When the Allied forces prepared to invade and occupy Italy in 1943, the British Naval Intelligence Division planned four handbooks covering every aspect of the country ‘for the use of persons in His Majesty’s service only’. The first was published in February 1944, five months after the first landings. Packed with diagrams and pull-out maps, it runs to 600 pages describing Italy’s coastal and regional topography at length. The second and third volumes give an account of every element of the country’s history, populations, roads, railways, agriculture, and industry. The final, 750-page volume, published in December 1945, describes the country’s 70 inland and 48 coastal towns. For Ravenna, a small city on the Adriatic coast of northern Italy, the handbook begins with a brief, authoritative statement: ‘As a centre of early Christian art Ravenna is unequalled’.
By the time this description was published, many parts of the city were in ruins. Fifty-two Allied bombing raids during the course of the Second World War had taken their toll, destroying some of Ravenna’s noteworthy, unequalled early Christian art. Bombs intended for the railway station and its sidings had pulverised the Basilica of San Giovanni Evangelista in August 1944. Commissioned by one of the city’s great monument-builders, Galla Placidia, this mid-5th-century church must have been a prime example of Ravenna’s outstanding art. The floor mosaics had already been lost when the building was modernised in the 17th century. But that August the mosaics on the walls, apse, and ceiling were also destroyed as the entire building collapsed.
I open my newly published history (see ‘Further reading’ on p.31) of Ravenna’s unique role and significance in the forging of Europe with a grim salute to this recent damage, because it spun a personal thread that led me to write the book. After a brief visit to the city as an adolescent, I eventually returned to look more closely at this unparalleled concentration of early Christian art. Having taken an intense, compressed tour of Ravenna’s major sites, I was left refreshed and thrilled by what I saw and I bought the local guidebooks. Much to my dismay, none of them provided any adequate account of why such astonishing mosaics should be there in the first place, nor how they survived. I felt it was necessary to answer these questions and confidently assumed I could do so.
But this took much longer than I anticipated. Among the sources for the city’s history, I found there were unfamiliar Latin records on papyrus with a completely new cast of local characters that included Agnellus the doctor, Agnellus the bishop, and Agnellus the historian. Understanding Ravenna’s physical place in the Mediterranean world, its links through the Apennines – the formidable spine of Italy, that both connected and separated Ravenna and Rome – as well as across the waters to Croatia, south to Sicily, and east to Constantinople, involved research on the Roman roads, such as the via Flaminia, and maritime trade. On land, I followed in the footsteps of Theoderic, the Gothic king who had such an important influence on Ravenna’s history. In the late 5th century, he travelled across the northern Balkans to the banks of the Isonzo river, where he overwhelmed his rival, Odoacer. This journey took me to Cividale del Friuli, where I encountered the craftmanship of the Lombards preserved in the town. With the generous help of four Ravennati yachtsmen and a brisk wind, I voyaged across the Adriatic to see how easy it would have been for mosaicists from Ravenna to work in Poreč, in modern-day Croatia, where the 6th-century basilica of Bishop Euphrasius is adorned with gleaming mosaics, so closely connected to the monuments of Ravenna built at the same time, in the city’s heyday of the 5th to 8th centuries.
During this era of its special history, Ravenna was made the capital of the Roman Empire in the West by the young Emperor Honorius who, facing the hostility of Alaric and the Goths, abandoned Milan in 402. The marshes, lakes, and tributaries of the Po estuary around Ravenna offered the city natural protection, reinforced by strong walls. It already had a military reputation as, centuries earlier, Julius Caesar had chosen its port at Classis (Classe in Italian) as a base for the Roman fleet in the east Mediterranean. The harbour, immortalised in a mosaic in Theoderic’s palace-chapel (later the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo), was artificially created within a lagoon, its bases built on stilts. With the capacity to shelter 250 ships, Classis became a large naval centre filled with shipbuilders, sailors, oarsmen, and sailmakers, whose funerary monuments record their skills. It was also connected to Ravenna by a channel that permitted boats to dock close to the city, and between the harbour and the city another settlement named Caesarea gradually developed. In this way, the combined settlements represented a secure urban centre with access to the Adriatic and, above all, maritime communication with Constantinople.
Moving the capital to Ravenna was thus an inspired strategic redeployment. Laws issued in December 402 record the initial stages of this relocation, which made it the new capital city. Just like Venice in later centuries, Ravenna had been built on sandbanks and wooden piles on the marshy land, criss-crossed with canals, between the Padenna and Lamisa tributaries of the Po. The existing settlement had all the components of a typical Roman city – municipal buildings, facilities for public entertainment, temples, and eventually churches – and, early in the 5th century, the enormous apparatus of government, military forces, merchants, and scholars arrived along with the emperor. Though it was often besieged, Ravenna was rarely captured by force. This nigh-on impregnable centre expanded into a capital with appropriately grandiose structures decorated in the impressive artistic styles of the day.
In the century that followed Honorius’ move, several figures left a lasting mark on Ravenna through those structures that are still standing. Galla Placidia, empress-mother and Honorius’ half-sister, who lived in the city from 425 to 450, erected a starry-skied chapel that is now called her Mausoleum. It was not intended as her final resting place, rather it is the only surviving part of a larger church dedicated to the Holy Cross. Bishop Neon (c.451-473) rebuilt the Orthodox Baptistery, commissioning spectacular mosaics for the new dome. Theoderic the Goth, who ruled the kingdom of Italy between 493 and 526, left behind a mausoleum and a church (Sant’Apollinare Nuovo) with mosaics that depict his now-lost palace. And under the bishops Ecclesius, Victor, and Maximian, in the first half of the 6th century, the Basilica of San Vitale, the church that attracts the most attention in the city today, was built. But most of the palaces and many other churches have not survived.
There are many references to these bishops and other patrons of the churches constructed in Ravenna, but we have no record of the people who built them or the mosaicists who decorated them. An edict issued by Diocletian in 301, as he attempted to fix maximum prices across the empire, gives us an idea about their overall place in a hierarchy of artists and craftspeople in the Roman world. Diocletian decreed that wall-mosaicists were to be paid the same as the makers of marble paving and wall revetment, considerably less than portrait-painters and fresco-painters, but more than tessellated floor-makers, carpenters, and masons. We can picture whole families trained in the various skills involved in creating these mosaics: making, trading, and then bonding brightly coloured tesserae, sketching the original images and portraits, calculating the repetitions of the border patterns, creating guilds in cities across the ancient world, and perhaps travelling from employment in one city to the next big opportunity. We know that in great cities across the length and breadth of the Roman Empire – from Seville to Beirut, Britain to North Africa, and across every island in the Mediterranean, in the Balearics, Sicily, and Cyprus – enormous floors and endless walls were laid out with mosaic images of the gods, the myths of the ancient world, every species of beast, bird, and fish, daily life, and even the remains of great banquets. But we do not know the name of a single person who worked on the stupendous mosaics of Ravenna.
It is clear that the same anonymous artists who covered the apses and walls of the city’s churches with mosaics on a highly reflective gold ground (which replaced the white typically used in ancient floor mosaics) also decorated the secular palaces, grand villas, and official residences, described in a few tantalising contemporary accounts. But these monuments have themselves been ruined, treated as quarries and dismantled for their stones. What little remains is long buried and almost all documentation has turned to dust. Some very partial accounts survive, such as the exceptional account of the bishops of Ravenna by Agnellus, its 9th-century historian, who was a determined antiquarian. Thanks to his persistence in recording inscriptions, images, and actual documents, it is possible to piece together a fuller historical record of how Ravenna appeared at its height.
Ravenna’s metropolitan role extended beyond the end of the Empire in the West in the late 5th century, through the 6th and 7th centuries, up to 751, when it was finally captured by the Lombards. It was, thanks to its location, a centre of connectivity par excellence, and, because of these connections, its history is not simply the story of a city and those who lived in and ruled it: it is also a much broader account of the far-flung powers drawn to and through it, powers, like those centred in Constantinople, that were to make Ravenna a crucible of Europe.
These centuries were marked by the hegemonic importance of Constantinople, Constantine I’s capital of New Rome, which continued to lead the Mediterranean world and had a distinct influence on the way that what we now call Italy developed. Ravenna’s imperial government evolved in tandem with the emperors established in the East, and from their capital came guidance in legal matters, diplomatic disputes, political negotiations, and theological problems.
We now generally refer to this period as ‘late antiquity’, born out of the ancient world of Greece and Rome, before the identifiable medieval civilisation of the Middle Ages. But, in the course of researching and writing about Ravenna, I have come to doubt whether the term ‘late antiquity’ is appropriate. It makes the epoch seem inextricably one of decline and carries the assumption that we should be comparing it to the glory days of classical Rome and Greece. In reality, new features emerged, among them the rise of individual creativity (with the first autobiography, for example, St Augustine’s Confessions), as well as the codification of Roman law, the creation of an equivalent Christian canon law, and the spread of Islam, which resulted in the threefold division of the Mediterranean. This was a time of great change and innovation, a period that saw the beginnings of modernity.
The term ‘late antiquity’ became increasingly incongruous as I looked at the history of Ravenna, for here we have one of the rare cities of this period in the West that did not experience general, clearly visible failure. From 380 onwards, Christianity was the dominant belief in the Roman world and beyond. It was a defining force in exercising authority and integrating the economy, and offered many of the peoples of the Mediterranean world a shared belief in the hereafter and a passion to set out the best means of deserving it. Rather than a ‘late Roman’ civilisation, this period of ‘early Christendom’ was an emerging new world, seeking novel forms of organisation and full of all the confidence and confusion of great change. The striking achievements of Ravenna only make sense within this framework.
One key figure in fixing Ravenna’s place in this newly Christianised world is the Gothic king, Theoderic, who had been sent as a child hostage to the Byzantine court and was formed by its perspectives. In Constantinople, he witnessed how the Roman Empire was ruled, its diplomacy, military organisation, legal traditions, and promotion of intellectual achievement. After a decade of education in these imperial traditions, which Constantinople hoped would make him a reliable ally, he was sent back to his Gothic people and immediately asserted his independence. Yet, once established in Ravenna, he built a mini-Constantinople in the West, integrating ‘barbarian’ and ‘Roman’ elements in a decisive new synthesis. The incorporation of imperial methods of government within his kingdom cast Ravenna in its leading role in European development.
Stages in this process are marked by two of the most-famous mosaics in the city: the depictions of Justinian and Theodora in the Basilica of San Vitale, which encapsulate a majestic power, marked by the regalia and clothing of the eastern emperors. Throughout the medieval period, these mosaics were a reminder of the ruling couple who dominated the Mediterranean world in the 6th century, eliciting reactions that changed as political power assumed different forms. Charlemagne, who visited Ravenna three times, and his German successors in the second half of the 10th century, Otto I, Otto II, and especially Otto III, contemplated their meaning in novel circumstances. The imperial portraits reflect the continuous influence of the wealth, culture, and direct role of Constantinople itself in Ravenna, a city that not only nurtured expertise in Greek, but also preserved a curiosity about the physical world, mountains and rivers, as well as imperial geography.
This facet of Ravenna’s history is documented by the anonymous scholar who wrote a Cosmographia that ‘explored the whole world’ from his vantage point in nobilissima (‘most noble’) Ravenna. He placed the city at the centre of the Mediterranean. His combination of Gothic, Latin, Greek, and Christian elements created a fulcrum of early medieval culture, informed by a high esteem for classical learning. Another stage in the process may be illustrated by the mosaic erected in Sant’Apollinare in Classe in the late 7th century to mark the moment when the church of Ravenna became independent of papal control. In the long-running rivalry between Ravenna and Rome, this was to prove a short-lived period of freedom, but Archbishop Reparatus ensured that it would never be forgotten by his commission of this mosaic.
When Charlemagne removed marble columns and other building material from Ravenna to construct his new capital at Aachen, he took with him too the great statue of a mounted emperor that Theoderic had made to represent himself. The Gothic king was also an invader reshaping the legacy of Rome, with whom the newly crowned emperor of Rome could identify. Charlemagne has traditionally been hailed, in the scholar Alcuin’s phrase, as the ‘father of Europe’, as if he acted alone. But the foundations of western Christendom that he exemplified were laid in Ravenna, whose rulers, exarchs and bishops, scholars, doctors, lawyers, mosaicists, and traders, Roman and Goth, later Greek and Lombard, forged the first European city.
Ravenna: capital of empire, crucible of Europe, written by Judith Herrin and featuring specially commissioned photographs by Kieran Dodds, is published by Allen Lane (price: £30, ISBN: 978-1846144660).
ALL PHOTOS: Kieran Dodds.