The late Gianni Versace was for example a fan of four main periods of time, classicism, Byzantium, the 18th century and the 1920s-‘30s.
In his case Versace filtered such themes through contemporary inspirations and through his own dreams.
This is essentially why even his tributes to classicism were injected with an almost carnal sensuality or why his vision of Byzantium (please refer to this previous post for images) reinterpreted elements from the Ravenna mosaics in a secular way, transforming the monumentality of the glorious Byzantine art into glittery and sparkling heavy encrustations of metal embroideries, shiny beads and colourful ornamentations, risking in this way of becoming sacrilegious, provocative and offensive.
Yet, in the same way the Ravenna mosaics preserve in their tesserae religious messages, Versace enclosed in his 1997 Byzantine collection, the desire of telling a story in a different way and in a different time.
Mixing art’s representation with fashion’s grandeur and excess like Versace did, Karl Lagerfeld explored again the glory of Byzantium in Chanel’s Pre-Fall 2011 collection, borrowing a lot of inspirations and ideas for his designs from the Ravenna mosaics.
Upon entering the Ravenna buildings - famous for the radiant mosaics decorating their walls and for their combination of Eastern and Western elements - visitors often find themselves in awe in front of the monumental crosses and radiant symbols surrounding them (I still remember that even the class bully experienced a sort of epiphany when we went to visit Ravenna on a school trip…).
To understand the art and allegories emblazoned in the Ravenna mosaics we have to go back in history to the time when, for its geographical position that allowed it to have quick relations with Constantinople, the town became the capital city of the Western Roman Empire (from 402 until 476).
To make sure Ravenna could stand up to its role of capital, from the early 5th century until the mid-6th century, new buildings enriched the city architecture.
Among the most ancient and important buildings there is for example the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia with its extraordinarily colourful mosaics that, covering the dome, dematerialise the physical limits and boundaries imposed by the architectures.
Penetrating from the alabaster windows, the light reflects on the walls, creating a sort of nocturnal atmosphere that goes well with the starry sky that decorates the ceiling of the central dome.
Themes borrowed from nature decorate the walls, together with abstract motifs probably borrowed from opulent Oriental textiles.
Gold prevails in all the Ravenna mosaics (but also in Chanel's Pre-Fall collection...): Jesus sitting among the sheep in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia wears a golden tunic; the sky in the Orthodox Baptistery is not blue, but gold.
This shade had mainly two aims: when used for the garments worn by the characters, it had to dematerialise the body; when used for the sky, it had to evoke a divine dimension and show the figures in a sort of infinite dimension, turning into a metaphor for God.
When the Western Roman Empire fell, Theodoric entered Ravenna. Since he adhered to the Arian heresy, he ordered the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo to be built outside the walls of the ancient port.
The walls of this basilica are completely covered in mosaics showing scenes from the life and passion of Jesus and processions of Martyrs and Virgins.
Yet, even the more realistic scenes such as the Samaritan woman talking with Jesus at Jacob's well, are turned into abstract scenes since they are transported into a gold setting that gives them a sense of metaphysical ecstasy, isolating the figures.
Gold is the dominating element in the basilica, it invests all the surfaces and reflects the light unifying all the different mosaics in the building, giving them an abstract quality to the architectural space that therefore loses its limits.
This is why ancient writers used to describe this church as in coelo aureo (in a golden sky).
The mosaics in this Basilica also allow to make an interesting parallelism between Byzantine art and fashion: the processions of Martyrs and Virgins remind us that in Byzantine art figures are completely detached from space and time because they often represent symbols or express ideas.
There are two important processions also in the mosaics of the Basilica of San Vitale.
The most impressive example of Byzantine art in Ravenna, the basilica is characterised by a graceful and elegant architecture.
Entering from the windows the lights reflects upon the columns, creating wonderful effects on the mosaics that cover the walls, from the lunettes depicting scenes from the Old Testament to the cross-ribbed vault in the presbytery with its mosaic festoons of leaves, fruit and flowers, converging on a crown encircling the Lamb of God and the theophany featuring Jesus seated on a blue globe with his right hand offering the martyr's crown to Saint Vitale.
At the foot of the apse side walls there are two very famous mosaic panels, depicting Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora.
Justinian is clad in a plum cloak and portrayed with a golden halo; he is surrounded by court officials and guards, while Theodora - in a similar attire, though her cloak and jewels are even richer and more opulent - is surrounded by several court ladies (View this photo).
Her cloak (see fifth image in this post) also features embroideries of the Three Wise Men who, like her, are depicted in the act of bringing offers to Jesus (a very interesting way to tell a story within a story).
There is actually a sort of stylistic difference between the mosaics in this building: the ones around the apse look more Oriental compared to the others in the lunettes and there is a sort of emphasis on the more decorative elements in the scenes they depict.
Interestingly enough there was a very strong emphasis on decorative elements and Oriental inspirations also in Chanel's collection.
In the mosaics of the Basilica of San Vitale, the Emperor and Empress' faces are portrayed in detail, and while the typical flatness of Byzantine isometry contributes to give the images a sense of detachment and unreality, the mosaics are characterised by many different shades and nuances and an almost obsessive attention for the jewels and the embroideries of the garments donned by the different characters.
Justinian and Theodora appear in all their imperial pomp and the two panels in which they are portrayed are actually considered as the most precious creations of Byzantine art and as the best examples of profane art in Byzantium.
One very interesting thing to note is the fact that in all the Ravenna buildings there is a sort of juxtaposition between the poverty of the external structure and the richness of the internal decorations.
This dichotomy hinted at the material body and the immaterial, immortal and ethereal soul, and could be considered as a metaphor for the darkness and the light.
The dichotomy in Chanel’s Pre-Fall collection was clear in the designs integrating thick tweed/woollen materials and precious mosaic-like embroideries.
Rich and opulent dresses that seemed to copy the attire of the Virgins in the procession in the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo prevailed (the mosaic with the Martyrs and Virgins’ procession in this basilica is considered as one of the highest examples of abstraction from reality in art, and the two processions are usually remembered also as the most Oriental moment ever reached in Italian art).
Multi-coloured squares of tweed were also used to imitate the Ravenna mosaics, while polychrome beads and embroideries formed hard surfaces on jackets and dresses.
Greek-crosses appeared on mini-dresses, while the physical power of armours was transformed into a Byzantine excess and applied to knits and dresses, to details such as bejewelled buttons, and accessories, from quilted bags to flat sandals.
Plum jumpers and trousers evoked the colours of Justinian and Theodora’s cloaks, while long evening gowns with mosaic embroideries called to mind the look of the empress' court ladies.
It was also impossible not to detect a certain derivation from the costumes worn by Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) in Theodora, an interpretation of Byzantium from a Parisian point of view by Victorien Sardou (View this photo of the famous actress in this play) and a hint at Gustave Moreau’s "The Tatooed Salomé" and "Salomé Dancing Before Herod" in the see-through designs covered in rich embroideries (View this photo).
Though leather gloves in Lagerfeld's style may have been avoided as they detracted from the more artistic references, as a whole the collection was rather interesting as it showed that complex allegories and symbols like the ones in the Ravenna mosaics can be reinterpreted in fashion, and also looked at the Oriental influence in Western fashion in a rather original way, employing the art of the Ravenna buildings as the perfect synthesis between Western and Eastern traditions.
All images of Chanel's Pre-Fall collection from Zoot Magazine and Style.com.
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