It is now commonplace to believe, contrary to the assumptions of centuries, that the Dark Ages which succeeded the glories of the Roman Empire were not so dark, and that the later history of the Empire was not so glorious. A concomitant reappraisal has led to the acceptance of Early Christian and Byzantine art not as a regression to primitivism – an aspect of the decline and fall – but as one of the most brilliant chapters in the history of Western art.
But it remains true that in the territories of the Western Empire from the fifth to the ninth century there was little in the way of monumental building or large-scale artistic production. Only in a few dispersed pockets was the flame of ambitious artistic and intellectual endeavour kept alive.
A string of such pockets gathered around the northern end of the Adriatic and north-east Italy, the last redoubt of the Empire in the West. Born of an Umbrian past and raised in Imperial retreat, Ravenna remains anchored in the Adriatic marshes, humbled by the rise of her great neighbours, Bologna and Venice, and unhindered by later political commerce. The effect of this marginal status has been to spare her Early Christian buildings and leave a Byzantine heritage of unique range and richness. Given the intensity with which Ravenna developed between 402, when Honorius chose it as his capital, and 751, when the last of the Exarchs returned to Constantinople, it makes a fitting introduction to Early Christian and early mediaeval culture in north-eastern Italy.
Arising from the need to cater for the spiritual requirements of newly emancipated Christianity, the clarity and humanism of the classical tradition were superseded by images and decoration designed to instil a kind of sacred dread, and to intimate the glories of the world to come. Mosaic was the key element in creating church interiors of awesome splendour and intense spirituality.
Early Christian forms were endorsed throughout the whole of the Adriatic seaboard, and the second half of the tour embraces Aquileia, Grado, Poreč (Parenzo) in Croatia and Concordia Sagittaria. The theme is rounded off with the astonishing little eighth-century church in Cividale in the foothills of the Julian Alps which preserves the earliest monumental sculpture of the Middle Ages.
Ravenna. Fly at c. 3.00pm (British Airways) from London Heathrow to Bologna. Drive to Ravenna for the first of three nights.
Ravenna. Begin with an exploration of the 5th-century forms at the cathedral and Orthodox Baptistery, and the superlative 6th-century ivory throne of Maximian in the Museo Arcivescovile. In the afternoon study Arian Ravenna at the Arian Baptistery and Theodoric’s great Palatine church of S. Apollinare Nuovo. Investigate the 5th-century basilica design which provided Theodoric’s court with its most immediate models, and Galla Placidia’s splendid ex-voto basilica of S. Giovanni Evangelista.
Ravenna, Classe. In the morning see the outstanding National Museum, with excellent Byzantine ivory carvings. Travel by coach to Theodoric’s superb Mausoleum and to the ancient port of Classe for the great 6th-century basilica of S. Apollinare. Private evening visit to the church of S. Vitale, the greatest 6th-century building of the West; the invention with which form, colour, space and narrative meaning are combined is breathtaking. The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is the earliest Christian structure in Europe to retain its mosaic decoration in its entirety.
Pomposa, Concordia Sagittaria. Drive north to the Po delta. Pomposa is an important 8th-century Benedictine abbey, richly extended by Abbot Guido’s magnificent 11th-century porch and campanile. Lunch in Chioggia. The Roman road station at Concordia Sagittaria, whose modest mediaeval cathedral was built alongside a 4th-century basilica and martyrium, is splendidly revealed through archaeological excavation. Stay four nights in Cividale.
Cividale. Although founded as Forum Julii in the 1st century BC, Cividale is best known to historians as the site of the earliest Longobard settlement in northern Italy, and most celebrated by art historians for the astonishing quality and quantity of the 8th-century work which has survived here. See the superb ‘Tempietto’ of Sta. Maria in Valle, Longobardic work in the cathedral museum and spectacular early mediaeval collections in the archaeological museum. The afternoon is free in Cividale.
Poreč (Croatia). Drive south, cross Slovenia and enter the part of Croatia formerly known as Istria. The sole object of the excursion is to visit Poreč (Parenzo), a longish journey justified by the existence of an unusually complete 6th-century cathedral complex: basilican church, baptistery and bishop’s palace. The church proper was built above an earlier basilica c. 540 by Bishop Euphrasius, whose complete episcopal throne is set within an apse which, for once, has retained its full complement of furnishings and fittings.
Aquileia, Grado. Aquileia was a major Roman city whose influential cathedral was complete by 319. Sections of walls and mosaic pavements were preserved within the present 11th-century cathedral, a rather wonderful survival. The Longobard sack of 568 resulted in the removal of the see to the more defensible position on the coast at Grado, whose two great 6th-century churches, Sta. Maria della Grazie and the cathedral, also have outstanding floor mosaics.
Torcello. Drive to the Adriatic and take a water taxi to the island of Torcello in the Venetian lagoon, a major city while Venice was little more than a fishing village. Visit the largely 11th-century cathedral of Sta. Maria Assunta and adjacent Greek-cross reliquary church of Sta. Fosca. Continue to Venice Airport and fly to London Heathrow, arriving at c. 7pm.
Dr Ffiona Gilmore Eaves
Read Archaeology at Cambridge followed by a PhD from Nottingham on the early church at Porec. She has lectured for the WEA, for whom she founded and managed a study tours section, and for various extra-mural departments. She is the co-author of Retrieving the Record: A Century of Archaeology at Porec published by the University of Zagreb.
Price – per person
Two sharing: £2,270 or £2,090 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,380 or £2,200 without flights.
Included: flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus 319/321); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation; breakfasts; 1 lunch and 5 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Palazzo Bezzi, Ravenna: a new 4-star superior hotel, located on the edge of the historic centre. Hotel Roma, Cividale: a simple, functional and friendly 3-star, located in the centre of town. Single rooms are doubles for sole use.
The tour involves a lot of walking in town centres where vehicular access is restricted and a lot of standing in museums and churches. It should not be attempted by anyone who has difficulty with everyday walking and stair-climbing. Some days involve a lot of driving. Average distance by coach per day: 76 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
'The locations of the 2 hotels were excellent for easy walking to the various locations – comfortable and quiet too.'
'Everywhere we went there were splendid things to see. And if the splendour wasn’t immediately apparent it became so after two minutes of erudite and enthusiastic explication by our lecturer.'
'Just thank you – another very rewarding experience.'
'Our lecturer was unfailingly courteous and helpful and very considerate towards all tour members.'
'Our lecturer was remarkable. Very enthusiastic and able to impart his knowledge extremely well.'
'The title merited the 'brilliance'...an unforgettable experience. One of the best holidays I have had.'
'I was surprised at each day being shown something more spectacular and different to the day before!'
'An astonishing array of highly fascinating sites were included.'
'We saw wonderful sights, so many brilliant churches and mosaics. Very well planned and organised. Both lecturer and manager excellent, a great team.'