Our travels this month take us into the relatively unexplored realm of Byzantine Italy. To tell the truth, it is not even very often that you hear the word "Byzantine" associated with Italy. Certainly not as frequently as, say, "Renaissance" or even "medieval." After all, "Byzantine" has to do with Byzantium, an empire and a city which later came to be known as Constantinople and is today called Istanbul. So what do we mean by "Byzantine Italy"? It's not the result of a military occupation, it's not a historic period nor a religious movement, although all three were involved.
Perhaps the best way to describe Byzantine Italy is as an artistic incursion. For a few hundred years, a long time ago, the peninsula was infiltrated by small platoons of extraordinary artisans. What remains today might be likened to the elusive trail of crumbs they scattered on the forest floor during their stay. And don't consider "crumbs" a misnomer. As magnificent as these gleaming monuments are, they are but a shadow of what they were before wave after wave of foreign invaders ransacked them, carrying off the choicer morsels like so many battalions of hungry ants. It's hard to imagine how extravagant these churches, palaces, tombs and mausoleums must have been if even the "crumbs" constitute one of the few points of glittering light in an age that is otherwise known throughout Europe as "Dark."
In this issue we try to show you where that trail leads. We'll give you a little background history and tell you how to interpret the symbols. Along the way we'll stop to concentrate on two paramount masterpieces, Ravenna and Monreale. Perhaps they will inspire you to pay a visit to Byzantine Italy on your next trip.
by Kristin Jarratt