Several excellent monographs on Ravenna written in English have appeared in recent years. Deborah Deliyannis’s Ravenna in Late Antiquity, (recently reissued in paperback in 2014), provides an accessible and detailed survey and synthesis of the scholarship of the city and its late antique churches, buildings and other monuments within the framework of the contemporary late antique and medieval sources.1 Mariëtte Verhoeven’s The Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna incorporates the frequently overlooked medieval and early modern evidence to evaluate the history of Ravenna’s churches, while simultaneously writing the history of these monuments from their creation to the present.2
Massimiliano David’s Eternal Ravenna is a welcome addition to this growing corpus, first appearing in Italian in 2013 as Ravenna Eterna: Dagli Etruschi ai Veneziani. Unlike Deliyannis’s survey and Verhoeven’s detailed study, Eternal Ravenna offers a broader chronological overview of the city of Ravenna and its history primarily through the surviving material culture from the fifth century BC to 1512 and the capitulation of Ravenna to the forces allied with the papacy. In its form, it is primarily concerned with the history of Ravenna and illustrating it through images of the objects and monuments produced during the various phases of the city’s history. It is, however, not an academic text and is less useful for scholarly study as it includes only a broad historiography and history of the study of its monuments (p. 11-14) and limited footnotes, and makes few claims for new conclusions. Perhaps it is best thought of as a kind of museum catalog for the monuments of Ravenna, well organized and illustrated, and ultimately successful in its aim “to provide the reader with an atlas of urban and regional history through the distant gaze of an external observer,” (p. 6).
The first chapter delves into the tools for assessing the history of the city: an overview of the historiography from the early Middle Ages to the present and a summary of Ravenna’s topographic and environmental position. For David, a key to understanding the history of Ravenna was its location as an estuary city, shaped by its position at the confluences of the Ronco and Montone just south of the end of the Po delta. The local rivers served the city as its natural defense, but also provided links to agricultural land and the Apennines and the environment necessary for lagoons and harbors.
The second chapter covers nine centuries from the Etruscans in the fifth century BC to the Christian city of the fourth century AD, with room for some speculation as the Etruscan “roots” of Ravenna are faint (the archaeological evidence is substantial in the surrounding area but relatively scant for the city). Coming to the age of the Republic and Principate, David narrates the development of the city and the rise of the port at Classe illustrated by the few remaining archaeological and material fragments from this period, but primarily the surviving late Roman sarcophagi.
The third chapter is dedicated entirely to the fifth century AD and in particular to the churches and monuments built in the city by the imperial family. David extends his descriptions not only to the monuments, but their histories to the present; for example, he traces the chapel or martyrium once part of the church of Santa Croce into its modern incarnation as the mausoleum of Galla Placidia. Although he does not problematize the actual burial of the empress, well researched by Deliyannis,3 the photographs of the so-called mausoleum are exquisite.
For David, the history of the city forms an arc, and Ravenna reaches its zenith in the fifth century; the following chapter, “From a centre to an outpost,” covers the late fifth century to the end of reign of Justinian, with a focus on the churches (San Vitale, Sant’Apollinare in Classe, and Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, and the episcopal throne of Maximianus from the Cathedral). This chapter is the longest due to the significant amount of extant material and architecture, but it ultimately fails to address the notion of Ravenna as an outpost. The decline of the city and its transition to “outpost” is simply described as a result of the political collapses taking place in Italy with the arrival of the Lombards, although the city itself survives intact.
The shorter fifth and sixth chapters cover the Byzantine and Carolingian possession of the territory and the period from the Ottonians through the eleventh century. The former focuses its investigations on the meager archaeological and architectural remains, but in particular does a good job addressing the tombs and the renovation of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, while the latter takes a more regional approach and includes the creation of the Abbey of Pomposa to the north, the renovation of the Cathedral and the erection of towers throughout the city. The seventh and final chapter offers an overview of the history of Ravenna from the age of Dante through the Renaissance, including the political domination by the Polentani family and finally its short period as a subject of Venice.
The content is well organized and the text itself includes helpful headings, but as a whole offers little in the way of new understanding the history of Ravenna. Instead, it sticks to the familiar script: the city of Roman origins becomes grand as capital for the late antique and Christian Roman empire, only to descend from its lofty position at the end of Late Antiquity, although with continued evolution and regional importance. Its specific value then is in connecting the history of Ravenna’s most ancient monuments to their medieval and early modern counterparts, and by tracing with broad strokes and specific anecdotes the history of the city from its origins to the sixteenth century.
Published in a large format, the text is lavishly illustrated, incorporating new images taken expressly for this volume covering every facet of the study from Etruscan bronze objects to fourteenth-century frescos. The presentation of the images and their connection with the text may by be seen as incongruous. While nearly all of the images are of excellent quality, and some are integral to the reading of the text, the major exist as captioned but not explained, floating between and within chapters, much like some museum exhibition catalogs. This ultimately limits their functionality in the book, although it likely was conceived with this particular form in mind. Yet when combined with the set of excellent maps and an illustrated gazetteer of themes and monuments (pp. 260-271) which is tied into the text, Eternal Ravenna succeeds in providing a wide perspective on the history and material culture of the city.
1. Deborah M. Deliyannis, Ravenna in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
2. Mariëtte Verhoeven, The Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna: Transformations and Memory (Brepols: Turnhout, 2011).
3. In particular, see Deborah M. Deliyannis, “’Bury me in Ravenna?’: Appropriating Galla Placidia’s Body in the Middle Ages” Studi Medievali 42 (2001), 289-299.