Monday, March 11, 2019

An Artistic Description of Dalmatia

(Written by Luigi Villari, taken from “The English Illustrated Magazine”, Vol. 27, 1902.)

Of the many thousands of travellers who annually spend a few weeks in Venice, who know the towns of the Venetian mainland as well as those of their own country, only a very small proportion push on a little further and visit the former territory of the Venetian Republic on that wonderful Eastern coast of the Adriatic. There a group of towns may be seen, thoroughly Italian in character, which once formed one of the chief bulwarks of Christendom against the advancing Turk. Dalmatia is full of interest for the historian, for the artist, for the lover of natural beauty, and for the student of political affairs. The importance of the Dalmatian cities in European history is greater than one generally realises, for whether as independent communes or under Hungarian or Venetian rule, they constituted a most formidable obstacle to the tide of Turkish invasion. When all the interior, far to the north, had succumbed before the Moslem conqueror, when Hungary was a Turkish province and Vienna itself was threatened, these little coast towns still held out bravely for Christianity and civilisation. They were ever a thorn in the side of the Turkish Sultans, and they contributed in no small degree in preventing them from invading Italy, the land which, above all others, they desired to conquer. The rest of Europe is under a debt of gratitude to these poor, half-forgotten townships of the Dalmatian Littoral.

A tour in Dalmatia may now be accomplished with little expense and no great discomfort. There are numerous good steamers plying between Trieste or Fiume and Cattaro, touching at most of the towns, one or two railways into the interior, and good carriage roads. The hotels, with the exception of the “Impérial,” at Ragusa, are somewhat primitive, but not impossible.

One of the first impressions which Dalmatia makes upon us is the violent contrast between the towns and the country. In few other lands is this difference so marked. The coast towns might be little pieces of Italy, fragments of Venice, for the mother-city left her impress on her colonies in the most unmistakable way. The buildings are Roman, Byzantine, Romanesque, Venetian Gothic, and in the Renaissance style. There is the same café life with which all who know Italy are familiar – the crowds within the café, or sitting round small tables in the piazza outside, sipping their vermouth or their maraschino and reading the papers. The language spoken by the people is to a great extent Italian, especially at Zara, and it is pronounced with the soft lisping Venetian accent. Another thoroughly Venetian feature is that in no Dalmatian town, save Ragusa, are carriages seen in the streets, which are narrow and not constructed for wheeled traffic. Outside the harbours flocks of gaily-painted Venetian sails add still another Venetian touch.


The country people, too, are very different from the town dwellers. The former are entirely of Slavonic origin, and wear the most wonderfully brilliant costumes. Their language is Serbo-Croatian, and the majority of them speak no Italian at all. At the present moment there is a fierce struggle raging between the Slaves and the Latins of Dalmatia. The Slaves are gradually penetrating into the towns, and banishing wherever they can the Italian language. Zara alone has remained quite an Italian town. Everywhere else the Slaves are in a majority. Sebenico, Spalato, Traù, Ragusa are no longer known by their historic Italian names, but have been turned into Sibenik, Spljet, Trogir, Dubrovnik. The names of the streets have undergone the same translation, and the Piazza dei Signori has become the Gospodski Trg. It is a pity to see these interesting islands of Latin civilisation being gradually absorbed by the advancing tide of Slavonic invasion. With their glorious past they seemed destined to a better fate.

Zara, the capital of the whole province, is its northernmost town, and is usually one's first stopping-place. And it is a good place to begin with, for it sums up all the most characteristic features of Dalmatia. Built on a promontory stretching out towards the north-west in the midst of an island-studded sea, with Ugliano and Pasman to the west and the hazy blue snow-capped range of the Croatian Velebit to the east, its situation is unrivalled. Zara has two harbours, the old harbour ensconced in a bay, the other formed by the fine new piers. The town was formerly an almost impregnable fortress, and parts of the mighty bastions are still left. The channel which separated it from the mainland has now been partially filled up, and the outer bastion beyond turned into a pleasure garden. One gate alone communicates with the mainland—the Porta di Terraferma. It is a handsome but simple piece of architecture by Sammichieli, consisting of a broad central arch surmounted by the ubiquitous lion of St. Mark, and two lateral doorways of rusticated Doric.

On two sides of the town there are broad quays, but inside the streets are narrow, and, as we have said, closed to wheeled traffic. Among its architectural remains there are examples of all the styles found in Dalmatia, bearing witness to its many different rulers. Two fine Corinthian columns, one in the Piazza delle Erbe and one in the Piazza San Simeone, and some fragments of arches and temples are Roman work. The curious round church of San Donato reminds one of Byzantine Ravenna. This church is the most curious edifice in Zara. Built in the ninth century by a certain Bishop Donatus in imitation of San Vitale at Ravenna and of the Cathedral of Aix-la-Chappelle; it is now turned into a museum. But in making excavations beneath it, it was discovered that not only had the Roman fragments been let into the walls, but that beautiful Roman columns had been cut into sections and laid lengthways to serve as foundations for the Christian church, the rude work of the early Middle Ages! A striking example, as Mr. Graham Jackson observes, of the triumph of spiritual over temporal pride.

The Duomo is a fine specimen of Romanesque work, and the facade, with its rows of small arches, recalls the churches of Pisa or Lucca. An effective contrast is produced by the simplicity of the lower part of this facade with the elaborate ornamentation of the upper. San Grisogono is another exquisite piece of Romanesque work. Santa Maria has been rebuilt in the Renaissance style of the Lombardi. The public buildings and private palaces are mostly in the best style of Venetian Gothic, with the familiar pointed arches and elaborately carved balconies.

Zara cannot boast of many pictures as compared with Italian towns, but it possesses examples of several Venetian artists, and one work which may claim to rank as a masterpiece—the early Carpaccio in the church of San Francesco. It is an Assumption of the Virgin in the midst of a host of saints and angels. The costumes are of a rare brilliance, and the landscape of little green hills crowned with castles is in the master's best manner. In the middle a small Lombard church, through the open door, of which glitters a golden altar. But unfortunately the painting is in a most deplorable condition, and unless promptly attended to it will soon fall to pieces.

The rich costumes of the Morlak peasantry lend a touch of the East to the town, and proclaim that we are not in Italy. The men wear small red and black caps, red waistcoats, dark brown jackets with crimson facings, blue trousers elaborately embroidered, sometimes red and yellow leggings, and curious boat-like shoes called opankas. The women's costume is less becoming.

Sebenico is the most thoroughly Venetian town (as far as architecture is concerned) in Dalmatia. It is situated on a steep hill overlooking a rocky landlocked bay, with one narrow opening to the sea guarded by a Venetian castle. To the North the bay penetrates still further inland, forming a sort of fjord fed by the river Kerka. The hill on which the town is built has on its summit a splendid mediaeval castle, the walls of which creep right down to the   sea. Behind are two other castles of a later date, the three being known as the Castelli del Barone, after Baron Degenfeld, who defended them successfully against the Turks in 1647. The principal building in Sebenico is the cathedral, one of the most perfect specimens of Renaissance architecture in existence. It was built in two periods, the earlier showing traces of Romanesque influence. The simplicity of the plan, the great height of the vaults, and the elevation of the choir, produce an impression of extraordinary grandeur and spaciousness. It has the peculiarity, too, of being one of the largest churches in Europe, according to Mr. Graham Jackson, in which neither timber nor brick is employed. All is of squared stone, marble, and metal. The bold waggon roof is of stone without beams or leads. Even the beautiful choir stalls are of marble. The whole building is full of beautiful details, marble balustrades, exquisite stone carving, and elaborate galleries. The baptistry is a jewel of sculptured marble.

There are no other churches of any importance in Sebenico; but the steep and tortuous streets, the quaint archways, the handsome Venetian doorways charged with well-designed heraldry, the town walls, and the massive towers, form a most fascinating ensemble. From some gloomy courtyard in a half-ruined palazzo one may issue forth on to a neglected terraced garden all sunshine, overlooking the azure bay, the lilac rocks which enclose it, the picturesque fishing boats, the heavy Lloyd steamer, and the smart Austrian corvette floating on its waters.

Sebenico is a good starting-point for an expedition into inland Dalmatia, as there is a railway to Knin. The latter is a curious little town, quite Slavonic in character, on the banks of the Kerka, protected by a huge castle built by the Venetians as a bulwark against Turkish raids, and the scene of many fights between Christian and Moslem. The scenery is very different from that of the coast, for while the former is stony and treeless, round Knin and Drnis there are fertile well-watered plains and wooded hills. From Knin roads lead to all parts of Dalmatia and beyond the Dinara range into Bosnia.

From Sebenico the steamer follows a channel between the mainland and a chain of islands to Spalato, the ancient Aspalatum, is the largest and most flourishing town in Dalmatia, but its chief interest for the traveller lies in the ruins of the world-renowned palace of Diocletian. Formerly the whole town was contained within the four walls of the vast edifice, but it has subsequently spread out beyond them. The palace itself from an aesthetic point of view is somewhat disappointing. The architecture is clumsy and thoroughly decadent, and while numbers of small houses have filled up the interstices of  the colonnades and porticoes, the few open spaces are encumbered with immense scaffoldings, as parts of the building are being restored. But it is highly interesting for the archaeologist and the architect. It is the most complete specimen of Roman domestic architecture in existence, and in the irregularities of the classic work we find the beginnings of the Byzantine and Romanesque styles. The finest parts of the building are its walls; the wide sea front with its stately colonnade is imposing and grand, and the enormous size of this pleasure-house cannot fail to impress one. There are some fine details of Byzantine work in the Duomo (the old temple of Jupiter) and in the Baptistery, also a temple. The mediaeval and Venetian buildings, although picturesque, are in no way remarkable.

The environs of Spalato offer many attractive excursions of which the most beautiful is the drive along the Riviera dei Sette Castelli to Traù. This riviera is with one exception the most fertile stretch of the Dalmatian coast, for although the mountains behind are bleak and bare, the land between them and the sea is cowered with luxuriant vegetation; olives, vineyards, cactus, fruit-trees grow in abundance, and the whole scene with the grey heights of Mossor on one side and the sapphire island-studded sea on the other is of singular beauty. The Croatian peasantry are a curious feature. One sees men in the gay national costume riding sideways on diminutive donkeys, each leading a small lamb by a string. We were told that they take their pet lambs out into the fields as companions, and they keep them in their rooms at night.

The first villages one passes is Salona, when on the extensive ruins of a Roman city of that name, the “Pompeii of Dalmatia.” Then come the “Sette Castelli,” seven small castles along the shores of the bay built by the Venetians as outposts against the Turks. Round each castle a village has grown up, the houses of some forming an uninterrupted line. They are much frequented by the people of Spalato as a summer villeggiatura.

At the north end of the bay Traù comes in sight. The town is built on a small island in a channel between the mainland and the larger island of Bua, and is connected with both by means of bridges. It is the most mediaeval town on the coast, and within its walls nothing has altered for five hundred years. Over the Porta di Terraferma the ever-watchful Lion of St. Mark guards the entrance, embowered in a cypress bush which springs from between two stones over the gateway; round this bush many legends are gathered. The streets are narrow and dark, the only open space being the Piazza del Duomo. The stately and sombre thirteenth-century cathedral with its massive piers, mellow brown in tone, fine but sober sculptures, and its superb porch, is a splendid specimen of mediaeval architecture. Opposite is the open Loggia whence the rulers of the town dispensed justice in public. There are other churches Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance, and many a fine old Venetian palace; but one of Trau's most attractive features is the riva towards Bua. It is a broad quay faced by a row of palaces, gate-towers, and fragments of walls. At the sea-ward end is the imposing Castello Camerlengo, now in ruins.

The island of Bua, unlike the opposite mainland, is very bleak and stony and typically Dalmatian. It served in Roman times as a place for the relegatio in insulan, and one can easily imagine the feelings of an exiled Roman, wandering about the sterile hills and valleys of the island meditating on the delights of the Urbs and the fickleness of princely favour.

We travelled from Spalato to Ragusa by night and so did not see much of the islands near the former place, nor of the peninsula of Sabbioncello, the only spot in Europe, with the exception of the neighbouring island of Curzola, where the jackal is still to be found. One lands at Gravosa and drives across a narrow peninsula to Ragusa, for the harbour of that once famous maritime republic is too small for steamers of any size.

Taken altogether Ragusa is the most attractive town in Dalmatia. Its position is unrivalled, the vegetation more luxuriant even than that of Spalato, its streets are wide and stately, and its buildings, if inferior to a few others in the country, bespeak a queen among cities. It would need a volume to tell of all the many beauties of Ragusa, of her wonderful history, of her successful diplomacy, her art, her culture, the graceful Rector's Palace, the Sponza, the splendid circuit of walls. The town is built on a promontory and a narrow strip of coast between the Monte Sergio and the sea. One broad main thoroughfare goes right through it, some streets climb up the steep hillside, while others descend to the water's edge. The walls were built partly by Dalmatian architects such as Orsini, and partly by Michelozzo Michelozzi and other Italians. Ragusa is rich in monasteries, among which that of the Franciscans and that of the Dominicans with their shady cloisters are particularly beautiful. The former has a charming little garden in a sort of second cloister, with the old pharmacy under the loggia. In this garden the simples for the chemist's decoctions were grown, and there are still some curious instruments lying about—a large green pressing machine, a range for preparing medicines, &c. The costumes at Ragusa are gayer and more brilliant even than at Spalato or Zara, and more Eastern. Here too one sees still stranger costumes from the Herzegovina, and the bright embroidery and the red slippers in the shop windows, show that we are still nearer to the Orient.

Ragusa, too, is an excellent centre for excursions, but we have no more space to tell of them. Ragusavecchia, Ombla, the Isola di Mezzo, Cannosa all show us different aspects of Dalmatian scenery, and everywhere we find palms, cactus, and other semi-tropical plants, besides cypresses, vineyards, olives, and cornfields. And in every garden, almost in every field, graceful little columns of marble or stone are used as supports or merely as ornaments. In some places I have seen whole avenues of them. It is a peculiar and charming custom of the Ragusan campagna, said to be of Spanish origin. After Ragusa comes Cattaro, hidden at the end of the Bocche, gloomy, forlorn, and desolate, with steep mountains coming sheer down to the water's edge. Beyond again is the last strip of Dalmatian coast with the towns of Budua and Spizza. Then the wild shores of Montenegro and barbarous Albania.