Slowly winding down a five-week fellowship at the Università di Bologna and catching up on some long overdue tourism. I spent one day at Cesena, where the University’s Architecture department has a base, and lectured to a nicely enthusiastic crowd of students on our current CHiRG research, which has to do with the technical development of the ‘glass box’ in the 1950s. In return, I got a fine day out in a small town that deserves more tourist action than it gets. Cesena, like a lot of small cities in Romagna, was occupied variously by the French, the Lombards, the Papal States, and its own city-state government, and it’s a palimpsest of influences. Including the oldest public library in Italy, maybe in the world–the Malatestiana Library, finished in 1452 and pretty clearly an influence on Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library, which was started just 70 years later. Ernesto Antonini, Professor of Architecture there, organized the lecture and generously indulged me with an afternoon at the library and around town. The piadine in Cesena is, according to the locals, better than anywhere else in Italy, and I’ve seen no evidence to the contrary. (Think love-child of a quesadilla and a pizza. Nothing not to like, really).
But then there is also some pure tourism to do, including Ravenna, which I’ve never managed to get to on previous trips. It’s slightly out of the way, which is why the last gasps of the Roman Empire found it to be a convenient hideout in the 6th century. The mosaics, as advertised, are spectacular, but it was also fascinating to see well-preserved examples of early Christian architecture of two types–baptistery and basilica–in such close proximity. Compared with the more vast construction achievements of the empire at its height, and with the more orderly and refined buildings of the Renaissance, this era has always seemed less interesting to me, but then I’ve never seen much of it first hand. A day of immersion in San Vitale, Sant’Apollinare Nuova, and the Neoniano Baptistery were healthy doses of reconsideration for me, because you can see not only the struggle to match the scale of their predecessors (but without the benefit of concrete by this point, since supplies of pozzolan from Vesuvius were no longer politically possible, and knowledge of the technique seems to have withered entirely), but also to rival what was by then the far superior building culture of the Byzantines to the east. San Vitale was started a decade before the Aya Sophia, and the similarities in form and structure are clear. They’re poignant masterpieces–very little of consequence was built on the peninsula for another four centuries after these structures, and they really represent the tail end of Rome’s building culture.
And the mosaics, frankly, aren’t hard to look at, either.