Ravenna

The Emperor Augustus chose Ravenna for one of his two naval stations, and in course of time a new city arose by the sea-shore, which received the name of Portus Classis. Between this harbor and the mother city a third town sprang up, and was called Caesarea. Time and neglect, the ravages of war, and the encroaching powers of Nature, have destroyed these settlements, and nothing now remains of the three cities but Ravenna. It would seem that in classical times Ravenna stood, like modern Venice, in the centre of a huge lagoon, the fresh waters of the Ronco and the Po mixing with the salt waves of the Adriatic round its very walls. The houses of the city were built on piles ; canals instead of streets formed the means of communication, and these were always filled with water artificially conducted from the southern estuary of the Po. Round Ravenna extended a vast morass, for the most part under shallow water, but rising at intervals into low islands like the Lido or Murano or Torcello which surround Venice. These islands were celebrated for their fertility : the vines and -fig-trees and pomegranates, springing from a fat and fruitful soil, watered ‘with constant moisture, and fostered by a mild sea-wind and liberal sunshine, yielded crops that for luxuriance and quality surpassed the harvests of any orchards on the mainland. All the conditions of life in old Ravenna seem to have resembled those of modern Venice; the people went about in gondolas, and in the early morning barges laden with fresh fruit or meat and vegetables flocked from all quarters to the city of the sea.* Water also had to be procured from the neighboring shore, for, as Martial says, a well at Ravenna was more valuable than a vineyard. Again, between the city and the mainland ran a long low causeway all across the lagoon like that on which the trains now glide into Venice. Strange to say, the air of Ravenna was remarkably salubrious : this fact, and the ease of life that prevailed there, and the security afforded by the situation of the town, rendered it a most desirable retreat for the monarchs of Italy during those troublons times in which the empire nodded to its fall. Honorius retired to its lagoons for safety ; Odoacer, who dethroned the last Cesar of the West, succeeded him ; and was in turn supplanted by Theodoric the Ostrogoth. Ravenna, as we see it now, recalls the peaceful and half-Roman rule of the great Gothic king. His palace, his churches, and the mausoleum in which his daughter Amalasuntha laid the hero’s bones, have survived the sieges of Belisarius and Astolphus, the conquest of Pepin, the bloody quarrels of iconoclasts with the children of the Roman Church, the medieval wars of Italy, the victory of Gaston de Foix, and still stand gorgeous with marbles and. mosaics in spite of time and the decay of all around them.

As early as the sixth century, the sea had already retreated to such a distance from Ravenna that orchards and gardens were cultivated on the spot where once the galleys of the Caesars rode at anchor. Groves of pines sprang up along the shore, and in their lofty tops the music of the wind moved like the ghost of waves and breakers plunging upon distant sands. This Pinetum stretches along the shore of the Adriatic for about forty miles, forming a belt of variable width between the great marsh and the tumbling sea. From a distance the bare stems and velvet crowns of the pine-trees stand up like palms that cover an oasis on Arabian sands; but at a nearer view the trunks detach themselves from an inferior forest-growth of juniper and thorn and ash and oak, the tall roofs of the stately firs shooting their breadth of sheltering greenery above the lower and less sturdy brushwood. It is hardly possible to imagine a more beautiful and impressive scene than that presented by these long alleys of imperial pines. They grow so thickly one behind another that we might compare them to the pipes of a great organ, or the pillars of a Gothic church, or the basaltic columns of the Giant’s Causeway. Their tops are ever green and laden with the heavy cones from which Ravenna draws considerable wealth. Scores of peasants are quartered on the outskirts of the forest, whose business it is to scale the pines and rob them of their fruit at certain seasons of the year. Afterwards they dry the fir-cones in the sun, until the nuts which they contain fall out. The empty husks are sold for firewood, and the kernels in their stony shells reserved for exportation. You may see the peasants, men, women, and boys, sorting them by millions, drying and sifting them upon the open spaces of the wood, and packing them in sacks to send abroad through Italy. The pinocchi, or kernels, of the stone-pine are largely used in cookery, and those of Ravenna are prized for their good quality and aromatic flavor. When roasted or pounded, they taste like a softer and more mealy kind of almonds. The task of gathering this harvest is not a little dangerous. They have to cut notches in the straight shafts, and having climbed, often, to the height of eighty feet, to lean upon the branches, and detach the fir-cones with a pole—and this for every tree. Some lives, they say, are yearly lost in the business.

As may be imagined, the spaces of this great forest form the haunt of innumerable living creatures. Lizards run about by myriads in the grass. Doves coo among the branches of the pines, and nightingales pour their full-throated music all day and night from thickets of white-thorn and acacia. The air is sweet with aromatic scents: the resin of the pine and juniper, the may-flowers and acacia-blossoms, the violets that spring by thousands in the moss, the wild roses and faint honeysuckles which throw fragrant arms from bough to bough of ash or maple, join to make one most delicious perfume. And though the air upon the neigh-boring marsh is poisonous, here it is dry, and spreads a genial health. The sea-wind murmuring through these thickets at night-fall or misty sunrise conveys no fever to the peasants stretched among their flowers. They watch the red rays of sunset flaming through the columns of the leafy hall, and flaring on its fretted rafters of entangled boughs; they see the stars come out, and Hesper gleam, an eye of brightness, among dewy branches; the moon walks silver-footed on the velvet tree-tops, while they sleep beside the camp-fires; fresh morning wakes them to the sound of birds and scent of thyme and twinkling of dewdrops on the grass around. Meanwhile ague, fever, and death have been stalking all night long about the plain, within a few yards of their couch, and not one pestilential breath has reached the charmed precincts of the forest.

You may ride or drive for miles along green aisles between the pines in perfect solitude ; and yet the creatures of the wood, the sunlight and the birds, the flowers and tall majestic columns at your side, prevent all sense of loneliness or fear. Huge oxen haunt the wilderness—gray creatures, with mild eyes and spreading horns and stealthy tread. Some are patriarchs of the forest, the fathers and the mothers of many generations who have been carried from their sides to serve in ploughs or wagons on the Lombard plain. Others are yearling calves, intractable and ignorant of labor. In order to subdue them to the yoke, it is requisite to take them very early from their native glades, or else they chafe and pine away with weariness. Then there is a sullen canal, which flows through the forest from the marshes to the sea; it is alive with frogs and newts and snakes. You may see these serpents basking on the surface among thickets of the flowering rush, or coiled about the lily leaves and flowers—lithe monsters, slippery and speckled, the tyrants of the fen.

It is said that when Dante was living at Ravenna he would spend whole days alone among the forest glades, thinking of Florence and her civil wars, and meditating cantos of his poem. Nor have the influences of the pine wood failed to leave their trace upon his verse. The charm of its summer solitude seems to have sunk into his soul ; for when he describes the whispering of winds and singing birds among the boughs of his terrestrial paradise, he says :

Non perè dal lor esser dritto sparte Tanto, the gli augelletti per le cime Lasciasser d’operare ognilor arte: Ma con piena letizia l’aure prime, Cantando, ricevano intra le foglie, Che tenevan bordone aile sue rime Tal, qual di ramo in ramo si raccoglie Per la pineta in sul Tito di Chiassi, Quand’ Eolo Scirocco fuor discioglie.

With these verses in our minds, while wandering down the grassy aisles, beside the waters of the solitary place, we seem to meet that lady singing as she went, and plucking flower by flower, “like Proserpine when Ceres lost a daughter, and she lost her spring.” There, too, the vision of the griffin and the car, of singing maidens, and of Beatrice descending to the sound of Benedictus and of falling flowers, her flaming robe and mantle green as grass, and veil of white, and olive crown, all flashed upon the poet’s inner eye, and he remembered how he bowed before her when a boy. There is yet another passage in which it is difficult to believe that Dante had not the pine forest in his mind. When Virgil and the poet were waiting in anxiety before the gates of Dis, when the Furies on the wall were tearing their breasts and crying, ” Venga Medusa, e si ‘l farem di smalto,” suddenly across the hideous river came a sound like that which whirlwinds make among the shattered branches and bruised stems of forest trees; and Dante, looking out with fear upon the foam and spray and vapor of the flood, saw thousands of the damned flying before the face of one who forded Styx with feet unwet. “Like frogs,” he says, “they fled, who scurry through the water at the sight of their foe, the serpent, till each squats and hides himself close to the ground.” The picture of the storm among the trees might well have occurred to Dante’s mind beneath the roof of pine boughs. Nor is there any place in which the simile of the frogs and water-snake attains such dignity and grandeur. I must confess that till I saw the ponds and marshes of Ravenna, I used to fancy that the comparison was somewhat below the greatness of the subject ; but there so grave a note of solemnity and desolation is struck, the scale of Nature is so large, and the serpents coiling in and out among the lily leaves and flowers are so much in their right place, that they suggest a scene by no means unworthy of Dante’s conception.

Nor is Dante the only singer who has invested this wood with poetical associations. It is well known that Boccaccio laid his story of Honoria in the pine forest, and every student of English literature must be familiar with the noble tale in verse which Dryden has founded on this part of the Decameron. We all of us have followed Theodore, and watched with him the tempest swelling in the grove, and seen the hapless ghost pursued by demon hounds and hunter down the glades. This story should be read while storms are gathering upon the distant sea, or thunder-clouds descending from the Apennines, and when the pines begin to rock and surge beneath the stress of laboring winds. Then runs the sudden flash of lightning like a rapier through the boughs, the rain streams hissing down, and the thunder ” breaks like a whole sea overhead.”

With the Pinetum the name of Byron will be forever associated. During his two years’ residence in Ravenna he used to haunt its wilderness, riding alone or in the company of friends. The inscription placed above the entrance to the house he occupied alludes to it as one of the objects which principally attracted the poet to the neighborhood of Ravenna: ” Impaziente di visitare l’ antica selva, the inspire, gia il Divino e Giovanni Boccaccio.” We know, however, that a more powerful attraction, in the person of the Countess Guiccioli, maintained his fidelity to ” that place of old renown, once in the Adrian Sea, Ravenna.”

Between the Bosco, as the people of Ravenna call this pine wood, and the city, the marsh stretches for a distance of about three miles. It is a plain intersected by dikes and ditches, and mapped out into innumerable rice-fields. For more than half a year it lies under water, and during the other months exhales a pestilential vapor, which renders it as uninhabitable as the Roman Campagna ; yet in springtime this dreary flat is even beautiful. The young blades of the rice shoot up above the water, delicately green and tender. The ditches are lined with flowering rush and golden flags, while white and yellow lilies sleep in myriads upon the silent pools. Tamarisks wave their pink and silver tresses by the road, and wherever a plot of mossy earth emerges from the marsh, it gleams with purple orchises and flaming marigolds ; but the soil beneath is so treacherous and spongy that these splendid blossoms grow like flowers in dreams or fairy stories. You try in vain to pick them ; they elude your grasp, and flourish in security beyond the reach of arm or stick.

Such is the sight of the old town of Classis. Not a vestige of the Roman city remains, not a dwelling or a ruined tower, nothing but the ancient church of S. Apollinare in Classe. Of all desolate buildings this is the most desolate. Not even the deserted grandeur of S. Paolo beyond the walls of Rome can equal it. Its bare round campanile gazes at the sky, which here vaults only sea and plain—a perfect dome, star-spangled like the roof of Gal-la Placidia’s tomb. Ravenna lies low to west, the pine wood stretches away in long monotony to east. There is nothing else to be seen except the spreading marsh, bounded by dim snowy Alps and purple Apennines, so very far away that the level rack of summer clouds seem more attainable and real. What sunsets and sunrises that tower must see ; what glaring lurid after-glows in August, when the red light scowls upon the pestilential fen ; what sheets of sullen vapor rolling over it in autumn ; what breath-less heats, and rain-clouds big with thunder; what silences; what unimpeded blasts of winter winds! One old monk tends this deserted spot. He has the huge church, with its echoing aisles and marble columns and giddy bell-tower and cloistered corridors, all to himself. At rare intervals, priests from Ravenna come to sing some special mass at these cold altars; pious folks make vows to pray upon their mouldy steps and kiss the relics which are shown on great occasions. But no one stays; they hurry, after muttering their prayers, from the fever-stricken spot, reserving their domestic pieties and customary devotions for the brighter and newer chapels of the fashionable churches in Ravenna. So the old monk is left alone to sweep the marsh water from his church floor, and to keep the green moss from growing too thickly on its monuments. A clammy conferva covers everything except the mosaics upon tribune, roof, and clerestory, which defy the course of age. Christ on his throne sedet ceternumque sedebit: the saints around him glitter with their pitiless uncompromising eyes and wooden gestures, as if twelve centuries had not passed over them, and they were nightmares only dreamed last night, and rooted in a sick man’s memory. For those gaunt and solemn forms there is no change of life or end of days. No fever touches them ; no dampness of the wind and rain loosens their firm cement. They stare with senseless faces in bitter mockery of men who live and die and moulder away beneath. Their poor old guardian told us it was a weary life. He has had the fever three times, and does not hope to survive many more Septembers. The very water that he drinks is brought him from Ravenna; for the vast fen, though it pours its overflow upon the church floor, and spreads like a lake around, is death to drink. The monk had a gentle woman’s voice and mild brown eyes. What terrible crime had consigned him to this living tomb ? For what past sorrow is he weary of his life? What anguish of remorse has driven him to such a solitude? Yet he looked simple and placid; his melancholy was subdued and calm, as if life were over for him, and he were waiting for death to come with a friend’s greeting upon noiseless wings some summer night across the fen-lands in a cloud of soft destructive fever-mist.

Another monument upon the plain is worthy of a visit. It is the so-called Colonna dei Francesi, a cinquecento pillar of Ionic design, erected on the spot where Gaston de Foix expired victorious after one of the bloodiest battles ever fought. The Ronco, a straight, sluggish stream, flows by the lonely spot; mason-bees have covered with laborious stucco-work the scrolls and leafage of its ornaments, confounding epitaphs and trophies under their mud houses. A few cypress-trees stand round it, and the dogs and chickens of a neighboring farm-yard make it their rendezvous. Those mason-bees are like posterity, which settles down upon the ruins of a Baalbec or a Luxor, setting up its tents and filling the fair spaces of Hellenic or Egyptian temples with clay hovels. Nothing differs but the scale ; and while the bees content themselves with filling up and covering, man destroys the silent places of the past which he appropriates.

In Ravenna itself, perhaps what strikes us most is the abrupt transition everywhere discernible from monuments of vast antiquity to buildings of quite modern date. There seems to be no interval between the marbles and mosaics of Justinian or Theodoric and the insignificant frippery of the last century. The churches of Ravenna—S. Vitale, S. Apollinare, and the rest—are too well known and have been too often described by enthusiastic antiquaries, to need a detailed notice in this place. Every one is aware that the ecclesiastical customs and architecture of the early Church can be studied in greater perfection here than elsewhere. Not even the basilicas and mosaics of Rome, nor those of Palermo and Monreale, are equal for historical interest to those of Ravenna. Yet there is not one single church which remains entirely unaltered and unspoiled. The imagination has to supply the atrium or outer portico from one building, the vaulted baptistery with its marble font from another, the pulpits and ambones from a third, the tribune from a fourth, the round brick bell-tower from a fifth, and then to cover all the concave roofs and chapel walls with grave and glittering mosaics.

There is nothing more beautiful in decorative art than the mosaics of such tiny buildings as the tomb of Galla Placidia or the chapel of the bishop’s palace. They are like jewelled and enamelled cases ; not an inch of wall can be seen which is not covered with elaborate patterns of the brightest colors. Tall date-palms spring from the floor with fruit and birds among their branches, and between them stand the pillars and apostles of the Church. In the spandrels and lunettes above the arches and the windows angels fly with white, extended wings. On every vacant place are scrolls and arabesques of foliage—birds and beasts, doves drinking from the vase, and peacocks spreading gorgeous plumes—a maze of green and gold and blue. Overhead, the vault is powdered with stars gleaming upon the deepest azure, and in the midst is set an aureole embracing the majestic head of Christ, or else the symbol of the sacred fish, or the hand of the Creator pointing from a cloud. In Galla Placidia’s tomb these storied vaults spring above the sarcophagi of empresses and emperors, each lying in the place where he was laid more than twelve centuries ago. The light which struggles through the narrow windows serves to harmonize the brilliant hues and make a gorgeous gloom.

Besides these more general and decorative subjects, many of the churches are adorned with historical mosaics, setting forth the Bible narrative or incidents from the life of Christian emperors and kings. In S. Apollinare Nuovo there is a most interesting treble series of such mosaics extending over both walls of the nave. On the left hand, as we enter, we see the town of Classis ; on the right the palace of Theodoric, its doors and loggie rich with curtains, and its friezes blazing with colored ornaments. From the city gate of Classis virgins issue and proceed in a long line until they reach Madonna seated on a throne with Christ upon her knees and the three kings in adoration at her feet. From Theodoric’s palace door a similar procession of saints and martyrs carry us to Christ surrounded by archangels. Above this double row of saints and virgins stand the fathers and prophets of the Church, and highest underneath the roof are pictures from the life of our Lord. It will be remembered in connection with these subjects that the women sat upon the left and the men upon the right side of the church. Above the tribune, at the east end of the church, it was customary to represent the Creative [land, or the monogram of the Saviour, or the head of Christ with the letter A.. Moses and Elijah frequently stand on either side to symbolize the transfiguration, while the saints and bishops specially connected with the church appeared upon a lower row.

Then on the side walls were depicted such subjects as Justinian and Theodora among their courtiers, or the grant of the privileges of the church to its first founder from imperial patrons, with symbols of the old Hebraic ritual—Abel’s lamb, the sacrifice of Isaac, Melchisedec’s offering of bread and wine—which were regarded as the types of Christian ceremonies. The baptistery was adorned with appropriate mosaics representing Christ’s baptism in Jordan.

Generally speaking, one is struck with the dignity of these de-signs, and especially with the combined majesty and sweetness of the face of Christ. The sense for harmony of hue displayed in their composition is marvellous. It would be curious to trace in detail the remnants of classical treatment which may be discerned —Jordan, for instance, pours his water from an urn like a river-god crowned with sedge—or to show what points of ecclesiastical tradition are established by these ancient monuments. We find Mariolatry already imminent, the names of the three kings, Kaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, the four evangelists as we now recognize them, and many of the rites and vestments which ritualists of all denominations regard with superstitious reverence.

There are two sepulchral monuments in Ravenna which cannot be passed over unnoticed. The one is that of Theodoric the Goth, crowned by its semisphere of solid stone, a mighty tomb, well worthy of the conqueror and king. It stands in a green field, surrounded by acacias, where the nightingales sing ceaselessly in May. The mason-bees have covered it and the water has invaded its sepulchral vaults. In spite of many trials, it seems that human art is unable to pump out the pond and clear the frogs and efts from the chamber where the great Goth was laid by Amalasuntha.

The other is Dante’s temple, with its bass-relief and withered garlands. The story of his burial and of the discovery of his real tomb is fresh in the memory of every one. But the ” little cupola, more neat than solemn,” of which Lord Byron speaks, will continue to be the goal of many a pilgrimage. For myself-though I remember Chateaubriand’s bareheaded genuflection on its threshold, Alfieri’s passionate prostration at the altar-tomb, and Byron’s offering of poems on the poet’s shrine—I confess that a single canto of the Inferno, a single passage of the Vita Nuova, seems more full of soul-stirring associations than the place where, centuries ago, the mighty dust was laid. It is the spirit that lives and makes alive. And Dante’s spirit seems more present with us under the pine branches of the Bosco than beside his real or fancied tomb. ” He is risen “—” Lo, I am with you alway “—these are the words that ought to haunt us in a burying-ground. There is something affected and self-conscious in overpowering grief or enthusiasm or humiliation at a tomb.