Recently I had vivid instruction in the endurance of strong public opinion. I was in Ravenna, an off-the-beaten-track city on the calf of the Italian boot. It's hard to get to, and despite its treasures, it got only a million tourists last year, a handful by Italian standards.
You have to take a slow train to Ravenna--it stops nine times on the way from Bologna--at places with names like Horse Bath (Bagnacavallo). The first thing I noticed when I got there is that unlike Rome, which is undergoing paroxysms of face-lifting, swathed in scaffolding in preparation for the double whammy of the Holy Year and the Millennium, Ravenna is awaiting them with a calm befitting the last capital of the Roman Empire and the first capital of the Goths.
The second thing you notice is the quiet, which is pervasive. Ravenna's architecture is pre-Renaissance, flat, restfully unadorned facades without the bells and whistles of Rome's showy baroque. Rome is a 24-hour racket of whining motorbikes. In Ravenna, the inhabitants of all ages glide around on bikes.
The first time I ventured from my hotel, the elegant little Cappello, I saw a plaque on the wall of the cloisters of San Francesco. It was in honor of Lord Byron, a "great poet and patriot," who lived in Ravenna in 1821. No mention is made of the scandalous circumstances: He was in hot pursuit of the Countess Guiccioli, the fair young wife of an Italian nobleman three times her age. Teresa is often dismissed as beautiful but dumb. But Ravenna's tourism director, Maria Grazia-Marini, told me that her diaries, recently discovered and on display at the City Hall, show her to be quite bright.
Ravenna sticks by its own. It also hangs on to what it has. Its glory is, of course, its mosaics, which were created as early as the fifth century, illuminating the Dark Ages. But an equally precious possession, and the one it has held on to against many challenges, is the body of Italy's greatest poet, Dante, a son of Florence, who died in Ravenna on Sept. 12, 1321. Florence turned him out. Ravenna took him in, and he wrote "Paradiso" there. He was homesick for Florence, and describes eating the "bitter bread of exile."
Every year, on the anniversary of his death, proud Florence comes to Ravenna to eat crow. I was in the crowd. The delegation was led by a consigliere, with trumpeters and flag-bearers in medieval dress. They were greeted by the mayor of Ravenna, trumpets and flags.
I asked the Florentine consigliere if Florence thought it had made a mistake.
"Signora," he said ruefully. "We have regretted it for 700 years."
The cultural minister of Ravenna, after the mass of forgiveness at which the archbishop of Ravenna preached about the importance of tolerance, begged to differ.
"They're not really sorry, you know. They say they are, and maybe they are a little bit. They told Dante he could come back, but only--can you imagine--if he apologized."
The two cities with their trains repaired to the tomb of Dante, where Florence presented Ravenna with a year's supply of oil for the eternal flame.
Florence understood it had committed one of the public relations blunders of the ages, and tried to get Dante's bones back in 1519. They got Pope Leo X to order Ravenna to send the poet back to his native city. Ravenna said no, and just to be sure, a Franciscan friar dug him up and hid him. He neglected to tell anyone just where.
It was not until 1816, according to my erudite guide, Verdiana Conti-Baioni, that workmen found him in a wall. The struggle for custody did not end. A plaque in the graveyard informs us that he was hidden there for a year during World War II after the Nazis had threatened to steal him. Verdiana invited me to imagine the effect on Italy.
Luckily, Ravenna's other wonders, its mosaics, are not portable. They line the domes of several Byzantine churches. They are unmatched for their color and exuberance. Those of the tomb of Galla Placidia are an emotional experience. You come in to a dark exterior, the only light under the dome comes from several alabaster windows high above you. Gradually, you see the mosaics, they begin to gleam; soon you are seeing apostles and lambs and deer and doves and horns of plenty in a sea of gold. Every surface is covered, and you are enveloped in beauty.
Galla Placidia was the daughter of the last emperor, Theodosius. She personified a dangerous era when East and West, Christian and barbarian were slowly coming together.
Ravenna reminds us that rivalries can be overcome.