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.