1902 Encyclopedia > Ravenna


RAVENNA, chief city of an Italian province of the same name, contained 18,571 inhabitants according to the census of 1881. It is situated in the north-east of Italy, in 44° 25' N. lat. and 12° 12' E. long., about 4 miles from the Adriatic, with which it is now connected by the Cor-sini Canal, the two small rivers Rnnco and Montone no longer serving as means of communication between the city and the sea. A railway, 26 miles long, unites Ravenna with Castel Bolognese on the line from Bologna to Bimini.

Ravenna owes both its great historic importance in the past and its comparative dulness and obscurity in the present to the same cause,—its position in an alluvial plain, formed and continually extended by the deposits brought down by a number of small and rapid streams from the neighbouring Apennines. Any one who glances at a map of the north-western corner of the Adriatic will see at once the general character of the coast,—broad lagunes sometimes stretching far inland; flat alluvial plains intersected by endless dykes; numerous rivers (of which the Po is by far the largest and makes the most \ conspicuous delta) descending from the Apennines or the Alps; and, outside of all, a barrier of islands which have a continual tendency to become adherent to the shore through the new deposits which are brought down, and thus to be turned from islands into low hills. This de-scription suits Venice nearly as well as it suits Ravenna, and the chief difference between these two great historic cities is that the lagunes of Ravenna are about twenty centuries older than those of Venice.

The one transcendent interest of Ravenna to a modern traveller consists in its churches. No other city in the world offers so many and such striking examples of the ecclesiastical architecture of the centuries from the 4th to the 8th. The style is commonly called Byzantine, and no doubt from the close connexion of Bavenna with Constan-tinople considerable influence was exerted by the latter city on the former; but some of the most striking features of the churches of Bavenna—the colonnades, the mosaics, perhaps the cupolas—are not so much Byzantine as repre-sentative of early Christian art generally. It is truly said by Mr Freeman:

" The outside of a Ravennese basilica is an unadorned and un-attractive pile of brick. If it has any architectural grouping or outline about it, it owes it to the campanile which a later age has added. But if the churches of Ravenna are thus unattractive without, they are emphatically all glorious within. The eye dwells with genuine artistic delight on the long unbroken rows of pillars and arches, their marble shafts, their floriated capitals, sometimes the work of the Christian craftsman, sometimes the spoils of heathen-dom pressed into the service of the sanctuary. . . . The whole plan of these buildings allows a great field for void spaces ; but the void spaces thus left are filled up by these wonderful mosaic paint-ings which look down upon us as fresh as they were thirteen hundred years back."

Every traveller to Ravenna is impressed by the vivid-ness of these decorations, which were older when Giotto painted his first fresco than Giotto's frescos are now; but we can here only allude to the subject, referring the reader to the article MOSAIC (vol. xvi. p. 852 sq.).


The following are the most important churches of Bavenna, arranged in the order of the dates generally attributed to them :—
370-390 (?) 425
about 430 about 450
Metropolitan Church, or Ecclesia Ur-siana, and baptistery adjoining
S. Giovanni Evangelista
S. Agata
S. Pier Crysologo (chapel)
S. Giovanni Battista
SS. Nazario e Celso
S. Pier Maggiore (now S. Francesco).
S. Teodoro (now Santo Spirito)—A. .
S. Maria in Cosmodin (Arian baptistery)—A.
S. Martino in Coelo Aureo (now S. Apollinare Nuovo)—A.
S. Vitale
S. Maria Maggiore
S. Apollinare in Classe
S. Ursus
Galla Placidia
S. Peter Chrysologus.
about 458 493-526
Galla Placidia
Bishop Neon (?)
about 530
about 535

Julianus Argentarius. Bishop Ecclesius ... Julianus Argentarius.
(The churches marked A. were originally erected for the Arian worship.)

The cathedral (No. 1) has been so much modernized as to have lost its interest; but the baptistery adjoining it, decorated by Bishops Neon and Maximian in the 5th and 6th centuries, an octagonal building with mosaics of the apostles on the roof, is still unspoiled. SS. Nazario e Celso (No. 6) is a little building in the form of a Latin cross, and is better known as the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, whose tomb and those of three emperors, her hus-band, brother, and son, are deposited here. It is surmounted with a cupola surrounded with four semi-domes, on which are depicted figures of the Good Shepherd with His sheep, of evangelists, prophets, &c, and two stags drinking at a fountain. S. Apollinare Nuovo (No. 10) has above the arches of the nave what is perhaps the greatest triumph of mosaic art, two processions of virgins and of martyrs marching, the former from the city of Classis, the latter from the palace of Theodoric, to the Saviour. In the former group Christ sits upon the lap of His mother, and the Magi ai'e interposed between Him and the procession of virgins. In the latter He is en-throned in glory and guarded by four ministrant angels. S. Vitale (No. 11) is doubly interesting as having furnished the model after which Charles the Great built his imperial minster at Aix-la-Chapelle and as containing full-length contemporary portraits in mosaic of Justinian and Theodora, surrounded by ecclesiastics, courtiers, and soldiers of the guard. It is surmounted by a dome, is circular in form, and has eight apsidal chapels all round it, one of which, correspond-ing to the choir in an ordinary church, is prolonged to about four times the length of the other apses. Unfortunately, only in this choir have the mosaics been preserved, but they are of the highest possible interest. S. Apollinare in Classe (No. 13), once the centre of a busy population of sailors, shopkeepers, and dock - labourers, now stands absolutely alone in a wide and desolate expanse 2 miles from the sea. The decorations of the church have suffered from damp —there are frequently some inches of water on the pavement— but the twenty-four stately marble columns with Corinthian capitals form a magnificent prelude to an apse covered with mosaics, among which is conspicuous a great jewelled cross, symbolizing the Saviour on the Mount of Transfiguration ; Moses and Elias lean forth from the clouds on either side, and in the valley below the apostles wait, represented symbolically as sheep. Many mosaic portraits of bishops of Ravenna are on the walls of the church, and a mosaic picture, representing Constantine Pogonatus and his brothers be-stowing a privilegium on Bishop Reparatus about the year 670.

History.—Strabo mentions a tradition that Ravenna was founded by Thessalians, who afterwards, finding themselves pressed on by the Etrurians, called in their Umbrian neighbours and eventually departed, leaving the city to their allies. Throughout the valley of the Po the Gauls took the place of the Etrurians as a conquer-ing power ; but Ravenna may possibly have retained its Umbrian character until, about the year 191 B.C., by the conquest of the Boii the whole of this region passed definitely under the dominion of Rome. Eitner as a colonia or a municipium, Ravenna remained for more than two centuries an inconsiderable city of Gallia Cis-alpina, chiefly noticeable as the place to which Ccesar during his ten years' command in Gaul frequently resorted in order to confer with his friends from Rome. At length under Augustus it suddenly rose into importance, when that emperor selected it as the station for his fleet on "the upper sea." Two hundred and fifty ships, said Dion (in a lost passage quoted by Jordanes), could ride at anchor in its harbour. Strabo, writing probably a few years after Ravenna had been thus selected as a naval arsenal, gives us a description of its appearance which certainly corresponds more closely with modern Venice than with modern Ravenna. "It is the largest of all the cities built in the lagunes, but entirely com-posed of wooden houses, penetrated in all directions by canals, wherefore bridges and boats arc needed for the wayfarer. At the flow of the tide a large part of the sea comes sweeping into it, and thus, while all the muddy deposit of the rivers is swept away, the malaria is at the same time removed, and by this means the city enjoys so good a sanitary reputation that the Government has fixed on it as a place for the reception and training of gladiators." On the other hand, good water was proverbially difficult to obtain at Ravenna,—dearer than wine, says Martial, who has two epigrams on the subject. And Sidonius, writing in the 5th century, com-plains bitterly of the '' feculent gruel" (cloacalis puis) which filled the canals of the city, and which gave forth fetid odours when stirred by the poles of the bargemen. The port of Ravenna, situated about 3 miles from the city, was named Classis. A long line of houses called Cffisarea connected it with Ravenna, and in process of time there was such a continuous scries of buildings that the three towns seemed like one.
The great historical importance of Ravenna begins early in the 5th century, when Honorius, alarmed by the progress of Alaric in the north of Italy, transferred his court to the city in the lagunes. From this date (c. 402) to the fall of the Western empire in 476 Ravenna was, though not the exclusive, the chief residence of the Roman emperors and the centre of the elaborate machinery of the state. Here Stilicho was slain; hero Honorius and his sister Placidia caressed and quarrelled ; here Valentinian III. spent the greater part of his useless life; here Majorian was proclaimed ; here the Little Romulus donned his purple robe ; here in the pine-wood outside the city his uncle Paulus received his decisive defeat from Odoacer. Through all these changes Ravenna maintained its character as an impregnable "city in the sea," not easily to be attacked even by a naval power on account of the shallowness and devious nature of the channels by which it had to be'approached. On becoming supreme ruler of Italy Odoacer, like the emperors who had gone before him, made Ravenna his chief place of residence, and here after thirteen years of kingship he shut himself up when Theodoric the Ostrogoth had invaded Italy and defeated him in two battles. Theodoric's siege of Ravenna lasted for three years (489-492) and was marked by one bloody encounter in the pine-wood on the east of it. The Ostrogoth collected a fleet and established a severe blockade, which at length caused Odoacer to surrender the city. The terms, arranged through the intervention of John, archbishop of Ravenna, were not observed by Theodoric, who, ten days after his entry into the city, slew his rival at a banquet in the palace of the Laurel Grove (15th March 493). Ravenna was Theodoric's chief place of residence, and the thirty-three years of the reign of the great Ostrogoth (493-526) may prob-_ ably be considered the time of its greatest splendour. In the eastern part of the city he built for himself a large palace, which probably occupied about a sixth of the space now enclosed within the city walls, or nearly the wdiole of the rectangle enclosed by Strada di Porta Alberoni on the south, Strada Nuova di Porta Serrata on the west, and the line of the city walls on the north and east. There still remains close to the first-named street and fronting the Corso Garibaldi a high wall built of square Roman bricks, with pillars and arched recesses in the upper portion, which goes by the name of Palazzo di Teodorico. Freeman, on account of the Romanesque character of the architecture, thinks it probable that it really belongs to the time of the Lombard kings ; but at any rate it is of the very early mediawal period, and it marks the spot where part of the Ostrogothic palace once stood. A more memorable and clearly authentic monument of Theodoric is fur-nished by his tomb, a massive mausoleum in the style of the tomb of Hadrian at Rome, which stands still perfect outside the walls near the north-cast corner of the city. It is of circular shape and surmounted by an enormous monolith, brought from the quarries of Istria and weighing more than 300 tons. In this mausoleum Theodoric was buried, but his body was cast forth from it, perhaps during the troublous times of the siege of Ravenna by the imperial troops, and the Rotunda (as it is now generally called) was con-verted into a church dedicated to the Virgin.

Nine years after the death of Theodoric Justinian sent an army to Italy, nominally in order to avenge the murder of Theodoric's daughter Amalasuntha, but in fact to destroy the Gothic monarchy and restore Italy to the empire. Long after the Goths had lost Rome they still clung to Ravenna, till at length, weary of the feebleness and ill-success of their own king, Vitiges, and struck with admiration of their heroic conqueror, they offered to transfer their allegiance to Belisarius on condition of his assuming the diadem of the Western empire. Belisarius dallied with the pro-posal until he had obtained an entrance for himself and his troops within the walls of the capital, and then threw off the mask and proclaimed his inviolable fidelity to Justinian. Thus in the year 540 was Ravenna re-united to the Roman empire. Its connexion with that empire—or, in other words, its dependence upon Con-stantinople—lasted for more than 200 years, during which period, under the rule of Narses and his successors the exarchs, Ravenna was the seat of Byzantine dominion in Italy. In 728 the Lombard king Luitprand took the suburb Classis ; about 752 the city itsel/ fell into the hands of his successor Aistulf, from whom a few years after it was wrested by Pippin, king of the Franks. By this time the former splendour of the city had probably in great measure departed ; the alteration of the coast-line and the filling up of the lagunes which make it now practically an inland city had probably commenced, and no historical importance attaches to its subsequent fortunes. It formed part of the Frankish king's donation to the pope in the middle of the 8th century. It was an independent republic, generally taking the Guelf side in the 13th century, subject to rulers of the house of Polentani in the 14th, Venetian in the 15th (1441), and papal again in the 16th,—Pope Julius II. having succeeded in wresting it from the hands of the Venetians. From this time (1509) down to our own days, except for the interruptions caused by the wars of the French Revolution, Ravenna continued subject to the papal see and was governed by a cardinal legate. In 1859 it was one of the first cities to give its vote in favour of Italian unit}', and it has since then formed a part of the kingdom of Italy.

At the beginning of the period thus rapidly sketched Charles the Great visited the city and carried off the brazen statue of Theodoric and the marble columns of his palace to his own new palace at Aix-la-Chapelle. More than five centuries later (1320) Dante became the guest of Guido Novello di Polenta, lord of Ravenna, and here he died on the 14th September of the following year. The marble urn containing the body of the poet still rests at Ravenna, where wdiat Byron calls "a little cupola more neat than solemn "has been erected over it. In 1512 the French army under Gaston de Foix fought a fierce battle with the Spanish, Venetian, and papal troops on the banks of the Ronco about 2 miles from Ravenna. The French were victorious, but Gaston fell in the act of pursuing the enemy. His death is commemorated by the Colonna dei Franeesi erected on the spot where he fell. Lord Byron resided at Ravenna for eighteen months in 1820-21, attracted by the charms of the countess Guiecioli.

Literature.—The most important authority for the history of Ravenna is Bishop Agnellus, who wrote about 840, in very bad Latin, the Liber Pontificalis Lcclesix Ravcnnatis. It is printed in vol. ii. of Muratori's Rev. Hal. Scriptores, but much the best edition is that by Holder-Egger in the Monumenta Germanise Historica (1S78). Rubeus (Hist. Ravennatum Libri Decern, Venice, 1599) seems to have had access to some authorities besides Agnellus which are now lost. Ciampini (Vetera Monumenta, 1690-99, and Synopsis Historica. 1693) gives some fair representations of the mosaics, and Quast's Ravenna (Berlin, 1842) is a careful and well-illustrated monograph. Dr Ricci, in a popular guide, Ra-venna e i moi Dintorni (187S), has included some of the results of a very careful study of the antiquities of his native city. Professor Freeman's essay The Goths at Ravenna is the best account in English of the city in its historical connexion, and Mr J. A. Symonds in his Sketches in Italy and Greece has grace-fully touched on its picturesque qualities and literary associations. (T. H.)


3 Mr Sharpe (Cat. B. Brit. Museum, iii. p. 45) separates C. affinis as forming a distinct genus Rhinocorax ; but it is a hard task on any Teasonable ground to break up the genus Corvus as long accepted by systematists.

The above article was written by: Thomas Hodgkin, M.A., author of Italy and her Invaders.

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