A very small country and some art tourism

The apse mosaic at the basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, near Ravenna

I finally got my driver’s license in early December, and I’m very much enjoying the ability to drive. I love my little manual transmission Fiat Punto and have already been on a few road trips in it. But most of them didn’t lend themselves to blog posts.

Last weekend Sarie needed to travel to San Marino to take a course for her job (she teaches English to children). If you’ve ever played geography games, you may know that San Marino is one of those tiny European countries like Luxembourg, Monaco and Vatican City (which is really another thing altogether). At the last minute (I had been in the US until late Thursday), I decided to go along too. I was curious about seeing a new country, and besides San Marino was close to Ravenna, which I have wanted to revisit since 1984.

I had always imagined San Marino as some sort of elegant enclave. It’s supposed to be the oldest sovereign state and republic in the world, with its origins in a Pre-Constantinian monastery. What I found, when we got there, was a very clean, walled city with lots of jewellery and weapons shops, perched on a steep cliff and surrounded by hilly, modern suburbs. The San Marinese have a sense of pride at not being Italian (even though they speak Italian and are culturally similar), a lot of police checkpoints, and the ability to navigate steep hairpin turns at great speed. They are supposedly free of a lot of the problems that plague the surrounding Italian state, such as national debt and unemployment. In all the grocery stores and gas stations, I noticed signs accepting a clever credit/discount card that allows citizens to pay less than tourists.

Unfortunately a badly-timed 24 hour bug ate Sarie’s course and a most of my sightseeing time. But we did make it up the mountain to see the fortress capital of San Marino, and we saw two of the famous mosaic churches of Ravenna on the way home.


 Street scenes and a view of the countryside,  from the fortress capital of the country of San Marino 

The mosaics of Ravenna have been favourite artworks of mine since I noticed the portrait of the Byzantine Empress Theodora in an art book as a teen. I was delighted when my first ever trip to Italy in 1984 included a short stop in Ravenna and I found myself in front of this very mosaic in the church of San Vitale. More recently, I’ve taken an interest in the mosaic floors that seem to lie somewhere beneath every early Christian church in Italy. And Ravenna has no less than eight UNESCO world heritage sites, all but one of which feature fabulous early Christian mosaics. This was why I offered to drive Sarie to San Marino!

As we started our drive home through Ravenna on Sunday morning, with very little time and a still-weak Sarie, we chose just two of those sites, Sant’Apollinare in Classe and San Vitale. Sarie sat and I wandered.

First we drove to Sant’Apollinare in Classe, just outside the city. I had recently done a presentation that included the apse mosaic there. It features the first archbishop of Ravenna (Classe is a suburb of Ravenna) standing in a field of green, surrounded by stylised trees and sheep. Three of the sheep are Peter, James and John. Floating above them is a jewelled cross with the face of Christ at its intersection and encircled by in a blue orb, a hand coming out of the gold clouds above, and other figures in the sky who are labelled as Moses and Elijah. Recognise the scene? It’s the Transfiguration. The Christians of Ravenna were preaching through artwork against the then-common heresy of Arianism, which denied the divine nature of Christ. Depicting Jesus in a symbolic cross form in a gold sky emphasised his divinity.

The whole scene lends itself perfectly to mosaic tile. The mosaics seem to be freshly restored, and the gold glittered from various angles as I walked around the basilica. Sant’Apollinare is an active church, so there was a mass going on in one of the side chapels. And we were there on none other than the feast of the Transfiguration.


The apse mosaics of San Vitale with one of the hemispheric side chapels, a floor mosaic composed of earlier pieces, and the exterior of the octagonal church

It was a little harder to remain calm at San Vitale. Once I entered the city, I realised that I was completely surrounded by splendid mosaics in a great walking city, which I had come back to see in detail after 30 years and now couldn’t (also, you have to buy a ticket to four sites at once). But I could also relate to how weak Sarie must feel after a stomach virus, and was also thinking it might be hard to get home if I came down with the virus during the remaining four-hour drive. So I controlled my sightseeing ambitions and enjoyed what was right in front of me.

Even the octagonal form of San Vitale is exquisite. It’s not a basilica form. The apse (where the mosaics are) is encircled by seven hemispherical domes with galleries behind. Joining all the side chapels is a large dome with what looks like a Baroque ceiling painting. Some of the chapel fresco decorations have been restored, seemingly to give an idea of what it must have looked like in the past. Otherwise only traces of paint are visible.

Despite the stomach virus, missing the course, and limited opportunities for sightseeing, Sarie and I enjoyed the drive. She’s increasingly independent, which is right at her age, and being in the car together gave us time to talk about a variety of things, not least of which was the insanity of Italian driving. We saw a lot of regional landscape as we crossed the country, and gaped at a train station that looked like a pleated paper IKEA lampshade, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We never saw the Adriatic, and never got to eat in any of the cozy restaurants along the way, but we were happy to see what we did.

Disclaimer: It has been a long time since I took art history, so I’m not 100% sure I have all my architectural terms right. Also, in order to travel light, I took these photos with my old iPhone, so they’re not the greatest. And finally, yes, I know my spellcheck is stuck on British English!


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