Twenty years ago, on 30 October 2002, the ‘House of the stone carpets’ in Ravenna opened its doors. The founding of a museum on this spot was more or less a coincidence. During excavations at a courtyard in 1993-1994, which had been launched prior to the construction of an underground car park, archaeologists found evidence of several previous structures. The oldest layer dated all the way back to the fourth century BCE. In the end, choices had to be made, and the archaeologists decided to focus on a layer from the sixth century CE. This layer was what remained of a private residence that was itself built in three phases and must have risen during the reign of the Ostrogothic king Theoderic (489-526). It was subsequently remodelled after Italy had been retaken by the Eastern Roman emperor Justinianus (527-565). Visitors can reach the interesting museum through the eighteenth-century church of Sant’Eufemia.
One important reason to fully excavate the layer from the sixth century was that this is the only known example of a private building in Late Antique Ravenna. The fact that the archaeologists focussed on the sixth century does mean that other layers were completely ignored. On the contrary, a damaged mosaic featuring two boxers from the first century BCE was recovered and can now be admired in Classis Ravenna – Museo della Città e del Territorio. Beautiful mosaics with geometrical figures from the time of the emperor Hadrianus (117-138) have also been uncovered. Lastly, once inside the House of the stone carpets, we may also admire a mosaic that is called the ‘Good Shepherd’ and that dates from the end of the fourth century. I will get back to this mosaic in just a minute.
The house from the sixth century comprised at least fourteen rooms and two courtyards. It had an atrium that was built over an older Roman road. Scholars have concluded that only a particularly influential inhabitant of Ravenna would have been able to get a main road in the city closed off. This inhabitant may have been a high-ranking official at the court of king Theoderic, but this is of course speculation. From the atrium a visitor entered a space that has been identified as a waiting room. Both the atrium itself and the (larger) waiting room have splendid floor mosaics. Behind the waiting room were two reception rooms with marble floors. The marble is unfortunately gone, and nowadays we only see the underfloor of cocciopesto (or opus signinum), i.e. a mix of broken pottery and mortar. Other rooms in the building have been identified as, for instance, a nymphaeum (fountain) or a corridor.
Of great importance is room 10, which was added in the second half of the sixth century, so very likely after the Eastern Roman reconquest of Italy during the so-called ‘Gothic war’ (535-554; Ravenna was recaptured in 540 by a general called Belisarius). The room was presumably a new reception area. It was provided with a truly magnificent mosaic floor featuring geometrical patterns, including complicated knots. The most important element of the floor is, however, its emblema in the centre. It represents the dance of the genii (‘spirits’ or personifications) of the seasons. This mosaic is very special and therefore warrants a closer look.
The four seasons have all been depicted as men. Summer was depicted on the right, but he has unfortunately not been preserved. All that is left of him are a few pieces of hand and leg. The dancer in the foreground is Autumn, seen from the back. He is dressed in white and is wearing a crown. On his left we see Spring, wearing a red tunic. The figure in the background is Winter, dressed in green and wearing a hood. The four figures are engaged in a round dance. A fifth figure with a pan flute (syrinx in Greek) provides the music that the seasons dance to. He is usually seen as the personification of Time. Creating the mosaic must have been a costly affair: the pan flute was made of golden tesserae. Remarkably, the seasons have not been depicted in chronological order. Winter is for instance directly connected to Summer and Spring, but not to Autumn.
It has been established that room 9, directly next to room 10, has a mosaic floor that dates from the end of the sixth or beginning of the seventh century. This was the third building phase of the private residence. It must have been demolished not long after, as the next archaeological layer, that covers the seventh to eleventh century, is that of a cemetery. In Antiquity the dead were usually buried outside the cities. This changed during the Early Middle Ages, when people wanted to be buried in or close to churches in the city, especially if relics of martyrs were kept there. The cemetery that was uncovered must have been connected to the aforementioned church of Sant’Eufemia, while the deteriorating situation in Italy might explain the demolition of the house. In 568 the Longobards had invaded the peninsula, an invasion that led to a war between them and the Eastern Roman Empire that lasted the better part of two centuries. Moreover, the year 543 saw the first case of bubonic plague in Italy, and this plague would also continue for about two centuries.
Mosaic of the Good Shepherd
The mosaic of the Good Shepherd was not situated in the house from the sixth century, but was part of another building from the late Imperial Age. On the mosaic we see a young man, dressed in a tunic and leaning on a staff. He is wearing conspicuous shoes and stockings or bindings around his legs. The young man is flanked by two sheep, one of which he caresses under the chin. In the background are two trees. Perched on a branch of each tree is a blue bird that cannot easily be identified. Lastly, a pan flute is hanging from the tree on the right. Almost immediately after it was found the mosaic was dubbed Il Buon Pastore. The name has stuck, although there is plenty of reason to criticise it. Il Buon Pastore is, of course, an overtly Christian name, but it remains to be seen whether this is truly a mosaic with a Christian theme.
Although Christ calls himself the Good Shepherd in John 10:11 – “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” –, images of sheep and shepherds were already omnipresent in pre-Christian art. This imagery was then copied by the early Christians. The shepherd, sometimes with a sheep on his shoulders, was a very popular theme in classical art. He was often used for scenes celebrating the peaceful and serene country life, with the shepherd taking good care of his flock. It should be noted that there are quite a few differences between the shepherd in the House of the stone carpets and the shepherd in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, also in Ravenna, that dates from the first half of the fifth century. The shepherd in the Mausoleum is clearly Christ, but as regards the shepherd in the House, we cannot be so sure. One important difference is that the shepherd in the House lacks a halo, although some scholars believe that the two birds should be seen a symbolic halos.
In fact, the House shepherd has more in common with his colleague in the basilica of Santa Maria Assunta in Aquileia, who is also not evidently Christian. The shepherd in Aquileia has, however, taken one of his sheep on his shoulder, but it should be noted that this imagery was not uncommon in pre-Christian art. So to sum up, it is far from certain that we are dealing with a Christian mosaic in the Domus dei Tappeti di Pietra.
Church of Sant’Eufemia
If you have time left, you may also want to pay a visit to the church of Sant’Eufemia. The present church was built between 1742 and 1747 by Giovanni Francesco Buonamici (1692-1759), an architect from Rimini who was also responsible for rebuilding the cathedral of Ravenna. The history of the Sant’Eufemia goes back a lot further. In the fifth or sixth century a rectangular basilica was built on this spot, which was quite different from the current octagonal church. It is interesting that the church was dedicated to Saint Euphemia. In the early fourth century she had been martyred in Chalcedon. In 451 an important church council was held in Chalcedon, which declared that Christ was one person with two inseparable natures. This became the Orthodox position, other views being declared heretical. Euphemia is said to have posthumously intervened in favour of the Orthodox doctrine.
An interesting question, which can unfortunately not be answered, is whether the dedication of a church to Saint Euphemia in Ravenna must be interpreted as an Orthodox statement. The Ostrogoths, who controlled Ravenna between 493 and 540, were Arians. They believed Christ had been created by God the Father and could therefore not be of the same substance as Him. Arianism had been denounced as heresy as early as 325, at the council of Nicaea, and then in 451 the Orthodox position was further strengthened by the council of Chalcedon. Archbishop Agnellus (557-570) had the wall mosaics in the former Arian church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo purged of scenes that were apparently offensive to Orthodox Christians. On the left wall he replaced the scene with a procession of female saints, led by Euphemia. Therefore, the construction of a church dedicated to this saint can very well be seen as symbolising the triumph of Orthodoxy.