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The unsung glories of Croatian art and culture

This scholarly volume of essays is an indispensable introduction to the country’s art, architecture and history

“The first scholarly study in the English language of Croatia’s extraordinary artistic heritage…”, this handsomely produced book is a collection of 12 essays by British and Croatian experts highlighting the cultural riches of this small and much misunderstood country.

Long subsumed within the former Yugoslavia, Croatia encompasses not only a long stretch of the incomparably lovely Dalmatian coast with its multitude of islands and rocky inlets, but also the fertile inland territory of Slavonia, the Roman Pannonia, today bounded by the states of Slovenia, Hungary, Serbia and Bosnia Herzegovina. Croatia is an old and yet a new country, successively subject to the Romans, Byzantium and the Franks.

It enjoyed a brief flowering of independence in the early medieval era, cruelly cut short by the defeat of the last Croatian King, Petar, by the Hungarians in 1097. Thereafter followed nearly 900 years of subjection to the Hungarians, the Angevins, the Habsburgs and the Serbs, while the Venetians generally held sway over its Adriatic shore—their domination constantly imperilled by the Turks. Briefly a province of the French Empire, Napoleon’s Provinces Illyriennes, Croatia was returned to the Habsburgs by the Treaty of Vienna, only to have its coastline handed over to the Italians after World War I.

Croatia declared its independence in 1991 following the disintegration of Yugoslavia, but become embroiled in the bitter civil war that was finally brought to an end in 1995. Now an independent democratic republic, Croatia enjoys well-deserved security and prosperity, and is energetically promoting her cultural heritage and reclaiming her rightful place within the context of European art and architecture.

This book, the idea of the energetic Jadranka Beresford-Peirse, foundress and trustee of the International Trust for Croatian Monuments, sets out to promote this Croatian renaissance to a wider audience. With admirable powers of persuasion, she has invited leading British writers on art and architecture to contribute essays to the book—John Julius Norwich supplies an elegant introduction, Sheila McNally discusses the ancient palace-fortress complex of the Emperor Diocletian at Split, Christopher de Hamel investigates the survival of illuminated manuscripts in Croatia, David Ekserdjian writes about the extraordinary Renaissance Chapel of the Blessed Giovanni Orsini in the Cathedral at Trogir, while Timothy Clifford contributes two essays on the impressive legacy of Italian art, architecture and decorative arts in Dalmatia from around 1400 to around 1800.

Nor is Slavonia neglected: Marcus Binney, champion of British country houses through SAVE Britain’s Heritage, explores the plight of the neglected castles and manor houses in that region, while Brian Sewell, who knows this country well, contributes a characteristically forthright piece on the museums of Zagreb, denouncing the Mimara Museum—the collections of the notorious dealer, Ante Topic Mimara—calling for the immediate closure of “this embarrassing assembly of pictures wrongly attributed and heavily and recently reworked”! Then there are interventions by Croatian authorities, perhaps less well known in the English-speaking world, notably Josko Belamaric’s paper on the 15th-century Dubrovnik painter Nikola Bozidarevic, a rare, but talented, follower of Crivelli and Carpaccio.

The book reveals some unexpected treasures; Paolo Veneziano’s impressive rood in the Church of St Dominic, Dubrovnik, around 1348-52, with its astonishing frame of proliferating Gothic foliage; Lorenzo Lotto’s tender portrait of the elderly Bishop Tomasso Nigris, 1527, now in the Church of Our Lady of Grace, Poljud; and altarpiece after altarpiece by Venetian masters, among them Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, attesting to the wealth and contacts of Croatian prelates and merchants.

Perhaps even more surprising are the Croatian artists who worked in their own distinctive version of the Venetian idiom, but are only just emerging from the shadows of obscurity. It is perhaps a pity more could not be made of Giulio Clovio, the greatest of all Renaissance illuminators, who was born Juraj Julije Klovic in Grizane on the northern Adriatic coast, but who spent his working life in Italy.

The strengths of this volume undoubtedly lie in art of earlier periods; there is little to recall Croatian art and architecture of the 19th and 20th centuries, apart from Marcus Binney’s chatty travelogue about his adventures looking at derelict country houses. However, the disappointing end to the career of the fashionable early 20th-century sculptor, Ivan Mestrovic, is covered in Brian Sewell’s essay, as is the curious case of the fin-de-siècle painter Vlaho Bukovac, once avidly collected by Victorian industrialists. It seems strange that Sheila McNally’s essay on the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Split makes no mention of Robert and James Adam’s great monograph of 1764 on that building—a work that was hugely influential on British architecture and interior decoration. However, this book is subtitled “Aspects” of Croatian “Art, Architecture and Cultural Heritage”, and these omissions may well be rectified in another, sequel, volume.

The writer is director of The Sir John Soane’s Museum

Stjepan Cosic, Branko Kirigin, John Wilkes, Sheila McNally, Christopher de Hamel, Donal Cooper, David Ekserdjian, Timothy Clifford, Marcus Binney, Brian Sewell and Josko Belamaric with an introduction by John Julius Norwich, Croatia: Aspects of Art, Architecture and Cultural Heritage (Frances Lincoln), 224 pp, £30 (hb) ISBN 9780711229211

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Comments

23 Nov 09
17:41 CET

ANTHONY STANCOMB, LONDON

I would vey much like to hear about the Pieta and the Catholic Church's involvement in this Is there and article? I am married to one of Ivan Mestrovic's grandaughters.

20 Nov 09
13:50 CET

CASSANDRA, NEW YORK

Mestrovic ended up in the USA and upstate. I saw his pieta in Miami rotting in a virtual junk yard and wrote about it. I think the Catholic church behaved disgracefully in regard to hims work and the missionaries he carved to go with the Pieta. Does Seawell mention these in the book?

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