Saturday, May 4, 2013

Tomás Bozen -- Chapter 2

Enjoy this next chapter of the novel-in-progress. Leave me your thoughts and suggestions in COMMENTS. Hint: One more chapter will depict Papà showing the boy, Tomás, more of the ancient beauty of Ravenna. Then they'll have lunch at a trattoria and talk about the things they've seen. Tomás humors Papà, but in truth he's more interested in paintings than the stone mosaics.

      Tomás was a happy boy. The love and support of his family had filled his life for as long as he could remember. Two older brothers and his oldest sister had married and moved away to Milano. All of them had sent postcards from time to time showing that city’s duomo or some other grand sight. Papà had always taken pains to make sure he understood the importance of Ravenna’s place in the history of Italy. From an early age he taught his youngest son the value of his own heritage as a descendent of a long line of skilled artisans. He often took Tomás to his masonry shop where a dozen younger men and apprentices worked under his tutelage. “In a few years,” he bragged in the shop, “Tomás will be working right here with us. We’ll make him ready to take on the most difficult restorations in Ravenna—who knows, maybe the most difficult in all of Italy.”
     One day, not more than a week after Tomás’s ninth birthday, Papà shook him awake very early in the morning. “Wake up, Tomásito. Get dressed and have breakfast with me. We have big adventure today—I want to show you something very special.”
     “What is it, Papà? What are you going to show me? Is it something you made at the shop?”
      Papà laughed and hugged his son. “No, no. Nothing from the shop. Today I’ll show you something much older and much more beautiful than anything that ever came out of my shop.”
     “Can we do it another day, Papà? Michael said he’d take me to the lido with him today.”
     Lido? You can go to the beach any day. Today we’re going to do something much more important than teasing girls at the lido with Michael. Get up now—I want us to get an early start.”
     By the time Tomás got to the dining room, Mama had put out a plate loaded with thick slices of mozzarella with a big mound of yellow butter, and she’d added a loaf of bread from yesterday’s baking. The coffee machine’s gurgling and hissing from the kitchen told Tomás she was making café latte for him.
     Papà was already at the table. He’d pushed his plate away to sip his second café while Tomás filled his plate. Mama brought in the latte and a frothy cappuccino for herself, then sat down next to Tomás. She reached over and put another slice of cheese on his plate. “Have some more bread, Tomásito. You need a big breakfast—Papà’s planned a busy day for you.”
     “Aw, Mama, more cheese is too much.”
      Papà said, “Leave the boy alone, Contessa. He’ll take what he wants.”
      Breakfast finished, Tomás headed out the front door with his father. He couldn’t imagine what they were going to do, but excitement was in the air as they got into Papà’s 1984 Fiat Uno. It was a small car, but big enough for his needs, Papà had told the family when he bought it a year earlier. The Fiat was brand new at that time, and nobody else in the family was allowed to drive it. Just about the only time Papà drove it was going to his masonry shop every day. He usually took a train when he went to other cities to study the decorative stone patterns used on some of the older buildings, or to bid on some of their restoration projects. So the Fiat still looked almost new—all bright gray with silvery chrome.
      Papà drove down Via di Roma toward Piazza dei Popolo, but he soon had to turn westward to avoid the central part of town where no vehicles were allowed. Tomás said, “Tell me now, Papà. Tell me where we’re going.”
      “You’ll see soon enough. You have to learn patience if you’re going to work with the stones.” Papà turned back and forth through Ravenna’s streets to reach Fiume Montone, then parked the Fiat at Piazza Baracca. “Okay, here we are,” he said. “We walk from here.”
      Tomás took his father’s hand to cross the street. After a block they turned a corner and he saw a tall white marble gate crowned by a fancy medallion and, on each side of the medallion, a small obelisk with a ball on top of it. Peering through the broad gate Tomás saw a garden with green grass and pine trees in front of an old red brick building with a terra cotta roof like their own house. Curious about the building’s tall windows with many small panes, he said, “What is this place, Papà? Can we go inside?”
      “Yes, Tomás, we can go inside. This is the main thing I wanted to show you today.”
      “It looks like a church, Papà. Is that what it is?”
      The building was an odd shape, octagonal with three levels stacked up like a wedding cake. The top level was smaller than the lower ones, and each level had tall mullioned windows on each of its eight sides. The red bricks looked old, and the corners of each side were supported by flying buttresses of the same old bricks.
      “It is a church,” Papà said. “A very old church—the Basilica of San Vitale. Look at those fine old bricks, Tomás. They’re the long, skinny bricks the Romans liked to use—same as the one I showed you at the shop. This church was built more than fourteen hundred years ago, sometime around the year 545.”
       “Yeah, the bricks do look pretty good for that old.” Young Tomás did not share his father’s fascination with old bricks and stones but he loved the man with all his heart, so he didn’t bring that up.
      “Come on,” Papà said. “It’s not the bricks I want to show you. Let’s go inside. That’s where you’ll see the most beautiful stones you can imagine.”
      Tired of the stone thing, Tomás decided to try a different line of conversation. “Who is San Vitale, anyway. I never heard of him.”
      Papà chuckled. He guided Tomás to a seat on the steps outside the basilica. “The story is that Vitalis was well-to-do man who lived in Milano—same as your brothers. Vitalis was in the Roman army and he was friendly with a important judge named Paulinus who hated Christians.”
      “Why, Papà? Why did the judge hate Christians?”
      “A lot of Romans hated Christians in those days, Tomás. They were afraid of them or something.  Anyway, secretly, Vitalis was a Christian himself and he went to a lot of trouble to look after other Christians who were mistreated by the Romans. One day the judge asked Vitalis to travel over here to Ravenna with him to look after some business. Well, Vitalis heard about a doctor who was being tortured in Ravenna because he was a Christian, so he visited the doctor when he was about to die and told him to be strong and trust in Jesus. After the man died, Vitalis carried off his body and buried it.”
      “Wow, that’s a good story,” Tomás said. “What happened to Vitalis?”
      “Things got a lot worse for Vitalis after that. His friend, Paulinus, heard about what happened and he asked Vitalis why he did that since he was not a Christian. ‘But I am a Christian,’ Vitalis told him, ‘and proud of it.’ Paulinus hated Christians so much he threw Vitalis in prison. He had him tortured on the rack then buried alive underneath some big stones.”
      Stones again…could Papà never get away from stones? “So what happened after that?”
      “Well, a long time later, after the Roman Empire ended and most of the Romans became Christians, the Church made him a saint. His torture was right here, in this same place where we are, and that’s why they built the basilica here. April 28 is Saint Vitalis’ feast day—your mother made me bring her over here last year for the celebration.”
      “Is that why we came here today?”
      “No, Tomás. We came here today because I want to show you what’s inside this basilica.” He took Tomás by the hand. “Let’s go in now.”
      The two entered through the narthex, a kind of entry to the main basilica. Once inside Tomás stopped and pulled back on Papà’s hand. He had never seen so much color, so much beauty in one place. The church was not as large as some he’d seen, but the colors stopped him in his tracks—greens, golds, blues everywhere. On the walls, on the ceiling, everywhere. Even the floor had fancy designs, some with colorful birds, worked into the marble. The walls and ceilings were even brighter, and they had lots of pictures of people doing different things—clear pictures that looked like the ones Tomás had seen in his bible story book.
      “Who painted all these pictures, Papà? They’re beautiful.”
      Papà grinned. He leaned down close to Tomás. “They’re not painted, Tomás, they’re all mosaics. Each one of them is made out of millions of tiny colored stones.”
      Stones, again. No wonder Papà brought him here. He gazed up at the high arch leading into the sanctuary. The arch was covered with round pictures of men’s heads, and each picture looked like it was held up by a pair or dolphins, just like those dolphins Michael showed him at the beach last year. “Who are those men, Papà? Why are their pictures up there?”
      “You know some of them. The man at the top, the one in the brown robe with dolphins on both sides of the picture, is Jesus. All the others are his disciples and one or two other important men.”
      “The pictures look so clear. Who made them out of all those little stones?”
      “It had to be a whole team, Tomás. Not just one man. They’d need a painter to outline the pictures on the walls, mosaicists to select the stones, cut them to just the right size and fasten them on the walls. Their technique was Byzantine and it looks like they were trained in Constantinople or somewhere over there. They must have had one master mosaicists who was in charge of the whole team, but nobody knows who he was.”
      “So many different colors—what are the stones made out of, Papà?”
      “Lots of different things—glass, marble or other kinds of stones, ceramics, even mother-of-pearl. You like these stones?”
      “Yeah, the little stones are okay, I guess, but the pictures are really beautiful. That’s what I like. I want to go on inside and look at the rest. Tell me what they are, Papà.”
      “Well, some of them are about stories from the Bible. Look, there’s Abraham over there and Moses next to that one. You remember their stories, don’t you? On the other side is Isaiah and, right there’s Abel making a sacrifice to God.”
      “Who are those guys up above the altar windows—those five standing on the grass and flowers?”
      “Tomás. Your mother wouldn’t like you talking like that about Jesus. He’s the one in the middle, sitting on that round blue thing—it’s represents the world.”
      “He doesn’t look like Jesus to me. He doesn’t have a beard.”
      Papà laughed at that. “It’s supposed to be young Jesus. There’s an angel on each side of him and that man on his far right is San Vitale. Jesus is giving him a crown because he was a martyr, like I told you before we came in.”
      “Who’s that on the other side of Jesus—all the way over on his left?”
      “That’s supposed to be the Bishop who founded this church.” He put his hand on Tomás’s shoulder. “Now look up to the top, way up above your head”
      Tomás stretched his neck backward. “Wow. That’s the best of all. So much color, all that gold. I can’t believe every bit of it is made out of little stones. Why’d they put that animal in the middle of it? What’s he supposed to be doing?”
      “That animal represents the Lamb of God, and the four angels are holding up the medallion with his picture. Come on over here, I want to show you this mosaic up on the left wall.”
      “That bunch of men? Who, are they Papà?”
     “The man in the middle is the Emperor Justinian and the others are his supporters. Now turn around and look on the other side. That group of women are Justinian’s wife, the Empress Theodora and her court. Look at those little figures near the bottom of her robe. They’re supposed to represent the three wise men who brought gifts to the baby Jesus.”
      “I’m still amazed they made this whole place out of little colored stones. Who was Justinian, anyway?”
      “He was a very important Byzantine emperor, a good ruler I think. Have you seen enough, Tomás? Ready to go yet?”
     “Are we going home now. I want to draw some of the pictures from this place.”
     “Not yet. There’s another thing I want to show you while we’re here.”
     The two walked together into the backyard of the basilica and headed across a green lawn with more pine trees, then toward a smaller brick building at the edge of the compound. “What is that building, Papà,” Tomás asked. “It’s a lot smaller than the church.”
     “It is smaller, but you can see it’s built of the same kind of bricks.” He pulled Tomás off the path to a shady spot under one of the pines. “This little building is called the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. They tell me it’s one of the oldest monuments in Ravenna. Just wait ’til you see what’s inside.”
     “Mausoleum? Isn’t that a place to bury dead people? Are we gonna see some dead people in there?”
      Papà laughed. “No, Tomás, no dead people. There may be a stone casket, but no dead people. For a long time everybody thought it was the burial place of a woman named Galla Placidia. She was the daughter of the Emperor Theodosius and she later married another Emperor. She had this little place built and everybody thought she planned to be buried here, but she probably never was. Later on they found her body in Roma. But come on, I want to show you what’s inside.”
      Papà had to duck his head when he led Tomás through the low doorway to the mausoleum’s dimly lighted interior. The small windows didn’t bring in much light, and the whole place had a blue look because of the predominant color of the mosaic tiles covering the walls and ceiling. Tomás stopped and took his father’s hand. “Look at all the stars, Papà. It’s just like the sky at night.” The entire ceiling and the arches supporting it were covered with mosaic representations of a hundreds of bright stars in a dark blue sky. The walls depicted several of the apostles.
      Tomás turned around, then pointed to the mosaic over the door through which they had entered. “Look, there’s Jesus with a bunch of sheep.”
      “Right, son. Christ, the Good Shepherd.” Various plants and flowers formed a base for the starry sky, and birds were included here and there.
      “I like this mausoleum a lot,” Tomás said. “I want to draw some stars in the sky like that.”
      “Maybe you can do that, Tomásito, but right now we need to leave. I want to show you another place with beautiful pictures made out of stones. I want you to see what wonderful things you can do with stones…I want you to love the stones like I do.”

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