Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Dalmatia Viewed by a Dalmatian

(Written by Giuliano De Zorzi, edited by the Centro di Studi Atesini, Bolzano, 1994)

1.1 Orography

We observe a chain of mountains which begins at the Cadi­bona Pass, arches around the Po Valley like a crown, and continues along the sea down to the Bay of Cat­taro, where Montenegro begins. This whole arc of mountains is known as the Alps.

The Alps that descend along the sea towards Montenegro are called the Dinaric Alps. The thin narrow strip of land between the Dinaric Alps and the Adriatic Sea is Dalmatia. The large peninsula is Istria.

Between Istria and Dalmatia is the city of Fiume with its gulf, the Quarnaro, also known as the Quarnero or Car­naro. The name is spelled different ways, I am not sure which of these three is more legitimate. Dante used 'Carnaro', as did D'Annunzio, who also used 'Quarnaro', though less frequently.

1.2 Ethnology

At this point I do not think I would be saying anything that the most famous archaeologists, ethnologists and sociologists have not already observed, by making this statement of elemental simplicity: the sea unites, the watershed divides. In other words, nations which border opposite sides of the same arm of the sea, have frequent contact with each other to the point of developing a single type of culture, while people separated by a watershed develop in completely autonomous ways. Cultural exchanges through a watershed, although artificially promoted today, were once entirely negligible.

1.3 Prehistory

Both Paleolithic and Neolithic artifacts are widely documented in the Dalmatian territories. However, since prehistoric artifacts are confined behind glass in Dalmatian museums and still have not been studied (to my knowledge) in an organic way, I would not pretend to give any opinion on the subject other than this: that the Venetianness of the littoral is very ancient. When D'Annunzio says, “the whole Adriatic is the fatherland of the Venetians”, he enunciates a historical reality rooted in many millennia. People always talk about the Illyrians, but the fact is that the oldest – albeit rare – inscriptions found on the opposite shore of the Adriatic are Venetic, an Italic language and sister of the Latin language of Rome.

1.4 Rome

We all know, or I imagine that everyone knows, the Pola Arena, very similar to the Verona Arena. Both were built in the first century AD, although Verona is a bit older and can fit 22,000, while Pola fits 23,000. We all also know that the Romans did not build these arenas in the middle of a desert. The arenas, like the stadiums of today, were part of a regular urban fabric. This means that Pola was not merely a station for changing horses, but was a true and proper Roman city.

Other important Roman ruins which I imagine everyone knows, are those of Spalato, a city built within the Diocletian Palace, whose name evolved from the Latin 'Palatium' (Aspalathon > Spalatum > Spalato, today Split). During the barbarian invasions, the people of the countryside took refuge in Diocletian's Palace like a fortress, and slowly built dwelling houses inside of it. Today the old town of Spalato, including the Cathedral, is located within the perimeter of the walls of the old Imperial Palace.

I wanted to mention the two extremes of Pola and Spalato so as to remind the reader that the building activities of ancient Rome stretched across the coast. One could easily point out that at that time the whole Mediterranean was full of Roman buildings and the fact that these are also found in Dalmatia does not surprise anyone. Very true, however, the evidence proves that at the time of ancient Rome there was a single cultural identity between the two shores of the Adriatic, whereas on the other side of the watershed of the Dinaric Alps there was nothing similar.

1.5 Early Middle Ages

The Early Middle Ages, the age of the barbarian invasions, deserves an extra word because I believe it is little known. I speak only for myself, of course, when I say that this was not taught to us in schools; it was entirely skipped over.

It is important to note that the cities of the interior, which neither Constantinople nor Rome were able to defend, were swept away like twigs in the wind.

The cities on the coast, however, found within themselves the strength needed to defend themselves. Nona, Zara, Traù, Spalato, Budua and Ragusa remained untouched. Perhaps when the barbarians found these cities too difficult to conquer, they left them alone and moved on to other areas.

In any case, the fact remains that once the storm passed, the people of the Dalmatian countryside who had taken refuge on the islands off the coast – islands which were unreachable for the barbarian hordes – these people returned to their land, where they preserved their cities, their traditions, their language, their faith and even the old Latin name of Dalmatia. Pope John IV was from Zara and therefore was Dalmatian. He spent considerable sums to rescue his Dalmatian countrymen, or Romans as he called them, from enslavement by the barbarians. So not only did Dalmatia go through a period of healing from its wounds, but they were indeed aware of their own strength and proud of their ability. The Dalmatians came out on top in this ordeal.

1.6 The Barbarians

It would be appropriate to give a brief note clarifying who the “Barbarians” were. In our land they were called Avars. They were a belligerent and ruthless people who did not work, and when they finished despoiling people they would move on to another area, leaving scorched earth behind them.

As they passed through the Kiev area, to the north of the Black Sea, the Avars encountered a very large and peaceful population: the Slavs. Inevitably, the Avars enslaved the Slavs and forced them to march on the front lines, providing what today would be called “cannon fodder”. Those slaves who were forced to fight were called 'bumpkins' (bifolchi); while the others, aggregated to the herd of slaves, were called 'slaves' (bislacchi). That is how the Slavs came to the Balkans, to the land that one day would become Yugoslavia: as bumpkins and as slaves.

Perhaps the two most striking features of the modern Slav are to be found precisely in its troubled origins. Indeed, at times we find them extremely peaceful, even apathetic and fatalistic. In such moments the old character seems to resurface, hearkening back to the days when they lived peacefully in their native lands. But then, there are times when they explode in acts of immeasurable savage ferocity. It is natural to imagine that this is a resurgence reminiscent of the times when they cruelly suffered as slaves.

1.7 The Period Before Modern Times

Returning to Dalmatia, we observe that, once the barbarian invasions ended, our cities quickly entered the troubled medieval history of our continent. Disputed over first between the Carolingian Empire and the Byzantine Empire, then between Venice and Hungary, they also were forced to contend with Slavic piracy and Turkish incursions.

These ancient and tenacious people, forced to defend their freedom every day with guns blazing, eventually passed into modern times.

1.8 Modern Times

Confraternities of arts and crafts arose in Dalmatia in the modern period. The confraternities were born around 1300, and by 1422 rose to negotiate on equal terms with the nobility. Therefore, there was no bloodshed between a bestial people and an unworthy nobility, as took place in other countries. On the contrary, we had a free and proud people with an enlightened nobility who served the common good.

Thus came the spread of Humanism. Dalmatian schools welcomed the best teachers from all over Italy, and soon these schools began to produce humanists, historians, writers and poets. Just two examples of the connection between Italy and Dalmatia:

– Epigraphy, formerly known as scholarly curiosity, became a science at the beginning of the fifteenth century in the triangle of An­cona - Zara - Traù.

– The grandiose Palazzo Ducale of Urbino, headquarters of the Montefeltro family, which has been called “the first Renaissance princely residence”, was built by Luciano Laurana, an architect from Zara in Dalmatia.

At this point the singular cultural identity between the two shores of the Adriatic – (Dalmatia and Italy) – is so obvious that no one can deny it. Beyond the watershed of the Dinaric Alps there truly existed “another world”.

1.9 One Thousand and One Nights

Here is a small curious anecdote. The famous collection of short stories that was published in the Islamic world under the title 'One Thousand and One Nights', interestingly mentions some Italian cities – not for any propagandistic reasons, but merely in passing. There are six Italian cities named in 'One Thousand and One Nights': Rome, of course, which was well-known to the Muslims as the capital of the 'infidels'; then the maritime republics of Genoa, Pisa and Venice, which were in continuous contact with the East and well-known; the other two cities are Zara and Ra­gusa! Zara and Ragusa were cited as being Italian cities by this unexpected source.

1.10 Ragusa

Due to the large historical footprint left by Ragusa since 634, it deserves a special mention. It was called the “free and sovereign republic of Ragusa” until 1814.

For twelve hundred years Ragusa spoke Italian. In her best days she had up to seven hundred ships in the sea! Seven hundred! In 1416 slavery was abolished. What would they think about our English friends, who pretend to teach democracy to the world? Unless I am mistaken, the English did not abolish slavery until 1807, four centuries later.

1.11 Venice

Discussing the Venetianness of Dalmatia is like breaking through an open door. Just look at how many lions of St. Mark are in Dalmatia and how many Venetian bell towers line its shores. That in itself would be sufficient, but I wish to mention also a particular historical anecdote for flavor. In 1797 in Venice, during the last meeting of the Grand Council, the opinions of the council members were sharply divided: there were those who wanted to resist Napoleon to the bitter end, and then there were those who wanted to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. Doge Ludovico Manin hesitated. It is said that the senior prosecutor pointed to the doge's hat, which was a symbol of his power, and shouted: “Take your ducal cap and go to Zara!” In other words, in the case of an extreme and desperate defense, the Most Serene Republic would continue to exist in Dalmatia.

1.12 Campo Formio 1797

With the Treaty of Campo Formio, Venice passed to Austria. Dalamtia obviously followed the same fate as Venice, as it was considered almost as an extension of Venice. In 1866 Venice was liberated and returned to Italy, but Dalmatia remained under Austro-Hungarian rule.

The patriotic enthusiasm of the Risorgimento which inflamed the hearts of the Italians had led to the liberation of Lombardy-Venetia; but for Dalmatia we would have to wait until the end of World War I and the fall of the Habsburg Empire.

On the day when Zara hoisted the Tricolor on top of the bell tower of the Cathedral, the honorable duty was given to a boy of the Gymnastics Society in Zara. This boy, after raising the flag, placed his hands at his sides and stood at attention... on top of the bell tower.

And the boy did not fall, because he was supported by the hearts of all his fellow citizens who were present.

Although I could not be present because I was not born yet, I feel I am getting choked up as I write this.

I see drug addicts, I see the dead on Saturday evenings, and when you think about that boy on top of the bell tower... they are nothing compared to him.

1.13 Fascism

Naturally, immediately after the birth of Fascism, it found fertile ground in Dalmatia. Looking back now, it is easy to be condemnatory and say: you Dalmatians were all Fascists! I respond: of course we were! What else could we have been? Mussolini spoke of the Flag, the Fatherland and Honor, and that was sufficient. We did not think we were doing anything wrong.

Only after the war was lost, people like Sandro Pertini (a Socialist politician) began to inform us that we were all evil. But before the war we thought we were normal people. In fact, we even thought we were worthy of praise for our unselfish efforts to honor the Italian flag.

1.14 Epilogue

Even though it is an Istrian town, I want to cite Parenzo – located right across the sea from Chioggia – just to give an example of what happened after we lost the war. Parenzo laid down its arms and surrendered with dignity to the victors. But the victors proved themselves unworthy of such an honor. Indeed, hearkening back to the ways of their miserable ancestors, who were bumpkins and slaves, the Slavic victors behaved in such a manner that the inhabitants of Parenzo were forced to leave their city and their belongings. In those days 98% of the population was forced to leave Parenzo.

The total number of refugees exiled from Istria, Fiume and Dalmatia after the war was 350,000. Obviously these were not 350,000 barbarians migrating from the steppes; on the contrary, these were a highly civilized people, the depositories of an ancient history and culture that progressive intellectuals can not even begin to fathom.

In those days, the Prefect of Zara was a Sicilian named Vincenzo Serrentino. This Sicilian strove with all his human ability to give proper burials to our dead. Zara, in fact, suffered 54 bombings. That's right, a major city like Zara suffered 54 bombings and virtually the entire city was destroyed. Zara had no adequate defense because it was not a military target. This means that the 'heroic' Anglo-Saxon aviators comfortably attacked Zara like they were playing a video game, shooting at civilian boats that were trying to flee the city during the air strikes. (Sources: 301 bis Talpo/Brćić, 259; 322 Bam­bara, 151; 601 Carter/Mueler)

Serrentino rescued the wounded, buried the dead and organized the evacuation. He was the last to leave the city, which was engulfed in flames, as bullets whistled past his ears. But the Partisan bands of Tito chased him down and captured him in Italian territory after the end of the war. They tore him away from his home, dragged him across the Yugoslav border and, of course, shot him. He was a Fascist, and that was what they did to Fascists: they shot them.

Vincenzo Serrentino was killed on May 19, 1947, two years after the end of the war.

Thus ends the story of my Zara and my Dalmatia. Thank you.