Scala/Art Resource, NY

Why so many curtains? The red tile roofs of Ravenna rise above the sparkling palatium, or palace, of the Arian king Theodoric, who commissioned this mosaic depiction of his royal home. A mysterious quiet pervades the curtained niches of his palace, but a careful examination of the tesserae, or mosaic tiles, reveals hints of its earlier appearance.

Mosaic hands protrude from four of the palace’s marble columns, suggesting that figures—presumably Theodoric and his court—once occupied the niches. Bejeweled forearms and hands appear halfway up the first, third, fifth and eleventh columns from the left. Variations in the coloring of the blue-gray tesserae above the curtains offer ghostlike impressions of the heads of figures who stood here before the Orthodox bishop Agnellus, working under the direction of Emperor Justinian, expunged the images of Theodoric and his court.