly feel that I am back in the church of Sant’Apollinare in Ravenna, where we started our dream journey.

monreale-duomo-1

Biblical scenes on fields of gold unfurl along upper tiers of the nave

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to reach the theological high point in the apse, with its assembled saints and angels presided over by a rather severe Pantocrator.

monreale-duomo-2

But how the styles have changed in the intervening six centuries! Then, it was still Roman art, although of a rough-and-ready sort. Now, it is early medieval art in all its stiff, hieratic splendour.

After all that gold, we go up on the roof of the church and drink in the astringent blue of the sky, which is rather like eating a lemon sorbet after a heavy main course so as to cleanse the mouth of all that richness. We gaze out across Palermo and over the “wine-dark” Tyrrhenian Sea beyond (to borrow Homer’s rather strange description of the sea’s colour).

monreale-panoramic-view

Tonight, we will catch the ferry and cross that sea to Naples – another Greek colony long, long ago – and from there drive up to Rome, our last stop on this exhaustive, and mentally exhausting, tour of early Christian mosaics.

_________________

Lecce: https://youthfullyyoursgr.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/lecce-it.jpg (in https://youthfullyyoursgr.wordpress.com/%CF%80%CF%81%CE%BF%CE%B3%CF%81%CE%AC%CE%BC%CE%BC%CE%B1%CF%84%CE%B1/get-up-stand-up-be-healthy-guys-youth-exchange-lecce-%CE%B9%CF%84%CE%B1%CE%BB%CE%AF%CE%B1-22-29072013/)
Otranto-mosaic-1: http://www.paradoxplace.com/Perspectives/Sicily%20&%20S%20Italy/Puglia/Otranto/Cattedrale/Images_Mosaics/800/Mosaic_Floor-Nov06-DC9997sAR800.jpg (in http://www.paradoxplace.com/Perspectives/Sicily%20&%20S%20Italy/Puglia/Otranto/Otranto.htm)
Otranto mosaic-2: http://www.swide.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Reasons-to-travel-puglia-apulia-italy-mosaics-Otranto.jpg (in http://www.swide.com/food-travel/reasons-to-travel-to-puglia-apulia-italy-top-20-things-to-do/2014/06/30)
https://canvas.harvard.edu/courses/305/pages/the-mosaic-of-otranto
Bayeux Tapestry: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/bb/Bayeux_Tapestry_scene57_Harold_death.jpg (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayeux_Tapestry)
Copertino: http://www.amedeominghi.info/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/PiazzaMazzini.jpg (in http://www.amedeominghi.info/nuovedate/)
Taranto: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilva#/media/File:ILVA_-_Unit%C3%A0_produttiva_di_Taranto_-_Italy_-_25_Dec._2007.jpg (in http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilva#Unit.C3.A0_produttiva_di_Taranto)
“Pythagoreans celebrating the sunrise”, by Fyodor Bronnikov(1827–1902): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pythagoras#/media/File:Bronnikov_gimnpifagoreizev.jpg (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pythagoras)
Pertusola: http://www.ilcirotano.it/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Ex-Pertusola.jpg (in http://www.ilcirotano.it/2012/10/09/viaggio-nella-pertusola-sud/)
Bronzi di Riace: https://news.artnet.com/wp-content/news-upload/2014/08/Riace-bronzes-e1408562456865.jpg (in https://news.artnet.com/art-world/italy-risks-priceless-riace-bronzes-for-cash-82747)
Cefalù-duomo-1: http://commondatastorage.googleapis.com/static.panoramio.com/photos/original/74677063.jpg (in https://geolocation.ws/v/P/74677063/abside-del-duomo-di-cefal-cristo/en)
Cefalù-duomo-2: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duomo_di_Cefal%C3%B9#/media/File:Cefalu_Christus_Pantokrator_cropped.jpg (in http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duomo_di_Cefalù)
Palermo-Martorana-1: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c0/Chiesa_della_Martorana_cupola.jpg/640px-Chiesa_della_Martorana_cupola.jpg (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martorana#Interior)
Palermo-Martorana-2: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiesa_della_Martorana#/media/File:Palerme_Martorana168443.JPG (in http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiesa_della_Martorana)
Palermo-Martorana-3: https://classconnection.s3.amazonaws.com/848/flashcards/3299848/jpg/palermo_chiesa_20martorana_mosaic_nativity-13F311CF74763DF1FB7.jpg (in https://www.studyblue.com/notes/note/n/ecb-final-review/deck/8598474)
Palermo-Martorana-4: http://www.wga.hu/art/zgothic/mosaics/8/2martor2.jpg (in http://www.wga.hu/html_m/zgothic/mosaics/8/2martor2.html)
Palermo-Martorana-5: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b3/Chiesa_della_Martorana_Christus_kr%C3%B6nt_Roger_II.jpg (in http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chiesa_della_Martorana_Christus_kr%C3%B6nt_Roger_II.jpg)
Palermo-Martorana-6: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiesa_della_Martorana#/media/File:George_of_Antioch_and_Holy_Virgin_2009.jpg (in http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiesa_della_Martorana)
Palermo-Cappella Palatina-1: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cappella_Palatina#/media/File:Cappella_Palatina_in_Palermo_Sicily.JPG (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cappella_Palatina)
Palermo-Cappella Palatina-2: http://www.scherminator.com/italy/sicily/cappellaPalatina/cappellaPalatina5.jpg (in http://www.scherminator.com/italy/sicily/cappellaPalatina/cappellaPalatina.html)
Palermo-Cappella Palatina-3: http://www.scherminator.com/italy/sicily/cappellaPalatina/cappellaPalatina0.jpg (in http://www.scherminator.com/italy/sicily/cappellaPalatina/cappellaPalatina.html)
Palermo-Cappella Palatina-4: http://www.scherminator.com/italy/sicily/cappellaPalatina/cappellaPalatina10.jpg (in http://www.scherminator.com/italy/sicily/cappellaPalatina/cappellaPalatina.html)
Monreale-Duomo-1: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duomo_di_Monreale#/media/File:MonrealeCathedral-pjt1.jpg (in http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duomo_di_Monreale)
Monreale-duomo-2: https://ofsplendourinthegrass.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/p1110054.jpg (in https://ofsplendourinthegrass.wordpress.com/2012/08/30/monreale/)
Monreale-duomo-3: http://giazza.se/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/pal-dome-2.jpg (in http://giazza.se/?p=1506)
Monreale-duomo-4: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duomo_di_Monreale#/media/File:Sicilia_Monreale2_tango7174.jpg (in http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duomo_di_Monreale)
Monreale-panoramic view: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/07/87/3f/dc/panoramic-view-from-the.jpg (in http://www.tripadvisor.it/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g666663-d4470498-i126304220-Norman_Cathedral_of_Monreale-Monreale_Province_of_Palermo_Sicily.html)

DREAM JOURNEY: PART III

Bangkok, 6 May 2015

May has arrived, the most beautiful month in the Mediterranean. It’s time for my wife and I to come out of our long, long hibernation in Istanbul and continue on our dream journey, the next leg of which will be Greece.

It’s warm enough now for us to travel by open-topped car again, so with a click of my mouse I materialize the little MG which carried us so long ago from Venice to Aquileia.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I have it pop up in front of the Hagia Sophia (probably not possible in real life but hey, this is a dream). We hop in and drive off. We will be following the trace of the Via Egnatia, the Roman road which once linked Constantinople to Dyrrachium (now Durrës in Albania) on the Adriatic coast, from whence a short ship ride could bring Roman legions and you to Bari in Italy. As always where map reading is required, my wife is driving. I have her take Divanyolu Avenue, which overlies the trace of the Mese, the main Roman street of Constantinople. Like the Mese, the Divanyolu Avenue starts just in front of Hagia Sophia. When we reach Murat Pasha Mosque, at what was once Constantinople’s Forum of the Ox, and where the Mese angled south-west, I have my wife turn left down Cerrapasha Avenue (never mind that the web informs me that the street is one way against us: this is a dream). The traffic is heavy I would imagine, we are inching along. At Koca Mustafa Pasha Mosque, things get complicated. The modern street plan no longer follows the old streets. Looking at the city map on the web, I muse on what to do next. The cars are beeping behind us, my wife is asking urgently, “which way?” I decide: go left, keep going until you somehow manage to reach Imrahor Ilyas Bey Avenue, turn right and keep going until you come to the old Theodosian city walls, which protected the city until its fall to the Ottomans. There, pass through a break in the walls, leaving to our left the remains of the Golden Gate, through which the Via Egnatia once entered the city.

golden gate theodosian walls istanbul

We are now at the official starting point of the Via Egnatia. But I must say everything is very confused. The recent huge, jumbled expansion of the city has completely effaced any traces of the ancient road. What the hell, I know where I want to go, so I tell my wife to hang a left and head down to John Kennedy Avenue, which runs along the Sea of Marmara. After a while we pick up the trace of the Via Egnatia, and so we bowl along to Tegirdağ, where we regretfully leave the sea’s edge and cut across to Ipsala at the border with Greece (a border which has only existed a hundred years or so and whose creation left much bitterness behind). Now in Greece, we go on through Komotini and Kavala (close to which, at the Battle of Philippi, in 42 BC, Mark Antony and Octavian beat the assassins of Julius Caesar, Brutus and Longinus, thus starting the process which destroyed the Roman Republic and put in its place the Roman Empire). Finally, we arrive at our destination, Thessaloniki.

Thessaloniki … Thessalonica to the Roman and Byzantine elites, just plain old Salonika to the locals, Selânik to the Ottomans. Its nascent Christian community the recipient in the first decades of the Christian era of two of St. Paul’s most famous Epistles, the First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians. Birthplace in the 9th Century of Saints Cyril and Methodius, who converted Eastern Europe to Orthodox Christianity, but also in the 19th Century of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of modern Turkey.

Like Ravenna and Aquileia where I started this dream journey, Thessaloniki has suffered from the ravages of man and nature ever since it was founded by King Cassander of Macedon in 315 BC. Its history under the Romans and early Byzantines was relatively peaceful, apart from some raiding by Thracian tribes in the 50s BC, and a terrible incident in 390 AD, when some 10,000 of its citizens were massacred in the hippodrome as a punishment for starting a revolt. Its troubles really started when the Roman Empire weakened and the Barbarian tribes from the north began their incursions. Like Aquileia, it suffered from repeated attacks in the 7th Century by Barbarian tribes, Slavs in this case, but unlike Aquileia it managed to hold them off. As if the Slavs were not enough, the city suffered a catastrophic earthquake in 620, which did much damage. There followed a few centuries of respite, but after the Byzantines lost control of the Aegean Sea, Saracens seized the city in 904. After a ten day sack they left, but not before freeing thousands of Muslim prisoners while enslaving thousands of Christians and carrying off huge amounts of booty. In 1185, at another moment of Byzantine weakness, it was the turn of the Normans of Sicily to attack and take the city. Their rule, though short, led to considerable destruction. After Constantinople was captured by the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the city became the centre of one of the feudal fiefs which the Crusaders created. It was short-lived. The city and its territory were seized in 1224 by the Greek Despot of Epirus (who in turn was subjugated by the Tsar of Bulgaria). In 1246, a reinvigorated Byzantine Empire recovered the city. After a century and a half, the Byzantines lost it again, this time to the new regional power, the Ottomans. The Ottomans’ tenure was initially short-lived. They were forced to hand the city back to the Byzantines after their disastrous defeat by Tamerlane the Lame in 1402 at the gates of Ankara. But too weak by now to hold it, the Byzantines sold the city to Venice in 1423. Seven years later, in 1430, the Ottomans definitively recaptured the city.

There followed nearly five centuries of relative tranquility, during which the city became one of the great emporia of the Mediterranean and a melting pot of different ethnicities: Greeks of course, but also Turks, as well as Jews – the Ottomans welcomed the Sephardic Jews fleeing from Spain and Portugal – and later Bulgarians. Then, as Ottoman power went into terminal decline, irredentist feelings in Greece and Bulgaria grew. Both felt the city and its surrounding territory was theirs. After various acts of provocation and terrorism, matters came to a head in the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. For a while, things hung in the balance but the city finally went to Greece. In 1917, during the First World War, a huge fire, accidentally started in a kitchen, destroyed almost the entire city. This led to an exodus of the city’s Jewish population, many of whom lost everything in the conflagration. They were soon followed by the Moslem, Turkish population as a result of the massive exchange of populations which followed the end of the Greco-Turkish War in 1922. In their place came Greeks expelled from Asia Minor, making the city once again a predominantly Greek city. During the Second World War, the Germans occupied it. As a result, its port facilities were heavily if haphazardly bombed by the Allies. For their part, the SS rounded up what was left of the city’s ancient Jewish population and shipped them all off to the gas chambers. After two millennia of presence (Jews had chased St. Paul out of the city after he had preached there), the Jews effectively vanished from Thessaloniki. The city had not finished to suffer. In 1978, it was hit by a powerful earthquake, which did considerable damage to its structures, both old and new.

With this history, it’s little short of a miracle if any of the city’s early Christian mosaics are left at all. I direct my wife to enter the city along the trace of the Via Egnatia, which leads us straight to the Arch of Galerius and the Rotunda of St. George. Google Maps doesn’t show any parking lots around there, but this is a dream, so we easily find a little parking spot in one of the side streets for our MG. We enter the Rotunda, and walk through to the main cupola. This is what greets us: a badly damaged band of mosaics in its upper registry.

St. George-0St. George-1a

St. George-2

Sad. But what can you expect, these mosaics were installed 1700 years old, in the late 300s AD. Funnily enough, the little that there is left of them may have been saved by the church becoming a mosque. The Turks just whitewashed over mosaics and frescoes, after pilfering whatever gold tesserae there still were.

But let’s get up close – which we can, since this is a dream, we can just float up there. Look at the faces!

St. George-5

St. George-3

St. George-4

Here, we still have Roman art, but with Christian characteristics.

The internet warns me that traffic is terrible in Thessaloniki, so I decide that we will walk to the other churches. On strictly chronological grounds, I further decide that the next church we will visit is St. David’s, built in the late 4th Century. I open Google Maps’ Street View and find that we are walking through a modern, really quite pleasant city, the product of the Great Fire of 1917 and modern planning for the city’s reconstruction. Anyway, we plunge into St. David’s. It has one remarkable mosaic left, tucked away in a lunette in a corner, depicting the vision of Ezekiel

St David-1

After admiring it for a while, we head on to St. Demetrius, which celebrates the city’s patron saint. The church has just a few, rather wonderful mosaic panels left, probably installed in the late 600s, early 700s, just after the Slavs had given up trying to sack the city.

St. Demetrios-2

St. Demetrios-4

St. Demetrios-3

The first is still Roman art, while the other two are beginning to look Byzantine.

Next stop: Hagia Sophia, Thessaloniki’s not Istanbul’s (although it seems that the design of the Thessalonian version was based on its Constantinopolitan namesake). On the way, we pop into the early 5th Century Church of Acheiropoietos, but there are really only shreds of mosaics left. Discouraged, we go on. And so we come to Hagia Sophia, built in the 8th Century, and whose glory is the late 8th Century mosaic in the cupola.

Hagia Sofia-1

As we can in dreams, my wife and I drift up to see the Christ up close.

Hagia Sofia-2

And we see a Christ who is becoming ever more Byzantine in his look and posture. The glories of Rome seem to be becoming a distant memory. This is even more apparent in this Virgin Mary, which reminds me of that other Virgin Mary we visited on the island of Torcello in the lagoons of Venice on the first leg of this dream trip.

Hagia Sofia-3

At this point, I have to make a decision. My original idea for this dream trip was for my wife and I to go south and visit the walled monastery of St. Luke in Boeotia and further south still to the convent of Daphni, close to Athens. They have lovely, if late-style, mosaics, this one an example from St. Luke’s, a rendering of the Pentecost

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

and this one from Daphni, of Christos Pantocrator, Christ the All-Powerful

Daphni-Christ Pantrocrator

I also wanted to take this road to follow a little in the footsteps, or rather the tyre marks, of my father. In 1937, when still a university student, he spent the Easter holidays driving his Ford, in company of a cousin, all the way from Cambridge to Athens and on to Sparta, and then back. To get there, he drove through the old lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, across Bulgaria, and down to Thessaloniki. I feel his young shadow passing by us and want to follow it a little while. But it’s too much of a detour, and I want to get to Italy before it gets too hot. So I choose. We will continue along the trace of the Via Egnatia, to the Adriatic, and pick up the ferry to Bari.

No sooner said than done. We are whisked over to the car and are now heading out of the Thessaloniki. Studying Google maps in conjunction with Omnes Viae (“The Roman Route Planner”, which I had occasion to use in the first leg of this dream journey), I get my wife to make for Edessa, which in ancient times guarded the entrance of the Via Egnatia to the Pindus mountains but is now known more picturesquely as the “city of waters”. On the web, I watch people cavort in the city’s waters (highly mineralized by the look of it)

Edessa

before continuing on. We skirt the pretty lakes of Vegoritida and Petron

lake Vegoritida

and veer northwards. We cross the border into Macedonia (sorry, “the Former Yugolsav Republic of Macedonia”; political tempers run high in this region), a border which only came into existence in 1918, and we arrive at the city once called Heraclea Lyncestis but now known more prosaically as Bitola. It was an important way station on the Via Egnatia, so I take a pause and look at a panoramic view

Bitola Panorama

before moving on. We’re heading west now, towards the Adriatic Sea. We skirt the beautiful Lake Ohrid

Lake Ohrid

passing through the city of Ohrid, once Lychnidos, another important stop on the Via Egnatia. I’m tempted to visit the 5th Century Polyconch Basilica to see the remains of its mosaic floor, but everything I read suggests that the remains are too fragmentary. We take to the road again and soon find ourselves crossing yet another border that only came into existence in 1918, this one into Albania.

We pass over gloriously wild mountains

Librazhad

before dropping into the narrow valley of the Shkumbin River, known to the Romans as the Flumen Genusus.

Shkumbin river

We follow the river as it hurries down to the sea, but shortly before getting there we turn sharp right and head for the port of Durrës. In the summer, the place is submerged in beach-goers

Durres

but luckily there aren’t so many people yet. We drive to the ferry port. The web helpfully informs me that there is a ferry leaving tonight at 10 pm, which gets into Bari at 8 am tomorrow morning. Ferrying my wife, me, and our little MG over to Italy will cost us the princely sum of £131.72 (for some reason, the site I visited quotes the prices in pounds sterling). We have time for a bite to eat before we leave. But what do you eat in Albania?

_____________________

MG: http://www.mgownersclub.co.uk/sites/default/files/member-images/1105377623_27223.jpg (in http://www.mgownersclub.co.uk/member-images/mg-t-series/1954-tf-0)
Golden gate Istanbul: http://www.livius.org/a/turkey/istanbul/walls/istanbul_wall_theodosius_s_of_golden_gate.JPG (in http://www.livius.org/cn-cs/constantinople/constantinople_land_walls.html)
St. George Rotunda-1: http://cdn1.vtourist.com/4/5034576-St_Georges_Rotunda_Thessaloniki.jpg
St. George Rotunda-2: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/greece/thessaloniki-rotunda/photos/mosaic-sts-onesiphoros-and-porphyrios-c5-wc-pd)
St. George Rotunda-3: http://dic.academic.ru/pictures/wiki/files/84/ThessHagGeorgMosCosDamien.jpg
St. George Rotunda-4-Saint Cosmas: http://www.ics.forth.gr/isl/fayum/images/image_59.jpg
St. George Rotunda-5-Saint Therinos: http://www.ics.forth.gr/isl/fayum/images/image_60.jpg
St. George Rotunda-6-Saint Philip Bishop: http://www.ics.forth.gr/isl/fayum/images/image_57.jpg
St David: https://yameee.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/hd1.jpg (in https://yameee.wordpress.com/2014/09/20/сравнительный-анализ-мозаик-церквей/
St Demetrios-1-dedicating children to Demetrios: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-EYa9zdAwg9w/Ty_EdArv9MI/AAAAAAAAAJM/Bgpaw1ttHAU/s1600/03.jpg
St. Demetrios-2-Demetrios and children: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-i536vAoKGRc/Ty_FkFneuOI/AAAAAAAAAJs/I68I0jWcfxU/s1600/07.jpg
St. Demetrios-3-Demetrios and donor: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-0C51ycpEZKQ/Ty_FNdSgPEI/AAAAAAAAAJk/rl66Pq0HZlA/s1600/06.jpg
Hagia Sophia-1: http://www.inthessaloniki.com/images/Churches/AgiasSofias/Inthessaloniki_Hagia_Sofia_C.jpg (in http://www.inthessaloniki.com/en/agia-sofia)
Hagia Sophia-2-cupola-christ detail: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-TgUH5cPxxv0/T3i6LzYE-TI/AAAAAAAABj8/5B_CxlT_GcM/s1600/%CE%91%CE%93%CE%99%CE%91+%CE%A3%CE%9F%CE%A6%CE%99%CE%91+%CE%A8%CE%99%CE%A6%CE%97%CE%94.8.JPG
Hagia Sophia-3-catino-Virgin: http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5104/5737609091_a1ff106e1b_z.jpg
Convent of Daphni: Cupola-2-detail: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3131/2618506302_de85e9decf.jpg
St. Luke-cupola-pentecost: http://users.sch.gr/geioanni/sel-ekpaideusi/sxolikes_ergasies/TRITH-GYMNASIOY-THRHSKEYTIKA/EIKONES_ENOTHTA_1/PENTHKOSTH_8.jpg
Edessa: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-R7o-WczsSEk/UT85DRLhV2I/AAAAAAAAUPs/X5W2oHAFcLs/s1600/lydialith.jpg (in http://paspartounews.blogspot.com/2013/03/blog-post_8742.html)
Lake Vegoritida: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Vegoritida#/media/File:Ostrovskoto_ezero.JPG (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Vegoritida)
Bitola: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/4e/BitolaPanorama.jpg/950px-BitolaPanorama.jpg (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bitola)
Lake Ohrid: http://www.rego-bis.pl/bin/images/c77bd7ecc_d95f83717734355.jpeg (in http://www.rego-bis.pl/hotel,hotelcaliforniaresortpobytobjazd2w1,ALBCALR.html?ofrid=0e04c3c867866ee4b5a8f79f6b760f260257028d331141b288f4e709ba8a3720)
Librazhd: http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/40520594.jpg (in http://www.panoramio.com/user/4935966/tags/Shebenik%20National%20Park)
Shkumbin river: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shkumbin#/media/File:Shkumbin.jpg (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shkumbin)
Durrës beach: http://www.shkendijatravel.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/durres_albania_plaze.jpeg (in http://www.shkendijatravel.com/durres-port/)

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)

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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