I dream of islands: the Dubrovnik project, part 1

I dream of islands

And city states

Marble on marble, wave on wave

The towers rise from Byron’s pages

Disrupt the pine and rock hung sea 

With benedictions from St Blaise

And through the monastery cloister

Come cloak and dagger, velvet merchants

(Iron there and velvet back)

Astronomers and urban planners,

Jazz musicians, mural makers,

Politicians at the windows

(Or their hand only on a sill,

So you can’t see in darkness how they’re

Laced up to the throat.)

Rags-to-riches fishermen

Are in the palace cast in bronze 

(An insult that; for no-one wants

A statue who’s of any consequence. Vulgar things.)

Lonely girls on islands

Wait to turn to octupi again

Know they are the stuff of stories.

The city dropped right through the hole

Some nineteenth-century writer made

In the sixteenth, and fizzed there like a mirage

So that when you look too closely

That shimmer on the lapping shore

Becomes a shoal of fish,

No more.

Dubrovnik seen from the city walls, September 2016.
Dubrovnik seen from the city walls, September 2016.

City states and islands are compelling little specimens for historians and archaeologists (and for all I know geographers, literary scholars and a host of other humanists). One wants to bottle them. It’s hard to resist the notion that they are the world in microcosm, that political, social, economic and environmental processes can be studied in them in a way that is manageable, and that can be transferred to societies with more physically and politically amorphous arrangements.

There’s a romance in the notion of this girt little world one can now go on holiday in and physically transverse in a couple of weeks; there’s a certain misplaced nostalgia for bounded socio-political arrangements with an apparently simple human scale; and there’s also a sort of pragmatism there in demagogic and academic terms. Islands and city states throw up a data set whose limits we can be lulled into thinking we don’t have to worry about. The artificially limited scope holds out an irresistible promise to a scholar – here is something one might fully understand. We desire legibility, and islands and city states look legible.

And so people become experts in this or that island group or city state because the knowledge is irresistibly organised and passed down in this way, even though one of their first serious discoveries is likely to be that the bounded world that so attracted their sense of fancy isn’t bounded at all. Cyprian Broodbank, in An Island Archaeology of the Early Cyclades, on the idea of “the island as laboratory”:

The idea that islands can be informative places for understanding processes at work elsewhere in the world is at least as old as archaeology itself. Grove (1995) believes that the origins of conscious environmentalism go back to those Europeans of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries AD who saw what was happening to the ecology of tropical islands under early colonial exploitation, and made a leap of inference to what must be happening less perceptibly on continents as well (in an intriguing aside, he postulates that long voyages in cramped ships heightened such an awareness, as the ships in effect comprised habitat islands themselves.) It is well known that Darwin’s observation of the Galapagos fauna sowed certain of the seeds of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). By the end of the nineteenth century, anthropologists were advocating the study of islands as a means of shedding light on wider issues in cultural evolution (Kuklick 1996). A more recent example is Vayda and Rapperport’s essay on island cultures (1963). In a manner that now seems little short of extraordinary, Vayda and Rapperport explicitly cast out large, well-connected islands, in order to buttress their claim that society on a ‘normal’ (i.e. small, isolated island) was analogous to ‘a Neolithic village surrounded by hostile neighbours and an ethnic minority living in a ghetto’ (1963: 133). As Terrell et al. (1997) eloquently point out, this tendency in anthropology was part of a wider misplaced faith among social scientists in the ‘myth of the primitive isolate’.

But this is an archaeologist who starts every chapter with a quote from Camus, or Shelley, or classical literature, so we all know why he’s really writing in the first place.

Dubrovnik, the former Republic of Ragusa, is extraordinary. As a maritime city state it might appear to combine legibility features of both islands and city states – semi-physical boundedness to match political boundedness. I’m sure I could, and probably will, read many books about how this isn’t really true, how Dubrovnik was deeply embedded in its surrounding landscape politically and environmentally, that it saw itself (it must have done) as an economic gateway to the world and not a magical sequestered otherland – Byron’s ‘pearl of the Adriatic’ might be magical but it is still ‘of the Adriatic’.

But I’m not going to break the enchantment just yet. Everyone from Byron to Shaw has commented on Dubrovnik’s beauty, but that’s not it, at all. I’ve never been so struck by the luminous unreality of the history of any other place, and both times after I’ve come back from visiting it I wonder if I dreamt the whole thing. Was Ragusa real or a Dumas creation? Why do I already want to go back? Everything about it is gloriously fictive. Roman colonists fleeing from an attack on Cavtat just across the bay in the seventh century AD founded it cautiously on what was then an island (aha! the place has an ancestral sense of islandhood perhaps?) before the narrow channel to the mainland was eventually filled in – the course of that channel is now said to be the main street, the smooth marble Stradun.

By I, Beyond silence, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2584479
The Stradun. It’s impossible to get a good photo of this in person because it is never not clogged with tourists, understandably. By I, Beyond silence, CC BY-SA 3.0, 

The Republic’s motto at its early modern height was Non bene pro toto libertas venditur auro – Liberty is not well sold for all the gold. I mean, that is extraordinary thing to put on your coat of arms in an age when most other nations are whiffling on about courage or god or whatever. And this tiny late Roman colony managed, rather exceptionally, to be independent for nearly four hundred years in a Mediterranean otherwise fizzing with Venetian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and general post-Byzantine hurly-burly. I mean entirely self-ruling, seeking “protection” here and trade privileges there, but never again conquered after 1205, answering consistently to no King or Emperor and favouring no ally or suzerain for longer than they were useful. Its more famous and rapacious Adriatic sister Venice backed off in the late fourteenth century and that seems to have been largely it.

Ragusa never displayed serious land-grabbing ambitions beyond its modest contado and bartered for nothing but trading privileges, and in this way, perhaps, it fell under hegemonic radars in a land-hungry age. Such priorities were clever, but the city was also blessed with the gift of a sort of comparative invisibility. If it was a port one was after, well, there were plenty of other rocks in the Adriatic with less inconveniently thickly walled fortresses, and there were certainly plenty of other sources of wealth in an expanding world, such that defeating a knotty, proud old aristocracy who chatted to everyone from Iran to Madrid probably never looked like any nation’s easiest option. Charmed and clever – irresistible. The way the Maritime Museum in Dubrovnik tells it, even the high medieval Venetian overlordship was itself an engineered wheeze on the part of the Ragusans, and even allowing for patriotic fervour the more I learn about the place the less I am inclined to dismiss it. I can quite see cloaked figures on the luminous marble streets chuckling out seawards at all these Powers who took themselves so seriously.

Its political system was oligarchic, its Senate stocked by a venerable aristocracy who chose Rectors (the Knez) from among their number to be the nominal ruler. Rectors held office for one month, were debarred from holding office again for the next two years, and for the term of their appointment lived virtually confined in the small but glorious Rector’s Palace.

The Rector's Palace, Dubrovnik. The statute is Miho Pracat, fisherman from the island of Lopud turned merchant, who having no legitimate children left most of his wealth to the city. There is still at least one bulk carrier ship in Croatia today bearing his name. It was built in 2008 and has a deadweight of 79964 tons, apparently.
The Rector’s Palace, Dubrovnik. The statue is of Miho Pracat, humble fisherman from the island of Lopud turned merchant, who having no legitimate children left most of his wealth to the city. There is still at least one bulk carrier ship in Croatia today bearing his name. It was built in 2008 and has a deadweight of 79964 tons, apparently.

This was a place that understood power. Napoleon did for Ragusa in the end, and the following heart-rending dispatch was sent out from its Senate to all consulates: 

Order all national ships to dismiss their crew, leaving only the most essential guard on board, and let them await further orders; meanwhile we leave it to the owners to decide whether or not they wish to sell their ships.

Presumably social and economic chaos followed. And this is what my Blue Guide has to say about the longer consequences:

The story goes that when Dubrovnik came under Austrian control, in 1815, its ruling class vowed to stop marrying, claiming that they would rather become extinct than live under alien rule… The old family names have died out, and there is not a single legitimate descendent of the old Ragusan nobles now alive. Their voluntary programme of self-extermination was an unqualified success, and the last true-born Ragusan aristocrat is reputed to have died not long after the Second World War.

I really hope this is true. Not Plato, nor Voltaire, nor even Pratchett himself could make this stuff up. In the early sixteenth century – seriously, who in western European schools is ever taught this amazing fact, because I wasn’t – its ocean-going fleet, the fleet of this little marble Republic on a promontory in the western Adriatic – was the third largest in the Old World after Spain and the Netherlands. It sent ships to the Armada – I never learnt that either, nor that England expelled all Ragusan traders in retaliation and did not resume trading until 1759. In 1667, the city was half-levelled by a disastrous earthquake and rebuilt, allegedly, in a more modest style. You have seen the pictures, and can look for others. That is the more modest style.

Dubrovnik is what I never expected to find – an example that enforces itself upon the sense as a place – island, city state – apart. Part 2: in which is it suggested that people are different where boundaries, political and intellectual, circumscribe their activity.


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