Ravenna, Italy

Basilica di San Vitale, Copyright Waspa 69 at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Ravenna, the northern Italian city where Dante was invited to live in 1318 and ended his days in three years later, has a long, rich history stretching back to the Roman Empire. Historians and archaeologists disagree on just which tribe settled Ravenna—Etruscans, Thessalians (from Thessaly, Greece), or Umbrians. There’s also a theory that the city’s name comes from Rasenna, or Rasna, the word Etruscans called themselves.

The Senones, a Gallic tribe, later settled in Ravenna, and laid it out very similarly to Venice, on a series of small islands in a lagoon. Initially, the Roman conquerors ignored Ravenna during their campaign in the Po River Delta, but eventually made it a Roman town in 89 BCE.

Ruins of Port of Classis, Copyright Trapezaki, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

In 49 BCE, Julius Caesar gathered his troops in Ravenna before they crossed the Rubicon, and in 31 BCE, Octavian established a military harbour with defensive walls in nearby Classis. This harbour was an important part of the Roman Imperial Fleet.

Ravenna continued to go from strength to strength under Roman rule, and had a population of 50,000 by the time it became capital of the Western Roman Empire in 402. The Western Roman Empire fell in 476, and Ravenna became capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom in 493. In the sixth century, it was chosen as the seat of the Exarch, Italy’s Byzantine governor. The Archbishop of Ravenna was second only to the Pope in Italy.

Porta Serrata gate, Copyright Ludvig14, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Apse mosaic of San Michele in Afrisco Church

Byzantine rule of Ravenna ended in 751, and gradually came under Papal authority. The city suffered a terrible loss when Pope Adrian I let Charlemagne rob Ravenna of anything he pleased, and an unknown amount of Roman mosaics, statues, columns, and other treasures were taken to Charlemagne’s court in Aachen.

In 1198, Ravenna led other cities in the Romagna region against the Holy Roman Emperor, but the Pope put down their rebellion. The noble Traversari family ruled the city from 1218–40. In 1248, Ravenna rejoined the Papal States, and later was returned to the Traversaris.

Finally, in 1275, the da Polenta family established their rule, which lasted till 1441. That year’s Treaty of Cremona annexed Ravenna to the Venetian territories.

Dante’s tomb, Copyright Congolandia.g at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Vault interior of Archbishop’s Chapel, Copyright Anelhj at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Venetian rule lasted till 1509, when the region was invaded during the Italian Wars. The French sacked Ravenna in 1512 during the Holy League Wars. Yet another period of Papal States rule followed, interrupted by another brief Venetian rule from 1527–29.

A huge flood severely damaged the city in May 1636. To prevent such a tragedy from recurring, authorities spend the next 300 years draining swamps and redirecting rivers.

Ravenna Art Museum, Copyright Mac9 at Italian Wikipedia

Banca di Romagna, Piazza del Popolo, Copyright Marie Thérèse Hébert & Jean Robert ThibaultCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

In 1796, the Cisalpine Republic, a French puppet state, annexed Ravenna. Predictably, it returned to the Papal States in 1814. Piedmontese troops occupied the city in 1859. Ravenna didn’t win her freedom till the unified Kingdom of Italy was created in 1861.

Miraculously, Ravenna suffered very little damage during WWII.

Arian Baptistry, Copyright Georges Jansoone, Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

Biblioteca Classense, Copyright Domenico Bressan at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Ravenna is gut-loaded with beautiful historic buildings, including many churches and tombs from the Early Middle Ages. Eight of its churches are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The city also has many museums, art galleries, theatres, gates, and towers, as well as two amusement parks.

Dante’s tomb was built in 1780–81 at the Basilica di San Francesco. The Supreme Poet’s bones are in a Roman sarcophagus which was embellished with a bas-relief in 1483.

Florence (Firenze) has been begging for the return of their illustrious native son’s remains since 1396, but Ravenna has continually refused to send them home. Several times, the bones have been hidden to prevent this. Dante’s empty tomb in the Basilica di Santa Croce is still patiently waiting to be occupied.

Copyright Opi1010 at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Vegetation mound which protected Dante’s bones from 23 March 1944–19 December 1945, © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0

Prince Guido Novello II da Polenta

Dante alla Corte di Guido Novello, Andrea Pierini, 1850

Prince Guido Novello II da Polenta was the grandson of Guido da Polenta the Elder of Vecchio, son of Ostasio da Polenta, and nephew of the infamous Francesca da Rimini. He held various public offices in Cispadini until he succeeded his uncle Lamberto as podestà of Ravenna on 22 June 1316.

Though the exiled Dante had enjoyed an excellent relationship with Cangrande della Scala of Verona, who had personally invited him to stay in that city, he nevertheless journeyed to Ravenna in 1318. Theories about why this is varies. Some scholars believe Dante and della Scala had a quarrel, or that Dante was sent there on a mission by della Scala. Others believe he was attracted by the idea of a court of fellow writers.

Those writers included Guido himself, who was overjoyed to welcome such a great poet and celebrity to his city. Dante and Guido became fast, dear friends.

Da Polenta coat of arms, Copyright Facquis

Though Guido pursued a policy of peace, not war, he was drawn into a major dispute with Venice over the salt trade. At one point, Ravenna attacked a Venetian fleet, and Venice decided to ally themselves with Forlì.

It just so happened that Forlì was ruled by the Ordelaffi family, who’d been among Dante’s first protectors after he was exiled. For these reasons, Guido sent Dante to Venice on a diplomatic peacekeeping mission. Since Dante and the Ordelaffis still enjoyed a cordial relationship, Guido figured he’d easily make peace between the two cities.

The mission was a success, but it sadly led to Dante’s death from quartan fever, a type of malaria, at age 56. He was bitten by an infected mosquito on his way back to Ravenna, and died not long after he returned to the city. Guido was so emotionally shaken by his friend’s death, he laid a laurel wreath upon his head in the tomb and gave him the most important of funerals.

Dante Alighieri in atto di presentare Giotto a Guido da Polenta (Dante Alighieri Presenting Giotto to Guido da Polenta), Juan Mochi, 19th century

Trouble began when Guido was elected Capitano del Popolo (Captain of the People) of Bologna and left Ravenna’s rule in the hands of his brother Rinaldo, Archbishop of Ravenna, in 1322. Not long afterwards, on 20 September 1322, Rinaldo was assassinated by his cousin Ostasio I da Polenta.

Ostasio promptly took over Rinaldo’s position and seized control of Ravenna. Four years later, Ostasio also murdered his uncle Bannino da Polenta, podestà of Cervia, and assumed leadership of that city as well.

Guido refused to take these outrages lying down, and fought to regain control of his beloved Ravenna and avenge Ostasio’s murder. Unfortunately, he passed away in 1333, before he had a chance to oust that foul usurper.