Talk about canals in Italy and, of course, Venice comes to mind. But hundreds of years before its construction was even started, the city of Ravenna, to the south in what is now Emilia Romagna, was already there. Its origins are a mystery. It was probably built by the Etruscans, around 625-700BC. They were skilled hydraulic engineers, draining the marshlands and constructing a complicated network of canals, which also channelled water for farming purposes.

During Roman Times

In the 1st century BC, the Romans arrived and took over the city. Perfect mosaic floors and other remains are still being discovered 6-7 mts below street level. Strabo described Ravenna as:

‘A city built entirely on wooden piles and coursed by rivers, it is provided by thoroughfares by means of bridges and ferries. Here the drift of the tide together with the river currents purify the swamps by removing their ooze and filth; hence human settlement becomes possible in a space usually populated by insects, frogs and snakes, and a flourishing economy develops, mainly based on controlling trade and inland waterways. The place is considered so healthy that it is chosen for feeding and training gladiators. Now this is one of the marvellous things at Ravenna – I mean the fact that the air in a marsh is harmless.’.

In 27BC, Augustus started work on enlarging Ravenna’s port. It eventually had room for 250 ships, plus several acres of storage on the land. Augustus also built the Fossa Augusta; a deep canal which ran under Ravenna’s town walls, and two miles to the sea.

Canali di Ravenna

However, the town’s main problem remained: getting fresh water as the rivers and canals were very muddy. The residents could only rely on rainwater. Martial wrote:

‘I’d rather at Ravenna have a cistern than a vine. Since I could sell my water much better than my wine.’

and

‘That landlord at Ravenna is plainly but a cheat. I paid for wine and water, but he served wine to me neat’.

In the 2nd Century AD, The Emperor Trajan built an aqueduct about 70km long, following the river from Meldola, finally bringing fresh water to the city.

Rivers and canals stretched for 120 miles from Ravenna to Altium. During Vespasian’s time, galleys could travel from Ravenna to Etruria. In a letter dated around 450, Apollinaris Sidonius described a voyage from outside Milan to Ravenna in a large boat called a cursoria, with singing all the way.

The Capital of the Western Roman Empire

Ravenna may not be as great as Rome or exotic as Constantinople (Istanbul), yet it was where imperial Rome had its last gasp when in 402 it became the capital of the Western Empire.

In a time of decadence with continuous invasions, internal fights for power, floods, famine and plague, Ravenna strangely flourished. It is during this time that most of its magnificent churches and palazzi were built. Eight of them are still there and on the Unesco World Heritage List, containing the richest heritage of mosaics in the world.

Mausoleo Gala Placidia - Ravenna
Mausoleo di Galla Placidia - Ravenna

During the 7th Century there was a dramatic decline in Ravenna’s economic fortunes. The population numbers dropped, the Po River changed its course causing the water flow to increase and thus bringing more sedimentation. The decline had began.

From the Renaissance to our Times

During the Renaissance the remaining canals were bustling with all kinds of boats, often lavishly decorated and used for show and entertainment. It must have been a fantastic, colourful sight. Everyone who was anyone owned a gilded barge, called a bucentaur. Popes and Dukes, new brides, distinguished guests, were all ferried around, and often greeted by musicians and water pageants.

Sadly, in the 16th Century, there was again a lot of political trouble between the Ducal States. Many more of the canals became clogged and silted up.

The 17th Century brought terrible floods again. The Rivers Ronco and Montone completely flooded Ravenna, destroying over 140 buildings. In the Via Salaria, 2.33mts above street level, a plaque says ‘On 28th May 1636 the water reached this height.’

In 1696 there was a huge earthquake. Miraculously, all the historical monuments survived. Work re-started in 1738 when the Corsini Canal (named after Pope Clement Xll) connecting Ravenna to the receding sea was built. At 11 kms long, it’s the biggest artificial canal in Italy.

Santuario Madonna Greca - Ravenna
Basilica Santa Maria in Porto - Ravenna

In the evening of the 8th of April 1883, Europe’s first Co-operative of Labourers was formed in Ravenna. The following year, on 24th of November, 1884, 500 men and 50 women, armed with wheelbarrows and shovels, set off to reclaim the neglected marshes of the Roman plain. They were successful, but many of them perished of malaria. Over 100 victims died in the first year alone.

Finally, at the end of the 19th Century, it wasn’t the Adriatic Sea or the River Po that caused the end of the canals but modernity, as the railway took over. Now there is no trace of the canals, except for the odd street sign saying Canale instead of Via. From under the ground though, the water sometimes fights to make an appearance. The San Francisco church (another UNESCO monument) has a flooded crypt, with goldfish swimming around.

Chiesa San Francesco - Ravenna
Chiesa di San Fracesco - Ravenna

Like Venice, Ravenna is slowly sinking into the marshes. Once a thriving port, it’s now over 11kms inland. Imagine what was dropped or thrown into the canals during all these centuries is now buried under the narrow, paved streets! In between the modern Ravenna and the long, sandy beaches of the coast lies a flat area where UNESCO’s Basilica of Sant’Apollinare stands, and the statue of Augustus points to Rome. Here was the province of Classis and Augustus’ port. Now safely buried under a huge field, waiting until there are sufficient funds to excavate it. I do hope it happens in my lifetime!

Sant'Apollinare in Classe - Ravenna
Basilica di Sant'Apollinare in Classe - Ravenna

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The Sparkling City of Ravenna

The Three Best Places to View Mosaic Art in Ravenna

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