There is in truth something fairly incredible about how this city managed to play such a role in the Mediterranean world. I have a couple of histories that try to tie this world together, to understand the past not in terms of single countries languages cultures, but how they all came together around this great body of water in flows and connections. I love how this undermines the careful separations of cultures and continents that many histories and nationalisms invest so much in.
Agents of Empire by Noel Malcolm did this most beautifully, though I have yet to read Braudel.
Dubrovnik: A History is a little too static for my taste, but it does give a taste of how pivotal a role this city played in the complex relationship between Hapsburg Europe and the Ottoman Empire. As Tanner writes
In contrast to ruined Biograd or ravaged Zadar, Dubrovnik enjoyed a steady growth in prosperity, thanks to the diplomatic dexterity of its merchant rulers as well as their trading skills. Since its foundation in the seventh century, the city had been attacked seriously only once, by the Normans in 1071. Occasionally it was besieged by Bosnian or Serbian warlords who descended from the hinterland, but for the most part Dubrovnik successfully played Bosnians, Croats, Venetians and – later – the Ottomans off each other, periodically ceding sovereignty to one or other of the powers that encircled it without ever surrendering self-government or the right to conduct its own foreign policy.(24
I tried to imagine the conversations that must have happened in these incredible streets, in this jewel of a city.
The many thousands of tourists lined up to walk around the walls, to go up the thronging the streets, made this fairly impossible. There were torrents of Game of Thrones fans. We spent most of the week here trying to go elsewhere. Disappointing.
Of course what Dubrovnik made so clear was the asphyxiating nature of this city for so long. Here the patriciate worked so hard to maintain their purity there was no upward movement at all. Marriage to a ‘commoner’ made of you a commoner as well, and only the patriciate had any say in the running of the city. Venice, for all its faults, at least pried this open to some degree in Split and other cities under its control.
In Split, in contrast with Dubrovnik, the ‘closing’ of the Great Council to commoners in 1334 initiated a series of bitter disputes in which, once the city came under Venetian rule in 1420, the Serenissima itself became involved. The Venetian counts were inclined to promote the interests of the wealthy commoner families (as in Dubrovnik, called ‘citizens’) against those of the nobility, partly because of a genuine sense of equity but also in order to divide and rule. (188)
Harries quotes at length a Venetian count, Marco Barbarigo writing in July, 1568:
Between the men of Split there exists that hatred which prevails in most of the Dalmatian towns. This hatred comes from the fact that the nobles have their own council in which they choose public representatives every three months. These nobles are poor, as far as their fortunes go; but puffed up with empty ambition the citizens, who because of their crafts and trade live much more comfortably… On the other side these [citizens] since they are not allowed to meet and choose some officials, cannot with a peaceful spirit tolerate the privileges which the nobles have on the basis of the old laws of this city.
Harries continues with how this did not happen in Dubrovnik:
The closure of the Ragusan nobility to all but a few foreign entrants for some two centuries–and the closure of its polity to non-aristocrats for almost five–did not have the effect of stirring up similar resentment among the non-noble inhabitants. After a time, the very impossibility of a commoner joining the patriciate’s ranks probably made for a certain acquiescence and so stability. (189)
Ah, for the days when peace and quiet exploitation could be won through complete domination rather than an almost complete domination. It’s not entirely surprising that the commoners didn’t all hang together to support the patriciate after the great earthquake, nor that their servants seems to have been positively rude in the face of the nobility’s suffering. As Tanner writes:
By the eighteenth century Dubrovnik was a political and economic fossil. It had been many centuries since the populace had played any part in its government by acclaiming laws outside the palace of the rector (knez), but by the eighteenth century even the vestiges of representative government had been discarded. … In practice all power was concentrated in the Grand Council, which elected the Senate out of its own members. And the Grand Council was entirely composed of nobles who never married out and hardly ever allowed any new blood in. Even within this tiny noble caste marriage was forbidden between the families of the most ancient nobles of all, the Salamanchesi, and the ‘new’ nobles, the Sorbonnesi, who had been created after an awful earthquake in 1667 forced the nobles to let in some new members, to make up for the ones who had been killed. … in the eighteenth century, they began to die out. From about 200 or 300 members in the sixteenth century, the Grand Council was down to between sixty and eighty by the eighteenth century. (Tanner, M. (2001). Croatia : A Nation Forged in War.)
Words fail me there, although the suicide of an entitled class throughits own snobbishness is actually quite poetic. But the earthquake…the earthquake was incredible. This is a description from someone who lived through it:
Suddenly there was a deep rumbling, and a violent blow rocked the city… A large part of the city collapsed. Rocks poured down from Mount Srđ. A thick cloud of dust rose, spreading a pall of darkness over the ruins. the ground shook and large crevasses opened up, swallowing completely some modest dwellings in the suburbs. The city walls swayed before falling back into position. The wells emptied of water, only to be refueled with thick yellow mud, which in turn drained away, leaving them quite dry. From our over the Adriatic there arose a roaring sound similar to continuous cannon fire. The sea withdrew from the harbour entirely and the ships moored there smashed their hulls on the now-exposed rock bed. Several times the tide returned and withdrew again. Flames… (320)
Imagine the tide receding completely.
This was from an account by a Dutchman, who was trapped in rubble and gave an improbable story of his servant despairing and only recovering hope when ordered by his master to try harder to escape and bring help.
The earthquake was a turning point indeed, but things had already been unraveling a bit before this. The world was changing, the centre of gravity shifting to the wealth of the New World and the ships of the Spanish, Dutch, English. With the decay of the Ottoman Empire as well, the key strategic bridging role held by Dubrovnik no longer existed. She writes things like
Unfortunately, like the villas to which they were attached, many an orsan has since fallen prey to insensitive road schemes, socialist housing and a mindset unsympathetic to the cultivated, patrician lifestyle of the Ragusan Republic. (318)
Mindsets like mine. Still, Dubrovnik is very beautiful. Massive walls, narrow winding streets and stairs
A saint that always carries the city in his arms.
Cats everywhere. Tanks painted in gay colours and a museum of remembrance of the ‘War of Serbian Aggression’ (but never any mention of fascism or WWII). We saw a concert in the Rector’s Palace, it was beautiful indeed to be there in the late evening.
We climbed hills (so many hills), had fabulous food, wine of the best. Saw the small archaeology museum, ethnographic museum, the absolutely fabulous natural history museum with its incredible Freddy Mercury homage.
Its collection of shells.
We rode a pirate ship to the islands, saw the great ruined hotels of Kupari, visited the salt flats at Ston. Saw some of the social housing and modernist architecture and liked that very much. Found a gecko our very first day.