Ravenna and the Po in Dante’s Inferno

Ravenna and Po

Ravenna is a small city along the Adriatic Coast that, like many Italian cities, has a long history. The city is where Julius Caesar gathered his troops before crossing the Rubicon and setting off a civil war and subsequent battles that would lead to the transformation of the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. Almost fourteen centuries later, Dante Alighieri would spend the last few years of his life living here in exile. In between Ravenna would serve as the capital of the Western Roman Empire for seven decades before its collapse in 476 CE.

In the late 1200s a young woman would be born in Ravenna named Francesca, a daughter of Guido I de Polenta. In a political match, Francesca would be married to the crippled Giovanni Malatesta from the nearby town of Rimini. She would fall in love with his younger, married brother Paolo, and for ten years they would have an affair until Giovanni would discover and kill them.

In death the two lovers become some of the most memorable figures in Dante’s Inferno where they swirl endlessly in the tempestuous wind of the Carnal in Circle Two. In recounting their tale, Francesca tells Dante she is from where the Po descends and flows into the sea.

With two notes in separate books clearly identifying this as a reference to Ravenna, I imagined this would be an easy location to map. When I began reviewing maps, though, Ravenna seemed fairly distant from the Po River, which is the largest river in Italy, flowing out of the Alps mostly eastward across the northern part of the country.

Historically Ravenna had been affected by the Po’s flooding and the land surrounding the city was marshland that required early settlers to build their houses on pilings similar to those used in Venice. In 1152 a diversion was made in the river’s channel, which began shifting its flow to the north to help spare Ravenna. While the swampy land around Ravenna has been dried out, the former harbor city now sits six miles inland as a result of the large silt delta the river has deposited over the centuries.

The most interesting part of bookmapping is always the research and the uncovering of these little details about a world that is so large, there is no other way to tackle it than piece-by-piece. And while there may be many ways to learn about the world we occupy, for a book lover, this is one of the best.

Be sure to check out all of the posts about the Inferno here: http://booma.us/tag/inferno/.

If you would like to contribute to this project, send us an email at booma+inferno@booma.us.

Have you discovered something unexpected about a place by reading about it in a book? Tell us about it in the comments below!