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Misty Morning at St Basilio


The Miracle of St Guido

St Vitale

The Basilica of San Vitale

My time as an adult student on the John Hall course of 2023 by Eleo Carson


Where to start on this extraordinary experience?  Thanks to Charlie I checked up on Week 1 of the John Hall Course and decided I needed to come and listen to the lectures that week … and Week 2 … and Week 3 …  and on it went for 7 weeks, which means that now I am on the final week in Rome.  I came as one of two adult students, hadn’t studied for years but managed OK.
I have loved it all.  We have covered such a wide range of subjects, the organisation and quality of the talks were exceptional and we were indulged in private visits to many places, including the Guggenheim, St Mark’s Basilica, the Zanetti glass factory on Murano and here in Rome, guided by Charlie and Frank Dabell, the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, with so many other well planned trips to avoid the crowds.  Lecturers from all over flew in and flew out. We had Charles Hope for five talks on amongst other things: Venetian Renaissance painting, debates: ‘Is this a Giorgione or a Titian and did Vasari honestly ever go to Padova?’ etc;  Andrew Hopkins on  architecture, Leslie Primo on Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, Ben Street had us on the edge of seats with his talks on art, Nigel McGilchrist spoke about marble – of all colours and types, plus mosaics, frescoes, Venetian trade and much else. One day he gave us a demo on tempera making. He arrived with a kitbag full of strange things: mussel shells, egg yolks minus their skin, needles, gold leaf which behaved badly and flew away if one was wearing the wrong shoes, etc etc.

There were talks on music, Ruskin and his Venetian experience, literature and poetry, all aspects of Venetian art and so much more (inc film talks and six films, cookery, art and photography classes), ending with five lectures on Modern Art by Louisa Buck which left us exhilarated by her verve.  To bring all this to life we went on regular walkabouts of the city with Charlie, Louisa Warman  and Susan Steer who cleverly introduced us to the finer aspects of fresco, mosaic and iconography and much else, plus visiting lecturers (inc our magical private night time visit with Nicholas True to San Marco where we went from darkness to light as the mosaics above and around us slowly came to life, all the while Patrick Craig singing up into the heavens).  As a result of these lectures and outings we began to understand Venice, see all it had to offer through more knowledgeable eyes, rather than those of a mere tourist.

One of my other great pleasures was the company of the 37 young students, funny, clever, kind, slow to wake up, ‘tired’ at times, delightful and my damp Airbnb companion Mary-Ann. Finally, there were the four extraordinary day trips to Ravenna, Padova, Torcello and the Palladian Villas. On these trips we put our new-found knowledge into practice. For me, it has been seven wonderful weeks of talks, walks, churches, palaces, vaporettos, the pub quiz, cafes, chatter and laughter, laundry and friendship. All this brilliantly pulled together by Charlie and Patrizia.

But what to choose to write about here? In the end I have gone for our trip to visit Pomposa and Ravenna because the beauty of the early 5th century mosaics profoundly affected me and I am certain all of us.

‘Be at the vaporetto stop for 8.00am, it will be very cold, dress well and don’t forget your feet will get frozen standing on the stone and marble.’  We sort of got off on time, Charlie, Nigel McGilchrist (of mosaic and tempera fame) and Patrizia at the helm.  It certainly was v cold - I even heard one girl talk of her salopettes.  In the coach, as we crossed the lagoon, we could barely see an inch ahead, so low lay the mist.  But then at Pomposa everything changed, the sun came out, it reached 13 degrees, all outer clothes were discarded and we were all happy.

Pomposa Abbey: The Miracle of St Guido. I chose this as I so loved the frescoes in this Benedictine monastery.  This detail is part of a long fresco in the Refectory by Pietro da Rimini, 1318. He was a pupil of Giotto. Here, St Guido is entertaining the Archbishop of Ravenna who doesn’t like him and wants to close down the monastery. But by the expression on his face, once St Guido has turned water into wine, he changes his mind.  Interesting detail to the left – three people are in attendance, but look at their feet – only two pairs??  It seems the artist must also have changed his mind.

For me Galla Placidia’s 5th century mausoleum in Ravenna was one of the highlights of the day. We all filed in quietly, you could hear a pin drop as we stared with amazement at the beautiful scenes around us. Mosaics of all colours, plentiful use of gold against brilliant blue covered every surface. There were saints, martyrs, doves, the Good Shepherd with his flock, gruesome scenes and loving ones. All connected by a glittering ribbon-like tapestry of mosaic. Below, in one of the lunettes Martyr-to-be St Lawrence walks towards the griddle on which he was to be baked. Above him, two priests stand either side of an alabaster window, doves at their feet, initially a Roman and then a Christian symbol of love and peace. The ceiling represents heaven…

St Vitale: We’ve learned about all sorts of marble in our lectures, now Charlie helps us put it all into practice.

The Basilica of San Vitale - Jesus as Law Giver, 547D.  This is just such a fantastic mosaic in the apse with its central image of Jesus surrounded by band after band of mosaics in the richest of colours. In the centre he is portrayed as a young man in imperial purple, holding a scroll in one hand and with the other offering a crown to the martyr St Vitale (left), with Bishop Ecclesius (right) who built the basilica. He is offering up a model of the church. Everywhere you look is packed with glorious detail.

Sant’Apollinare il Nuovo.  By now the sun was pouring into the church and its beams brought alive the procession of female martyrs.  I particularly liked the energy of the three Magi wearing Phrygian hats and oriental trousers who walked before them on their way to Mary and her baby. The columns and capitals were reused from classical temples.

Sant’Apollinare in Classe. Built outside Ravenna in 549: I love this detail of the mosaics in the apse showing The Transfiguration. At the centre we have Sant’Apollinare (founder of the church and then martyr).  He and the sheep seem to be in a beautiful green garden with trees, rocks, plants and birds: the top sheep refer to Saints Peter, James and John, the lower scene shows Apollinare with his arms raised in prayer while around him graze twelve white lambs, representing the apostles, all happy in Paradise.   Modern note: thank goodness we can see it today; it nearly didn’t survive:  in the Second World War the church was saved from destruction when American forces thought the tower held a snipers’ nest. Colonel Popski, Polish army officer on the ground outside, disagreed. He said he recognised the church tower as one of the treasures from Classical times. Fortunately, they took his advice.

This was a magical, moving day for all of us leaving us with great memories on our long sleepy coach trip back home.


Sant’Apollinare il Nuovo

To see exactly how the John Hall Venice Course runs, hour by hour, day by day, go to The Programme

To see the quality of the Faculty, go to The Faculty

To get the feel of the Course first hand, view the various videos at Gallery

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