A Photographic Visit To Ravenna and Florence

After the weighty business of our AGM the February meeting, after a gap of over two years, saw a return visit by David Keith Jones and his wife Carla to take us on a photographic trip to Ravenna and Florence. Whilst Florence is well know to many of us, Ravenna is perhaps not and David's excellent photography really brought its history alive.

Few of us realised that for a while, Ravenna was the capital of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. An important port, it was protected from attack by its location, largely surrounded by marshland. Its importance is reflected by the magnificence of its churches which have survived from that time. The first part of our photographic visit was to the Basilica of St Apollinarius the New, which dates back to 519 AD. We viewed the exquisite mosaics on the walls and ceiling of the church. All agreed with David when he said that they were undoubtedly some of the most magnificent surviving anywhere. This church, however, was not an isolated example. Elsewhere in the city, we visited the Church of St Vitalis to view yet more breathtaking mosaics. Built in the octagonal style, we learned that its shape represents the seven days of the week, together with the Day of Judgement. At 1,500 years old, this magnificent church has truly stood the test of time.

The Roman Empire's last great emperor, Justinian, began his rise to power here in Ravenna. From a humble soldier, he rose to lead the Empire through one of its most stable periods. An efficient administrator, he codified Roman law which, as Justinian law remains the basis of the Italian legal system today - and also lends its name to the word "justice". His wife, a low born woman, Theodora, was also strong personality, who effectively ruled the Empire after his death. A further visit took us to the Tomb of Galla Palacidia. Erected in the fifth century, it is also decorated with stunning mosaics. The sheer opulence of the mosaics confirms that Ravenna was a very wealthy city.

We then travelled over the wooded Appenine Mountains to Florence. In doing so, David surprised us with the fact that 30% of Italy is afforested (compared to 10% of the UK). Many of us have visited Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, so perhaps were prepared for the visual images that would assault our eyes. Situated on the River Arno, Florence has long been a wealthy city. Its early wealth, which created many of the buildings we know today, was based on the wool trade. We took a stroll over the famous bridge, the Ponte Vecchio and had a long look at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, known as The Duomo. Construction started in 1296 to a design by Cambio, but it was not consecrated (still unfinished) until 1436. Its glory is the dome itself as well as the tall campanile tower. The dome, constructed by Brunelleschi, remains after 600 years, the largest brick and mortar dome in the world. David told us it weighed in at 36,000 tons. The 412 steps to the top of the campanile tower provided stunning but giddy views of the city and distant mountains. The Cathedral is the fourth largest in the world, and David's camera trickery allowed us to see it placed on the site of our own cathedral, which it certainly dwarfed! As a parting shot we went inside, particularly to see the fresco on the dome itself. Taking eleven years to paint, it is massive at 360 square metres. David's photos also lingered over the beautiful coloured marble fašade designed by Fabris in the nineteenth century.

Coming outside into the square, the Piazza della Signoria, we saw facing us the castellated town hall, the Palazzo Vecchio, and closed by strolling around the square looking at the many statues, the most well known being the copy of Michelangelo's David, (the original now being in the nearby Uffizi Gallery). A final visit was made to the Baptistery where the fourteenth and fifteenth century bronze doors with their famous biblical scenes are now reproductions, so we visited the nearby museum to see the real thing, which brought a fascinating trip to a suitable conclusion.

Roger Hockney
February 2016