Basilica di San Vitale a Ravenna
"I had committed myself earlier to spend the Easter vacation with Collins and, though I would have broken my word without compunction and left my former friend friendless, had Sebastian made a sign, no sign was made; accordingly Collins and I spent several economical and instructive weeks together in Ravenna. A bleak wind blew from the Adriatic among those mighty tombs. In an hotel bedroom designed for a warmer season, I wrote long letters to Sebastian and called daily at the post: office for his answers. There were two, each from a different address, neither giving any plain news of himself, for he wrote in a style of remote fantasy - …'Mummy and two attendant poets have three bad colds in the head, so I have come here. It is the feast of S. Nichodemus of Thyatira, who was martyred by having goatskin nailed to his pate, and is accordingly the patron of bald heads. Tell Collins, who I am sure will be bald before us. There are too many people here, but one, praise heaven! Has an ear trumpet, and that keeps me in good humour. And now I must try to catch a fish. It is too far to send it to you so I will keep the backbone…' - which left me fretful. Collins made notes for a little thesis pointing out the inferiority of the original mosaics to their photographs. Here was planted the seed of what became his life’s harvest. When, many years later, there appeared the first massive volume of his still unfinished work on Byzantine Art, I was touched to find among two pages of polite, preliminary acknowledgements of debt, my own name: '…to Charles Ryder, with the aid of whose all-seeing yes I first saw the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and San Vitale…'"
Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh. Chapman and Hall, London, 1945.
San Vitale (527-548) is one of Italy's most important monuments of early Christian art, and represents a major tradition of building in the Early Christian period, that of the centralized structure. The circular form has a long history and was most frequently used for tombs or commemorative mausolea in Roman times. They were adapted by the Christians for the additional function of the baptistry. The symbolic cleansing and rebirth into a new Christian life embodied in Baptism was appropriately placed in buildings reminiscent of mausolea with their implications of death, resurrection, and salvation in the hereafter. San Vitale, however, is a special case, for it served as the principal church of the Archbishop Maximianus, the personal representative of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, after the Byzantine occupation of Ravenna in 540. Structurally, it followed a traditional plan, a double-shell building in which the exterior wall forms an octagon surrounding a higher central octagonal core surmounted by a dome. On all but one side a groin-vaulted aisle or ambulatory on the ground floor and gallery above surround this central core. Semicircular niches (exedrae) curve outward from the central space into the aisle and gallery areas, creating an undulating effect. Triple arcades penetrate these exedrae on the ambulatory and gallery levels, reducing the curving walls to billowing screens. A two-story arch encloses each exedra, emphasizing the height of the building and leading the eye upward to the dome above (reworked in the 17th century). On the eighth side a two-story, groin-vaulted rectangular sanctuary interrupts the ambulatory and gallery, leading to the semicircular apse with its half dome. This sanctuary imposes a longitudinal emphasis on what would have otherwise been an entirely centralized building. The exterior of San Vitale is a simple, direct statement of its basic geometric volumes and structure, a revealing statement of its wraparound exterior ambulatory, vertical central core, and penetrating sanctuary with its accumulation of three chapels. The interior, however, presents a varied sequence of shifting curved screens of columns in the exedrae, contrasts between dark and lighted areas, and an undulating interior core that soars to the dome above. In its original condition, with its full complement of variegated marble veneer in the lower areas, vast areas of shimmering mosaics and richly carved, painted capitals, light and colour would have worked together to create a diffuse and elusory architectural space. This building must be seen in the context of the elaborate program of mosaics that occupy the walls and vaults of the sanctuary. They are the most complete set of mosaics surviving from the time of the Emperor Justinian.