Unlike a City of Europe – Ragusa

Ragusa, that “western outpost in the eastern world,” is so unlike a city of Europe, it has so little of Central Europe in its atmosphere, its history, or its population, that it seems a mistake to include it as one of the picture towns of Europe; and particularly a blunder to assign it to the recently formed Jugo Slavian nation. Yet it is in Europe, in what was once Austria, and it is assuredly a picture town.

Its intense and striking individuality, which is, perhaps, its most characteristic note, makes it difficult to associate the town with any country, and least of all with Austria, to the cities of which it bears not the slightest resemblance. The only land to which it seems at all akin is Italy. And this characteristic of an independent individuality, tempered only by an Italian suggestion, is the eminently natural result of its geographical position and also of its history.

Ragusa is a city of Dalmatia, and Dalmatia is a narrow strip of territory extending north and south for several hundred miles between the mountains and the eastern shore of the Adriatic, forty miles in width at the widest part, narrowing to a mile at Cattaro, its southern extremity. Dalmatia is something more, it is ” the yesterday of Europe,” the edge of the East. From a time as remote as the beginning of recorded history the traffic of the old world passed up and down its coasts along the highway of the Adriatic. Before there was a Rome, purple sails were spread upon this sea, and when Rome came, her galleys found its waters an easy road to conquest. The Crusaders passed this way, and here Venice and Genoa battled for supremacy. Kingdoms and republics here rose and fell, and finally history moved away and worked out the world’s story to the west, leaving these people to their own little strifes that were not felt beyond their borders, and to perpetuate in this by-place of the world the customs and costumes, the manners and the life of a medieval time. And here today, alone among the accessible spots of Europe, life has all the vivid picturesqueness of the past, and immersed in the strangeness of the land, the traveler can forget his own life and its interests in being a part of scenes that elsewhere are but a tradition and a memory.

There never was, however, a Dalmatian State, or a Dalmatian nation. The Romans applied the name arbitrarily to the provinces they created along the Adriatic’s eastern shore, but they were provinces peopled by tribes of differing racial stock, often warring with one another, and at no point held together by anything even approximating national unity. Along the coast were Italian cities, but cities whose influence did not go back into the interior. After the dissolution of the Roman Empire the invading Huns occupied this interior to the practical exclusion of the Italian settlers, so that the name ” Dalmatia ” came finally to be applied almost exclusively to these cities of the coast, where alone the Italian element was preserved. All through the Middle Ages these towns were under tribute to various dominant sovereignties, though underneath this tributary relation they always preserved their Latin, or rather Italian, customs, language and independence in local affairs. These Dalmatian cities were, however, no more held together by any political union than were the peoples of the interior, but each acted in all things independently of the other, so there never was, politically, a Dalmatia.

But, none the less, each city was an outpost of civilization, a seat of Latin life and Latin culture-back of them lay the tribes of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And what was true then, remains practically true now. The people of these Balkan States remain, not wholly uncivilized, but less civilized than the people of the cities by the sea. ” These Latin cities were like islands in a Slavonic ocean; to this day Latin and Slav have remained separate and distinct in language, character and ideals.” And therein is found their special charm, the charm of the place where East meets West and where passes all the pageant of the primitive life of a semiOrient, rich in character and color.

Thus it happens that most of these Dalmatian towns, while differing in architecture and situation, yet are marked by a great similarity in the life and the color of life of the people. But this is not true of Ragusa; her life is a thing of its own, unique now as it has always been. And as I said before, this is because of her situation and her history. Long after Zara, Pola and other Roman cities had become flourishing settlements along the Adriatic, the site of Ragusa was but a forest and a rock. A Roman Emperor had built, but a short sail to the north, where Spalato now stands, the greatest palace in the world; Rome itself had reached the zenith of her career, had paused, and was now trembling before the onslaught of barbarians, and still there was no city where Ragusa sits today.

Now three miles from Spalato was Salona, fairest of Rome’s Dalmatian towns. In 619 it fell before the Avars, fiercest of the Huns, and today it is but a strange and solemn ruin, ” the Dalmatian Pompeii.” Some of its inhabitants fled to the nearby palace of the Emperor Diocletian, and built themselves a city within its walls (but that is another story), and some escaped to what was then a rocky island to the south, and on this rock founded Ragusa. Thirty-seven years later another incursion of the Avars destroyed another Roman city, and its refugees joined their countrymen in the island village. Thus augmented, the little settlement bestirred itself, a wall was built around the rocky shore, a fortress constructed to guard the narrow channel that separated them from the wooded mainland, and the history of Ragusa was begun.

Founded thus, and at a time when Rome was dying, Latin influence came to Ragusa second-hand, so that from the start she was naturally more responsive to those other influences that were to differentiate her from other Dalmatian towns. Most important of these events was when, in 743, she admitted to her protection a large number of the Slavic tribes who fled thither from the tyranny of their king. An old chronicle now published by the South Slavonic Academy says of this event: ” They came with a great multitude of cattle of all sorts, and to them was assigned the mountain of St. Serge as a pasture, for it was so covered with trees that one could not see the sky, and so much timber was there that they made beams for their houses.” Thus early was established Ragusa’s reputation for hospitality, a reputation ever afterward maintained, being evidenced afresh as late as 1876, when the Christians of Herzegovina fled from the Turkish soldiers in their last wild orgy of cruelty which led to Austria’s assumption of control. This Slavic settlement had, of course, of itself a great influence upon the character of Ragusa, and tended to make it much more cosmopolitan than that of the other coast towns which remained, as they were founded, almost exclusively Italian. Indeed, Ragusa was the only one of these cities where the two languages were commonly spoken, and the laws adjusted to harmonize with the customs of both races. This cosmopolitan characteristic was further emphasized by the location of the town. Save Cattaro, it was nearer to Greece than any other Dalmatian city; it was close to Montenegro, and it was the seaport terminus of the natural line of travel along the Narenta River that led up into Bosnia and the remoter interior. As a consequence of all these influences, while Zara and Spalato yet retain an atmosphere almost purely Italian, Ragusa remains, as during all the centuries of its existence, a city that differs in its life from all other cities, and a place where can be found on a market day a greater and more brilliant variety of costumes than are gathered together anywhere else in Europe. In lesser degree all these Dalmatian towns present a wonderfully fascinating display of form and color in the dress of the peasants, so that a visit to Dalmatia rather spoils one for the rest of Europe, which seems somewhat tame and commonplace after these splendid cities of the Adriatic. But in none of these is found that bewildering variety that characterizes Ragusa.

One of the first compromises between the original Latin settlers of Ragusa and the Slavs whom they had admitted to citizenship was in the matter of a patron saint. A patron saint was a town’s badge of respectability, indeed, a strict necessity, as in those troublous times he took the place of a wakeman on the walls, and was supposed to guard the city from enemies without and within. St. Bacco, with the very laying of the walls, had been installed. as official saint, and had served in that capacity to the entire satisfaction of the inhabitants. But these new people, these Slavs, had brought along their own saint, St. Serge, and this had led to complications which were happily adjusted when a third saint stepped in and saved the town at a time when both the other saints appeared to be off guard. It happened thus: There were pirates in those days, whose galleys lay behind many an island, and whose refuge was many a city of those island shores. Emboldened by long immunity, they actually laid tribute on Venice, and finally carried open warfare into the sacred waters of her lagoons. Now Venice had a theory, and probably a pretty accurate one, that Ragusa, inspired by jealousy, was back of these bold piratical raids, and one dark night her avenging fleet silently anchored off Ragusa’s walls. What happened is told in the language of a priest whose account is still preserved: ” I was in the church of St. Stephen about midnight at prayer, when methinks I saw the whole fane filled with armed men. And in the midst I saw an old man with a long, white beard holding a staff in his hand. Having called me aside, he told me that he was St. Baggio, and had been sent by Heaven to defend the city. He told me further that the Venetians had come up to the walls to scale them, using the masts of their ships as ladders, but that he, with a company of heavenly soldiers, had driven back the enemy.”

Of course, this put an end to the influence of both St. Bacco and St. Serge, and ever after St. Baggio reigned in their stead.

As time went on, the control of the city’s government passed beyond the walls, and brought much adjacent territory within its jurisdiction, so that she became a power upon the Adriatic second only to Venice. Allied with many States, her fleets fought in many wars. Noted for their clever diplomacy, her rulers, by a threat here, a promise there, and ever a tribute to the most powerful neighbor of the moment, kept invasion from the gates and maintained throughout the ages a local selfgovernment that was virtually freedom. It is true that there were centuries of Venetian supremacy when the chief magistrate was a Venetian nominee, and it is also true that there were many years of Hungarian over-lordship, but at no time was there serious interference with the city’s internal affairs, and finally, in 1526, Ragusa shook off all semblance of control, and became in fact a wholly independent power.

In 1806, foreign troops, for the first time in the long history of the Republic, entered uninvited, and the Republic fell.

Today Ragusa is one of the most beautiful and romantic cities in Europe. It is unfortunate that almost invariably she is approached from the north. All steamers land at Gravosa, a little harbor a mile or so away, and Ragusa is not in sight from southbound ships until after Gravosa is passed. But coming up the Adriatic, a view is had of the city that is unforgettable. The Dalmatian mountains are a gray that is almost white, their hollows filled with lavender shadows, and their gaunt and naked forms tinged with blue in the misty lights of morning. Against this paletoned background a headland projects into the intense purple blue of the sea, and on this cliff stands a white-walled city, bastions, towers and turrets in irregular outline, an unchanged picture from medieval times. In his exhaustive work on Dalmatia, Mr. T. G. Jackson says of this view: ” Ragusa has preserved completely the character of a medieval city. From whatever side you regard her, she appears surrounded by a chain of frowning towers, and girt by mighty walls, while toward the sea she presents nothing but a line of walls and towers crowning the verge of an inaccessible precipice. . . . Scarcely among all the entrancing shores of the Mediterranean and its dependent seas can be found scenes to surpass that which presents itself as one issues from the Porto Plocce and follows the coast southward.”

From the landing-place at Gravosa, where black-hulled steamers are being unloaded by dark men in red fezzes and jackets, and white trousers, an electric tram takes you along a road that, if you are like the majority of travelers, is different from any you have traveled before. There are great trees covered with a strange bloom like a dandelion gone to seed, only pink; there are enormous aloes with stalks as big around as a man’s leg and twenty feet high springing out of the center and tufted at the top with greenish-yellow bloom; there are oleanders growing wild, and there are views of mountains, and olive groves, and the wonderful blue of the Adriatic glowing like some brilliant enamel. The hotel at Ragusa, standing apart in its tropical garden, is one of the most delightful in Europe, and there for a very small price one can get delicious table d’hote meals of many courses, and a room which should satisfy the most exacting. From the one I occupied a door opened upon a little stone balcony, and here I sat at evening and looked out on the climbing lines of walls. Over them clung masses of vines, by them grew palm and cypress, beyond them the Adriatic darkened in the evening light, and above them lifted the mountain peaks, colored like clouds at twilight. Around are the brown roofs and the towering campaniles of the south. Palmettos reach almost to the balcony where I am sitting; immense trees of oleander sheeted with pink, white and red bloom fill the air with faint fragrance; pomegranate flowers flame amid the ripening fruit, and figs hang purple and green in the garden below, where the nightingale will soon be singing. Across the bay is the island where Richard the Lion Hearted was saved from shipwreck on his return from the Crusades, and on the other side the harbor is Lacroma and the home of Maximilian, from whence he sailed to seek Empire and find death in Mexico. Everywhere is beauty and romance accentuated by surroundings of strange medieval picturesqueness.

The hotel is outside the walls, but a few steps take you to the gate from under which the road plunges steeply down between double walls and dominating towers, to an inner gate that lets upon the broad main street. This street was once the arm of the sea that separated the rock where were the beginnings of Ragusa from the wooded mainland. On the left of this street the mountain springs abruptly, and here the side streets are but flights of steps. Here are the shops for which the town is noted, filled with strange wares of the semi-East, beautiful native embroideries, silken shawls rich with gold work, heavy buckles of silver filigree set with oddly colored stones, jeweled swords and huge carven pistols, saddles of beautiful leather, girdles fringed with beads, exquisite bags covered with threads of silver and set with turquoise, a most foreign and bewildering display. This street of shops leads on to the Rector’s Palace, in other words, the Government House, and thence it turns to the right into the public square ended by the cathedral, from the steps of which may be seen a remarkably fine picture of medieval environment against a background of great mountains.

In the streets that burrow around the houses in this oldest part of the city there are seen many houses with ” I.H.S.” carved over the doors. These letters date from 1520 and 1521. On May 12th of the former year, and for twenty months there after, there were almost continuous shocks of earthquake in Ragusa, and these letters were ” placed over the doorways as a sort of a passover supplication to the angel of the Lord.” Earthquakes have been terrible and frequent in Ragusa, the most dreadful occurring in 1667, when more than five thousand people were killed, and the greater part of the city laid in ruins. It is said that on an average of every twenty years there are shocks so violent as to be attended with loss of life, while lesser ones are of almost annual occurrence.

My first day was Sunday, and more vivid than the display in the shop windows, more colorful than the glittering wares there exhibited, was the mass of peasant men and women filling the long street and the great square with an ever-changing gorgeousness of form and color. After all, it is the native costumes and native life that give to Dalmatia its greatest wonder, and set the land apart as the most fascinating country in Europe. Elsewhere is beautiful scenery, mighty mountains, blue water and picturesque and storied walls, but nowhere else do all these things combine to form a setting for a life so strange, so brilliant and so unknown. These costumes are not worn by the dominant Italian element of the towns, but are the garb of the people from the great outside. Every little village around Ragusa’s walls has its own distinctive local dress, differing in color, in cut, in combination, and on that Sunday a thousand villagers thronged the streets, each differing from the other in glory. It is hard to describe them, but there were combinations of every color, heavy gold neck chains, silver-embroidered scarfs, jeweled bands across the forehead, massive belt buckles, long veils a blaze of yellow, and others that flamed with red. There were Greeks in short white tunics, Mohammedans from Sarajevo in flowing robes and heavy turbans, who stroked their beards in greeting as they passed; dashing officers in splendid uniforms; white-clad sailor boys from the warship at Gravosa, and all the morning long this strange and beautiful procession came and went through the war-scarred gates, and along the wonderful medieval square.

At noon the shops closed, and the people moved out to the cliffs above the sea. Just outside the gate and in a little park-like space, canvas walls had been run up, and here, later in the afternoon, a troupe of traveling acrobats gave a performance. A little band played odd music, and some of the people went to the show, some sat in the shade and talked, and in one corner a lot of men in white baggy trousers and jackets of red or blue, bright with silver buttons, stretched out and slept, each one pillowing his head on some convenient por tion of his neighbor’s anatomy. With twilight the scene changed, the peasants and the color vanished, and in their places a long line of conventionally clad Italians and natives took the air-and with their coming Ragusa lost full half its charm.

It is, of course, but natural that these peasant people should keep, in harmony with their quaint and ancient costumes, the customs and traditions that, during the centuries, have become a part of their way of living. As a consequence we are permitted here in Dalmatia, and particularly in and around Ragusa, to look in upon a purely medieval life, and actually to see for ourselves what that medieval life was like. We can observe its mental attitude, obtain a comprehension of its point of view, and behold the various influences that worked upon and shaped it. Religion, as with most primitive peoples, remains a very intimate part of their daily lives, but it is a religion tinged with the lingering memory of old faiths and pagan culture, pagan rites being grafted on Christian observance in a manner deeply interesting because illustrative of the manner of evolution of a new creed. When Dryads lived in the fountains, and harvest fields had a special guardian deity, it was always necessary to propitiate the god by suitable services, and today the old custom has become a Christian rite. For the three days before Ascension Day large crosses are carried in procession, headed by the village priest, around the surrounding country, and wherever a spring is found the priest recites a prayer and blesses it, and the fields, too, are blessed, and a prayer offered for their fruitfulness.

In the old Slavic religion the Sun was deified, and on the day corresponding to our Christmas was supposed to be born again after a long sleep or death. The father of the Sun God was the Thunder God, and to him the oak was sacred. Now see how the Dalmatian descendants of these Slavic ancestors have incorporated in their Christian observances the faith of their fathers. I take the account from Hamilton Jackson’s The Shores of the Adriatic,, the best general work on Dalmatia that is published in America.

” Their greatest festival is Christmas. On the Eve they work hard, and before sunrise house and yard are decked with bay or olive branches, or some other evergreen which they think protects from lightning. A great log of oak is placed on the fire, and the head of the family bares his head and says, ` Blessed be thou, 0 log; God preserve thee ! ‘ and sprinkles wine upon it crosswise. Then corn is thrown over it, and he invokes every blessing from heaven for the health and success of all members of the family, present or absent, to which the others reply, ` Amen,’ and say,’ Welcome to the evening of the log.” Just see how the Christian Amen and the symbol of the Thunder God are blended and incorporated in this Dalmatian faith!

All these peasants are extremely fond of public festivals, many of which partake of the nature of the old miracle plays, many commemorate historic events and many are but reminiscences of pagan rites. In common with the people of the Tyrol, and of Brittany in France, and of parts of Cornwall in England, they light huge bonfires on midsummer night’s eve, and dance round the blaze with many an incantation. They are a superstitious folk, and they fully believe in ghosts, witchcraft and in the haunting presence in forest and on mountain of gnomes and spirits, legitimate descendants of the pagan gods. Really there is no country in Europe so rich in folklore and ancient customs as Dalmatia, those described being but the merest hint of the variety to be found there.

The peasant women seem healthy and happy, in spite of the fact that they are regarded as in all respects inferior and subordinate to the men. In the marketplace at Ragusa I was watching a group of magnificent Montenegrins, men and women, talking most animatedly. When they separated, each woman took the hand of the man nearest her, and, gracefully stooping, kissed it. On inquiry I learned that this custom was universal as an acknowledgment of man’s superiority.

A study of the involved and exceedingly interesting form of government of Ragusa is beyond the scope of this chapter, but some of that government’s accomplishments and characteristics are of interest, anticipating, as they did, many things which we have erroneously come to regard as the product of our modern civilization.

The value of commercial treaties was quickly recognized, and very early in the Middle Ages Ragusa had negotiated these trading agreements with Constantinople, Egypt, Bulgaria, most of the Italian cities, Spain, France and England. In many of these treaties was introduced the element of reciprocity by which certain taxes levied in foreign ports on merchandise from abroad were remitted on Ragusan goods, in return for similar concessions on the part of the Republic.

Germany has only recently adopted city planning, and America is still mostly oblivious to its advantages, yet centuries ago, after a great fire had destroyed much of the town, the Ragusan authorities caused the city to be rebuilt in accordance with a carefully prepared plan. Under our advanced civilization slavery was an existing institution within the memory of living men, but slavery was abolished in Ragusa in 1417 as “base, wicked and abominable.” In 1435 free schools were established, and a few years earlier a foundling hospital had been founded, where little waifs were provided for. Early in the Fifteenth Century an intelligent system of quarantine was enacted, and during the plague, cremation was insisted upon. And, most remarkable of all, before the middle of the Thirteenth Century, there was international arbitration, and an international court of arbitration agreed upon for the settlement of disputes to which Ragusa was a party.

All laws of the Republic were codified in 1272, and in his valuable work, The Republic o f Ragu.sa, Villari says that ” parts of this code, especially those relating to land tenure and certain forms of contract, are still valid at Ragusa.”

In the beauty of public buildings, of fountains and squares, no American city of anything like its size can approach this old-time city by the Adriatic, and in the days of her prosperity her ships were seen in infinitely more harbors than those into which American merchantmen carry our flag today.

There is yet much to tell that must perforce remain unwritten: of the quaint little harbor where fishing-boats idle in the hot sun; of the great sweep of the mighty walls, and the pictures made by their towers and the mountains and the pointed cypress trees and the Adriatic on beyond; of the exceeding charm of the old, still monasteries, where soft-voiced priests live just as of yore amid the palms and oranges; of the wonderful things of gold and ivory and precious stones to be seen in the treasury of the cathedral; of the islands to be visited, the drives to be had.

But why don’t you go yourself? This magic city of a magic land is so easy to reach. Only a night’s smooth sail from Venice to Trieste, and thence a journey of but twenty-four hours on splendid, triplescrew turbine liners, and there you are at dinner on that lovely balcony overhanging the garden where the figs and pomegranates grow, and the oleanders scent the air, and the nightingales sing in the perfumed dusk.