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Ravenna

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.

Henry James