Ravenna. From provincial town to imperial capital and back again
Sitteth the city, wherein I was born,
Upon the sea-shore where the Po descends
To rest in peace with all his retinue.
(Dante, Inferno, Canto V, 97-99)
In this most famous passage from Dante’s all-time masterpiece Divine Comedy, Francesca Da Polenta, damned together with her lover Paolo Malatesta for their tainted lust, describes her native city, a small provincial town on the Adriatic mouth of the river Po: Ravenna.
The many references to Ravenna and its surrounding landscape (“forest-dense, alive with green, divine” – Dante, Purgatury, Canto XXVIII, 2) in Dante’s work reflect the poet’s familiarity with the city. Dante visited Ravenna multiple times, presumably in 1303 and in 1310. Later on, the winding roads of fortune brought the poet back to Ravenna, where he found refuge from his forced exile under the patronage of Guido da Polenta, lord of city and father of the doomed Francesca. Despite his many attempts to return to Florence, Dante never made it back to his home town. Eventually, on the night of 13 to 14 September 1321, he died, still in exile, still longing for Florence – but still in Ravenna.
To Dante’s misfortune, in the 14th century, Ravenna was a quite sleepy place in the backwaters of the Papal State. The splendours of the Roman and Byzantine era were a distant memory, and the area was rather inhospitable – poor, unhealthy, and surrounded by marshes. Despite this desolated scenario, the mosaics of the late-antique and Byzantine churches were a shining source of light and wonder, witnesses of the artistic heritage of what was once the capital of an empire, a thriving political and cultural centre, not only of Italy, but also in the wider context of what was left of the Roman empire in the west.
In 402, as a consequence of the military insecurity caused by the Goths, the emperor Honorius moved the imperial court from Milan to Ravenna. Surrounded by lagoons and canals and therefore naturally protected (but probably also full of mosquitos), the city was much easier to defend. It was behind the secure walls of his palace that young Honorius heard the catastrophic news about the Gothic sack of Rome in 410, and according to the 6th-century Byzantine historiographer Procopius, he was moved to tears since he believed that the one who had fallen was not that eternal city, but his favourite pet, a chicken of the same name – Roma.
Despite the continuous wars shaking the western Roman empire in the 5th and 6th century, Ravenna kept to be a wealthy, lively and central hub. Not even the take-over by the Goths in 493 (after their king Theoderic had slain his opponent Odoacer at dinner) and that by the Byzantines in 540 (when their commander Belisarius, after capturing the city, raised suspicions of treason by resting on the throne of the Gothic kings for a moment), could alter the outstanding role of Ravenna as the political heart of Italy and important bridge between the Latin west and the Greek east. The prominent status of the city in Late Antiquity is reflected in marvellous buildings, such as the 5th-century Mausoleum of the Roman empress Galla Placidia, the 6th-century monumental burial of the Gothic king Theoderic and the splendid mosaics of the churches of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and San Vitale, but also in the archaeological remains of late-antique wealthy private houses (to name just a few examples). With the slow waning of Byzantine power in the northern Adriatic in the 7th century, which culminated in the conquest of Ravenna by the Lombard duke Ariulf in 751, the city fell back to the state of a small town, relevant at most on a local level, under the rule of the Papal State.
In the mid-15th century, the city – still papal property – was overcoming a long period of economic depression, when the local lordship of the Da Polenta family came to an end. In 1441, the Republic of Venice took control and improved the fortunes of the city by renewing the port and the canals, rebuilding the city centre, strengthening the fortifications and giving a new impetus to the Ravenna’s economy. In these years, the city was embellished with many noble palaces that reflected the taste en vogue in the Serenissima. However, such flowering was short-lived. Already in 1509, the Venetians lost possession of the city in the midst of the conflict between the Republic of Venice and the kingdom of France of Louis XII. In 1512, Ravenna was terribly sacked by the French troops of Gastone de Foix, Duc de Nemours, a blow from which the city never recovered.
In the following centuries, Ravenna was left as a small provincial town on the fringes of the major cultural, economic and political dynamics. Nonetheless, the proud remembrance of the city as Dante’s last home was never lost. Despite continuous pressing requests by the Florentines to transfer the mortal remains of the venerated poet back to his home town (still renewed every year even today!), Ravenna never gave in. In 1797, the French came back, this time in form of Napoleon Bonaparte’s revolutionary army, and suppressed all monastic institutions in 1810. As a consequence, the monastery of San Francesco in Ravenna (Dante’s burial place) became a state property. Luckily, the expelled Franciscan monks vigorously protected the poet’s relic-like bones by carefully hiding them. Only in 1885, on the occasion of the 600th anniversary of Dante’s birth, the Franciscans made it possible to “rediscover” the bones and transfer them to the neo-Classical monumental tomb, already built in 1781, next to the San Francesco monastery, in the heart of Ravenna.
In this seminar we aim to explore the history of Ravenna from a broad perspective, covering the period from Late Antiquity to the later Middle Ages. We will take in account various political, cultural, and environmental aspects of the historical development of the city. Our focus will be on the material legacies of the different historical periods as well as the various players that shaped the history of the city. Last not least, we will also take a look at the perception of Ravenna’s history and culture in the modern period since the 18th century. This cross-cultural, longue-durée approach will help us to avoid a common misunderstanding of reducing the city to its legacy as the “Byzantium of Italy”, but instead to understand Ravenna as a reflection of the whole of Italian history – as the famous Italian historian Arnaldo Momigliano held it: “When I want to understand Italian history, I catch a train and go to Ravenna”.
Since we are fortunate to have with us an excellent local expert on Ravenna’s history, culture and food scenery, the seminar will be held in English — but of course we will ensure good communication between all participants!
Further information and material to prepare will be circulated as usual via a corresponding Moodle platform.
For organisational reasons, the number of participants is limited to 15 students.
The seminar can be integrated into a so-called “Portfolioprüfung”. Should you be interested, please register in time – two weeks before the start of the seminar at the latest – by contacting Dr. Daniel Syrbe (email@example.com).
Recommended starters for reading:
- Judith Herrin, Ravenna. Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe, Princeton 2020 [German edition: Ravenna. Hauptstadt des Imperiums, Schmelztiegel der Kulturen, Darmstadt 2022].
- Carola Jäggi, Ravenna Kunst und Kultur einer spätantiken Residenzstadt, Regensburg, 2nd ed. 2016.
- Massimiliano David, Eternal Ravenna. From the Etruscans to the Venetians, Turnhout 2013 [German edition: Ravenna: Kunst und Architektur in Antike und Mittelalter, Petersberg 2013].
- Mariëtte Verhoeven, The Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna: Transformations and Memory, (Architectural Crossroads 1), Turnhout 2011.
- Enrico Cirelli, Ravenna. Archeologia di una città, (Contributi di archeologia medievale 2), Florence 2008.
- Friedrich Wilhelm Deichmann, Frühchristliche Bauten und Mosaiken von Ravenna, Baden-Baden 1958 [re-published under the title: Ravenna, Bd.3: Frühchristliche Bauten u. Mosaiken von Ravenna, Stuttgart 1969, re-printed 1995].