Capital of Empire, crucible of Europe
576pp. Allen Lane. 30 [pounds sterling].
VENICE HAS ITS SINKING BUILDINGS and tourist mobs, Rimini the Ponte di Tiberio and an excellent garage rock scene. And Ravenna --Ravenna has mosaics, so very many mosaics. Once seen, never forgotten, their luminous golden backgrounds wring new meaning from more familiar blues and purples. Not even overfamiliarity from a thousand book jackets can reduce the impact of the emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora in the sixth-century church of San Vitale, the Three Wise Men in the roughly contemporary Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, or the serene frontality of St Lawrence's martyrdom in the slightly earlier Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. With a figural naturalism not anchored in perspectival space, they are both artistically timeless and the epitome of what we think of as Byzantine art. Ravenna's artworks had the good fortune to escape the iconoclasm that swept away many such works of art in the eastern Mediterranean. It was their further good fortune that Ravenna itself, increasingly landlocked by the silting of the Po delta, lacked the kind of medieval and modern importance that would have erased its late antique glories. Judith Herrin's Ravenna, which was last week awarded the Pol Roger Duff Cooper Prize for non-fiction, aims to set these mosaics, the buildings they ennoble and the urban landscape they inhabit back within a meaningful historical context. It's a worthy project that surprisingly has not really been attempted before.
The narrative against which she sets Ravenna's townscape is almost parodically conventional, full of shifty Germanic foreigners barbarizing the Roman army, threatening an imperial system too weak to retain its distant provinces, and thereafter forming "the germs of an early medieval culture that emerges in western Europe personified by Charlemagne, with its combined Latin, Christian and Germanic tributaries, transalpine energies welded to those of Rome". These are the terms of analysis that many of us learnt as students, not a world away from Thomas Hodgkin's Italy and Her Invaders, the eight-volume Victorian masterpiece that covers the same time frame as does Herrin. Yet that strange anachronism doesn't really matter. As others have demonstrated, it is possible to make a handsome living recycling this same narrative with varying doses of melodrama and bombast, but it takes a scholar of Herrin's brilliance to bring events to life within a meaningful evocation of a time and a place. That skill, and a wonderfully pellucid prose style, ensures that even readers frustrated by the archaic narrative will find a great deal to admire and indeed learn from.
There is one very good reason why so many historians have kept away from...