Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe by Judith Herrin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Published: 27th August 2020 (Allen Lane)
O lone Ravenna! many a tale is told
Of thy great glories in the days of old’ (Oscar Wilde)
Wilde’s 1878 poem ‘Ravenna’, for which he won the prestigious Newdigate prize, is a celebration of the city’s rich history, and a lamentation of its decline, ‘in ruined loveliness thou liest dead’. In the poem, his 19th century experience of Ravenna is strikingly contrasted with its classical past, but the sense of loss he evokes well reflects every period of Ravenna’s history. A deathly commemoration may be one poetic step too far, but Ravenna is a city which doesn’t loom large in historical memory, despite its long term significance. Even for this history buff, Ravenna’s role at the heart of empires, especially between 402 and the end of the 7th century, was almost entirely unknown. Here, Judith Herrin seeks to fill in those gaps, charting Ravenna from its time as capital of the Western Roman Empire to the late 8th century, when it acts as inspiration for Charlemagne’s imperial and religious building projects in Aachen.
While pitched at a general readership, it’s a challenging book, especially if you come to it without the contextual religious knowledge (or enthusiasm for it), as I did. Yet the format of small, titled sections within each chapter gives a palatable framework to the complicated narrative. Herrin uses these sections to geographically and thematically extend the focus from Ravenna as a city, to the ways in which it functioned as a place of connection and cultural exchange. The idea of the ‘Dark Ages’ has long been out of favour and Herrin convincingly adds her own voice to the argument, detailing how Ravenna’s mix of influences gave it a formative role in the development of Europe. The scope is huge and not without difficulties. Alongside all the usual caveats which apply to source material, Herrin discusses Ravenna’s specifically problematic historical record, making clear just how much has been lost, destroyed, or decayed. Even so, the book is grounded in the extant sources, with the archaeology, architecture, and documentary evidence comprehensively evaluated and referenced. It’s impressively done.
On top of all that, Ravenna is a beautiful book. Jacketed in gold, it’s well made and heavy, with vibrant colour photographs throughout. Whether judging this book by it’s cover or what’s inside, there’s no doubt Ravenna deserves a place on your shelves.
ARC via publisher
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