...a sweeping and engrossing history of Ravenna from the moment Honorius took up residence there, through the thriving period of Gothic rule ... Ravenna offers an accessible narrative that brings to life the men and women who created the city during this period and who fashioned its hybrid Christian culture of Latin, Greek and Gothic elements. The narrative is periodically elevated by discussions of the city’s most famous attractions and its glorious churches, brilliantly illustrated in the book’s 62 color plates. It is also enlivened by recurring digressions on daily life in the city at each phase in its history, insofar as that is revealed by documentary papyri containing wills, donations and contracts that fortuitously survive. These local perspectives are complemented by a global outlook: Ms. Herrin’s argument is that Ravenna passed its unique hybrid culture on to the imperial centers all around it, to Rome, Constantinople, and later to Aachen, the capital of Charlemagne in the north. This made the city the 'crucible of Europe.'
Herrin is an historian, not a scholar of art, and her straightforward prose has another objective – to make clear the imperial tergiversations which surround the survival of this one-time capital of the western Roman empire ... Herrin’s problem is the loss of so much vital documentation: what few vignettes there are of everyday life in Ravenna quickly lose the reader’s interest.The advantage of not being burdened by too much source material is that her history can rove the Byzantine world and unpick the tribal surges, always returning to harbour in Ravenna, 'the first European city'.
Ravenna is more than sufficient to explain why someone such as Vilgard was, as late as the year 1000, not an aberration but a distinctively Ravennese figure. The city, Herrin argues, was the truest crucible of Europe: an erstwhile imperial capital where many of the influences that would come to shape medieval Christendom met to peculiarly potent effect. Herrin’s claims for Ravenna are both sweeping and convincing ... Notoriously problematic though these issues are, they are ones that Herrin has spent a distinguished career studying, and which Ravenna brilliantly serves to elucidate. Year by year, century by century, she teases out answers by tracking the course of change ... While there is no lack of drama in her narrative, the real excitement lies in the unexpected light it sheds on reaches of history that otherwise might seem confused and lost to darkness.