First stop Ravenna. Located on the Adriatic
coast of Italy, less than two hours drive south of Venice or a leisurely train ride from Florence, Ravenna is on the UNESCO
World Heritage List. For anyone with an interest in late antiquity or the Byzantine world, a stop in Ravenna is a must.
Between the early 5th and 7th Century CE Ravenna served as Imperial capital of the late Roman Empire in the west,
capital of the Goths under Theodoric, and primary western European outpost of the Byzantine Empire. It was also home to the
late Roman philosopher Boethius, author of The Consolations of Philosophy.
A few of Ravenna’s
“must see” ancient sites include –
San Vitale. The Basilica of San Vitale is Ravenna’s most brilliant gem. Consecrated in 548 CE, it is one of the
most important buildings in early Christian art. Upon approaching, one is struck by the unassuming plain brick exterior in
typical late Roman / early Byzantine style. The current ground level of the park-like setting immediately around San Vitale
is a couple of meters higher than the entry level of the Basilica and is dotted with excavated sarcophagi from late antiquity.
Upon entering the dimly lit structure, one is drawn both to the exotic stones used and the magnificent apse mosaics depicting
Emperor Justinian, Empress Theodora and their retinue. No photograph from ground level can possibly capture the effect of
this interior, which offers us a glimpse of state and ecclesiastical ceremony in distant Constantinopolis.
|Exterior, San Vitale, Ravenna
|Mosaic Vault, San Vitale, Ravenna
The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. Quite near to San Vitale and the excellent local branch
of the National Museum is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, sister of Emperor Honorius who moved the western Roman capitol
to Ravenna. This small brick structure’s interior vaults are completely covered with mosaics, including a breathtaking
starry night sky and the martyrdom of San Lorenzo. These are so dazzling in part because one may get so close to them (the
mosaic ceiling is only a few feet above one’s head).
|Mosaic Vault, Mausoleum of
Galla Placidia, Ravenna |
The so-called Baptistry of the Arians.
Built by Theodoric in the late 5th Century CE, this structure gets its name from the Arian branch of Christianity, popular
among the Goths at that time. Upon entering this tiny brick building, now sunk below ground level, generally cold and damp
inside, one’s view is instantly drawn upward by the shimmering light of the mosaics covering the interior dome, depicting
John The Baptist and Christ.
| Ceiling Mosaic,
The Baptistry, Ravenna |
The Basilica of Santa’Apollinare
Nuovo. This was also built by Theodoric as his official state church in the early 6th Century CE. Today the interior houses
some of the most important early Christian images, including a procession of virgins and martyrs and scenes from the New Testament.
These constitute the largest mosaic surface area to have survived from antiquity.
Mosaic, Saints & Martyrs
There are many more marvels to experience at Ravenna than can be described here,
including the Mausoleum of Theodoric, the Neonian Baptistry, the ancient Roman naval base on the Adriatic at Classe about
5 km outside Ravenna, the mosaics of Via D'Azeglio and much more.
Here is a link to the City of Ravenna’s
official website (in Italian): www.comune.ra.it/
Also, the official Ravenna tourism site (English version): www.turismo.ravenna.it/index.php?lang=2
Visiting the New Acropolis Museum and the Archaeological Museum of Rhodes
During a recent trip to Greece this writer had the good fortune to visit both the new Acropolis Museum, at the foot
of that famous hill, and the Archaeological Museum of Rhodes, located in the Old City of that name. The most striking difference
between these two institutions is their approach to displaying ancient art: how to house objects, how visitors approach and
perceive objects, and the atmosphere of time and place each evokes.
The new Acropolis Museum, opened in June,
2009, was designed by Swiss architect Bernard Schumi in 2001 after an international search for a structure to replace the
wholly inadequate old museum on the Acropolis Hill itself. The new building has ten times the display space of the old, provides
atmospheric control, a dignified home for the masterpieces found on the Acropolis, and accommodations for large numbers of
The Entrance is accessed from the pedestrian street of Dionissiou
Aeropagitou, which runs along the Acropolis' south base. A metro train (on the Green Line) running between the port of Piraeus
and downtown Athens stops at the end of Apostolou Pavlou , another pedestrian street connecting to Dionissiou. A tree lined
stroll of perhaps half a mile from the Metro, past immigrant and local street vendors and performers and minor points of archaeological
interest, brings one to a small plaza in front of the Museum entrance.
the Museum's construction, significant remains from the 4th - 7th Century CE were found. In the small plaza in front of the
Museum entrance these can be viewed beneath one's feet through thick glass flooring covering a large area. This sub-floor
display continues into the Museum's ground floor, the rough brick and stone remains contrasting with the building's post-modern
glass and steel design (see photos).
Entrance to the New Acropolis
Museum from Dionnisiou Aeropagitou.
Note large glass walkways covering excavations in foreground
View of the 4th-7th Century CE excavations
open to viewers
the new Acropolis Museum entrance
and entrance is fast and easy, the many staff friendly and helpful. Upon entering one may proceed to the main display areas,
go to the temporary exhibition hall or, if one turns directly left, to the much needed services. The thoughtful design of
the ground floor takes into account that many visitors will be weary, having perhaps already ascended and descended the Acropolis
itself or having arrived as part of a coach party. Conveniently located here are multiple restrooms, a pleasant café
and a small gift shop. A short break here before entering the galleries is a wise investment of time. Photography of any kind
is not permitted in the Museum. Admission is currently a mere one Euro, though this will soon increase.
The Museum's displays are arranged as follows: on the ground floor,
finds from the Acropolis slopes and space for temporary exhibitions; on the first floor, finds from the Propylaia, Nike Temple,
Erechtheion, and the Archaic Gallery; on the second floor, a multimedia center and good displays of the Acropolis Hill's development
over time, a restaurant and larger gift shop; on the third floor, the Parthenon Gallery.
From this writer's perspective, the most remarkable of the lower galleries is that of the Archaic period. Here one
may see familiar pieces, such as the pedimental sculptures from the Archaic Parthenon and Archaic Temple of Athena Polias,
the Peplophoros Kore, the Calf Bearer, and many others. The galleries covering the Acropolis slopes and those covering finds
from the Propylaia, Nike Temple and Erechtheion offer more well known pieces but also include many recent finds and pieces
never before on public display.
The Museum's great achievement is the Parthenon
Gallery. This is a light, airy space, from which one may look upon the Acropolis Hill and Parthenon itself. Designed to schematically
render the shape and size of the Parthenon, it allows for proper placement and viewing of both the original and replica sculpture
from the Temple's metopes, pediments and frieze. In this writer's view, walking though this space makes a strong case in favor
of repatriation for those marbles currently at the British Museum (the so-called Elgin Marbles), regardless of legal issues
surrounding the late 18th Century Ottoman government's dealings with Lord Elgin.
The new Acropolis Museum is a great pleasure. Escalators and elevators make movement fast and easy. Public amenities
are everywhere. The spaces are large and allow for comfortable viewing even when the Museum is full of visitors. The objects
themselves, especially the finest of the sculptures on the lower levels, are not encased and may be approached freely for
close inspection in an atmosphere that encourages thoughtful viewing. I urge every visitor to Athens to plan on investing
at least an hour or two to this modern marvel of a Museum.
Museum of Rhodes
It would be difficult to find a sharper contrast in style to the Acropolis Museum
than the Archaeological Museum of Rhodes. This is not to say that a visit is not rewarding; indeed, this is a real gem of
a museum. But the contrast in setting and atmosphere creates an experience much more akin to museum-going of the 19th Century.
The Archaeological Museum of Rhodes is housed in the former Hospital of the Knights of St.
John, who lost the Island to the Ottoman Turks after a six month siege in 1522. If entering the Old City through the fortified
Liberty Gate, continue on Apelou Street, turn right, through Ipoton Street (Avenue of the Knights). If entering through the
new harbor, go past Ippikratous Square and continue on Sokratous Street. The impressive building itself was constructed in
the 15th Century of local stone in a high Gothic style, and wandering its courtyards and rooms evokes images of many different
Mediterranean pasts and places.
Gothic vaulting around the main courtyard,
with Roman altars
sarcophagi, Archaeology Museum, Rhodes
Hellenistic Lion in the main
courtyard, Archaeology Museum. Rhodes
The Museum's displays are arranged around two main courtyards, rather like church cloisters, with marvelous Gothic
vaulting all around. There is no gift or book shop and no printed guide to the Museum. Restroom facilities are very basic,
off in one corner of a courtyard, and there is no café (though there are many restaurants and bars in adjacent streets).
None of this should deter the archaeological traveler. One simply wanders depending on what catches the eye: a stray sarcophagus
panel or a bit of Hellenistic sculpture. The interior galleries are well organized, with sections for Classical and Hellenistic
sculpture (including the famous kneeling Venus of Rhodes), Roman sculpture, and remains from the time of the medieval knights.
Many rooms surrounding the upper floor carry displays of ceramics, bronzes and vitreous materials found on the Island, from
the Archaic period through the Roman period. One particularly fascinating exhibit includes a series of graduated polished
crystals thought to have been used as magnifying glasses in the Classical period by gem engravers.
Hellenistic bust of Helios, with holes for inserting
metal crown or rays, Archaeology Museum, Rhodes
Display of mainly glass and faience antiquities,
including much Rhodian glass, Archaeology Museum,
by accident, one comes to a final pleasure at the rear of the Museum. This is a pleasant and green courtyard with ponds, trees
and herbs, incorporating stray bits of sculpture and architectural fragments, mainly Roman, and one covered portico on which
a series of large late Hellenistic mosaics have been mounted.
Late Roman mosaic with inscription in Greek, Archaeology Museum,
Late Hellenistic mosaic, currently mounted on the wall
around the garden courtyard, Archaeology Museum, Rhodes
This Museum is well worth a visit,
both for the quality of material it contains and the evocative atmosphere of the building itself. For the price of an upscale
cup of coffee, one may spend a couple of hours in this timeless haven and let one's imagination run wild. It is worth noting
that the town itself possesses many significant ancient remains, including Hellenistic and Roman, both inside and outside
the Old City walls, the early 16th Century Mosque and Islamic library complex of Suleiman, remains of Byzantine churches,
and more archaeological and historical displays inside the reconstructed Palace of the Grand Masters.
A Visit to Roman Kourion
The archaeological site of Kourion, on the south coast of the modern Republic of Cyprus, has
a long history by any standard. Herodotus, writing in the 5th Century BC, records that the site was founded by Achaean colonists
from Argos in Greece, a claim that is supported by modern archaeological excavations revealing Mycenaean expansion in the
Late Bronze Age (13th Century BC). The settlement developed rapidly and is attested in 12th Century Egyptian inscriptions.
Kourion, along with the other kingdoms of Cyprus, later underwent occupation or political domination by the Assyrian, Egyptian
and Persian Empires between the 8th and 5th Centuries BC. Under Ptolemaic and Roman rule, Kourion, (Curium in Latin) remained
a prosperous but provincial center. The tragic recent events in Haiti serve as a reminder of how devastating a major earthquake
can be to a relatively isolated island community. Badly damaged by the great quake of about 365 AD that devastated so much
of the Eastern Mediterranean, the City was rebuilt and served as the seat of a bishopric in the Christian era. It was eventually
abandoned after a series of Arab raids from North Africa in the 7th and 8th Centuries.
The excavated parts of Kourion, situated on high ground overlooking the sea, today straddle two kilometers of spectacular
coastline. The modern visitor typically approaches the site from the town of Limassol, on Akrotiri Bay, traveling west for
just a few kilometers along the coastal road. Along the way one may observe many rock cut tombs, mainly of the early Iron
Age, in the local limestone hillsides. At the westernmost end of the site is the famous Sanctuary of Apollo Hylates (Apollo
of the woodlands) and its many associated buildings, while at the eastern end of the site is the impressive Theatre and the
House of Eustolios. Between these are the Roman Forum, an early Christian Basilica and several late Roman houses famed for
their mosaics. In this Travelogue installment, I will describe the Sanctuary of Apollo, the Theatre and House of Eustolios.
The Sanctuary of Apollo seems to have been a sacred place even before the cult of that god
was imported by the Greeks, as votive offerings of the 7th Century BC have been found. The term "Hylates" was not
applied to the sanctuary until the mid-3rd Century BC. In its heyday during the 1st and 2nd Centuries AD, the sanctuary would
have included a palaestra (exercise court), a bath, several buildings that may have served as dormitories for pilgrims, and
a colonnaded processional street that led directly to the Temple of Apollo. The partly reconstructed remains of this building
are thought to date to the reign of Nero. To either side of the processional street were an Archaic altar and an early tholos
building enclosed in a small sacred grove.
For the modern archaeological
visitor, it is difficult to imagine a more picturesque setting. The Temple complex stands on high ground with a view out to
the shore and the Mediterranean almost directly below. The skies are free of pollution and the ruins often bathed in brilliant
sunshine. While the partly reconstructed ruins of the Temple are impressive for their simplicity of line and solitude on the
highest point of ground, one should not overlook the subsidiary buildings. The bath is especially well preserved, and one
may observe in detail the sub-floor and interior wall heating technology (hypocaust system) used in a typical Roman bath.
There are no real amenities at this part of the site but there is ample parking for those who have rented a car.
| || |
| Kourion. Temple of Apollo, from
Colonnade, South Building,Sanctuary of Apollo.
Kourion. Sub-floor heating, the baths,
Sanctuary of Apollo
At the east end of
the site is Kouion's Theatre and several important associated residential structures. The Theatre itself seems to have originated
in the 2nd Century BC but was greatly enlarged around AD 50. After suffering damage in an earthquake in AD 77, the structure
was repaired and took on the form the visitor sees today. It continued in use until the great earthquake of AD 365 and was
then gradually stripped of much of its stone, including most of the seats, the colonnade and the stage building. Partly restored
by the Cyprus Department of Antiquities in 1961, the building is still used today for plays and concerts. The setting is,
like so much of Kourion, spectacular.
| || |
| Kourion, The
Kourion. Spirally fluted column
marble from the scenae frons of the Theatre.
Adjacent to the Theatre at Kourion is an important private residence dating from the late 4th to mid-7th Century
AD. This structure, built upon the ruins of an earlier palatial residence, is the House of Eustolios, named for its builder
/ owner. Eustolios seems to have been a major patron of Kourion in the Christian period and contributed significantly to reconstruction
of the town. Among his contributions were repairs to the Theatre and construction of a public bathing facility. Upon entering
the House, one sees a Greek mosaic inscription welcoming the visitor with "Enter for the good luck of the house."
The House's east hall features a fine and well preserved mosaic panel featuring fish and various birds (all early Christian
symbols) amid geometric motifs and an inscription proclaiming the Christian nature of the residence. The bathing facilities
provided by Eustolios are well preserved and contain one of Kourion's most famous mosaic panels. This is in the frigidarium
or cold room of the baths and depicts a medallion with the head of a young woman holding in her right hand a measure equivalent
to one Roman foot. The inscription reads "KTICIC", meaning Creation or Founding Spirit. This is a highly unusual
representation in mosaic art and may be a direct reference to the rebirth of the City following the great earthquake of AD
| || |
|Kourion, Fragmentary welcoming mosaic
House of Eustolios.
Mosaic pavement with birds, fish & inscription,|
SE courtyard, House of Eustolios.
| Kourion. Detail
of The famous ktisis mosaic|
in the frigidarium, House of Eustolios.
This end of the site has excellent amenities, including plenty of parking, restrooms, a small
gift and bookshop, and snack bar. There is much more to see at Kourion, including many more fine mosaics, and many important
finds housed in the site museum at the nearby village of Episkopi. Signage is generally good throughout the site and access
from Paphos or Limassol is easy. I definitely recommend a visit. For an excellent review of Kourion's history and excavation,
I suggest David Soren and Jamie James, Kourion, The Search for a Lost Roman City, Anchor Press Doubleday, NY, 1988.
Also very useful is the site guide by Dr. Demos Christou of the Cyprus Department of Antiquities, Kourion, Its Monuments
and Local Museum, Filokipros Publishing, Nicosia, 1996.
When traveling through
the Mediterranean world one encounters many examples of cultures utilizing the ruins of earlier civilizations for their own
purposes. This brief installment in my "Travelogues" section will focus on a few examples of this practice from
two of the most often visited destinations of antiquity and the modern world, Rome and Athens.
Possibly my favorite single spot in all of Rome is the Capitoline Hill, with its mix of ancient
Roman sculpture, Renaissance architecture and planning, and symbolic power across three thousand years of history. One of
three buildings surrounding Michelangelo's Piazza del Campidoglio at the heart of the Capitoline Hill is the Palazzo Senatorio,
used by the Roman Senate starting in the 13th century and now housing the Mayor's office. While most visitors enter the Capitoline
Museums on the north and south sides of the Piazza, few take time to examine the largely hidden north-east wall of the Palazzo
Senatorio. There one will find a curious jumble of relief sculpture from the late Republic, the imperial age and even Egyptian-style
reliefs of the imperial age. The Palazzo stands atop the very spot where the ancient Tabularium or City archive of Rome once
stood. Many blocks from this structure were reused in the Palazzo's construction. In 1453 Pope Nicholas V built a tower on
the north-eastern corner of the building. Fragments of ancient reliefs amidst Baroque-era Papal inscriptions were placed on
the wall of the tower during reconstruction work in 1655; they form a monument to Scipio.
In many of Rome's later Medieval churches, one finds floors,
tomb monuments, pulpits, fonts and other elements decorated with detailed bands of colored marbles in a mosaic technique.
Very different from the figural mosaics of antiquity with their small tessarae, these works were the product of the Cosmati
family, craftsmen active in Rome during the 12th and 13th centuries. Utilizing the abundance of abandoned exotic marble columns
and other architectural elements that littered large tracts of Rome and its surroundings during the middle ages, the Cosmati
created a dazzling and rich new style that even gained popularity in other parts of Italy. Ancient columns in exotic stones
could be sliced, carved, ground down and otherwise manipulated to create designs that suited tastes of that era, thus creating
what became known as the Cosmatesque style.
Much like the Capitoline Hill in Rome, the Acropolis
of Athens offers many often overlooked examples of antiquity being recycled for new uses in new ages. During the early Byzantine
period, Athens was reduced to the status of modest provincial town. The Parthenon, Erechtheion and the Hephaisteion were converted
into churches. Beginning in the late 19th century, restoration, reconstruction and excavation on the Acropolis hill cleared
away many substantial remains of the Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman Turkish periods, leaving us with the impression that the
classical Greek monuments seen by today's visitor are all that has ever stood atop the hill.
To dispel this impression I offer two images: one is a very large marble block from classical antiquity today resting
about three-quarters of the way up the slope of the Acropolis Hill, carved with crosses and acanthus leaves in the style of
late antiquity. The other is an even large marble block from classical antiquity also resting on the slopes of the Acropolis
Hill that was re-carved with a lengthy Turkish inscription dating to the 16th or 17th century.
In brief, I hope this article will help inspire the archaeological tourist to view the
monuments of antiquity not so much as timeless icons of single cultures but as parts of a larger context and flow of history,
often re-used, sometimes abused but always useful to those who found new ways of utilizing their materials, contexts or images.