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Dubrovnik: A History

February 13, 2005

Dubrovnik: A History

By Robin Harris

Saqi (2003), 503 pp., 40 pages of glossy color illustrations

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

In Dubrovnik: A History, British author Robin Harris sets out, in his own words, to create for the first time “a modern, well-sourced and readable account of the history of the Ragusan Republic” (p. 17). Documenting the triumphs and travails of over a millennium’s worth of complex and interconnected events is a big job, but the author proves more than up to the task. The result is a very useful guide to a remarkable little city with a storied but relatively unknown past.

A Richness of Sources

Luckily the history of Dubrovnik, which until 1808 existed as the independent Republic of Ragusa, is well preserved and voluminous. With the exception of some manuscripts and books destroyed during the Yugoslav wars and, especially, during the conflagrations resulting from the catastrophic earthquake of 1667, Dubrovnik’s official state documents survive in 7,000 volumes “and about 100,000 separata” (p. 11). Harris draws on this archive as well as numerous scholarly monographs in order to provide a comprehensive account of key events, characteristic features and institutional transformation occurring over the centuries.

As any historian knows, having too many sources can present just as much of a challenge as having too few. Yet in Dubrovnik, Harris shows no signs of being overwhelmed by his material. What must have been a fatiguing and Herculean labor of research does not come off as such; the prose is polished, critical, and occasionally humorous. And, while obviously more on the academic side stylistically, the book  is not a burdensome read. In fact, Harris does such a good and thorough job that the only things left to debate by the end are issues of structure, a few omissions and a certain bias which we do not have room to discuss here. Perhaps in more ways than he intended, Harris has produced an informative and thought-provoking work in Dubrovnik: A History.

Murky Historical Origins

As with so many other Mediterranean cities, the remote history of Dubrovnik is full of legends, myths and tantalizing conjectures. The author sums these up in the short first chapter, “Ragusan Roots and Riddles: the Origins of Ragusa/Dubrovnik.” In this section, Harris discusses how Dalmatian geography marked out the site of Dubrovnik early on as a favorable place for habitation, with its sheltered harbor and the breakwater island of Lokrum between it and sea-borne storms. With drinking water, arable land and prime location for trade and fishing, the future Dubrovnik would be blessed with key natural advantages.

A similarly well-situated location nearby was Epidaurum (despite the name, apparently not Greek but Illyrian), or the modern-day Cavtat, which flourished in antiquity and was regarded as “Old Ragusa.” Harris cites the various legends and claims regarding when and how Epidaurum was destroyed, and the relationship between it and the people who created Dubrovnik. Although much remains shrouded in mystery due to lack of evidence, what emerges for certain is that Dubrovnik represented a unique mix of Roman-era inhabitants and emigrating Slavs, well-placed for cross-continental trade and, from the 4th century on, strongly marked by its Christian identity (p. 30).

One interesting, though perhaps incidental omission in this chapter is the author’s quick treatment of the Illyrian issue. “The Illyrians are regarded as the oldest historically established people in the region, but who they really were – and what ultimately happened to them – is less clear” he says (p. 21).

It is clear throughout the book, however, that Ragusans and foreign observers throughout the centuries would consider the Illyrians as ultimate ancestors of the city and by extension, of modern Croats as well. Given the importance that this would thus seem to have, it’s a little strange that the author just passes the issue off (to a footnote referring to another monograph) without mentioning that, to take one example, the Albanians vehemently believe themselves to be the rightful heirs of the vanished Illyria.

Chronology and its Discontents

From the second chapter through the sixth, the author presents a straightforward political history of the Ragusan Republic under its steady progression of minders: the Byzantines (from 800-1205), Venetians (1205-1358), Hungarians (1358-1433), Ottoman Turks (1396-1526) and finally a melee of intervening influences from the Venetians, Ottomans and Austrians (1526-1667).

The defining event that marks the author’s stopping point with this coverage is the earthquake of 1667, the most tumultuous and destructive event in the city’s history and a misfortune that accelerated its already apparent decline. These waning years of Ragusa’s existence are covered later on, in chapters 13-15, following topical essays on Dubrovnik’s political institutions, merchant economy, society, religion, cultural life and fortifications.

This structure has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, it allows the author to tell not one but three tales. The steady rise of Dubrovnik is chronicled in the book’s first half, neatly separated from the tale of its decline by the mass of factual data on Ragusan particularities in the middle of the book. There is simply so much information attesting to Dubrovnik’s past that it probably would have been hard to write the book in any other way without skimming over valuable and interesting information (such as on political procedures) that can really only be told on their own and in a factual way.

However, at the same time breaking up the historical narrative interrupts the author’s momentum, and the treatment of Ragusan history as a unitary whole. Yet at the same time, in order to preserve the idea of a unitary city to which a single book can be devoted, the author must take recourse to citing examples that, while they may sometimes be separated by several centuries, are stuck side-by-side in order to reify this idea of a single, seamless Dubrovnik. This can actually conflate and confuse real differences that existed between different eras.

Would it have been a better idea to attempt to integrate the contents of the middle chapters into the other chapters, thereby preserving the unity of the narrative if somewhat diffusing its scope? This would be to change the feel of the book, to make it more of a travel book or popularizing history. However, it is clear that Harris is more sure of himself on academic turf, one result of which being that the topical chapters (7-12) both conceptually and content-wise are something akin to a Cambridge History volume. As such, Dubrovnik is not the kind of imaginative or inspirational work we might expect from travel writers like Jan Morris on Trieste or William Dalrymple on Orthodox monasticism, or even the Byzantinist Steven Runciman (one of the classic, even if a bit dated writers of popular history).

There is certainly nothing negative meant by this characterization; it is only to clarify what the reader should expect from the book. Indeed it is much to the publisher’s credit that they elected to put out for popular consumption such a complex and fact-laden work. Is it possible that there is a future for literacy after all?

Central Themes: Crafty Diplomacy and Independence

Throughout the book, one point is constantly reiterated: the “legendary virtuosity” of Dubrovnik’s political leaders and diplomats in playing potential allies and enemies off of each other. Well aware that theirs was a small and, even if rich, still vulnerable maritime republic, the Ragusans sought to curry favor with whoever were the great powers of the day, taking care neither to alienate themselves completely from nor to be controlled completely by any single one. In this way, faced with the menace of Venetian economic and military power across the Adriatic, the fractious and unpredictable Slavic rulers in the Balkan hinterland, and encroaching powers such as the Ottoman Turks, Dubrovnik was able to hold onto a precarious sort of independence long after other comparable cities had fallen into disarray or been pillaged.

The author recounts numerous examples of how Ragusan diplomatic ability played a vital role in preserving this independence. For example, facing assimilation by the expanding Hungarian kingdom in 1358, the senate deliberated and hit upon a strategy by which they could preserve their independence of governance while leading the Hungarians to believe they had won, thus avoiding the complete submission that befell other towns further up the Dalmatian coast (p. 64). The Ragusan talent for foreseeing and preparing for all potential outcomes of negotiations, even if need be through duplicitous stratagems, is attested in the author’s treatment of high-tension talks with Ottoman Sultan Murad II in 1440 (p. 83).

We also hear of the calculated theatrics of Dubrovnik’s political masterminds who, when caught in an embarrassing situation at the Hungarian court in 1526, told their ambassadors to recount their city’s fanciful tale of woe “with tears in their eyes” (p. 101). And there are many other examples.

This much-vaunted diplomatic acuity therefore is presented as one of the prime factors owing to Ragusa’s long survival as an ‘independent’ republic. However, we should have no illusions about this: while Dubrovnik’s strong walls and strong economic status alike made it hard to attack and useful to keep in business, its actual independence rested on the continual patronage of the Pope and other big defenders, backers who would change over time. From the Byzantine Emperor Basil I, who sent a fleet to chase off Saracen pirates in 866, to the Turks who often helped resolve local disputes and fended off outside attacks in later centuries, Ragusa always had powerful protectors who were happy to leave the city to its own devices, so long as tribute was paid and obligations met. In such circumstances, lesser cities would have been glad to simply subsist; but Dubrovnik developed a sophisticated political, artistic and intellectual culture as well, while fearlessly building a robust trade empire at the same time.

Nevertheless, even considering the attested strength of the city’s fortifications, economy and its Papal protection, it is amazing to consider that the Turks (let alone other invaders) never took it over outright (after all, they had no qualms about taking much larger and more difficult cities such as Constantinople) though they certainly could have. In fact, the single greatest instance of mayhem, looting and theft occurred not after some enemy conquest but after the earthquake of 1667, which is described in detail in chapter 13. Even Napoleon’s takeover in 1808 was bloodless.

Historically speaking, Ragusa seems to have been the republic with nine lives. More often than not, its diplomatic cunning and double-dealing bought the city time and peace. All in all, its citizens got off pretty easy in comparison to the incredible suffering that befell other peoples under Venetian and Turkish rule. A few outbreaks of plague and earthquakes – these were common calamities everywhere. Yet that for hundreds of years such a fat prize as was Dubrovnik suffered only intermittent raids on its nearby islands and hinterlands – this is almost too much to believe.

In this light, the author is right to emphasize the crucial role of diplomacy (and, more or less, bribery) in preserving the peace and independence of the Ragusan Republic. Yet considering these very same operative conditions (i.e., cunning and deceit) one has a hard time feeling much pity for Dubrovnik’s eventual demise.

Dubrovnik: the Outpost of Catholicism

Catholicism, the author writes, “provided the core of Dubrovnik’s self-definition” (p. 220). This identity was frequently useful politically, as when the Ragusans sought Western sympathy and alliances by stressing their difficult position, surrounded by “schismatic” Orthodox Christians and (later) Muslim Turks. However, the author takes care to remind that Ragusan Catholicism was also motivated by simple piety, as could be seen in its numerous churches, orphanages and services for the poor, austere morals, female modesty and veneration of miracles (see chapter 10 especially).

However, the Catholic legacy is a mixed one. While the neighboring Orthodox Slavs come in for constant criticism for their occasional rebellions against Ragusan rule in the hinterland areas of Peljesac and Konavle, the author does not emphasize that such activities might result from Dubrovnik’s policy of forced Catholicization of Orthodox populations and arbitrary seizure of their property (pp. 56, 76, etc.).

This is a somewhat understandable failure, given that the narrative is told from the point of view of Dubrovnik and its struggle for survival against outside forces, not to mention the propaganda purposes of the currently existing state of Croatia. Still one would have hoped for a more nuanced treatment. Unfortunately, the author does seem to transmit rather uncritically the notions propagated by his subject population – of Orthodoxy as inherently schismatic and its Slavic practitioners are inherently backward, notions apparently championed by the Ragusans and their peers in the West. Yet the “schismatic” charge ignores that the Orthodox Church has always and not without reason held the Catholic Church to be the only one guilty of making doctrinal “innovations.”

The latter charge smacks of racism. Since there clearly exist abundant examples of great artistic, cultural, political and spiritual achievements made by Orthodox Slavs in the Balkans, to say nothing of Russia, the failure to refute it reflects rather poorly on the author. It also infects the reader with suspicion at various tactics, for example the subtle implication that Serbian Tsar Stefan Dusan could only have decided to give “generous donations” to Dubrovnik’s churches in 1350 because he was “oblivious it seems to the finer differences between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches” – in other words, an ignorant Orthodox Slav (p. 59). Now, the author probably knows very well that that’s not how it was, but the West-East antipathy runs deep and so in a sense Harris’s writing of history is itself already become history here.

Perhaps because of a focus on such exploits, other real and more interesting contradictions and paradoxes of religion are missed. While the story of relations with Rome itself is told throughout the book, more attention could have been paid to interesting details like Catholic Ragusa’s juxtaposition between Orthodox ally (Byzantium) and Catholic usurper (Venice) in the events leading up to the 1204 conquest of Constantinople, or the transmutations of religion when Dubrovnik was under Venetian control and both were guided by the church in Rome, or the ambivalent reception given to Sephardic Jews fleeing Spanish persecution (pp. 198-201).

Overall, what we are left with is an impression of a devout city proud of its Catholicism when among friends or in a position of power over its Orthodox neighbors, but one which also sought to downplay the implications of its religious orientation when the situation called for it, as on the numerous occasions when their Muslim Turkish allies were suspiciously observing any and all Christian adversaries who might unite and attack them.

Unusual Institutions: The Republican Provisions

Along with the flowing narrative of Ragusa’s political history, what might be the author’s biggest achievement is his detailed exposition of the republic’s political institutions and procedures (chapter 7). They derived fundamentally from Venetian models (p. 125), became increasingly oligarchic over time (p. 128), and above all sought to avoid domination by a single leader, with the creation of rotating, largely honorary rectorships (p. 130).

The most fascinating details are found in the author’s lengthy description of Ragusan electoral procedure (pp. 136-38), which involved oath taking and tossing balls into urns to determine the exact number of councilors present. Then came the “leather bag with silver cards marked with Roman numerals,” which decided seating throughout the hall. Then, when their names were called, the councilors would then dip into another urn in which were placed black (or silver) balls as well as a few gold ones. Only those who drew the latter were eligible to nominate a candidate for office. This process was repeated until three nominating chambers were formed.

Finally, the names of 3 of these chamber nominators were drawn by lot; each could nominate one candidate, on which the whole council then voted. This exhaustive procedure was meant as a guarantor against election-fixing or cronyism. That such a rigorous and institutionalized process could have been thought up, let alone implemented in a town of Dubrovnik’s size is remarkable and attests to the Ragusans’ peculiar political genius.

Interesting Tidbits

Aside from its concise treatment of Dubrovnik’s events, trends and defining characteristics, the book is full of interesting details. These come in a context of social realities, among which the author includes the economic importance of salt (p. 153), the recurrent devastation of plague (p. 211), the perennial vitality of the aristocracy and the importance of flexible alliances as well as one of those Roman holdovers, the slave trade. By framing his story in such a context, the author allows us to get a feeling for what it would have been like to live in the medieval and early modern Ragusan Republic.

However, at the same time one of the necessary drawbacks of Dubrovnik is that despite its 500-plus pages of prose and vivid illustrations, we never get a real sense of place or of people as one finds in the works of the writers mentioned above. Despite being an obviously cerebral work, it is hard to simply ignore this criticism considering that both Dubrovnik’s storied past and its timeless aesthetic beauty are evocative and lend themselves to a more sensual treatment. In short, it is more a book to inform readers preparing to visit Dubrovnik rather than one written to inspire those who hadn’t considered the possibility previously.

Yet perhaps it can be said that the book does in fact do a service for creative sorts in that it at least makes mention of interesting historical details that could without much difficulty be vividly brought back to life. Mystery writers would no doubt be charitable to the idea of strangling friars in the dead of night (p. 118). Fans of medieval piety, heresy and magic might enjoy hearing about miraculous cures, bleeding crucifixes and astrological portents (p. 242). Adventurous swashbucklers will feel at home with the fierce inhabitants of Lastovo (p. 54) and  the plundering Uskok pirates (pp. 114-16).

Students of renaissance philosophy will be pleasantly surprised to see that Ragusan students studied under the legendary Byzantine-born Cardinal Bessarion (p. 62). And doubtless, ardent devotees of true love will be mesmerized by the description of Ragusan traveling merchantmen who (in what would have to be the line of the book) “sired the occasional bastard” (197) while gallivanting around old London town.

Aside from these references, Dubrovnik is also full of unusual trivia, facts that are however central to the city’s character. Christian piety and providential governance thus accounted for Ragusa’s boasting in 1432 one of the first orphanages in Europe (p. 213). The city’s economic resources and rationale are reflected in disclosures about a flourishing coral industry (p. 214) and the curious fact that a Ragusan writer was responsible for the first known description of double-entry bookkeeping (p. 196). And we are treated to a long line of foreign notables who crossed paths with the republic and its representatives, among the more unexpected being King Richard the Lionheart (p. 221) and Benjamin Franklin (p. 372).

The End of the Republic

Compared to its contemporaries, Ragusa was a remarkably successful and long-lasting experiment: a small yet wealthy and politically influential city-state that retained its ways and customs, consistently standing up for its independence, its republican workings never giving way to tyranny. That it not only survived but actually thrived for so many centuries says a lot for the sagacity of its leaders and dynamism of its merchants who made a name for it by traveling and trading across Europe and the Near East.

What can be inferred from Harris’ narrative, in light of his prevailing thesis regarding Ragusan diplomatic prowess, is that Ragusa’s luck finally ran out when the foreign players on the scene became too many and too powerful for its traditional power-balancing diplomacy to continue to work. The opening of the New World to trade tilted the balance in favor of countries like Britain, Holland, France and Spain.

Thus began the decline of the old rulers of the Mediterranean, the Ottomans and Venetians (and to a lesser extent the Ragusans), who did not exploit the New World’s riches. So by the time Russia and France entered into the Adriatic mix at the turn of the 19th century, Dubrovnik’s reliance on its old protectors in Constantinople could not be counted on to save the day yet again. In an unfolding age of empires, Ragusa’s obsolescence as a republic came nearly simultaneously with the extinguishing of the Venetian Republic. Ironically, just as the republican flame was being ignited in America and, for a time, in France, these two political dinosaurs were lumbering off towards extinction. Harris does an excellent job of telling the story of the final years of the Ragusan Republic in detail in the fifteenth chapter.

Language Issues

As in almost all Balkan studies, issues of language embody controversy in places, but always spark the curiosity of the reader. For the latter, most interesting is the phenomenon of ‘Old Ragusan,’ the unique mixture of Italian and Slavonic spoken in Dubrovnik through the Middle Ages and a descendent, we are told, of Dalmatian Latin. Harris mentions this only briefly, but does refer to other sources, including one Tuscan visitor who reveals that in the first half of the 15th century Old Ragusan was “still in use in the debating chamber and the courts” (p. 247).

Slavonic (what the author refers to frequently and somewhat anachronistically as Croatian) took root as the vernacular during the 13th century. But the learned men of Dubrovnik, while debating in Old Ragusan, also took pleasure in penning missives which to modern tastes would probably seem longwinded and grandiose (p. 249).

Here it is interesting to note the parallels with the situation with belated protector Byzantium, where the cream of society and clergy were famous for addressing one another in grandiloquent letters tediously written in ancient Greek, while the mass of society was speaking a vernacular much closer to modern Greek. Yet even on that level, there may be a relationship of influence, as the rhyming verse favored by Ragusan poets (p. 251) is exactly the style employed by Byzantine Greek vernacular poets.

The literary record from the 13th-15th centuries also shows the same form used in Romance languages and Greek in places where a mixed population lived (the Venetians in Crete, the Franks in the Morea) – all places and peoples with which the Ragusans would have been in contact. This whole topic would have been interesting, had the author delved into it at all, considering how a fundamental point of chapter 11 (”Cultural Life”) is to demonstrate how Dubrovnik was culturally on a par with the rest of Europe. There is also the mysterious unanswered question of how a city that displayed abundant spiritual, artistic and intellectual life as well as modern products could have received its first printing press until its final years as a republic.

But these are minor criticisms. On the whole, Dubrovnik: A History is an extraordinarily rich and detailed work that, if not terribly evocative in a sensual way, certainly edifies and informs the reader and instills a curiosity to find out more about this unsung corner of the Balkans.

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