November 27: the empress who should have been emperor

2012/11/27 § 2 Comments

On this day in 450 Galla Placidia died.

Women’s histories are woefully under-represented as a general rule; the scant attention paid to this extraordinary woman is especially regrettable.  Placidia’s story is woven deeply into the triumphs and trials of the dusk of the Roman Empire.  As daughter of Theodosius I, Regent for her son Valentinian III, consort to the King of the Goths and then to Constantius III, she took part in and observed (when excluded from actual events) the changed nature of the Empire once it was made officially Christian in the late fourth century, the struggles between the Empire and the invading Visigoths (who abducted her, and kept her a long, long time while her witless brother tried to figure out what to do): a whole range of significant events that altered the course of history in that murky threshold between antiquity and the middle ages.

Acting the part of imperial family member and devout supporter of the church, she was a great patron of architecture, directing the restoration of many churches and the construction of new edifices in Rome, Jerusalem, and her primary home, the then-imperial capital of Ravenna.  It is there that she oversaw the construction of her masterpiece, the building dubbed her mausoleum (maybe originally a church; it’s a mystery).   One of the greatest examples of Ravenna’s imperial architecture, which is a curious and brilliant blend of customs drawn from the eastern and western empires, its exterior is typically plain, even homely.  Hidden from view are the clever hollow tubes used to create lighter structural features that comprise the building’s barrel vaults and dome.  The glory of the chapel-mausoleum is its interior: the walls are veneered with luscious varieties of marble, the vaults awash with glorious mosaics.

True credit for architectural achievement is oftentimes skewed by the common (mistaken) assumption that patrons have no sway over design decisions (which are then made by the individual, heroic architect), and the equally absurd notion that in eras that did not record names of “architects” that buildings just sort of “happened” without anyone calling the shots.  The unique character of this building (be it chapel, mausoleum, or whatever) in terms of its planning and extent of its ornament suggests the contribution of one or (probably) more very clever people in its inception.  To think that Galla Placidia, who, but for stupid laws that prohibited her from exercising her skills of leadership, would have been emperor, had no hand in this singular and remarkable building is just as nutty as the laws that kept her from claiming her rightful throne.

Image: interior of the so-called mausoleum (Clio’s)

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