Italy – La Bella Zara

CROSS the Adriatic is a tiny city so historic and fair that it is peculiarly precious to the Italian people to have it now a part of Italy. “Zara nostra,” “our.. Zara,” the King called it affectionately in the address of the Crown on the opening of Parliament June the twelfth, 1921, “a new lighthouse of civilization and of culture on the other shore of the Adriatic.” Now, once more Italian, Zara becomes the goal of a pilgrimage for crusaders who wish to see where lies the heart of new Italy.

I went over in steamer from Ancona, finding that port of sailing a joy in itself through all its fine architecture and picturesque ways : the Cathedral crowning hill high over curved bay, adorned within by ten Corinthian columns from the old Temple of Venus, the Palazzo del Comune with the fifteenth century Adam and Eve sculptured naked and unabashed on the façade, the magnificent Gothic portal of the hospital church of San Francesco and the perfect little cortile of the Prefettura, the Loggia dei Mercanti with a Gothic façade by the same Giorgio da Sebenico who made San Francesco, old narrow stairways, palace doors framing views of bay, picturesque iron lamps hanging at the top of steep, winding streets, the great arch of Trajan on the north pier.

Then there was the sea, a glorious day of it, and the unforgettable beauty of the approach to Zara. For the land which we first sighted dissolved, as we approached, into dozens of islands, gray rocks with a low, sparse, green growth over them, and in among these we coursed towards the green strip of shore backed by distant mountains, mountains so bare, so blue and white, that they seemed at first a cloud-mirage rather than Velebit Alps. Finally there was the tiny, peninsula city, stretching out like Sermione, gem of all almost-island places, into the violet-blue water. Zara is a veritable jewel set in aquamarine and carved in towers and belfries, and one needs the skill of a maker of cameos or a painter of miniatures to picture so exquisite a possession. From my window at the top of the Hotel Bristol, as I looked across the blue canal to the long ridge of the island Ugliano and its high Venetian fortress, then outlined against an orange sunset, I fell in love with Zara.

The history in which the tiny city had a share ! Here in northern Dalmatia early Liburnian vikings ruled and ranged the sea as pirates, fought with rival Celts, were involved in struggles between Greeks and Romans, were conquered with the other Illyrians by the Romans and made a province, shared the turmoil of the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, and finally had to be visited in two campaigns by both Agrippa and Octavianus before the Pax Augusta settled on the Adriatic’s eastern coast and the first public libraries in Rome were founded from Dalmation spoils. Brunelli’s scholarly history of Zara records what part Jader or Zara played in all Dalmatia’s history and gives among the illustrations a picture of the beautifully carved stone which honors Augustus as parent of the Roman colony. Zara was involved too in the reorganization of the Illyrian province made by Diocletian under the menace of barbarian enemies, but we do not know how much she endured of later devastations from Visigoths, Huns, Ostrogoths and Slays. The dark curtain lifts from her past with the beginning of her sacred story when martyr’s blood flowed and the Archbishop Donatus and the Gonfalone Grisogonus gave her new and individual history. Then for her loveliness the city itself became a martyr like her saints and after a pacific occupation by the Venetians was seized by the Hungarians, was sacked by the French, was tossed back and forth between Venice and Hungary and finally bestowed on Austria.

Out of so turbulent a life such beauty flowered. The ages have left their marks and you will find in the Museum of San Donato even Liburnian tombstones, weapons and jewelry. But the Roman ruins and the Venetian architecture give the town its character. There are fragments of a Roman arch built into the Porta Marina and two superb Roman columns dominate tiny Piazzas. There are pieces of old Roman wall and outside the town on the way to the little Albanian village of Borgo Erizzo a mile distant are traces of Trajan’s aqueduct. But the most impressive Roman ruins are those under the Museum of San Donato, the ninth century church which was built above the old Roman forum. The form of the building is unique, round, of two stories, each with six pillars and two ancient columns, but the first floor is the interesting part, for here, when excavations were made down to the Forum pavement, the buried bases of the columns and the lower part of the wall were uncovered and found to be composed of all sorts of fragments of Roman buildings, drums of fluted columns set up on edge, inscriptions with fine floral borders. The Museum is rich in Roman ivories and glass and in Venetian material of every sort, all arranged with beautiful care by the thirty years’ work of the distinguished Curator, Signor Bersa.

In the city library, Professor Brunelli, the historian of Zara, displayed to me some of its treasures, an early diploma for a Laureate from the University of Padua, richly illuminated, an old French history of Dalmatia illustrated with steel engravings, and a most curious old dictionary written by hand in the eighteenth century with illustrations drawn for each word. It was an interesting psychological study to see what words the writer had listed and what were his pictorial reactions to his words. Some of his pictures which were unconventional he had neatly screened with little blank squares of paper, veils that could be lifted.

The churches of Zara have their treasures which have been sacredly guarded. At San Francesco a genial frate in brown cowl, while he displayed their ten priceless missals, told me the story of a senator who coming to Zara on a visit and seeing the poverty of the Francescans jokingly asked them why they did not sell their books for American dollars, rebuild their church and live in comfort. The frate told him that after they had saved their treasures from the Austrians during all the years of occupation, they would starve now be-fore they would sell them and the senator replied: “You are right and if need comes, we will protect them for you with our arms.” The Francescans showed me also their touching wooden crucifix of the ninth century and the magnificent carved choir stalls. The Cathedral has nothing more beautiful than those in its rich carving, and marble altar. At San Simeone the four angels were a delight, those that bear the Reliquary of the Saint at the high altar, so strangely created, two of marble, two wrought at Venice from Turkish cannon.

We kept coming on Venetian joys as we walked about, the Clock Tower, the rare little cortile which had been plastered up in a modern house by the Austrians, but has been restored by the Italians to all the beauty of delicate columns and rounded arches. Then there was the market to see in the Piazza dell’ Erbe. Here were crowds of peasants, Morlaks and Slays, in the picturesque native costumes, the men with tiny round scarlet caps perched on one side of the head, loose jackets with the fronts embroidered in bright wool and adorned with silver filigree buttons, ‘the women with white head kerchiefs bordered with colored tassels, embroidered jackets and aprons, belts covered with silver disks, full skirts, heavy woolen stockings. Many of the people were too poor for such good clothes and wore cheap, dark, cotton garments. One touching little old man in a red cap who had a live hen under each arm, with a few grains of corn in his hands under their beaks to keep them content until they were sold, asked me not to take his picture because his shoes were so tattered. And I had thought only to photo-graph his affection for his pets.

On one side, women were selling wine and oil, pouring them out of great cans into little flasks. Potatoes, corn, tomatoes and greens were weighed. Some tables were piled high with fruit, grapes, figs, pears, plums; others were as beautiful with flowers, especially single asters, pink, white, lavender. On another side of the Piazza were tables of shoes. Over there was a butcher’s shop, the slaughtered sheep dripping in front. Women walked about, carrying country produce in great baskets on their heads. Others were stuffing purchases into gay woolen bags. Patient little donkeys stood waiting for burdens. Good-natured Italian policemen were arbitrating disputes between sellers and buyers. Back of the surging crowd around the stalls, at one corner of the Piazza towered the antique Corinthian column, a sort of symbol of Rome’s protection of these simple contadini whose lives in the barren limestone region of Dalmatia are so undeveloped and so hard.

Little Zara was fortunate in having come to her to reestablish her Italianità such a man of parts as Vice-Admiral Enrico Millo, the Governor of Dalmatia during the Italian occupation. As I talked with his Excellency, in the Governor’s Palace, I felt that in this distinguished and cultured Admiral the best traditions of the old Roman ideals for provincial government were perpetuated. Every aspect of public health, education, religious freedom, freedom of the press, and development of the country made part of his constructive plan for Italian rule. I should like to drink his health again in the sparkling colorless Maraschino liqueur, made at Zara, which he named for me so humorously “aqua americana.”

A country excursion from Zara takes you north, walking or in automobile, to the tiny hamlet of Nona, once Roman Aenona, to see the place where most of the Museum’s treasures were found and to get an idea of the barrenness of the land as it lies, stony, unshaded under the mighty mountains, pasture ground for stunted herds of sheep and goats, shepherded by stunted children. The beauty of Zara herself is more poignant after such a trip among the poor peasants of the hinter-land. With her mountains, her canal, and her islands, she lies sea-girt, adorned with the beautiful gifts of ancient Rome and of Venice, an Italian jewel, no, bet-ter in the King’s metaphor, an Italian lighthouse, flashing from Dalmatia to Italy alike at sunset, through the dark, into the dawn.