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    Ravenna

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    Chapter 21
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    I write these lines on a cold Swiss mountain-top, shut in by an
    intense white mist from any glimpse of the underworld of lovely
    Italy; but as I jotted down the other day in the ancient capital
    of Honorius and Theodoric the few notes of which they are
    composed, I let the original date stand for local colour's sake.
    Its mere look, as I transcribe it, emits a grateful glow in the
    midst of the Alpine rawness, and gives a depressed imagination
    something tangible to grasp while awaiting the return of fine
    weather. For Ravenna was glowing, less than a week since, as I
    edged along the narrow strip of shadow binding one side of the
    empty, white streets. After a long, chill spring the summer this
    year descended upon Italy with a sudden jump and an ominous hot
    breath. I stole away from Florence in the night, and even on top
    of the Apennines, under the dull starlight and in the rushing
    train, one could but sit and pant perspiringly.

    At Bologna I found a festa, or rather two festas, a civil and a
    religious, going on in mutual mistrust and disparagement. The
    civil, that of the Statuto, was the one fully national Italian
    holiday as by law established--the day that signalises everywhere
    over the land at once its achieved and hard-won unification; the
    religious was a jubilee of certain local churches. The latter is
    observed by the Bolognese parishes in couples, and comes round
    for each couple but once in ten years--an arrangement by which
    the faithful at large insure themselves a liberal recurrence of
    expensive processions. It was n't my business to distinguish the
    sheep from the goats, the pious from the profane, the prayers
    from the scoffers; it was enough that, melting together under the
    scorching sun, they filled the admirably solid city with a flood
    of spectacular life. The combination at one point was really
    dramatic. While a long procession of priests and young virgins
    in white veils, bearing tapers, marshalled itself in one of the
    streets, a review of the King's troops went forward outside the
    town. On its return a large detachment of cavalry passed across
    the space where the incense was burning, the pictured banners
    swaying and the litany being droned, and checked the advance of
    the little ecclesiastical troop. The long vista of the street,
    between the porticoes, was festooned with garlands and scarlet
    and tinsel; the robes and crosses and canopies of the priests,
    the clouds of perfumed smoke and the white veils of the maidens,
    were resolved by the hot bright air into a gorgeous medley of
    colour, across which the mounted soldiers rattled and flashed as
    if it had been a conquering army trampling on an embassy of
    propitiation. It was, to tell the truth, the first time an'
    Italian festa had really exhibited to my eyes the genial glow and
    the romantic particulars promised by song and story; and I
    confess that those eyes found more pleasure in it than they were
    to find an hour later in the picturesque on canvas as one
    observes it in the Pinacoteca. I found myself scowling most
    unmercifully at Guido and Domenichino.

    For Ravenna, however, I had nothing but smiles--grave,
    reflective, philosophic smiles, I hasten to add, such as accord
    with the historic dignity, not to say the mortal sunny sadness,
    of the place. I arrived there in the evening, before, even at
    drowsy Ravenna, the festa of the Statuto had altogether put
    itself to bed. I immediately strolled forth from the inn, and
    found it sitting up a while longer on the piazza, chiefly at the
    cafe door, listening to the band of the garrison by the light of
    a dozen or so of feeble tapers, fastened along the front of the
    palace of the Government. Before long, however, it had dispersed
    and departed, and I was left alone with the grey illumination and
    with an affable citizen whose testimony as to the manners and
    customs of Ravenna I had aspired to obtain. I had, borrowing
    confidence from prompt observation, suggested deferentially that
    it was n't the liveliest place in the world, and my friend
    admitted that it was in fact not a seat of ardent life. But had I
    seen the Corso? Without seeing the Corso one did n't exhaust the
    possibilities. The Corso of Ravenna, of a hot summer night, had
    an air of surprising seclusion and repose. Here and there in an
    upper closed window glimmered a light; my companion's footsteps
    and my own were the only sounds; not a creature was within sight.
    The suffocating air helped me to believe for a moment that I
    walked in the Italy of Boccaccio, hand-in-hand with the plague,
    through a city which had lost half its population by pestilence
    and the other half by flight. I turned back into my inn
    profoundly satisfied. This at last was the old-world dulness of a
    prime distillation; this at last was antiquity, history, repose.

    The impression was largely confirmed and enriched on the
    following day; but it was obliged at an early stage of my visit
    to give precedence to another--the lively perception, namely, of
    the thinness of my saturation with Gibbon and the other sources
    of legend. At Ravenna the waiter at the café and the coachman who
    drives you to the Pine-Forest allude to Galla Placidia and
    Justinian as to any attractive topic of the hour; wherever you
    turn you encounter some fond appeal to your historic presence of
    mind. For myself I could only attune my spirit vaguely to so
    ponderous a challenge, could only feel I was breathing an air of
    prodigious records and relics. I conned my guide-book and looked
    up at the great mosaics, and then fumbled at poor Murray again
    for some intenser light on the court of Justinian; but I can
    imagine that to a visitor more intimate with the originals of the
    various great almond-eyed mosaic portraits in the vaults of the
    churches these extremely curious works of art may have a really
    formidable interest. I found in the place at large, by daylight,
    the look of a vast straggling depopulated village. The streets
    with hardly an exception are grass-grown, and though I walked
    about all day I failed to encounter a single wheeled vehicle. I
    remember no shop but the little establishment of an urbane
    photographer, whose views of the Pineta, the great legendary
    pine-forest just without the town, gave me an irresistible desire
    to seek that refuge. There was no architecture to speak of; and
    though there are a great many large domiciles with aristocratic
    names they stand cracking and baking in the sun in no very
    comfortable fashion. The houses have for the most part an all but
    rustic rudeness; they are low and featureless and shabby, as well
    as interspersed with high garden walls over which the long arms
    of tangled vines hang motionless into the stagnant streets. Here
    and there in all this dreariness, in some particularly silent and
    grassy corner, rises an old brick church with a front more or
    less spoiled, by cheap modernisation, and a strange cylindrical
    campanile pierced with small arched windows and extremely
    suggestive of the fifth century. These churches constitute the
    palpable interest of Ravenna, and their own principal interest,
    after thirteen centuries of well-intentioned spoliation, resides
    in their unequalled collection of early Christian mosaics. It is
    an interest simple, as who should say, almost to harshness, and
    leads one's attention along a straight and narrow way. There are
    older churches in Rome, and churches which, looked at as museums,
    are more variously and richly informing; but in Rome you stumble
    at every step on some curious pagan memorial, often beautiful
    enough to make your thoughts wander far from the strange stiff
    primitive Christian forms.

    Ravenna, on the other hand, began with the Church, and all her
    monuments and relics are harmoniously rigid. By the middle of the
    first century she possessed an exemplary saint, Apollinaris, a
    disciple of Peter, to whom her two finest places of worship are
    dedicated. It was to one of these, jocosely entitled the "new,"
    that I first directed my steps. I lingered outside a while and
    looked at the great red, barrel-shaped bell-towers, so rusty, so
    crumbling, so archaic, and yet so resolute to ring in another
    century or two, and then went in to the coolness, the shining
    marble columns, the queer old sculptured slabs and sarcophagi and
    the long mosaics that scintillated, under the roof, along the
    wall of the nave. San Apollinare Nuovo, like most of its
    companions, is a magazine of early Christian odds and ends;
    fragments of yellow marble incrusted with quaint sculptured
    emblems of primitive dogma; great rough troughs, containing the
    bones of old bishops; episcopal chairs with the marble worn
    narrow by centuries of pressure from the solid episcopal person;
    slabs from the fronts of old pulpits, covered with carven
    hierogylphics of an almost Egyptian abstruseness--lambs and stags
    and fishes and beasts of theological affinities even less
    apparent. Upon all these strange things the strange figures in
    the great mosaic panorama look down, with coloured cheeks and
    staring eyes, lifelike enough to speak to you and answer your
    wonderment and tell you in bad Latin of the decadence that it was
    in such and such a fashion they believed and worshipped. First,
    on each side, near the door, are houses and ships and various old
    landmarks of Ravenna; then begins a long procession, on one side,
    of twenty-two white-robed virgins and three obsequious magi,
    terminating in a throne bearing the Madonna and Child, surrounded
    by four angels; on the other side, of an equal number of male
    saints (twenty-five, that is) holding crowns in their hands and
    leading to a Saviour enthroned between angels of singular
    expressiveness. What it is these long slim seraphs express I
    cannot quite say, but they have an odd, knowing, sidelong look
    out of the narrow ovals of their eyes which, though not without
    sweetness, would certainly make me murmur a defensive prayer or
    so were I to find myself alone in the church towards dusk. All
    this work is of the latter part of the sixth century and
    brilliantly preserved. The gold backgrounds twinkle as if they
    had been inserted yesterday, and here and there a figure is
    executed almost too much in the modern manner to be interesting;
    for the charm of mosaic work is, to my sense, confined altogether
    to the infancy of the art. The great Christ, in the series of
    which I speak, is quite an elaborate picture, and yet he retains
    enough of the orthodox stiffness to make him impressive in the
    simpler, elder sense. He is clad in a purple robe, even as an
    emperor, his hair and beard are artfully curled, his eyebrows
    arched, his complexion brilliant, his whole aspect such a one as
    the popular mind may have attributed to Honorius or Valentinian.
    It is all very Byzantine, and yet I found in it much of that
    interest which is inseparable, to a facile imagination, from all
    early representations of our Lord. Practically they are no more
    authentic than the more or less plausible inventions of Ary
    Scheffer and Holman Hunt; in spite of which they borrow a certain
    value, factitious perhaps but irresistible, from the mere fact
    that they are twelve or thirteen centuries less distant from the
    original. It is something that this was the way the people in the
    sixth century imagined Jesus to have looked; the image has
    suffered by so many the fewer accretions. The great purple-robed
    monarch on the wall of Ravenna is at least a very potent and
    positive Christ, and the only objection I have to make to him is
    that though in this character he must have had a full
    apportionment of divine foreknowledge he betrays no apprehension
    of Dr. Channing and M. Renan. If one's preference lies, for
    distinctness' sake, between the old plainness and the modern
    fantasy, one must admit that the plainness has here a very grand
    outline.

    [Illustration: SANT APOLLINAR NUOVO, RAVENNA.]

    I spent the rest of the morning in charmed transition between the
    hot yellow streets and the cool grey interiors of the churches.
    The greyness everywhere was lighted up by the scintillation, on
    vault and entablature, of mosaics more or less archaic, but
    always brilliant and elaborate, and everywhere too by the same
    deep amaze of the fact that, while centuries had worn themselves
    away and empires risen and fallen, these little cubes of coloured
    glass had stuck in their allotted places and kept their
    freshness. I have no space for a list of the various shrines so
    distinguished, and, to tell the truth, my memory of them has
    already become a very generalised and undiscriminated record. The
    total aspect of the place, its sepulchral stillness, its
    absorbing perfume of evanescence and decay and mortality,
    confounds the distinctions and blurs the details. The Cathedral,
    which is vast and high, has been excessively modernised, and was
    being still more so by a lavish application of tinsel and cotton-
    velvet in preparation for the centenary feast of St. Apollinaris,
    which befalls next month. Things on this occasion are to be done
    handsomely, and a fair Ravennese informed me that a single family
    had contributed three thousand francs towards a month's vesper-
    music. It seemed to me hereupon that I should like in the August
    twilight to wander into the quiet nave of San Apollinare, and
    look up at the great mosaics through the resonance of some fine
    chanting. I remember distinctly enough, however, the tall
    basilica of San Vitale, of octagonal shape, like an exchange or
    custom-house--modelled, I believe, upon St. Sophia at
    Constantinople. It has a great span of height and a great
    solemnity, as well as a choir densely pictured over on arch and
    apse with mosaics of the time of Justinian. These are regular
    pictures, full of movement, gesture and perspective, and just
    enough sobered in hue by time to bring home their remoteness. In
    the middle of the church, under the great dome, sat an artist
    whom I envied, making at an effective angle a study of the choir
    and its broken lights, its decorated altar and its incrusted
    twinkling walls. The picture, when finished, will hang, I
    suppose, on the library wall of some person of taste; but even if
    it is much better than is probable--I did n't look at it--all his
    taste won't tell the owner, unless he has been there, in just
    what a soundless, mouldering, out-of-the-way corner of old Italy
    it was painted. An even better place for an artist fond of dusky
    architectural nooks, except that here the dusk is excessive and
    he would hardly be able to tell his green from his red, is the
    extraordinary little church of the Santi Nazaro e Celso,
    otherwise known as the mausoleum of Galla Placidia. This is
    perhaps on the whole the spot in Ravenna where the impression is
    of most sovereign authority and most thrilling force. It consists
    of a narrow low-browed cave, shaped like a Latin cross, every
    inch of which except the floor is covered with dense symbolic
    mosaics. Before you and on each side, through the thick brown
    light, loom three enormous barbaric sarcophagi, containing the
    remains of potentates of the Lower Empire. It is as if history
    had burrowed under ground to escape from research and you had
    fairly run it to earth. On the right lie the ashes of the Emperor
    Honorius, and in the middle those of his sister, Galla Placidia,
    a lady who, I believe, had great adventures. On the other side
    rest the bones of Constantius III. The place might be a small
    natural grotto lined with glimmering mineral substances, and
    there is something quite tremendous in being shut up so closely
    with these three imperial ghosts. The shadow of the great Roman
    name broods upon the huge sepulchres and abides for ever within
    the narrow walls.

    But still other memories hang about than those of primitive
    bishops and degenerate emperors. Byron lived here and Dante died
    here, and the tomb of the one poet and the dwelling of the other
    are among the advertised appeals. The grave of Dante, it must be
    said, is anything but Dantesque, and the whole precinct is
    disposed with that odd vulgarity of taste which distinguishes
    most modern Italian tributes to greatness. The author of The
    Divine Comedy
    commemorated in stucco, even in a slumbering
    corner of Ravenna, is not "sympathetic." Fortunately of all
    poets he least needs a monument, as he was pre-eminently an
    architect in diction and built himself his temple of fame in
    verses more solid than Cyclopean blocks. If Dante's tomb is not
    Dantesque, so neither is Byron's house Byronic, being a homely,
    shabby, two-storied dwelling, directly on the street, with as
    little as possible of isolation and mystery. In Byron's time it
    was an inn, and it is rather a curious reflection that "Cain" and
    the "Vision of Judgment" should have been written at an hotel.
    The fact supplies a commanding precedent for self-abstraction to
    tourists at once sentimental and literary. I must declare indeed
    that my acquaintance with Ravenna considerably increased my
    esteem for Byron and helped to renew my faith in the sincerity of
    his inspiration. A man so much de son temps as the author
    of the above-named and other pieces can have spent two long years
    in this stagnant city only by the help of taking a great deal of
    disinterested pleasure in his own genius. He had indeed a notable
    pastime--the various churches are adorned with monuments of
    ancestral Guicciolis--but it is none the less obvious that
    Ravenna, fifty years ago, would have been an intolerably dull
    residence to a foreigner of distinction unequipped with
    intellectual resources. The hour one spends with Byron's memory
    then is almost compassionate. After all, one says to one's self
    as one turns away from the grandiloquent little slab in front of
    his house and looks down the deadly provincial vista of the
    empty, sunny street, the author of so many superb stanzas asked
    less from the world than he gave it. One of his diversions was to
    ride in the Pineta, which, beginning a couple of miles from the
    city, extends some twenty-five miles along the sands of the
    Adriatic. I drove out to it for Byron's sake, and Dante's, and
    Boccaccio's, all of whom have interwoven it with their fictions,
    and for that of a possible whiff of coolness from the sea.
    Between the city and the forest, in the midst of malarious rice-
    swamps, stands the finest of the Ravennese churches, the stately
    temple of San Apollinare in Classe. The Emperor Augustus
    constructed hereabouts a harbour for fleets, which the ages have
    choked up, and which survives only in the title of this ancient
    church. Its extreme loneliness makes it doubly impressive. They
    opened the great doors for me, and let a shaft of heated air go
    wander up the beautiful nave between the twenty-four lustrous,
    pearly columns of cipollino marble, and mount the wide staircase
    of the choir and spend itself beneath the mosaics of the vault. I
    passed a memorable half-hour sitting in this wave of tempered
    light, looking down the cool grey avenue of the nave, out of the
    open door, at the vivid green swamps, and listening to the
    melancholy stillness. I rambled for an hour in the Wood of
    Associations, between the tall smooth, silvery stems of the
    pines, and beside a creek which led me to the outer edge of the
    wood and a view of white sails, gleaming and gliding behind the
    sand-hills. It was infinitely, it was nobly "quaint," but, as the
    trees stand at wide intervals and bear far aloft in the blue air
    but a little parasol of foliage, I suppose that, of a glaring
    summer day, the forest itself was only the more characteristic of
    its clime and country for being perfectly shadeless.

    1873.
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