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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Ravenna
By John Addington Symonds (1840–1893)
 
From ‘Sketches in Italy’

THE EMPEROR AUGUSTUS chose Ravenna for one of his two naval stations, and in course of time a new city arose by the seashore, which received the name of Portus Classis. Between this harbor and the mother city a third town sprang up, and was called Cæsarea. Time and neglect, the ravages of war, and the encroaching powers of nature, have destroyed these settlements, and nothing now remains of the three cities but Ravenna. It would seem that in classical times Ravenna stood, like modern Venice, in the centre of a huge lagoon, the fresh waters of the Ronco and the Po mixing with the salt waves of the Adriatic round its very walls. The houses of the city were built on piles; canals instead of streets formed the means of communication, and these were always filled with water artificially conducted from the southern estuary of the Po. Round Ravenna extended a vast morass, for the most part under shallow water, but rising at intervals into low islands like the Lido or Murano or Torcello which surround Venice. These islands were celebrated for their fertility: the vines and fig-trees and pomegranates, springing from a fat and fruitful soil, watered with constant moisture, and fostered by a mild sea wind and liberal sunshine, yielded crops that for luxuriance and quality surpassed the harvests of any orchards on the mainland. All the conditions of life in old Ravenna seem to have resembled those of modern Venice: the people went about in gondolas; and in the early morning, barges laden with fresh fruit or meat and vegetables flocked from all quarters to the city of the sea. Water also had to be procured from the neighboring shore; for as Martial says, a well at Ravenna was more valuable than a vineyard. Again, between the city and the mainland ran a long low causeway all across the lagoon, like that on which the trains now glide into Venice. Strange to say, the air of Ravenna was remarkably salubrious: this fact, and the ease of life that prevailed there, and the security afforded by the situation of the town, rendered it a most desirable retreat for the monarchs of Italy during those troublous times in which the empire nodded to its fall. Honorius retired to its lagoons for safety; Odoacer, who dethroned the last Cæsar of the West, succeeded him; and was in turn supplanted by Theodoric the Ostrogoth. Ravenna, as we see it now, recalls the peaceful and half Roman rule of the great Gothic king. His palace, his churches, and the mausoleum in which his daughter Amalasuntha laid the hero’s bones, have survived the sieges of Belisarius and Astolphus, the conquest of Pepin, the bloody quarrels of iconoclasts with the children of the Roman Church, the mediæval wars of Italy, the victory of Gaston de Foix; and still stand gorgeous with marbles and mosaics in spite of time and the decay of all around them.  1
  As early as the sixth century, the sea had already retreated to such a distance from Ravenna that orchards and gardens were cultivated on the spot where once the galleys of the Cæsars rode at anchor. Groves of pines sprang up along the shore, and in their lofty tops the music of the wind moved like the ghost of waves and breakers plunging upon distant sands. This Pinetum stretches along the shore of the Adriatic for about forty miles, forming a belt of variable width between the great marsh and the tumbling sea. From a distance the bare stems and velvet crowns of the pine-trees stand up like palms that cover an oasis on Arabian sands; but at a nearer view the trunks detach themselves from an inferior forest growth of juniper and thorn and ash and oak, the tall roofs of the stately firs shooting their breadth of sheltering greenery above the lower and less sturdy brushwood. It is hardly possible to imagine a more beautiful and impressive scene than that presented by these long alleys of imperial pines. They grow so thickly one behind another that we might compare them to the pipes of a great organ, or the pillars of a Gothic church, or the basaltic columns of the Giant’s Causeway. Their tops are ever green, and laden with the heavy cones from which Ravenna draws considerable wealth. Scores of peasants are quartered on the outskirts of the forest, whose business it is to scale the pines and rob them of their fruit at certain seasons of the year. Afterwards they dry the fir-cones in the sun, until the nuts which they contain fall out. The empty husks are sold for firewood, and the kernels in their stony shells reserved for exportation. You may see the peasants—men, women, and boys—sorting them by millions, drying and sifting them upon the open spaces of the wood, and packing them in sacks to send abroad through Italy. The pinocchi, or kernels, of the stone-pine are largely used in cookery, and those of Ravenna are prized for their good quality and aromatic flavor. When roasted or pounded, they taste like a softer and more mealy kind of almonds. The task of gathering this harvest is not a little dangerous. They have to cut notches in the straight shafts, and having climbed often to the height of eighty feet, to lean upon the branches and detach the fir cones with a pole—and this for every tree. Some lives, they say, are yearly lost in the business.  2
  As may be imagined, the spaces of this great forest form the haunt of innumerable living creatures. Lizards run about by myriads in the grass. Doves coo among the branches of the pines, and nightingales pour their full-throated music all day and night from thickets of white-thorn and acacia. The air is sweet with aromatic scents: the resin of the pine and juniper, the mayflowers and acacia blossoms, the violets that spring by thousands in the moss, the wild roses and faint honeysuckles which throw fragrant arms from bough to bough of ash or maple, join to make one most delicious perfume. And though the air upon the neighboring marsh is poisonous, here it is dry, and spreads a genial health. The sea wind murmuring through these thickets at nightfall or misty sunrise conveys no fever to the peasants stretched among their flowers. They watch the red rays of sunset flaming through the columns of the leafy hall, and flaring on its fretted rafters of entangled boughs; they see the stars come out, and Hesper gleam, an eye of brightness, among dewy branches; the moon walks silver-footed on the velvet tree-tops, while they sleep beside the camp fires; fresh morning wakes them to the sound of birds and scent of thyme and twinkling of dewdrops on the grass around. Meanwhile ague, fever, and death have been stalking all night long about the plain, within a few yards of their couch, and not one pestilential breath has reached the charmed precincts of the forest.  3
  You may ride or drive for miles along green aisles between the pines in perfect solitude; and yet the creatures of the wood, the sunlight and the birds, the flowers and tall majestic columns at your side, prevent all sense of loneliness or fear. Huge oxen haunt the wilderness—gray creatures, with mild eyes and spreading horns and stealthy tread. Some are patriarchs of the forest, the fathers and the mothers of many generations who have been carried from their sides to serve in plows or wagons on the Lombard plain. Others are yearling calves, intractable and ignorant of labor. In order to subdue them to the yoke, it is requisite to take them very early from their native glades, or else they chafe and pine away with weariness. Then there is a sullen canal, which flows through the forest from the marshes to the sea; it is alive with frogs and newts and snakes. You may see these serpents basking on the surface among thickets of the flowering rush, or coiled about the lily leaves and flowers,—lithe monsters, slippery and speckled, the tyrants of the fen.  4
  It is said that when Dante was living at Ravenna he would spend whole days alone among the forest glades, thinking of Florence and her civil wars, and meditating cantos of his poem. Nor have the influences of the pine wood failed to leave their trace upon his verse.  5
 
 
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