by Roderick Conway Morris

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Ravenna's Golden Age Revisited

By Roderick Conway Morris
RAVENNA, Italy 18 August 2006
San Vitale, Ravenna
Detail of the Empress Theodora at San Vitale, mid 6th century, Ravenna



The Golden Age of Ravenna in the sixth century was just that. Acres of glittering gold mosaics covered the walls, ceilings and domes of basilicas, churches, mausoleums and palaces. Only a fraction of them survive, but those that do have the power to astonish, their precious metals and gorgeous array of colors imprisoned in millions of glass tesserae, shining as brightly as they dida millennium and a half ago.

The Roman emperor Honorius took refuge here from invading armies in 402. Despite his reputation for decadence and folly, his choice to make Ravenna his new capital was a wise one. Its surrounding lagoons and marshes secured its landward side, and its port of Classe kept the sea route open to Constantinople and the still thriving empire in the east.

As long as Ravenna endured, the light of Roman civilization would never be entirely extinguished in the west, even if the Byzantine emperors found it politic to appoint Goths as viceroys with the title of kings to administer and defend the city on their behalf. The most outstanding of these, Theodoric, did as much to preserve and beautify Ravenna as any native Roman.

But details of Ravenna's history - and its transformation from an insignificant provincial town into the richest and most sumptuously adorned city in the west - have been all but forgotten.

The start of an ambitious long-term project to unravel Ravenna's past, and to share with the public many archaeological and historical findings of recent decades, is marked by an exhibit called 'Saints, Bankers, Kings: Ravenna and Classe in the Sixth Century,' on view until Oct. 8. The centerpieces of the show, at the restored medieval San Nicolo church, are extensive excavated sections of floor mosaics from the lost church of San Severo at Classe, displayed for the first time, along with equally striking mosaics from nearby Faenza.

Pride in local saints played a key role in inspiring the glorification of the city. San Severo of Ravenna is the first of its bishops whose history is known, thanks to his attendance at a church council in 342-343. He was a poor weaver who dropped in on the proceedings for the election of the city's new bishop, remaining at the back of the crowd, to avoid showing his ragged clothes. A white dove alighted on his head, and the congregation elected him on the spot. (He later became the patron saint of weavers and drapers.) His basilica was the last of Ravenna's great churches to be completed.

San Vitale and Sant'Apollinare, both of Ravenna, were early Christian martyrs. San Vitale's famous basilica was begun during the reign of the Goth Theodoric and completed after his death and the imposition of direct rule by the Byzantines. Sant'Apollinare's no less renowned basilica at Classe is the only monument left standing amid fields in what was once a densely populated port. The construction of both these edifices was financed by Julianus Argentarius, or Julian the Banker, an intriguing figure.

Ravenna was a cosmopolitan mix of Latins, Greeks, Goths and others. Infinitely more important than Rome as a commercial center, Ravenna recorded almost four times as many bankers than Rome during this period. Julian was almost certainly from the east and possibly Greek (in a papyrus land sale contract here, which he witnessed, he signed his name in its Latin form but in Greek letters). How he became so wealthy is uncertain, but he may well have been aided by inflation, and the fall in the value of gold against bronze coin, which could yield profits of 25 percent or more at a time when standard interest rates were otherwise very low.

Although the church disapproved of any form of interest, the government allowed it. Bankrolling churches for saints dear to the local Latin population would have been good public relations. And, having made a pile indulging in what the ecclesiastics denounced as usury, it may well be that Julian, who paid 26,000 gold coins for the construction of San Vitale, was perhaps mindful of trying to ensure his soul's salvation.

The completion of San Vitale under the Byzantines led to a modification of the original design to accommodate the oft-reproduced mosaics of the Emperor Justinian and the Empress Theodora and their respective entourages. The only identifiable local Ravennese is the city's bishop, Maximian. In the background is an unknown figure, traditionally identified as Julian the Banker. This now seems more likely to have been a member of the Byzantine court. In that case, for all the lavish sponsorship, Julian failed to make it into the royal, photo-op-style lineup. The banker's monogram, however, does appear in the church's stonework.

Moreover, the distinctive large bricks used in the construction of the three principal churches he subsidized were later dubbed 'giulianei' (julians). In reality, these building blocks were widely used in Ravenna, but Julian probably paid for more of them than any other individual in the city's history.

Julian was merely one of a multitude of citizens who prospered under Theodoric's government. An anonymous contemporary chronicler, very likely Maximian himself, wrote: 'Merchants from many provinces flocked to his domains, for so great was the order he maintained, that, if anyone wished to keep gold and silver in the country, it was safe as in a walled city. A proof of this is that he never made gates for any city in Italy, and the gates that already existed were never closed. Anyone who had business to do, might go about it as safely by night as by day.'

By origin an illiterate barbarian field commander, Theodoric became almost more Roman than the Romans. He was obsessed with public works in general and aqueducts in particular. He organized the last public games to be held in Rome in antiquity. He encouraged learning, and Ravenna became a powerhouse of book production; a fellow Goth, Alaric, became one of the most prominent publishers and booksellers.

But Theodoric, along with most of his Goth countrymen, adhered to the Arian Christian sect. Almost everything now known about Arianism derives from attacks upon it. And, even though its ideas on complex issues of the divinity seem to have deviated only slightly from what became mainstream thinking, it was criticized by the Catholic Church as heresy even into the 20th century. Thus, Theodoric's subsequent condemnation has obscured the enthusiastic contemporary Catholic eulogies that accompanied most of his reign, led to the historical denigration of his many achievements and robbed him of the accolades due to him as one of the primary makers of Ravenna.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024