Music & Ritual: Bridging Material & Living Cultures

Publications of the ICTM Study Group on Music Archaeology, Vol. 1

The Archaeoacoustics of a Sixth-Century Christian Structure: San Vitale, Ravenna

David J. Knight

The archaeoacoustics of ceremonial structures has been of interest to a variety of heritage specialists, including archaeologists, architectural historians and acousticians. The study of the late antique Basilica of San Vitale at Ravenna is discussed here in relation to how its acoustic characteristics may have facilitated and enhanced the liturgical function of the building as a congregational church. The experimental results of measuring sound propagation, reverberation and clarity of the interior octagonal space of San Vitale, are set with contemporary 6th century descriptions of vocal musical play with reverberation and echo. A quotation by Cassiodorus of Ravenna is identified as relating to architectural acoustics and musical performance in a ritual setting. An exploration of observations made while performing the late antique Ravennate chant Lux de luce Deus tenebris illuxit averni inside San Vitale is offered in order to understand how this site affords reciprocity between the enclosed sacred space and a ritual sonic performance, specifically musical and oratorical vocalisations. The immersive quality of San Vitale’s long reverberation times and clarity favouring musical rather than spoken vocalisations, are interpreted here as influencing and helping shape the style of musical performance at the 6th century capital of the Western Empire.

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