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An essay by Vernon Lee

Ravenna And Her Ghosts

Title:     Ravenna And Her Ghosts
Author: Vernon Lee [More Titles by Lee]

My oldest impression of Ravenna, before it became in my eyes the abode of living friends as well as of outlandish ghosts, is of a melancholy spring sunset at Classe.

Classe, which Dante and Boccaccio call in less Latin fashion Chiassi, is the place where of old the fleet (classis) of the Romans and Ostrogoths rode at anchor in the Adriatic. And Boccaccio says that it is (but I think he over-calculates) at three miles distance from Ravenna. It is represented in the mosaic of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, dating from the reign of Theodoric, by a fine city wall of gold tesseræ (facing the representation of Theodoric's town palace with the looped-up embroidered curtains) and a strip of ultramarine sea, with two rowing-boats and one white blown-out sail upon it. Ravenna, which is now an inland town, was at that time built in a lagoon; and we must picture Classe in much the same relation to it that Malamocco or the Port of Lido is to Venice, the open sea-harbour, where big ships and flotillas were stationed, while smaller craft wound through the channels and sand-banks up to the city. But now the lagoon has dried up, the Adriatic has receded, and there remains of Classis not a stone, save, in the midst of stagnant canals, rice marsh and brown bogland, a gaunt and desolate church, with a ruinous mildewed house and a crevassed round tower by its side.

It seemed to me that first time, and has ever since seemed, no Christian church, but the temple of the great Roman goddess Fever. The gates stood open, as they do all day lest inner damp consume the building, and a beam from the low sun slanted across the oozy brown nave and struck a round spot of glittering green on the mosaic of the apse. There, in the half dome, stood rows and rows of lambs, each with its little tree and lilies, shining out white from the brilliant green grass of Paradise, great streams of gold and blue circling around them, and widening overhead into lakes of peacock splendour. The slanting sunbeam which burnished that spot of green and gold and brown mosaic, fell also across the altar steps, brown and green in their wet mildew like the ceiling above. The floor of the church, sunk below the level of the road, was as a piece of boggy ground leaving the feet damp, and breathing a clammy horror on the air. Outside the sun was setting behind a bank of solid grey clouds, faintly reddening their rifts and sending a few rose-coloured streaks into the pure yellow evening sky. Against that sky stood out the long russet line, the delicate cupolaed silhouette of the sear pinewood recently blasted by frost. While, on the other side, the marsh stretched out beyond sight, confused in the distance with grey clouds its lines of bare spectral poplars picked out upon its green and the greyness of the sky. All round the church lay brown grass, livid pools, green rice-fields covered with clear water reflecting the red sunset streaks; and overhead, driven by storm from the sea, the white gulls, ghosts you might think, of the white-sailed galleys of Theodoric, still haunting the harbour of Classis.

Since then, as I hinted, Ravenna has become the home of dear friends, to which I periodically return, in autumn or winter or blazing summer, without taking thought for any of the ghosts. And the impressions of Ravenna are mainly those of life; the voices of children, the plans of farmers, the squabbles of local politics. I am waked in the morning by the noises of the market; and opening my shutters, look down upon green umbrellas and awnings spread over baskets of fruit and vegetables, and heaps of ironware and stalls of coloured stuffs and gaudy kerchiefs. The streets are by no means empty. A steam tramcar puffs slowly along the widest of them; and, in the narrower, you have perpetually to squeeze against a house to make room for a clattering pony-cart, a jingling carriole, or one of those splendid bullock-waggons, shaped like an old-fashioned cannon-cart with spokeless wheels and metal studdings. There are no mediæval churches in Ravenna, and very few mediæval houses. The older palaces, though practically fortified, have a vague look of Roman villas; and the whole town is painted a delicate rose and apricot colour, which, particularly if you have come from the sad coloured cities of Tuscany, gives it a Venetian, and (if I may say so) chintz-petticoat flowered-kerchief cheerfulness. And the life of the people, when you come in contact with it, also leaves an impression of provincial, rustic bustle. The Romagnas are full of crude socialism. The change from rice to wheat-growing has produced agricultural discontent; and conspiracy has been in the blood of these people, ever since Dante answered the Romagnolo Guido that his country would never have peace in its heart. The ghosts of Byzantine emperors and exarchs, of Gothic kings and mediæval tyrants must be laid, one would think, by socialist meetings and electioneering squabbles; and perhaps by another movement, as modern and as revolutionary, which also centres in this big historical village, the reclaiming of marshland, which may bring about changes in mode of living and thinking such as Socialism can never effect; nay, for all one knows, changes in climate, in sea and wind and clouds. Bonification, reclaiming, that is the great word in Ravenna; and I had scarcely arrived last autumn, before I found myself whirled off, among dog-carts and chars-à-bancs, to view reclaimed land in the cloudless, pale blue, ice-cold weather. On we trotted, with a great consulting of maps and discussing of expenses and production, through the flat green fields and meadows marked with haystacks; and jolted along a deep sandy track, all that remains of the Roméa, the pilgrims' way from Venice to Rome, where marsh and pool begin to interrupt the well-kept pastures, and the line of pine woods to come nearer and nearer. Over the fields, the frequent canals, and hidden ponds, circled gulls and wild fowl; and at every farm there was a little crowd of pony-carts and of gaitered sportsmen returning from the marshes. A sense of reality, of the present, of useful, bread-giving, fever-curing activity came by sympathy, as I listened to the chatter of my friends, and saw field after field, farm after farm, pointed out where, but a while ago, only swamp grass and bushes grew, and cranes and wild duck nested. In ten, twenty, fifty years, they went on calculating, Ravenna will be able to diminish by so much the town-rates; the Romagnas will be able to support so many more thousands of inhabitants; and that merely by employing the rivers to deposit arable soil torn from the mountain valleys; the rivers--Po and his followers, as Dante called them--which have so long turned this country into marsh; the rivers which, in a thousand years, cut off Ravenna from her sea.

We turned towards home, greedy for tea, and mightily in conceit with progress. But before us, at a turn of the road, appeared Ravenna, its towers and cupolas against a bank of clouds, a piled-up heap of sunset fire; its canal, barred with flame, leading into its black vagueness, a spectre city. And there, to the left, among the bare trees, loomed the great round tomb of Theodoric. We jingled on, silent and overcome by the deathly December chill.

That is the odd thing about Ravenna. It is, more than any of the Tuscan towns, more than most of the Lombard ones, modern, and full of rough, dull, modern life; and the past which haunts it comes from so far off, from a world with which we have no contact. Those pillared basilicas, which look like modern village churches from the street, affect one with their almost Moorish arches, their enamelled splendour of ultramarine, russet, sea-green and gold mosaics, their lily fields and peacock's tails in mosque-like domes, as great stranded hulks, come floating across Eastern seas and drifted ashore among the marsh and rice-field. The grapes and ivy berries, the pouting pigeons, the palm-trees and pecking peacocks, all this early symbolism with its association of Bacchic, Eleusinian mysteries, seems, quite as much as the actual fragments of Grecian capitals, the discs and gratings of porphyry and alabaster, so much flotsam and jetsam cast up from the shipwreck of an older Antiquity than Rome's; remnants of early Hellas, of Ionia, perhaps of Tyre.

I used to feel this particularly in Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, or, as it is usually called, Classe dentro, the long basilica built by Theodoric, outrivalled later by Justinian's octagon church of Saint Vitalis. There is something extremely Hellenic in feeling (however un-Grecian in form) in the pearly fairness of the delicate silvery white columns and capitals; in the gleam of white, on golden ground, and reticulated with jewels and embroideries, of the long band of mosaic virgins and martyrs running above them. The virgins, with their Byzantine names--Sancta Anastasia, Sancta Anatolia, Sancta Eulalia, Sancta Euphemia--have big kohled eyes and embroidered garments fantastically suggesting some Eastern hieratic dancing-girl; but they follow each other, in single file (each with her lily or rose-bush sprouting from the gauze, green mosaic), with erect, slightly balanced gait like the maidens of the Panathenaic procession, carrying, one would say, votive offerings to the altar, rather than crowns of martyrdom; all stately, sedate, as if drilled by some priestly ballet-master, all with the same wide eyes and set smile as of early Greek sculpture. There is no attempt to distinguish one from the other. There are no gaping wounds, tragic attitudes, wheels, swords, pincers or other attributes of martyrdom. And the male saints on the wall opposite are equally unlike mediæval Sebastians and Laurences, going, one behind the other, in shining white togas, to present their crowns to Christ on His throne. Christ also, in this Byzantine art, is never the Saviour. He sits, an angel on each side, on His golden seat, clad in purple and sandalled with gold, serene, beardless, wide-eyed like some distant descendant of the Olympic Jove with his mantle of purple and gold.

This church of Saint Apollinaris contains a chapel specially dedicated to the saint, which sums up that curious impression of Hellenic pre-Christian cheerfulness. It is encrusted with porphyry and giallo antico, framed with delicate carved ivy wreaths along the sides, and railed in with an exquisite piece of alabaster openwork of vines and grapes, as on an antique altar. And in a corner of this little temple, which seems to be waiting for some painter enamoured of Greece and marble, stands the episcopal seat of the patron saint of the church, the saint who took his name from Apollo; an alabaster seat, wide-curved and delicate, in whose back you expect to find, so striking is the resemblance, the relief of dancing satyrs of the chair of the Priest of Dionysus.

As I was sitting one morning, as was my wont, in Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, which (like all Ravenna churches) is always empty, a woman came in, with a woollen shawl over her head, who, after hunting anxiously about, asked me where she would find the parish priest. "It is," she said, "for the Madonna's milk. My husband is a labourer out of work, he has been ill, and the worry of it all has made me unable to nurse my little baby. I want the priest, to ask him to get the Madonna to give me back my milk." I thought, as I listened to the poor creature, that there was but little hope of motherly sympathy from that Byzantine Madonna in purple and gold mosaic magnificence, seated ceremoniously on her throne like an antique Cybele.

Little by little one returns to one's first impression, and recognises that this thriving little provincial town, with its socialism and its bonification is after all a nest of ghosts, and little better than the churchyard of centuries.

Never, surely, did a town contain so many coffins, or at least thrust coffins more upon one's notice. The coffins are stone, immense oblong boxes, with massive sloping lids horned at each corner, or trough-like things with delicate sea-wave patternings, figures of toga'd saints and devices of palm-trees, peacocks, and doves, the carving made clearer by a picking out of bright green damp. They stand about in all the churches, not walled in, but quite free in the aisles, the chapels, and even close to the door. Most of them are doubtless of the fifth or sixth century, others perhaps barbarous or mediæval imitations; but they all equally belong to the ages in general, including our own, not curiosities or heirlooms, but serviceable furniture, into which generations have been put, and out of which generations have been turned to make room for later corners. It strikes one as curious at first to see, for instance, the date 1826 on a sarcophagus probably made under Theodoric or the Exarchs, but that merely means that a particular gentleman of Ravenna began that year his lease of entombment. They have passed from hand to hand (or, more properly speaking, from corpse to corpse) not merely by being occasionally discovered in digging foundations, but by inheritance, and frequently by sale. My friends possess a stone coffin, and the receipt from its previous owner. The transaction took place some fifty years ago; a name (they are cut very lightly) changed, a slab or coat-of-arms placed with the sarcophagus in a different church or chapel, a deed before the notary--that was all. What became of the previous tenant? Once at least he surprised posterity very much; perhaps it was in the case of that very purchase for which my friends still keep the bill. I know not; but the stone-mason of the house used to relate that, some forty years ago, he was called in to open a stone coffin; when, the immense horned lid having been rolled off, there was seen, lying in the sarcophagus, a man in complete armour, his sword by his side and vizor up, who, as they cried out in astonishment, instantly fell to dust. Was he an Ostrogothic knight, some Gunther or Volker turned Roman senator, or perhaps a companion of Guido da Polenta, a messmate of Dante, a playfellow of Francesca?

Coffins being thus plentiful, their occupants (like this unknown warrior) have played considerable part in the gossip of Ravenna. It is well known, for instance, that Galla Placidia, daughter of Theodosius, sister of Arcadius and Honorius, and wife to a Visigothic king, sat for centuries enthroned (after a few years of the strangest adventures) erect, inside the alabaster coffin, formerly plated with gold, in the wonderful little blue mosaic chapel which bears her name. You could see her through a hole, quite plainly; until, three centuries ago, some inquisitive boys thrust in a candle, and burned Theodosius's daughter to ashes. Dante also is buried under a little cupola at the corner of a certain street, and there was, for many years, a strange doubt about his bones. Had they been mislaid, stolen, mixed up with those of ordinary mortals? The whole thing was shrouded in mystery. That street corner where Dante lies, a remote corner under the wing of a church, resembled, until it was modernised and surrounded by gratings, and filled with garlands and inscriptions to Mazzini, nothing so much as the corner of Dis where Dante himself found Farinata and Cavalcante. It is crowded with stone coffins; and, passing there in the twilight, one might expect to see flames upheaving their lids, and the elbows and shoulders of imprisoned followers of Epicurus.

Only once, so far as I know, have the inhabitants of Ravenna, Byzantine, mediæval, or modern, wasted a coffin; but one is very glad of that once. I am speaking of a Roman sarcophagus, on which you can still trace the outlines of garlands, which stands turned into a cattle trough, behind the solitary farm in the depth of the forest of St. Vitalis. Round it the grass is covered in summer by the creeping tendrils of the white clematis; and, in winter, the great thorn bushes and barberries and oaks blaze out crimson and scarlet and golden. The big, long-horned, grey cows pass to and fro to be milked; and the shaggy ponies who haunt the pine wood come there to drink. It is better than housing no matter how many generations, jurisconsults, knights, monks, tyrants and persons of quality, among the damp and the stale incense of a church!

Enough of coffins! There are live things at Ravenna and near Ravenna; amongst others, though few people realise its presence, there is the sea.

It was on the day of the fish auction that I first went there. In the tiny port by the pier (for Ravenna has now no harbour) they were making an incredible din over the emptyings of the nets; pretty, mottled, metallic fish, and slimy octopuses and sepias and flounders, looking like pieces of sea-mud. The fishing-boats, mostly from the Venetian lagoon, were moored along the pier, wide-bowed things, with eyes in the prow like the ships of Ulysses; and bigger craft, with little castles and weather-vanes and saints' images and penons on the masts like the galleys of St. Ursula as painted by Carpaccio; but all with the splendid orange sail, patched with suns, lions, and coloured stripes, of the Northern Adriatic. The fishermen from Chioggia, their heads covered with the high scarlet cap of the fifteenth century, were yelling at the fishmongers from town; and all round lounged artillerymen in their white undress and yellow straps, who are encamped for practice on the sands, and whose carts and guns we had met rattling along the sandy road through the marsh.

On the pier we were met by an old man, very shabby and unshaven, who had been the priest for many years, with a salary of twelve pounds a year, of Sta. Maria in Porto Fuori, a little Gothic church in the marsh, where he had discovered and rubbed slowly into existence (it took him two months and heaven knows how many pennyworths of bread!) some valuable Giottesque frescoes. He was now chaplain of the harbour, and had turned his mind to maritime inventions, designing lighthouses, and shooting dolphins to make oil of their blubber. A kind old man, but with the odd brightness of a creature who has lived for years amid solitude and fever; a fit companion for the haggard saints whom he brought, one by one, in robes of glory and golden halos, to life again in his forlorn little church.

While we were looking out at the sea, where a little flotilla of yellow and cinnamon sails sat on the blue of the view-line like parrots on a rail, the sun had begun to set, a crimson ball, over the fringe of pine woods. We turned to go. Over the town, the place whence presently will emerge the slanting towers of Ravenna, the sky had become a brilliant, melancholy slate-blue; and apparently out of its depths, in the early twilight, flowed the wide canal between its dim banks fringed with tamarisk. No tree, no rock, or house was reflected in the jade-coloured water, only the uniform shadow of the bank made a dark, narrow band alongside its glassiness. It flows on towards the invisible sea, whose yellow sails overtop the grey marshland. In thick smooth strands of curdled water it flows lilac, pale pink, opalescent according to the sky above, reflecting nothing besides, save at long intervals the spectral spars and spider-like tissue of some triangular fishing-net; a wan and delicate Lethe, issuing, you would say, out of a far-gone past into the sands and the almost tideless sea.

Other places become solemn, sad, or merely beautiful at sunset. But Ravenna, it seems to me, grows actually ghostly; the Past takes it back at that moment, and the ghosts return to the surface.

For it is, after all, a nest of ghosts. They hang about all those silent, damp churches; invisible, or at most tantalising one with a sudden gleam which may, after all, be only that of the mosaics, an uncertain outline which, when you near it, is after all only a pale grey column. But one feels their breathing all round. They are legion, but I do not know who they are. I only know that they are white, luminous, with gold embroideries to their robes, and wide, painted eyes, and that they are silent. The good citizens of Ravenna, in the comfortable eighteenth century, filled the churches with wooden pews, convenient, genteel in line and colour, with their names and coats-of-arms in full on the backs. But the ghosts took no notice of this measure; and there they are, even among these pews themselves.

Bishops and Exarchs, and jewelled Empresses, and half Oriental Autocrats, saints and bedizened court-ladies, and barbarian guards and wicked chamberlains; I know not what they are. Only one of the ghosts takes a shape I can distinguish, and a name I am certain of. It is not Justinian or Theodora, who stare goggle-eyed from their mosaic in San Vitale mere wretched historic realities; they cannot haunt. The spectre I speak of is Theodoric. His tomb is still standing, outside the town in an orchard; a great round tower, with a circular roof made (heaven knows how) of one huge slab of Istrian stone, horned at the sides like the sarcophagi, or vaguely like a Viking's cap. The ashes of the great king have long been dispersed, for he was an Arian heretic. But the tomb remains, intact, a thing which neither time nor earthquake can dismantle.

In the town they show a piece of masonry, the remains of a doorway, and a delicate, pillared window, built on to a modern house, which is identified (but wrongly I am told) as Theodoric's palace, by its resemblance to the golden palace with the looped-up curtains on the mosaic of the neighbouring church. Into the wall of this building is built a great Roman porphyry bath, with rings carved on it, to which time has adjusted a lid of brilliant green lichen. There is no more. But Theodoric still haunts Ravenna. I have always, ever since I have known the town, been anxious to know more about Theodoric, but the accounts are jejune, prosaic, not at all answering to what that great king, who took his place with Attila and Sigurd in the great Northern epic, must have been. Historians represent him generally as a sort of superior barbarian, trying to assimilate and save the civilisation he was bound to destroy; an Ostrogothic king trying to be a Roman emperor; a military organiser and bureaucrat, exchanging his birthright of Valhalla for heaven knows what aulic red-tape miseries. But that is unsatisfactory. The real man, the Berserker trying to tame himself into the Cæsar of a fallen, shrunken Rome, seems to come out in the legend of his remorse and visions, pursued by the ghosts of Boetius and Symmachus, the wise men he had slain in his madness.

He haunts Ravenna, striding along the aisles of her basilicas, riding under the high moon along the dykes of her marshes, surrounded by white-stoled Romans, and Roman ensigns with eagles and crosses; but clad, as the Gothic brass-worker of Innsbruck has shown him, in no Roman lappets and breastplate, but in full mail, with beaked steel shoes and steel gorget, his big sword drawn, his vizor down, mysterious, the Dietrich of the Nibelungenlied, Theodoric King of the Goths.

These are the ghosts that haunt Ravenna, the true ghosts haunting only for such as can know their presence. But Ravenna, almost alone among Italian cities, possesses moreover a complete ghost-story of the most perfect type and highest antiquity, which has gone round the world and become known to all people. Boccaccio wrote it in prose; Dryden re-wrote it in verse; Botticelli illustrated it; and Byron summed up its quality in one of his most sympathetic passages. After this, to re-tell it were useless, had I not chanced to obtain, in a manner I am not at liberty to divulge, another version, arisen in Ravenna itself, and written, most evidently, in fullest knowledge of the case. Its language is the barbarous Romagnol dialect of the early fifteenth century, and it lacks all the Tuscan graces of the Decameron. But it possesses a certain air of truthfulness, suggesting that it was written by some one who had heard the facts from those who believed in them, and who believed in them himself; and I am therefore decided to give it, turned into English.


About that time (when Messer Guido da Pollenta was lord of Ravenna) men spoke not a little of what happened to Messer Nastasio de Honestis, son of Messer Brunoro, in the forest of Classis. Now the forest of Classis is exceeding vast, extending along the sea-shore between Ravenna and Cervia for the space of some fifteen miles, and has its beginning near the church of Saint Apollinaris, which is in the marsh; and you reach it directly from the gate of the same name, but also, crossing the River Ronco where it is easier to ford, by the gate called Sisa, beyond the houses of the Rasponis. And this forest aforesaid is made of many kinds of noble and useful trees, to wit, oaks, both free standing and in bushes, ilexes, elms, poplars, bays, and many plants of smaller growth but great dignity and pleasantness, as hawthorns, barberries, blackthorn, blackberry, brier-rose, and the thorn called marrucca, which bears pods resembling small hats or cymbals, and is excellent for hedging. But principally does this noble forest consist of pine-trees, exceeding lofty and perpetually green; whence indeed the arms of this ancient city, formerly the seat of the Emperors of Rome, are none other than a green pine-tree.

And the forest aforesaid is well stocked with animals, both such as run and creep, and many birds. The animals are foxes, badgers, hares, rabbits, ferrets, squirrels, and wild boars, the which issue forth and eat the young crops and grub the fields with incredible damage to all concerned. Of the birds it would be too long to speak, both of those which are snared, shot with cross-bows, or hunted with the falcon; and they feed off fish in the ponds and streams of the forest, and grasses and berries, and the pods of the white vine (clematis) which covers the grass on all sides. And the manner of Messer Nastasio being in the forest was thus, he being at the time a youth of twenty years or thereabouts, of illustrious birth, and comely person and learning and prowess, and modest and discreet bearing. For it so happened that, being enamoured of the daughter of Messer Hostasio de Traversariis, the damsel, who was lovely, but exceeding coy and shrewish, would not consent to marry him, despite the desire of her parents, who in everything, as happens with only daughters of old men (for Messer Hostasio was well stricken in years), sought only to please her. Whereupon Messer Nastasio, fearing lest the damsel might despise his fortunes, wasted his substance in presents and feastings, and joustings, but all to no avail.

When it happened that having spent nearly all he possessed and ashamed to show his poverty and his unlucky love before the eyes of his townsmen, he betook him to the forest of Classis, it being autumn, on the pretext of snaring birds, but intending to take privily the road to Rimini and thence to Rome, and there seek his fortune. And Nastasio took with him fowling-nets, and bird-lime, and tame owls, and two horses (one of which was ridden by his servant), and food for some days; and they alighted in the midst of the forest, and slept in one of the fowling-huts of cut branches set up by the citizens of Ravenna for their pleasure.

And it happened that on the afternoon of the second day (and it chanced to be a Friday) of his stay in the forest, Messer Nastasio, being exceeding sad in his heart, went forth towards the sea to muse upon the unkindness of his beloved and the hardness of his fortune. Now you should know that near the sea, where you can clearly hear its roaring even on windless days there is in that forest a clear place, made as by the hand of man, set round with tall pines even like a garden, but in the shape of a horse-course, free from bushes and pools, and covered with the finest greensward. Here, as Nastasio sate him on the trunk of a pine--the hour was sunset, the weather being uncommon clear--he heard a rushing sound in the distance, as of the sea; and there blew a death-cold wind; and then came sounds of crashing branches, and neighing of horses, and yelping of hounds, and halloes and horns. And Nastasio wondered greatly, for that was not the hour for hunting; and he hid behind a great pine trunk, fearing to be recognised. And the sounds came nearer, even of horns, and hounds, and the shouts of huntsmen; and the bushes rustled and crashed, and the hunt rushed into the clearing, horsemen and foot, with many hounds. And behold, what they pursued was not a wild boar, but something white that ran erect, and it seemed to Messer Nastasio, as if it greatly resembled a naked woman; and it screamed piteously.

Now when the hunt had swept past, Messer Nastasio rubbed his eyes and wondered greatly. But even as he wondered, and stood in the middle of the clearing, behold, part of the hunt swept back, and the thing which they pursued ran in a circle on the greensward, shrieking piteously. And behold, it was a young damsel, naked, her hair loose and full of brambles, with only a tattered cloth round her middle. And as she came near to where Messer Nastasio was standing (but no one of the hunt seemed to heed him) the hounds were upon her, barking furiously, and a hunter on a black horse, black even as night. And a cold wind blew and caused Nastasio's hair to stand on end; and he tried to cry out, and to rush forward, but his voice died in his throat and his limbs were heavy, and covered with sweat, and refused to move.

Then the hounds fastening on the damsel threw her down, and he on the black horse turned swiftly, and transfixed her, shrieking dismally, with a boar-spear. And those of the hunt galloped up, and wound their horns; and he of the black horse, which was a stately youth habited in a coat of black and gold, and black boots and black feathers on his hat, threw his reins to a groom, and alighted and approached the damsel where she lay, while the huntsmen were holding back the hounds and winding their horns. Then he drew a knife, such as are used by huntsmen, and driving its blade into the damsel's side, cut out her heart, and threw it, all smoking, into the midst of the hounds. And a cold wind rustled through the bushes, and all had disappeared, horses, and huntsmen, and hounds. And the grass was untrodden as if no man's foot or horse's hoof had passed there for months.

And Messer Nastasio shuddered, and his limbs loosened, and he knew that the hunter on the black horse was Messer Guido Degli Anastagi, and the damsel Monna Filomena, daughter of the Lord of Gambellara. Messer Guido had loved the damsel greatly, and been flouted by her, and leaving his home in despair, had been killed on the way by robbers, and Madonna Filomena had died shortly after. The tale was still fresh in men's memory, for it had happened in the city of Ravenna barely five years before. And those whom Nastasio had seen, both the hunter and the lady, and the huntsmen and horses and hounds, were the spirits of the dead.

When he had recovered his courage, Messer Nastasio sighed and said unto himself: "How like is my fate to that of Messer Guido! Yet would I never, even when a spectre, without weight or substance, made of wind and delusion, and arisen from hell, act with such cruelty towards her I love." And then he thought: "Would that the daughter of Messer Pavolo de Traversariis might hear of this! For surely it would cause her to relent!" But he knew that his words would be vain, and that none of the citizens of Ravenna, and least of all the damsel of the Traversari, would believe them, but rather esteem him a madman.

Now it came about that when Friday came round once more, Nastasio, by some chance, was again walking in the forest-clearing by the great pines, and he had forgotten; when the sea began to roar, and a cold wind blew; and there came through the forest the sound of horses and hounds, causing Messer Nastasio's hair to stand up and his limbs to grow weak as water. And he on the black horse again pursued the naked damsel, and struck here with his boar-spear, and cut out her heart and threw it to the hounds; the which hunter and damsel were the ghosts of Messer Guido, and of Madonna Filomena, daughter of the Lord of Gambellara, arisen out of Hell. And in this fashion did it happen for three Fridays following, the sea beginning to moan, the cold wind to blow and the spirits to hunt the deceased damsel at twilight in the clearing among the pine-trees.

Now when Messer Nastasio noticed this, he thanked Cupid, which is the Lord of all Lovers, and devised in his mind a cunning plan. And he mounted his horse and returned to Ravenna, and gave out to his friends that he had found a treasure in Rome; and that he was minded to forget the damsel of the Traversari and seek another wife. But in reality he went to certain money-lenders, and gave himself into bondage, even to be sold as a slave to the Dalmatian pirates if he could not repay his loan. And he published that he desired to take to him a wife, and for that reason would feast all his friends and the chief citizens of Ravenna, and regale them with a pageant in the pine forest, where certain foreign slaves of his should show wonderful feats for their delight. And he sent forth invitations, and among them to Messer Pavolo de Traversariis and his wife and daughter. And he bid them for a Friday, which was also the eve of the Feast of the Dead.

Meanwhile he took to the pine forest carpenters and masons, and such as paint and gild cunningly, and waggons of timber, and cut stone for foundations, and furniture of all kinds; and the waggons were drawn by four and twenty yoke of oxen, grey oxen of the Romagnol breed. And he caused the artisans to work day and night, making great fires of dry myrtle and pine branches, which lit up the forest all around. And he caused them to make foundations, and build a pavilion of timber in the clearing which is the shape of a horse-course, surrounded by pines. The pavilion was oblong, raised by ten steps above the grass, open all round and reposing on arches and pillars; and there was a projecting abacus under the arches over the capitals, after the Roman fashion; and the pillars were painted red, and the capitals red also picked out with gold and blue, and a shield with the arms of the Honestis on each. The roof was raftered, each rafter painted with white lilies on a red ground, and heads of youths and damsels; and the roof outside was made of wooden tiles, shaped like shells and gilded. And on the top of the roof was a weather-vane; and the vane was a figure of Cupid, god of love, cunningly carved of wood and painted like life, as he flies, poised in air, and shoots his darts on mortals. He was winged and blindfolded, to show that love is inconstant and no respecter of persons; and when the wind blew, he turned about, and the end of his scarf, which was beaten metal, swung in the wind. Now when the pavilion was ready, within six days of its beginning, carpets were spread on the floor, and seats placed, and garlands of bay and myrtle slung from pillar to pillar between the arches. And tables were set, and sideboards covered with gold and silver dishes and trenchers; and a raised place, covered with arras, was made for the players of fifes and drums and lutes; and tents were set behind for the servants, and fires prepared for cooking meat. Whole oxen and sheep were brought from Ravenna in wains, and casks of wine, and fruit and white bread, and many cooks, and serving-men, and musicians, all habited gallantly in the colours of the Honestis, which are vermilion and white, parti-coloured, with black stripes; and they wore doublets laced with gold, and on their breast the arms of the house of Honestis, which are a dove holding a leaf.

Now on Friday the eve of the Feast of the Dead, all was ready, and the chief citizens of Ravenna set out for the forest of Classis, with their wives and children and servants, some on horseback, and others in wains drawn by oxen, for the tracks in that forest are deep. And when they arrived, Messer Nastasio welcomed them and thanked them all, and conducted them to their places in the pavilion. Then all wondered greatly at its beauty and magnificence, and chiefly Messer Pavolo de Traversariis; and he sighed, and thought within himself, "Would that my daughter were less shrewish, that I might have so noble a son-in-law to prop up my old age!" They were seated at the tables, each according to their dignity, and they ate and drank and praised the excellence of the cheer; and flowers were scattered on the tables, and young maidens sang songs in praise of love, most sweetly. Now when they had eaten their fill, and the tables been removed, and the sun was setting between the pine-trees, Messer Nastasio caused them all to be seated facing the clearing, and a herald came forward, in the livery of the Honestis, sounding his trumpet and declaring in a loud voice that they should now witness a pageant, the which was called the Mystery of Love and Death. Then the musicians struck up, and began a concert of fifes and lutes, exceeding sweet and mournful. And at that moment the sea began to moan, and a cold wind to blow: a sound of horsemen and hounds and horns and crashing branches came through the wood; and the damsel, the daughter of the Lord of Gambellara, rushed naked, her hair streaming and her veil torn, across the grass, pursued by the hounds, and by the ghost of Messer Guido on the black horse, the nostrils of which were filled with fire. Now when the ghost of Messer Guido struck that damsel with the boar-spear, and cut out her heart, and threw it, while the others wound their horns, to the hounds, and all vanished, Messer Nastasio de Honestis, seizing the herald's trumpet, blew in it, and cried in a loud voice, "The Pageant of Death and Love! The Pageant of Death and Love! Such is the fate of cruel damsels!" and the gilt Cupid on the roof swung round creaking dreadfully, and the daughter of Messer Pavolo uttered a great shriek and fell on the ground in a swoon.

* * * * *

Here the Romagnol manuscript comes to a sudden end, the outer sheet being torn through the middle. But we know from the Decameron that the damsel of the Traversari was so impressed by the spectre-hunt she had witnessed that she forthwith relented towards Nastagio degli Onesti, and married him, and that they lived happily ever after. But whether or not that part of the pine forest of Classis still witnesses this ghostly hunt, we have no means of knowing.

On the whole, I incline to think that, when the great frost blasted the pines (if not earlier) the ghosts shifted quarters from the forest of Classis to the church of the same name, on that forest's brink. Certainly there seems nothing to prevent them. Standing in the midst of those uninhabited rice-fields and marshes, the church of Classis is yet always open, from morning till night; the great portals gaping, no curtain interposed. Open and empty; mass not even on Sundays; empty of human beings, open to the things of without. The sunbeams enter through the open side windows, cutting a slice away from that pale, greenish twilight; making a wedge of light on the dark, damp bricks; bringing into brief prominence some of the great sarcophagi, their peacocks and palm-trees picked out in vivid green lichen. Snakes also enter, the Sacristan tells me, and I believe it, for within the same minute, I saw a dead and a living one among the arum leaves at the gate. Is that little altar, a pagan-looking marble table, isolated in the midst of the church, the place where they meet, pagan creatures claiming those Grecian marbles? Or do they hunt one another round the aisles and into the crypt, slithering and hissing, the souls of Guido degli Anastagi, perhaps, and of his cruel lady love?

Such are Ravenna and Classis, and the Ghosts that haunt them.

[The end]
Vernon Lee's essay: Ravenna And Her Ghosts