Thursday, March 26, 2009

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: Day Twenty-four

Thursday, 29 December, 1988
From Florence to Ravenna and on to Austria

Got up to catch the 6:40 train to Ravenna. I should do so well at home.

We got above the fog for a time on the way there but plunged in again as the train approached the sea. There’s a parable there . . . the clouds can be so oppressive and all encompassing, but if one can find a way of rising higher, one can find the sun still shining there above . . . and once the sun is seen the clouds no longer matter.

Definitely cold and cloudy in
Ravenna. Consulted the maps posted in the train station and blundered my way to the tourist office. There they gave me a city map of my own (in French, I discover) and I walked the short distance over to the basilica of San Vitale.

mosaics there are definitely worth the trip even with the inevitable scaffolding. They’re all in the chancel and the apse (barring those on the floor). The clever Ravennese have installed a coin operated box where you can drop in 200 lire and so turn the spotlights on. A definite improvement over the Uffizi.

The iconography of the ensemble places its emphases on the Old Testament forerunners of Christ, like Abel and Melchezedek (the first sacerdotal figures), and Abraham with the three "angelic" visitors, and the sacrifice of Isaac. There were prophets, too, in the covered up portion, but the theme seemed to be that of the Lamb of God, slain for the sins of the world. And then in the half-dome of the apse you see Christ triumphant with angels. It’s thoroughly glorious.

I noticed something interesting in the basilica. There is a baptistery pool opposite and to one side of the apse. It has water in it and people had thrown in coins. Two Italian girls there did the same. Now, Americans do that, too, throw coins in fountains (though this was not the place for me to do so), but the French do not. So do we follow the Italian tradition in the States?

tomb of Galla Placidia is in the same compound. There, too, you feed in coins for illumination but here I could take advantage of the presence of a group of Japanese visitors (I wonder what they thought of it all?) whose guide provided the money.

The mosaics here, too, continue the Agnus Dei theme, with the evangelists and the martyrdom of St. Laurence. The pattern work is magnificent.
Keble Chapel is nothing to it.

After Galla Placidia (where I had to make myself remember there’re people buried there) I went out the gate and across to what I’m sure was a tourist trap shop for some postcards. I was after all limited on time. Bought an art guide to the Byzantine churches of Ravenna and several postcards. Going through the rack, I noticed that the Sant'Apollinare with the
mosaics is the new one,† in town, not the other one in Classae.‡ Well, good thing I didn’t go out there the minute I got into town, even if it is more architecturally significant. Would have run out of time for anything else.

In my spastic Italian I clarified which Sant'Apollinare was which with the non-English speaking proprietress. She seemed to be telling me I’d better hurry, because the church closed at noon (11:45 then). As I was hurriedly getting my cameras and purse slung back over my shoulder, she raised her hands to heaven and exclaimed, "Inghlesi! Mama mia!" Hilarious!

I’m not sure what she was trying to tell me would be closed, but it wasn’t
Sant'Apollinare Nuovo. The apse has the usual scaffolding but the rest of it, the nave at least, was open to be seen.

That double row of saints is amazing. All of them (except for St. Laurence, whose robe is gold) are dressed in nearly identical white garments for the men and purple and gold for the women and there are no iconographic identifications. Very considerately, then, the artist worked each saint’s name in mosaic above his or her head. On one side of the nave they carry their palms and their crowns to offer Christ in majesty and, on the other, to the Baby Jesus with the Virgin Mary. The interesting thing is that the female saints all seem to be processing out of the old church in Classae.

Above them and up to the wooden coffered ceiling is more marvellous mosaic work with scenes from the lives of Christ and the saints. I don’t care what Renaissance chauvinists say. The Byzantine artists knew exactly what they were doing.

Dante’s tomb after that . . . funny, but Lukas’s* father was sure that was in Florence. As I contemplated it I noted a sight typical in this country-- a stunningly-groomed, high-class Italian woman in a blonde fur coat buzzing past on a tiny little Vespa scooter. It doesn't fit, but it does, if you know what I mean.

Then I wandered around trying to find something to eat. Odd, that in this perfectly good Italian town I couldn’t find anything that didn’t look like it came out of the vending machines at [the office building where I worked in Kansas City]. Finally located some by-the-slice pizza with some guts to it at a place near the station; bought some and a can of Italian orange soda and hustled over to retrieve my bags and catch the train for Ferrara.

Needn’t have bothered. Stupid train from Rimini was forty minutes late. The Italians are almost as efficient as the Americans where it comes to trains. Then when it came it wasn’t marked, so I had to take it on faith that it was going where I wanted.

FERRARA-- I’ll say this for the Italian railways: At least originating trains start out on time-- regardless. The train from Ferrara to Venice had pulled out ten minutes before the one from Ravenna got in, and that was that till 5:17 PM. So there.

So I used the time seeing if I could get a berth reservation for Vienna tomorrow night from Venice. No, booked full. So I asked about sleeping cars. They were full, too, and it wouldn’t’ve mattered if they hadn’t been because they run to the ghastly sum of 123,000 lire, or around $100. You have got to be kidding. Just wondering, I asked about tonight, too. Same conditions. There was 2nd class seating but they’d make no reservations for that.

Well. Damn.

Found the WC (this one had paper, unlike that in Ravenna), then had a very good cup of hot chocolate at the station bar. Then returned to the waiting room to consider the options. If I'd caught the connection I wanted I would've been in Venice by 4:00. But now, I won't get there till after 7:00.

I'll decide what I want to do when I get there.

VENICE--Was able to sit in 1st class to Venice, thank God. The train from Ferrara was only ten minutes late.

Once I got here, just in case I checked to see if anyone had cancelled their berth. No such luck. But, the man told me, I could get on the train to Vienna an hour before departure (half hour from then) and reserve myself a seat.

I needed to make a decision. Do I stay or do I go? I marched to the front door of the station and stepped outside to peer into the darkness. The fog was so thick you couldn’t even see the sidewalk, let alone the street.†† I made up my mind: If I was going to sleep sitting up all night and come into Wien exhausted, better I should do it now and have another day to recover. I know San Marco has wonderful mosaics of its own but I’d rather see them under better conditions.

So I spent the last change I had on postcards and the time till 7:35 writing them. Then I found myself a seat in a second class compartment and then, hoping nothing would happen to my luggage, went back to the station for some water at least.

In the wonderfully intricate Italian system you have to decide what you want and pay for it at the cashier’s before you approach the counter. I realized it was such a place and got my ticket, then stood at the counter for ages being ignored before I was finally served. Then they have the cheek to tell me the little plastic cup is extra and I have to pay for it at the cashier’s and come back. At that point I could’ve made a famous Italian gesture but it wouldn’t’ve been Christian and it would’ve gotten me into a lot of trouble besides. So I decided to be a barbarian like everyone else here and drink my water out of the bottle.

ON THE VENICE TO VIENNA TRAIN-- I made it back to the train, ten minutes to spare. Thing started up and it came to me to see if the vestigal 1st class car had anything unreserved, now that the lights were on and I could see.

Oh, good, there was room. I settled into one compartment with an Italian family, but moved when a couple came along and asked if I’d change to a single two compartments down and let them have the two seats where I was.

The people in the other 1st class compartment were all young Americans, with one Canadian. Like me, they were all travelling on Eurail passes. We didn’t converse but still shared a mild laugh when the Italian customs man came in at the border. Only two of us had just started to hand him our American passports, but he said in Italian, "Oh, you’re all Australian," and left. One girl hadn’t even gotten hers out yet! It was the same with the passes.

The Austrians, a few minutes later, were a little more efficient. They saw and inspected everybody’s.

Worked on the journal and listened to Beethoven, Berlioz, and Schubert till after the border crossing. I seem to have lost my Extra Fine Straight Osmiroid pen. I had it with me when I went to the WC just after I changed compartments. So someone either pinched it from the car-- or it went to the Bad Place.

Skies clear and starry in Austria. Ist gut.
†"New" to refer to its rededication to Saint Apollinare in A.D. 856. It was originally dedicated in A.D. 504 to "Christ the Redeemer"-- if an Arian Christ can be said to be a Redeemer at all . . .
‡About four miles southeast of Ravenna.

††The fact that I couldn't see that the Santa Lucia train station in Venice fronts on a canal shows you just how blindingly foggy it was.

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