The Complete Writings of Charles Dudley Warner— Volume 2

Author: Charles Dudley Warner

A Dead City

Ravenna is so remote from the route of general travel in Italy, that I am certain you can have no late news from there, nor can I bring you anything much later than the sixth century. Yet, if you were to see Ravenna, you would say that that is late enough. I am surprised that a city which contains the most interesting early Christian churches and mosaics, is the richest in undisturbed specimens of early Christian art, and contains the only monuments of Roman emperors still in their original positions, should be so seldom visited. Ravenna has been dead for some centuries; and because nobody has cared to bury it, its ancient monuments are yet above ground. Grass grows in its wide streets, and its houses stand in a sleepy, vacant contemplation of each other: the wind must like to mourn about its silent squares. The waves of the Adriatic once brought the commerce of the East to its wharves; but the deposits of the Po and the tides have, in process of time, made it an inland town, and the sea is four miles away.

In the time of Augustus, Ravenna was a favorite Roman port and harbor for fleets of war and merchandise. There Theodoric, the great king of the Goths, set up his palace, and there is his enormous mausoleum. As early as A. D. 44 it became an episcopal see, with St. Apollinaris, a disciple of St. Peter, for its bishop. There some of the later Roman emperors fixed their residences, and there they repose. In and about it revolved the adventurous life of Galla Placidia, a woman of considerable talent and no principle, the daughter of Theodosius (the great Theodosius, who subdued the Arian heresy, the first emperor baptized in the true faith of the Trinity, the last who had a spark of genius), the sister of one emperor, and the mother of another,—twice a slave, once a queen, and once an empress; and she, too, rests there in the great mausoleum builded for her. There, also, lies Dante, in his tomb "by the upbraiding shore;" rejected once of ungrateful Florence, and forever after passionately longed for. There, in one of the earliest Christian churches in existence, are the fine mosaics of the Emperor Justinian and Theodora, the handsome courtesan whom he raised to the dignity and luxury of an empress on his throne in Constantinople. There is the famous forest of pines, stretching—unbroken twenty miles down the coast to Rimini, in whose cool and breezy glades Dante and Boccaccio walked and meditated, which Dryden has commemorated, and Byron has invested with the fascination of his genius; and under the whispering boughs of which moved the glittering cavalcade which fetched the bride to Rimini,—the fair Francesca, whose sinful confession Dante heard in hell.

We went down to Ravenna from Bologna one afternoon, through a country level and rich, riding along toward hazy evening, the land getting flatter as we proceeded (you know, there is a difference between level and flat), through interminable mulberry-trees and vines, and fields with the tender green of spring, with church spires in the rosy horizon; on till the meadows became marshes, in which millions of frogs sang the overture of the opening year. Our arrival, I have reason to believe, was an event in the old town. We had a crowd of moldy loafers to witness it at the station, not one of whom had ambition enough to work to earn a sou by lifting our traveling-bags. We had our hotel to ourselves, and wished that anybody else had it. The rival house was quite aware of our advent, and watched us with jealous eyes; and we, in turn, looked wistfully at it, for our own food was so scarce that, as an old traveler says, we feared that we shouldn’t have enough, until we saw it on the table, when its quality made it appear too much. The next morning, when I sallied out to hire a conveyance, I was an object of interest to the entire population, who seemed to think it very odd that any one should walk about and explore the quiet streets. If I were to describe Ravenna, I should say that it is as flat as Holland and as lively as New London. There are broad streets, with high houses, that once were handsome, palaces that were once the abode of luxury, gardens that still bloom, and churches by the score. It is an open gate through which one walks unchallenged into the past, with little to break the association with the early Christian ages, their monuments undimmed by time, untouched by restoration and innovation, the whole struck with ecclesiastical death. With all that we saw that day,—churches, basilicas, mosaics, statues, mausoleums,—I will not burden these pages; but I will set down is enough to give you the local color, and to recall some of the most interesting passages in Christian history in this outof-the-way city on the Adriatic.

Our first pilgrimage was to the Church of St. Apollinare Nuova; but why it is called new I do not know, as Theodoric built it for an Arian cathedral in about the year 500. It is a noble interior, having twenty-four marble columns of gray Cippolino, brought from Constantinople, with composite capitals, on each of which is an impost with Latin crosses sculptured on it. These columns support round arches, which divide the nave from the aisles, and on the whole length of the wall of the nave so supported are superb mosaics, full-length figures, in colors as fresh as if done yesterday, though they were executed thirteen hundred years ago. The mosaic on the left side—which is, perhaps, the finest one of the period in existence—is interesting on another account. It represents the city of Classis, with sea and ships, and a long procession of twenty-two virgins presenting offerings to the Virgin and Child, seated on a throne. The Virgin is surrounded by angels, and has a glory round her head, which shows that homage is being paid to her. It has been supposed, from the early monuments of Christian art, that the worship of the Virgin is of comparatively recent origin; but this mosaic would go to show that Mariolatry was established before the end of the sixth century. Near this church is part of the front of the palace of Theodoric, in which the Exarchs and Lombard kings subsequently resided. Its treasures and marbles Charlemagne carried off to Germany.


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Chicago: Charles Dudley Warner, "A Dead City," The Complete Writings of Charles Dudley Warner— Volume 2, ed. Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937 and trans. Townsend, R.S. in The Complete Writings of Charles Dudley Warner—Volume 2 (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1916), Original Sources, accessed February 4, 2023,

MLA: Warner, Charles Dudley. "A Dead City." The Complete Writings of Charles Dudley Warner— Volume 2, edited by Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937, and translated by Townsend, R.S., in The Complete Writings of Charles Dudley Warner—Volume 2, Vol. 22, New York, A. L. Burt Company, 1916, Original Sources. 4 Feb. 2023.

Harvard: Warner, CD, 'A Dead City' in The Complete Writings of Charles Dudley Warner— Volume 2, ed. and trans. . cited in 1916, The Complete Writings of Charles Dudley Warner—Volume 2, A. L. Burt Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 4 February 2023, from