Mosaic of Theodora in the Basilica of San Vitale Credit: Petar Milošević

A rich new history of Ravenna

Long overshadowed by Venice, Ravenna was the meeting point of Byzantium and the west
September 2, 2020

Ravenna tends to be overshadowed by Venice—with its canals and gondoliers—in the popular imagination of Italy. The cathedral of San Marco and the Doge’s palace are the flagship examples of the meeting point of Byzantium and western Europe, where the loot seized in Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade is paraded.

But Ravenna shows us an earlier stage in the relationship between Byzantium and the west. It was an impregnable port city, selected as a redoubt during the depredations of Attila the Hun. It was the residence of the western Roman emperors, of the Gothic kings who succeeded them and then of the exarchs, Byzantine officials who preserved this toehold of imperial control into the eighth century. It was also the seat of powerful archbishops, whose rivalry with the Pope in Rome fills pages of local history.

Each of these different rulers left their own stamp on the city through their building work and mosaics. Judith Herrin’s book provides a rich illustration and analysis of this legacy. In particular she brings out how Ravenna’s elites were engaged in conscious competition with their predecessors, whom they sought to both imitate and outdo. The great buildings of the city are all set into this context: the basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo; the mausoleum of the Gothic king Theodoric; the church of San Vitale, whose octagonal base supports a domed roof in a design drawn from Constantinople.

Herrin is equally adept at drawing out the wider, international legacy of Ravenna. An important example of this comes after the city’s heyday, when its famous port was already becoming clogged up with silt. Charlemagne, the Frankish emperor, was a visitor to the city, and in Ravenna he saw models of Roman rulership expressed in stone and mosaic. The models he witnessed here, and the building materials he removed from Ravenna, would go on to be used at his own new Rome, his capital city of Aachen.

Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe by Judith Herrin (Allen Lane, £30)