Post-classical history

The Ravenna Mosaics

In the apse of San Vitale the image of this same Maximin and of the emperor and empress are beautifully created in mosaic.

Agnellus, Book of the Pontiffs of the Church of Ravenna,

early ninth century

The mosaics in Ravenna were my first and most exciting introduction to Byzantine art. During the Second World War they had been damaged by allied bombardment, but after 1945 copies of these sixth-century masterpieces were sent round Europe to raise funds for their restoration. My mother had seen that exhibition and was keen to visit the originals; I was learning Italian at school and we both thought that Ravenna should be the focus of our summer holiday. So off we went from Milan in a rented Fiat Cinquecento to see the mosaic panels that commemorate Justinian and Theodora. Only later did I wonder why portraits of the rulers of Byzantium who never went to Ravenna flanked the approach to the altar in the church of San Vitale. Why are they there?

In 89 BC, Ravenna, a small city on the Adriatic coast of Italy, was conquered by the Romans, who made it the capital of the Italian province of Flaminia et Picenum. The well-fortified site had a secure harbour at Classis, with important maritime links throughout the Mediterranean, which drew it to the attention of Emperor Honorius (395–423), who ruled the western half of the empire while his brother Arcadius ruled the East (395–408). Like most fourth-century emperors, Honorius did not live in Rome, but had his imperial residence and court at Milan. In 402 he decided to move from Milan to Ravenna, which could be better protected from barbarian raids. Under imperial patronage Ravenna grew rapidly, expanding in population and in buildings essential for administering the remains of the Roman Empire in the West. It attracted aristocrats from Rome and other centres of the West, traders from all parts of the Mediterranean and embassies from rulers who held power outside the Roman world.

Among those who settled in Ravenna was Galla Placidia, daughter of Theodosius I and younger sister of Arcadius and Honorius. In 423, her son Valentinian III was proclaimed augustus (emperor) in the West, when he was only five years old, so Galla assumed power and ruled as Regent for over twenty-five years. She patronized the building of many churches dedicated to the ‘orthodox’ (anti-Arian) rite while maintaining relations with the pro-Arian Christian faction. Her basilica of St John the Theologian must have been a spectacular monument, which rivalled the city’s cathedral dedicated to Apollinaris, the local saint, whose relics were preserved at Classis. It was constructed after she experienced a fierce storm at sea on her return from Constantinople. Praying to St John (a fisherman as well as an evangelist), Galla promised to build him a church if the ship was saved. Details of the story decorated the original church. Galla was also largely successful in protecting her son’s imperial claim from ambitious generals. In 437 Valentinian married Eudoxia, daughter of Theodosius II, in a grand ceremony which was also commemorated in mosaics decorating the palace of Ravenna.

Shortly before her death in 450, Galla had prepared her own mausoleum, with Christian mosaics over the three sarcophagi designed to hold her bodily remains and those of her husband and her son. With its fine quartz windows, symbolic scenes of the Good Shepherd, doves and deer drinking at the fountain of life and the starry sky in the central vault, this is an exquisite small burial chamber in the shape of a cross. It was dedicated to the Roman martyr St Lawrence, who is shown beside the fire over which he was tortured on a grill. The mausoleum was probably related to the larger palace complex, where the mosaic floor of a chapel devoted to the cult of the Holy Cross survives. Under Bishop Peter Chrysologus (432–50), Ravenna was endowed with six episcopal sees in Emilia, which had formerly been under the authority of Milan. As it became the undisputed capital of Italy, it gained additional ecclesiastical power commensurate with its political authority.

In 455, Rome was sacked by Vandals who had occupied North Africa, with a brutality that set a new standard and has coined the modern term ‘vandalism’. It never recovered its former status. The political decline of Rome was matched by the rise of Ravenna, which became a truly imperial capital under the Ostrogothic leader Theoderic, who set up his government and court there in 489. He was one of the non-Roman military leaders encouraged by the emperors in Constantinople to go West, to maintain authority among the fractured provinces of Italy. This devious ploy was designed to alleviate pressure on the East, while giving barbarian soldiers an imperial role. It often provoked severe problems for the indigenous authorities, especially bishops of Rome. Theoderic was, however, a different sort of barbarian because he had spent his youth (between c. 461 and 470) in Constantinople as a hostage for his father’s good behaviour; he was well educated and had absorbed the traditions of the imperial court.

While he claimed the title king of the Goths, and rex was commonly used by non-Roman rulers, Theoderic had imperial ambitions. After his arrival in Ravenna with the support of Emperor Zeno (474–91), these hopes are reflected in letters written by his chancellor, the scholarly senator Cassiodorus, in his name. To Emperor Anastasius (491–518) he declared:

Our royalty is an imitation of yours, modelled on your good purpose, a copy of the only empire, and in so far as we follow you do we excel all other nations.

In his building activity, patronage of late antique culture and wearing of purple robes he certainly followed imperial practice. Yet although Theoderic’s rule over both Romans and Goths was recognized as superior by his contemporaries in both East and West, Constantinople never granted him the official title augustus.

In the first quarter of the sixth century, Theoderic undertook a major programme of building in Ravenna to celebrate the pro-Arian faith of the Goths, with the cathedral dedicated to Christ (now Sant’Apollinare Nuovo), the Arian baptistery and a palace decorated in typical imperial style with scenes of Hippodrome racing. In his church, Theoderic commissioned mosaics of Christ’s life and miracles, as well as images of himself leading the Goths in worship, his palace and the harbour city of Classis. In this way, the Arian theology condemned at the First and Second Oecumenical Councils (at Nicaea and Constantinople), but maintained by the Goths and other non-Roman tribes, was enshrined in churches endowed with elegant mosaic decoration. In imitation of Galla Placidia, Theoderic constructed the monument in which he would be buried – the mausoleum still stands with an impressive single block covering the tomb. He also built palaces, fortresses, aqueducts, baths and other public buildings worthy of an imperial patron.

Theoderic visited Rome only once, in 500, when he celebrated his tricennalia (thirty years of rule) in suitably imperial fashion. He seems to have dated his assumption of power from his first military victory in around 470, after the death of his father. Following a ceremonial welcome by Pope Symmachus, the entire Senate and all the people, he prayed at St Peter’s, addressed the Senate, gave circus games and increased the annona, distribution of bread. For six months he lived on the Palatine in the ancient imperial palace, and promised to maintain the ordinances of previous Roman emperors. He described the ancient capital as a centre of learning: ‘All should enjoy Rome, that fertile mother of eloquence, that vast temple of every virtue, that city which cannot be called an alien place.’ But Theoderic devoted the next twenty-five years to his own capital in Ravenna, where he ruled over a mixed society of Goths and Romans, pro- and anti-Arian, with considerable skill and tolerance.

This can be seen in numerous letters composed by Cassiodorus that reflect Theoderic’s ambitions. In response to an appeal, for instance, he replied: ‘I who give thought to justice, even without solicitations, gladly welcome the reasonable petitions of suppliants. For what is more proper than for inviolate equity to preserve my state, even as arms protect it?’ Similarly, when the Jews of Genoa asked Theoderic for permission to rebuild their ancient synagogue, he replied that they could re-roof the structure but not enlarge it. ‘I grant leave, indeed, but I condemn the prayers of erring men… I cannot command your faith for no one is forced to believe against his will.’ In this way, Theoderic strengthened the loyalty of his many, varied subjects.

In Ravenna he minted coins in imperial style and issued one medallion with his own distinctive portrait. With the help of Cassiodorus, he ensured efficient administration through records made on papyrus. He commissioned the learned senator to record the history of the Goths, which Cassiodorus did in a twelve-volume work, partly preserved in Jordanes’ later version called the Getica. Theoderic enhanced the intellectual life of the city and patronized scholars, such as the philosopher Boethius, who was asked to document how to build sundials, water clocks and other technical devices. In about 524, Boethius was accused of treason and wrote his famous Consolation of Philosophy in prison before he was put to death, an act which Theoderic later regretted.

While Theoderic maintained his commitment to the Arian definitions of Christ’s nature and status, and encouraged neo-Arian scholarship to counter the claims of the orthodox, the two religious communities coexisted peacefully. Under his patronage, de luxe manuscripts of the Gospels in the Gothic translation made by Ulfila were written in silver ink on purple parchment. In terms of language, law and religious definitions, the contrast between Gothic and Roman meant that Ravenna became a key meeting point for the two cultures. Here, non-Roman and Roman beliefs and practices were integrated, an achievement that was crucial for the future history of the West. The process of this confrontation and acculturation is brilliantly displayed in the history of Ravenna, which attracted both Roman and non-Roman groups, and became the new capital of the West.

On his death in 526, Theoderic’s daughter Amalasuntha assumed the position of regent for her young son, Athalaric, who was proclaimed king at the age of ten. She had been well educated in the Roman style and was sympathetic to Constantinople, which gradually provoked the hostility of the Gothic courtiers. Although she managed to sustain the regency until 534 when her son died, they forced her to accept her cousin Theodahad as a partner in power. He had her exiled and then strangled, which provoked Justinian to avenge her death. Since the rulers in Constantinople had maintained the fiction that they had ultimate authority over Italy, Justinian justified sending troops against Theodahad because he had usurped the throne. The emperor was already engaged in a campaign to restore his Roman rule in the western provinces overrun by barbarian tribes. In 533 the Byzantine general Belisarius, who had made his name on the eastern front against Persia, achieved a great victory over the Vandals in Africa. Belisarius next advanced to Sicily and from there Justinian ordered him to march north against the Goths, while another general, Mundus, invaded Italy from the north. Faced with these threats, the Goths abandoned Theodahad, and elected another leader, Vitiges. But he proved unequal to the task of defeating Belisarius, who entered Ravenna in 540, captured Vitiges and restored direct imperial rule. The details of these campaigns are recorded by Procopius in his account of The Wars.

The defeat of the Goths was the occasion for another great boom in building, mainly organized by bishops of Ravenna with the assistance of a wealthy silver merchant, Julian, who had previously contributed to the pro-Arian basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe. He also acted as banker for the church of San Vitale, dedicated to the other patron saint of Ravenna, Vitalis. It had been started by Bishop Ecclesius under Gothic domination, and was only completed by his successor Maximian in 547. In this octagonal building, the mosaic panels of Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora flanking the approach to the altar counterbalanced earlier portraits of Theoderic and confirmed the return of Ravenna to orthodoxy. Both rulers were shown presenting their gifts to the saint, accompanied by their courtiers (plates 19 and 20).

These mosaics bring the eastern emperor and his wife to the walls of a sixth-century church in Ravenna, although they never went to Italy. Who insisted on setting up the imperial panels in San Vitale? Since Justinian built and adorned so many other churches in different parts of the empire, he could well have financed the final parts of the construction and mosaic decoration. But possibly Julian the silver merchant was responsible, or Bishop Maximian insisted on the inclusion of the imperial couple. Whatever their origin, the panels are unique, the only surviving occasion when these sixth-century Byzantine rulers are depicted within the sanctuary surrounding the altar.

The portrait of Theodora is also much discussed. Here she is shown in her imperial robes, the purple which she claimed to prefer as her shroud rather than flee. On its hem the Magi are pictured bringing their gifts to the Christ Child, while underneath it her white tunic has a deep border of gold, red and green. On her shoulders she carries a broad jewelled collar, and on her head a tall crown with long strings of pearls hanging from the edge over her breast. Unlike her ladies-in-waiting, who wear glorious garments in bright colours, decorated with motifs found on surviving fragments of silk, red shoes, necklaces, earrings and head coverings, Theodora has a monumental rather than human air. Some art historians think she presents her gift, a large bowl of coins, to the fountain in front of a dark space, which represents her death. Whatever the reason, this serious imperial figure captures the supreme authority of Empress Theodora, transformed from her origins as a pantomime artist. She stands facing her husband, who is displayed in full imperial costume, accompanied by Bishop Maximian, members of the clergy and his bodyguard.

The orthodox continued the process of removing all traces of Arianism from Ravenna. In 561, Bishop Agnellus rededicated Theoderic’s cathedral, known as the Golden Heaven, to St Martin and the orthodox cult. He replaced the ruler’s portrait by golden mosaics of himself with Emperor Justinian. Traces of the original Arian mosaic remain in the palace section, where surviving hands were once connected to saintly bodies. Elsewhere, other images of Theoderic remained in place and continued to make a deep impression. Nearly three centuries later, an ecclesiastical historian praised a mosaic portrait of the Gothic ruler with personifications of Rome and Ravenna, which decorated the palace at Pavia in the 830s. He also recorded that Charlemagne had moved Theoderic’s equestrian statue, ‘a horse of bronze covered with gleaming gold… to his palace which is called Aachen’, where it can still be seen.

The final outcome of Justinian’s campaigns in the West not only secured the removal of pro-Arian forces, but also brought two large areas of North Africa and Italy back into imperial control. By the end of the sixth century, Constantinople appointed two officials, called exarchs, with extraordinary powers that combined civilian and military authority, to rule from Carthage and Ravenna. This break with the Roman tradition of keeping army and administration separate reflects the importance attached to the reconquered territories. In Africa, the exarch controlled the rich, prosperous coastal region, which continued to export grain and to produce the fine pottery, African redslip ware, found on sites throughout the Mediterranean. From Ravenna, the exarch ruled over northern Italy and as far south as Rome, while the provinces of southern Italy and Sicily were administered by more junior officials appointed from Constantinople. The pre-eminence of Ravenna was thus assured and for nearly two centuries it functioned as the Byzantine capital of the West, the linchpin of imperial contacts between Constantinople and Italy. It remained the major port on the east coast of Italy close to the mouth of the Po, importing rare commodities such as papyrus from Egypt and redistributing them to places farther north and west. It maintained regular naval contact with Constantinople and other parts of the eastern Mediterranean, not only during the summer season, but also in the winter when most captains refused to risk sea travel. It patronized artistic workshops which trained craftsmen in ivory carving, mosaic setting and other skills.

Justinian’s ambition of restoring Roman rule in the West was commemorated in the imperial mosaic panels set up in San Vitale. Before the end of the sixth century, however, barbarian forces began their conquest of the north Italian region of Lombardy, and thus became known as Lombards. Once settled in the ancient cities of Pavia and Monza, they directed their forces against Rome and Ravenna. After many attempts the last outpost of Byzantine authority in Italy, defended by the exarch, fell under Lombard control in 751. From Constantinople, Constantine V (741–75) was in no position to send military reinforcements to Rome and Pope Stephen II was forced to seek alternative military protection (see chapter 10). This proved a significant development in the history of Europe, when the Bishop of Rome abandoned the traditional axis of diplomatic loyalty to Constantinople, and made an unprecedented journey over the Alps to Ponthion in northern France to negotiate an alliance with the Frankish leader, Pippin. The Franks agreed to protect Rome from the Lombards and to return to the patrimony of St Peter any Italian territory regained.

In this way, Pippin and Pope Stephen created a new axis linking northern Europe with the centre of western Christendom, one that gradually excluded Byzantium and by-passed Ravenna. Pippin’s son, Charlemagne, later used the city as his administrative base in northern Italy; he also plundered its classical columns and capitals for building material to use in his new capital at Aachen and, as we have seen, removed Theoderic’s equestrian statue. But for the Franks and their successors the Carolingians, it was Rome and the relics of St Peter that commanded both their spiritual devotion and military endeavour.

Ravenna declined as its harbour at Classis silted up. From 830 to 846, the priest Andreas Agnellus gave public readings about the history of the city in instalments, which were later collected to form his ‘pontifical book’ of Ravenna, or lives of its bishops. While the account is dominated by local rivalries and bloody conflicts, Agnellus recorded the inscriptions on monuments and the art works he knew, such as the gold mosaic inscription in hexameters in the bath put up by Bishop Victor, or the verses painted above the four rivers of Paradise at San Zaccaria. He also reported numerous amusing legends, such as the abbot who miraculously flew back from Constantinople to Ravenna when no ship was available, and solemn moments when holy images took the place of written guarantees. In one case, the partners to a commercial loan invoked an icon of St Andrew as their witness and guarantor; similarly, when the Ravenna clergy accused Archbishop Theodore of plundering the wealth of their church, they did so in the presence of images of St Apollinaris.

By the tenth century Ravenna was, literally, a backwater, and it is now several miles from the sea, though three generations of German rulers, Otto I, II and III, knew of its past role and visited it. Its trade with the eastern Mediterranean and connections with Constantinople were inherited by a new community at the head of the Adriatic – Venice. The inhabitants of these Venetian islands scattered across the lagoon concentrated more studiously on shipbuilding, naval warfare and international commerce, and were able to develop different relations with Byzantium, which I shall explain in chapter 19. Fortunately, Ravenna’s eclipse preserved its mosaics to recall the days of splendour when Romans, Goths and Byzantines ruled Italy from Ravenna, the Constantinople of the West.

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