Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Art Eyewitness Looks at the Art Scene in 2020


Reflections on the Art Scene during 2020

By Ed Voves

World War II lasted five years and one day. For almost the entire span of that terrible time, the collection of the National Gallery in London was stored in a disused slate mine, located at Manod in Wales. When the worst of the German air bombardment of London had abated in 1942, one picture per month was brought from Manod and placed on display in the museum. 

The first "Picture of the Month" at the National Gallery was Titian's Noli Me Tangere, painted around 1514. 

The First Picture of the Month at the National Gallery, London, 1942

Titian, Noli Me Tangere, ca. 1514 

The title of Titian's masterpiece comes from the command of Jesus to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection. "Do not touch me," Jesus said and these words were fortunately reflected by the wartime turn of events. No shrapnel fragments from a German bomb "touched" Titian's masterpiece nor any of the other works of art shown to culture-starved Londoners during the war years.

This past year has seen challenges which recall the empty exhibition spaces at the National Gallery during World War II - and the tragic toll of human suffering, as well. The Covid-19 Pandemic has touched the lives of the entire human family and has affected every sphere of life, including the ways in which we appreciate art during times of crisis. 

Normally, the Art Eyewitness "year in review" addresses positive trends and hopeful developments in the visual arts. Also shared are parting thoughts on the great exhibitions and new books which we have been fortunate to review. There will certainly be a few such comments in this essay. Since the Covid-19 museum closings began in March 2020, however, the opportunities to behold great works of art in person have been extremely limited. That has been - and continues to be - the big art story of 2020.

To introduce my reflections on the art scene during 2020, I am going to take a page from the National Gallery in London and present a "picture of the year." This work of art will, I hope, testify to the experience of art during the past year.

My choice wasn't difficult to make. Thomas Eakin's The Agnew Clinic, painted in 1889, is a work devoted to health care, in keeping with our thoughts on Covid-19. Created on an epic scale, the painting honors the noted surgeon at Philadelphia's Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. D. Hayes Agnew.

Thomas Eakins, The Agnew Clinic, 1889

Eakins depicted Dr. Agnew lecturing to medical students as he and his team performed a mastectomy on a young woman patient. In a master stroke, Eakins complemented the heroic figure of Dr. Agnew and the vulnerable body of the patient by placing the operating room nurse, Mary V. Clymer, in a prominent position, anchoring the right-hand side of the painting.

Mary V. Clymer (1861-1942)
Photo from the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of Nursing, 
University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing

Mary Clymer was a dedicated and self-sacrificing member of the American medical profession. Born in 1861 to a working-class family, she enrolled in the recently-established nursing school at the University of Pennsylvania. She graduated in 1889, the year that Eakins painted The Agnew Clinic, receiving the Nightingale Medal for her outstanding achievements.

Miss Clymer's student notes have been preserved and one of the entries underscores the look of caring and empathy which Eakins captured with such remarkable feeling and insight.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020)
 Detail of Thomas Eakin's The Agnew Clinic, showing Mary Clymer

“We must always be dignified & grave," Clymer noted on the mode of conduct expected of a nurse during a surgery, "never forgetting that all we are trying to do is for the good of the patient.” 

Dignity and concern for the good of the patient - these attributes are etched on Mary Clymer's face. The value of great art works like The Agnew Clinic is to remind us of the dedication of people in the caring professions, past and present. 

By extension, we need to acknowledge the inspiring efforts of museum workers, curators, digital support staff and public relations specialists. These gifted professionals launched an amazing array of "virtual" programs and educational initiatives to provide access to their collections and special exhibitions when the museum doors were closed by the Covid-19 quarantine. 

All the great art museums responded to the Covid crisis by opening the digital portals to their institutions. But this remarkable 360 degree "tour" of the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art will serve as an exemplar for the outstanding work by America's art museums, coast-to-coast, during 2020.

The Met 360° Project. The Temple of Dendur 
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The staff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art also needs a special measure of praise, or perhaps commiseration is more appropriate, on the way that they somehow managed to stage Met 150, the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Met's founding despite Covid-19.  Although the festivities were reduced in scale and many exhibitions were postponed or cancelled, the Met was able to finally show it's principal exhibition, Making the Met, when the museum reopened in the late summer. 

Invitation to the Press Preview of Making the Met, 1870-2020

Sadly, I am going to miss Making the Met, because of the continued difficulty of travelling to New York. However, I was able to make it to the Smithsonian American Art Museum for the spectacular Alexander von Humboldt and the United States exhibition. Originally scheduled to begin on March 14, 2020, the Humboldt exhibit opened for a short run, September 18 - November 22, 2020.

As I wrote in a recent post, the Humboldt exhibit was splendid. The life of Alexander von Humboldt, the great German scientist of the early 1800's, was highlighted by art and artifacts from his epic journeys in Latin America and by art works inspired by his legacy. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2020)
 Gallery view of Humboldt and the United States, showing the Skeleton of the Mastodon, excavated by Charles Willson Peale

The center piece of the Humboldt exhibition was the magnificent skeleton of a prehistoric mastodon, "exhumed" in 1801 in Newburgh, New York. Later purchased for a German collection, the mighty mastodon made its first return to its native shores during the Humboldt exhibition.

To see the mastodon and the other treasures of the Humboldt exhibit was something of a "peak" experience for me. But more than a tinge of sadness colored my visit to the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) for this "once-in-a-lifetime" exhibition. The SAAM staff had prepared a wonderful range of interactive videos and activities aimed at school age children. When I visited, however, there were no kids, no school groups. I suspect that few young people managed to see this exhibit before its run was cut-short, six weeks early in late November.

One of the pictures on view in Humboldt and the United States was George Catlin's painting of Native American hunters, clad in wolf skins, sneaking up on a herd of grazing buffalo. This is among the earliest pictures which I can remember, from the Indians and the Old West volume of The Golden Library of Knowledge, which I received as a Christmas gift. It was very moving to see the original.

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) 
George Catlin's Buffalo Hunt under the Wolf-skin Mask, 1831-1833

Childhood reading, museum visits, school trips, etc., leave their mark on young lives, generally in a very positive manner. The Covid-19 lockdown is depriving children all over the world of such formative experiences. Whatever the physical dangers which Covid-19 poses to children, the emotional and intellectual damage is only beginning to be felt. The full extent will not be known for many years and it is almost certain to be devastating.

The outreach efforts of museums will help deal with some of the baneful social consequences of Covid-19. But the shift from museums as public institutions to "virtual" platforms raises some justified fears. An example from the past when privatization prevailed over a more expansive model of society is instructive. 

During 2020, I had occasion to consult an old favorite from my book shelves, Mark Girouard's Life in the English Country House. I started to re-read this classic book from 1978 and as I did so, the theme seemed to shift from a splendid commentary on architecture to an investigation of social trends. Somehow, I hadn't noticed that before.

With perceptive insight, Girouard traced the change in function of the great English rural estates. During the Middle Ages and Elizabethan times, the country estates were crowded with a host of retainers, servants, guests and travelers seeking shelter. The layout of rooms reflected the social function of these palatial "houses."

Unknown artist, Portrait of Sir Henry Unton, ca. 1596

A key illustration in the book, the Portrait of Sir Henry Unton, painted in 1596, documents the traditional country house lifestyle. Unton, a prominent Elizabethan diplomat, is depicted hosting a theatrical masque at his estate, Wadley House, in one of the episodes of this unusual work of art. Providing lavish entertainments such as this was an expected feature of country house etiquette. 

The English country houses were centers of culture, as well as ostentatious living. Acting companies, including Shakespeare's, toured the country houses. Libraries and "cabinets of curiosities" became permanent features of these impressive dwellings.

As the centuries passed, the country houses with their great halls open to multitudes changed due to an ever-growing demand for privacy. The tradition of "old English hospitality" for the many faded away. By the mid-1700's, it was gone, though the rise of public institutions like the British Museum, founded in 1759, took on the role of providing for learning and enjoyment open to all.

Admission ticket to the British Museum, 1790 
©Trustees of the British Museum

Museums in the United States served in like fashion and continue to do so. As society changes, museums have successfully served as forums for a democratic, pluralistic society. As in the medieval-era country houses, people of diverse backgrounds come together in the shared space of the museum to embrace life.

In last year's Art Scene reflections, I was very upbeat on the role of museums in society. A few short months later, the situation changed dramatically - and for the worse. Covid-19 has dealt a  devastating blow to art museums as the bastions for an open society. 

It is very difficult to find positive trends or developments- at least in the short term - upon which to base hope for museums, when the doors of these public institutions are locked. 

A survey of 750 museum directors, conducted by the American Alliance of Museums in June 2020, makes for some very sobering reading. The key points are excerpted below:

1. One-third (33%) of museum directors surveyed confirmed there was a  “significant risk” of closing permanently by next fall, or they “didn’t know” if they would survive.

2. The vast majority (87%) of museums have only 12 months or less of financial operating reserves remaining, with 56% having less than six months left to cover operations.

3. During the pandemic, 75% of museums stepped into their pivotal role as educators providing virtual educational programs, experiences, and curricula to students, parents, and teachers.

4, Two-thirds (64%) of directors predicted cuts in education, programming, or other public services due to significant budget cuts.

In the place of thriving forums of learning and public discourse, we currently have empty galleries. Like the paintings of the National Gallery, stacked in the mine shafts at Manod, the works of art are safe - but beyond our reach when we so desperately need inspiration.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, late 19th century American painting and decorative art

What is to be done under the present, discouraging, circumstances?

At this point, it is important to reject desperation or fatalism. The worst-case scenarios of the museum survey have not happened - yet. 

Instead of despair, I think we should cultivate what John Keats called “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” 

If we cultivate "Negative Capability," we can still embrace the creative life, the joy of art and the search for meaning. Our minds and hearts can still function despite the "uncertainties, mysteries, doubts" which afflict us.

If your church is closed because of Covid-19, practice mindfulness meditation. If libraries are closed, read the old favorites on your bedside bookshelf - I was amazed at the new insights I derived from reading Life in the English Country House after so many years.

If the art museums remain closed - some perhaps forever - then it's time we started creating our own art. Search inward and then reach for a sketchbook or lump of sculpting clay. I've begun taking photos of nearby trees and gardens as a form of creative expression. I'm still far from matching the brilliance of my wife, Anne's, photography, which has lifted Art Eyewitness to new levels of visual enchantment. But I've lit a few "single candles" and the glow from them really is better than darkness.

Ed Voves, (Photo 2020) Seasonal Images of Philadelphia, PA

In closing, we at Art Eyewitness wish you a Happy New Year! Yes, the art scene is rather bleak right now but the "candles" we will light in 2021 will brighten the world around us like the dawn!

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. Original Photos: Anne Lloyd and Ed Voves. All rights reserved 

The excerpt of the June 2020 museum survey by the the American Alliance of Museums is quoted from:
Images of The Agnew Clinic by Thomas Eakins, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Additional images, courtesy of the National Gallery, London, the National Portrait Gallery, London, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press.

Introductory Image:
Detail of Thomas Eakin's The Agnew Clinic, showing Mary Clymer. Image details below.

Unknown Photographer. First Picture of the Month, Titian Noli Me Tangere (NG270), in the West Vestibule of the National Gallery, London, March 12-21 April 21,1942. Archive reference number - NG30/1942/43

Titian (Italian, 1488/90-1576) Noli Me Tangere, ca. 1514 Oil on canvas: 110.5 x 91.9 cm. National Gallery, London. Bequeathed by Samuel Rogers, 1856. NG270

Thomas Eakins (American, 1844–1916) Portrait of Dr. Hayes Agnew (The Agnew Clinic), 1889. Oil on canvas: On loan from the University of Pennsylvania Art Collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Mary V. Clymer (1861-1942) Photo from the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of Nursing, University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020) Detail of Thomas Eakin's The Agnew Clinic, 1889, showing Mary Clymer.

The Met 360° Project. The Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art Press Preview invitation for the Making the Met, 1870-2020 exhibition. Copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the Humboldt and the United States exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, showing the Skeleton of the Mastodon, excavated by Charles Willson Peale in 1801.

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) George Catlin's Buffalo Hunt under the Wolf-skin Mask, 1831-1833. Oil on canvas: 24 x 29 in. (60.9 x 73.7 cm). Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.

Cover art for Mark Girouard's Life in the English Country House (Yale University Press, 1978) © Yale University Press

Unknown artist, Portrait of Sir Henry Unton, ca. 1596. Oil on panel: 29 1/8 in. x 64 1/4 in. (740 mm x 1632 mm) National Portrait Gallery, London, purchased in 1884. #NPG 710.

Admission ticket to the British Museum, 1790 ©Trustees of the British Museum

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gallery 211, late 19th century American art

Ed Voves, (Photo 2020) Seasonal Images of Philadelphia, PA

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Art Eyewitness Book Review: John Nash by Andy Friend


John Nash: the Landscape of Love and Solace

By Andy Friend

Thames & Hudson/$40/352 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves

In one of the most memorable tales of Greek mythology, Narcissus looked into a pond and glimpsed his own image. He swiftly became infatuated, remaining oblivious to the love of the nymph, Echo.

Narcissism is a danger which can befall any human being, but is especially dangerous to artists. After all, they seemingly have god-like powers of creation and it takes a strong personal character not to succumb to debilitating self-regard.

In his new biography of the British artist, John Nash, Andy Friend charts the working life of a creative spirit who steadfastly avoided the fate of Narcissus. Nash frequently depicted ponds or woodland streams in his paintings, but when he looked into reflections in these watery mirrors, it was Nature itself which he beheld. 

Unknown Photographer. John Nash, 1918

During his long life, John Nash, 1893-1977, frequently needed to call upon his reserves of fortitude. From childhood on, he encountered "Colonel Depression" and struggled against a life-long undertow of suffering and loss. Fortunately for Nash, there was a nymph in his life, whom he did not ignore. This was his wife, Christine, and Nash's eventual success as an artist was in no small part due to her. 

This compelling biography recounts the unconventional, open-marriage which sustained Nash and his wife through two world wars, long stretches of near-poverty and the terrible calamity of the death of their only child in an automobile accident in 1935. 

Nash's life and work were also much affected by his relationship with his artist brother,  Paul. It would be misleading to emphasize sibling-rivalry as a major factor. Paul Nash's enthusiasm and support were crucial in John's decision to become an artist. Yet, as Andy Friend  relates, their careers came to a point where their paths diverged. Paul went on to become one of the leading proponents of Modernism in British art. In 1933, when he founded Unit 1, an association of avante garde artists, Paul excluded his brother from its membership.

The defining event which initially linked the Nash brothers as artists was World War I. Both served in the British Army on the Western Front. Both were commissioned as war artists during the conflict - John at the very end - and both responded to the "Great War" in ways which shaped much of their outlook on life after the shooting stopped.

Paul received an officer's commission and, after he became an official war artist, had a staff car placed at his disposal in order to tour the British sector. He witnessed the appalling carnage at close hand and was frequently exposed to German artillery fire.

John's experience was very different. He served as an enlisted man, spending long stretches hauling supplies, engaged in road construction and monotonous - and dangerous - tours of sentry duty and trench patrols. 

John Nash, Oppy Wood, 1917. Evening, 1918

As a private soldier, John was forbidden to bring any artist's supplies into the front line. Apart from some hurried sketches, he had to rely on his memory to record the impact of war.The long, tedious hours spent in the front line at Oppy Wood, near Arras, would be summoned to life in one of his major paintings, completed after the Armistice of 1918.

On December 30,1917, John's company was hurled into the Battle of Cambrai. A few weeks earlier, the first massed use of tanks had ripped-open a gap in the German lines. But the British high command bungled this great opportunity by failing to bring in reinforcements. The Germans, clad in white winter uniforms, launched a devastating assault. John's unit, conspicuous targets in their olive drab battle gear, counter-attacked across the snow-covered No-Man's Land. John was one of the few survivors.

This atrocious debacle might have broken a lesser man but John Nash turned the experience into a powerful testament to the human spirit amid the folly of war. Andy Friend, who curated a recent exhibition of Nash's work in Britain, brilliantly analyzes the preparatory drawings which Nash made from memory, using them to compose his masterful painting of men in battle.

John Nash, The Counter-Attack; Study for "Over the Top", 1918

Nash's Over the Top is literally, as well as emotionally, a moving picture. By his brilliant use of cropping and the subtle variations in the pose of his protagonists, Nash propelled the action from the trench, toward the unseen German lines. There most of the company would fall, killed, wounded or pinned-down by machine gun fire. 

   John Nash, "Over the Top"  1st Artists' Rifles at Marcoing,
 30th December 1917, 1918

So vivid and believable is Nash's depiction of advancing troops that we half-expect to see combat medics follow them on to the picture plane, in order to carry the wounded and dying back to a field hospital. And we must never forget that Nash is recording, from memory, the sacrifice and death of comrades from his own unit, the 1st Artists' Rifles. These men are not just faceless "poor bloody infantry" plodding to their doom over a landscape of blood-tinged snow. Nash knew each of them by face.

Commenting with great insight on Nash's experience of war, Friend writes:

John's oeuvre of war art was a major personal achievement of recall and creativity. He had dealt with bitter experiences, extended his range as an artist and produced a unique contribution to the national collection, instantly appreciated for its authenticity by those who had been there.

Friend, however, goes on to note that, following Over the Top and Oppy Wood, Nash would seldom "ever make human beings central to an oil painting." I was moved to compare Nash's postwar landscapes with those of his American contemporary, Charles Burchfield (1893-1967). A World War I veteran, Burchfield painted forests and fields, deserted by humanity, haunted by some malign spirit. Eventually, Burchfield achieved a level of spiritual transcendence in his paintings. 

Were similar forces at work in Nash's art? 

Nash's landscapes in the years just after World War I do strike me as having similar death-tinged nuances. In 1923, he painted The Moat, Grange Farm, Kimble, which evokes the setting of Oppy Wood. Instead of a trench there is a water-filled moat surrounded by leafless, misshapen trees. There is no evidence of human life and, strangely, the reflections of the trees in the water seldom conform to the shape of overhanging tree trunks and branches. These are not mirror images, but rather apparitions.

John Nash worked through and transcended his feelings of loss in order to find  solace in the landscape of England. We can readily see this emotional transformation in a later work, The Lake, Little Horkesley Hall, painted around 1958.

                  John Nash, The Lake, Little Horkesley Hall, c.1958                 
©Royal Academy of Arts, photographer: J. Hammond

In this beautiful, lyrical, work, the reflections match "spot-on." Instead of the picture being devoid of people, Nash places us there in the role of direct, if unseen, observers.  And what is there to observe? It is nature regenerating itself, quietly preparing to burst into bloom when spring comes again.

Nash spent much of his life "regenerating" from World War I and, it should be noted, from a continuing cycle of the deaths of close friends and loved-ones. These losses included not just his little son, William, but the artist, Eric Ravilous, the subject of an earlier biography by Friend. His brother, Paul, who had battled asthma for much of his life, died soon after the Second World War.

Nash's life is a salutary example of the beneficial effects of work. Constant effort, dedicated attention to craft, insight infused with light from the act of daily looking and living with nature - this was the great drama of John Nash's life. Paul Nash was correct, whatever his motivation, for not enlisting him in Unit 1.

Unknown Photographer, John Nash, ca. 1930

Nash had to make a living, especially as his landscapes often went unsold. He earned his bread by mastering woodcut engraving and lithography. His illustrations for books and magazines rank among the best examples of these art forms, which were such a staple of commercial art during the early decades of the twentieth century that it is easy to overlook their brilliance.

Among the many merits of John Nash: the Landscape of Love and Solace are the quality of design and careful production values which are very evident when perusing its pages. Rather than being a large-format museum catalog, the book has an "old-fashioned" feel to it, like a quality novel from the 1930's. 

Books of the 30's and 40's certainly did not have so many colored pictures - brilliantly integrated with the text - as the present volume does. But the woodcuts featured in the book grab our attention and hold our interest just as they did in times past, when the number of illustrations was much fewer and far between than it is now.

The same exceptional merit is due to the text and the author who wrote it. Andy Friend has summoned John Nash back to life and introduced us to him. Nash had a great capacity for making friendships, all the more poignant for the many early losses through war and disease. Nash never stopped embracing  new friends even in old age. 

After finishing John Nash: the Landscape of Love and Solace , I was very pleased to have made the acquaintance of its protagonist and to have enjoyed his company in this deeply satisfying book. 

John Northcote Nash might well have spent his life in Narcissus-like, self-absorption. Instead, he reached out to his fellow human beings and focused on the mirror of Nature, which reflected back the quiet splendors of the world around him.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                Cover and image of page spread, courtesy of Thames and Hudson. 

Introductory image: cover art of John Nash: the Landscape of Love and Solace

Unknown Photographer. John Nash, 1918. Vintage snapshot print: 3 1/4 in. x 2 1/8 in. (81 mm x 55 mm). Given by Ronald George Blythe, 2004. National Portrait Gallery, London, Photographs Collection. NPG x127171  ©National Portrait Gallery                                   

John Nash (British, 1893-1977) Oppy Wood, 1917. Evening, 1918. Oil on canvas: 1828 mm x 2133 mm. Imperial War Museum, UK. IWM ART 2243.

John Nash (British, 1893-1977) The Counter-Attack; Study for "Over the Top", 1918. Watercolour, pencil and ink on paper: 252 mm x 341 mm. Imperial War Museum, UK. IWM ART 3908

John Nash (British, 1893-1977) "Over the Top" 1st Artists' Rifles at Marcoing, 30th December 1917, 1918. Oil on canvas: 798 mm x 1080 mm. Imperial War Museum, UK. IWM ART 1656.

John Nash, RA (British, 1893-1977) The Lake, Little Horkesley Hall, c.1958. Oil on canvas: 606 mm x 760 mm. Royal Academy of Arts 03/1007 ©Royal Academy of Arts, London; photographer: J. Hammond

Unknown Photographer. John Nash, ca. 1930. Cream-toned bromide print:12 1/4 in. x 14 3/8 in. (311 mm x 364 mm). Given by Ronald George Blythe, 2004  National Portrait Gallery, London, Photographs Collection. NPG x127169  ©National Portrait Gallery

Page spread from John Nash: the Landscape of Love and Solace by Andy Friend. Courtesy of Thames and Hudson.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Ravenna by Judith Herrin


             Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe

By Judith Herrin    

Princeton University Press/$29.95/537 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves 

In most books on Western art, the mosaics of Ravenna, the last capital of the Western Roman Empire, are accorded a few paragraphs of commentary. Then, the narrative bids farewell to the glories of ancient art and the journey to the Middle Ages begins.

A recently published book about Ravenna presses the pause button of the march of art history. The author, Judith Herrin, demonstrates that the impact of Ravenna was much broader and more influential, in politics and in art, than is generally realized.

In this major reassessment, Herrin combines an overarching view of events and historical trends. She also focuses on the social, religious and artistic history of Ravenna. There are so many points of cultural transition, shared with the embryonic nations of the West, that Ravenna certainly merits the title of "crucible of Europe."

Ravenna's "center stage" role in history began as Germanic tribes crossed the frontiers of the Roman Empire, beginning with the Goths in 376. 

In 402, the Emperor Honorius evacuated his court from Milan (Rome itself was no longer the capital of the Western half of the Empire) and took refuge in the more defensible city of Ravenna. Until that point, Ravenna had been a navy base where a branch of the Po River flows into the Adriatic Sea. Ravenna and its neighboring port facility, Classis, were surrounded by dense marshes which the cavalry of the Gothic tribes could not easily cross. 

Of necessity, Herrin presents a considerable amount of political history which took place beyond Ravenna's protective marshes. Inside the city limits, many of the norms of urban life under the Roman Empire continued - chariot races, public baths, regular supplies of grain from Sicily or North Africa. When Rome was sacked in 410 by Gothic troops who had not been paid, the shock was "seismic" but life went on. Those who could, fled to Ravenna.

Two of the political "survivors" who flourished in Ravenna serve as major protagonists in Herrin's often gripping narrative. These larger-than-life figures are Empress Galla Placidia (ca.388-450) and the savy Gothic leader, King Theodoric (454–526). Their lives, fraught with peril and adventure, cannot be more than summarized here. They did share one significant life experience. Galla Placidia and Theodoric both spent a considerable part of their youth as hostages.

Gold Solidus of Galla Placidia, minted at Ravenna, 426-430

Galla Placidia was half-sister to the feckless Emperor Honorious. She was living in Rome rather than Ravenna, when the Gothic mercenaries stormed the city in 410. Galla Placidia was carted-off with other prisoners when these Visigoths departed. She was very well-treated and eventually married the Gothic king, Athaulf. This union might have led to a Roman-Goth alliance but Athaulf was murdered by one of his own men. Galla Placidia was eventually released, married again and for a decade was the regent of the Western Empire for her young son, Valentinian III. 

Theodoric, born in 454, spent his younger years as a hostage in Constantinople, capital of the Eastern roman Empire. He spent his time wisely, learning about the ways of the Romans. 

Gold Triple Solidus of Theodoric, 493-526

By a series of complex maneuvers, diplomatic and military, Theodoric seized power in Italy, with his capital in Ravenna. He ruled, nominally on behalf of the Eastern Empire. The real power was his and Theodoric understood that raw military strength was most effective when tempered by patronage of the Christian Church and its art. 

In cultivating the Church, Theodoric followed in the footsteps of Galla Placidia.

When Galla Placida took up residence in Ravenna, following her release by the Visigoths, she had few political "cards" to play. But constructing  impressive churches was one way of asserting power. This she did, building the great church in Ravenna dedicated to St. John the Evangelist and, even more famously, the edifice known as the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. As Herrin astutely notes, Galla Placida's Mausoleum was never intended as a burial chamber but was part of another church which no longer survives.

The Dome of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, 425-450
Photo: © Kieran Dodds

Galla Placidia's "Mausoleum" is an manifestation of political and religious, indeed universal, order. The astonishing mosaics of its interior show a starry sky, an image of Jesus - one of the earliest surviving depictions of Christ, a scene showing the martyrdom of St. Lawrence and decorative motifs of flora and fauna recalling the Garden of Eden. These mosaics are accompanied by verses, based on quotes from the Bible, carved on the arches of the building. 

Galla Placidia brought heaven to earth with this incredible imagery. She also reasserted the claim of the rulers of Rome to a definitive religious role. Beginning with Constantine, the first Christian emperor, Rome's supreme leader was declared to be isapóstolos - "equal of the Apostles." Galla Placidia's magnificent buildings in Ravenna proclaimed that an empress could be isapóstolos, too.

There is no record of King Theodoric desiring to be recognized as "equal to the Apostles." He did aim at political parity with the Eastern Roman emperor and very nearly achieved this goal. 

Detail of mosaics on the north wall of the nave of St. Apollinare Nuovo, showing the presentation of gifts by the Three Magi. 
(This image does not appear in the book.)

A capable general and skillful diplomat, Theodoric rivaled Galla Placdia as a builder of churches in Ravenna. His palace church, St. Apollinare Nuovo, with towering marble pillars and three tiers of mosaics, ranks as one of the great architectural achievements of the period, equal in merit to contemporary structures in Constantinople sponsored by the Eastern emperors.

Theodoric faced a problem which Galla Placidia never had to deal with. Although Theodoric was a Christian, he was a member of a group branded as heretics by the Christian religious establishment. He wasn't alone. Almost all of the German tribes had embraced Arianism, a form of Christianity which emphasized the cosmic power of God the Father, with the divinity of Jesus - the Son of God - being of a much lesser degree. The established Christian view, Orthodoxy, held that Jesus was equally human and equally divine. 

The difference in theology was profound and affected the composition of the art works on the walls of Ravenna's churches. Herrin's perceptive analysis, ably complemented by the superb photos of Kieran Dodds, helps the reader grasp the contending views of Jesus, God and Man.

Ravenna's baptisteries are a case in point. These buildings, still standing, were constructed for new Christians to profess their faith. Recalling the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, one shows a mosaic of Jesus as a mature adult, the other as a beardless youth. The first is the Orthodox Baptistery, the second - built by Theodoric - is the Arian Baptistery.

These rival interpretations of how Jesus' physical attributes reflected his divine status is a fascinating subject. Early Christian art emphasized the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd, rather than Jesus on the Cross. The crucified Christ was still a source of grief and mortification despite the passing of centuries. 

Detail of the young Christ from the apse of San Vitale, 526-540
Photo: © Kieran Dodds

When we look at the magnificent depiction of a young, fresh-faced Jesus on a spectacular mosaic in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, we are seeing the deep roots of the emphasis on his humanity. Yet, San Vitale is an Orthodox Church, built after Theodoric. Not far from this image in San Vitale, is another depiction of Jesus, older and more venerable - and bearded. Even the Christian Church establishment felt the need to try and satisfy both parties.

So too did Theodoric. He was a notably tolerant ruler, accommodating both the Orthodox population of Italy and his own Arian followers. .

Theodoric's amazing political fortune never turned as long as he lived. But all his hopes for a Gothic dynasty of a united Italy, ruled from Ravenna, swiftly withered after he died in 526. The powerful and ambitious Emperor Justinian made his move to reconquer Italy, ultimately achieved after a bitterly fought campaign. Italy was left in ruins and the Byzantine treasury drained of funds needed to pay Justinian's troops. 

No sooner were the Goths defeated than a new wave of German invaders, the Lombards, overran the north of Italy. Ravenna was menaced by an unceasing round of raids and sieges, though its marshland defenses generally held. 

Within the city walls, a similar scenario occurred. Arianism was refuted, to be succeeded by endless, hair-splitting interpretations of Jesus' human/divine nature. 

The latter chapters of Ravenna, Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe make for some fairly discouraging reading. But Herrin redeems the political and religious folly of that era by her insightful examination of Ravenna's social history. While "things fell apart" and "the center did not hold," considerable achievements in medicine, scientific education and linguistics occurred in the beleaguered city.

Ravenna endured. Charlemagne eventually crushed the Lombards and was crowned as Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, 800. As he laid the foundations of his expansive realm, he had only to look to Ravenna as a treasure house of art and architecture and a ready source of political ideology and scientific ideas.

The Domkirche (Palace Chapel) of Charlemagne at Aachen, 794-813

Charlemagne visited Ravenna three times. He directly modeled the Domkirche,  or palace chapel, which he built in his capital city of Aachen on the plan of the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna. 

Herrin also speculates - with abundant evidence - that Charlemagne felt a special affinity for King Theodoric: 

Visiting the king's mausoleum ... Charles perhaps considered how to be buried in a comparably impressive fashion. Theodoric's combination of Germanic aggression and Byzantine statecraft created a startlingly relevant model for the Frankish king so recently raised to imperial status.

Ravenna's legacy came at a high price - for Ravenna. In one of the most provocative conclusions of her very fine book, Herrin judges that the efforts to safeguard the knowledge of the ancient world ultimately sapped the strength and independence of Ravenna's people. 

So much effort was expended in protecting the city from invaders beyond the marshes that little energy and resources remained to drain the harbor at Classis. Year-after-year, erosion filled the port with silt, cutting Ravenna's access to the sea. Likewise, the emphasis on preserving traditional knowledge prevented the growth of a sense of trial-by-error initiative - and innovation. 

By the time of Charlemagne's visits, Ravenna was fading in economic power. Venice, founded in 697 by refugees from Lombard raids, was already sending merchant vessels and protecting warships down the Adriatic Sea, en route to the Mediterranean sea lanes. The ships of Venice, proudly flying the lion banner of St. Mark, sailed past land-locked Ravenna, without bothering to stop. 


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           

Introductory Image: Book cover image of Ravenna, Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe, Courtesy of Princeton University Press

Gold Solidus of Galla Placidia, minted at Ravenna, 426-430. Gold: 4.47g, 21mm. Dumbarton Oaks Museum. # BZC.1948.17.932

Gold Triple Solidus of Theodoric, 493-526.

The Dome of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, 425-450. Courtesy of Princeton University Press. Photo: © Kieran Dodds

Detail of mosaics on the north wall of the nave of St. Apollinare Nuovo, showing the presentation of gifts by the Three Magi. Courtesy of the University of Michigans' Art Images for College Teaching. 

Detail of the young Christ from apse of San Vitale, 526-540. Courtesy of Princeton University Press Photo: © Kieran Dodds 

The Domkirche (High Cathedral) of Charlemagne at Aachen, 794-813. Photo courtesy of J. Heribert Pohl.,_Impressionen_aus_dem_karolingischem_Oktogon_---_High_Cathedral_of_Aachen,_Impressions_from_the_Carolingian_octagon_(14328301875).jpg