Magazine article UNESCO Courier

S.O.S. Dubrovnik

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

S.O.S. Dubrovnik

Article excerpt

Gleaming in the sunlight, looking out imperiously from its rock to the island-studded Adriatic, enclosed by on all sides by ramparts, Dubrovnik is perhaps the most fascinating and certainly one of the most beautiful cities in the world. If there is any place on Earth where culture, light, a beautiful setting and all the richest of art and history are concentrated in a small space, it is in Dubrovnik, which has been included by UNESCO on its World Heritage List along with other remarkable monuments and sites from every region and culture.

Look at a photograph, preferably one taken from the air, or even better study a model of the Old City of Dubrovnik. What is immediately striking is the homogeneity, unity and harmony of the site. Surrounded by ramparts that have survived intact, flanked by a tiny old port protected by bastions, Dubrovnik appears as a tightly-woven fabric of houses of light-coloured stone, dominated here and there by towers, palaces, churches and cloisters.

Art in Dubrovnik is closely linked to nature, and both are linked to freedom. Nature means first and foremost the sea: the Mediterranean, or to be more precise the Adriatic. Across it lie the Italian towns of Bari, Brindisi (where Virgil died), Ancona, and Ravenna, with its mosaics and its churches built by Justinian, Emperor of Constantinople, and by Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths. Above all there is Venice, Dubrovnik's model and rival.

On the Dubrovnik side, the Adriatic is a string of islands with enchanting names - Lokrum, Mljet, Korkula, Hvar - each one more verdant, more beautiful and more myterious than the next. To the south lies Montenegro and the breathtakingly beautiful Gulf of Kotor, formerly the Gulf of Cattaro, where the mountains plunge sheer into the sea. For mountains are as omnipresent here as the sea. High hills, many of them covered in forest, dominate the port of Dubrovnik on every side. Nowhere has nature, under a pure-blue sky and a generous Sun, provided art with a more precious setting.

But it is to people and their genius that the city owes the greater part of its grandeur and its beauty. Art, beauty, freedom and talent made their appearance here very early, the result, as so often, of the shock from the meeting of two cultures. Early in the seventh century, Slav tribes took control of an ancient colony of the Greek city of Epidaurus on the Dalmatian coast, attached in Roman times to the province of Illyricum. The colony's Greco-Roman inhabitants sought shelter a little further to the north, on a small island called Ragusium or Ragusa. On the mainland opposite, a Slav tribes settled in the midst of oak groves - Dubrava.

Centuries later, the narrow arm of the sea separating the Greek and Latin city from the Slav settlement was filled in, and over it was built the fine straight boulevard known as the Placa, or Stradun, which you can make out on any photograph of Dubrovnik to this day, crossing the town from one side to the other and bordered by churches and palaces. The destinies of Ragusa and Dubrovnik had become one.

The pupil and rival of Venice

The Placa is the centre of a city that was devoted for centuries to maritime trade and to art, and has managed despite the cold winds of history to preserve both its unique character and its independence. Established on the border between the former Western and Eastern Empires, Dubrovnik gradually filled with palaces and monuments which seem to follow a rigorously ordered plan. Venice, which took over suzerainty of Dubrovnik from Constantinople in 1204, was to exercise a considerable influence on it. In fact Dubrovnik, long considered the "Athens of the Southern Slavs" for its humanists, philosophers, poets, mathematicians and artists, was both a bold and brilliant pupil of Venice and also its rival.

The Clock Tower rises at the other end of the Placa. It forms the centrepiece of the square that groups Dubrovnik's masterpieces, foremost among them the Sponza Palace, whose facade is decorated with a gallery supported by pillars forming half a dozen supremely elegant arches. …

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