The Dalmatian coast of Croatia is full of things to enjoy: sun, sea, scenery, delicious food and wine, but an under-rated joy is its architecture – of all periods.
It helps to have been blessed with the excellent building stone, seeming available in abundance. At the N end of the coast there is Istrian stone, the stone of Venice, transported across the Adriatic from the founding of the city and still continuing. It is a very finely grained gleaming, creamy white, and when worn achieving a marble-like sheen. At the S end there is (to my eye) the identical Brač stone.
Diocletian’s Palace is largely built of Brač stone and from my hotel balcony I had the pleasure of being face-to-face with the pediment of the Temple of Aesculapius (or is it Jupiter? It depends who you believe). After more than 1700 years the stone and the carving is remarkably crisp.
As can be seen, the Temple is of the Corinthian order. But look again, it has a pulvinated frieze which Renaissance architects associated solely with Ionic. Classical antiquity is seen as the authority for the Classical Canon but when you look it is such a rich and diverse field you find a precedent for almost anything.
We can make the mistake of assuming that the Italian Renaissance only took place in Italy. For centuries Dalmatia was part of the Venetian Empire and it has left a rich built heritage. Here, by way of an example in the small town of Trogir is the chapel of St. Ivan Trogirski built between 1474 and c. 1550.
Croatia was the birthplace of one of the great sculptors of the first half of the 20th century, Ivan Meštrović.
Meštrović’s home and gallery, completed in 1939, is a somewhat austere Ionic composition- surely to act as foil for his sculpture. It is a perfect example of how widespread and vital the Classical tradition remained in Europe until WWII.
So too Meštrović’s Kaštelet a Renaissance castello that was renovated to his designs, 1939-41 and incorporating a Doric peristyle or cloister. Classical architecture mattered to Meštrović, both in his home and here the columns are monoliths – a continuation of antiquity’s fondness for super-size stones.
And in using Classicism, Meštrović was not merely copying what was all around him in Dalmatia, his Ionic and Doric are the Greek versions of the orders. No doubt this was a deliberate rejection of the Venetian heritage as, at that time there was a strong anti-Italian sentiment.
The plentiful supplies of high quality stone and its availability in large sizes has ensured a continuity of fine masonry construction. Where many would now use concrete, Croatians use stone as the simplest and easiest way of building. Here is an example from my (modern) hotel: stone cantilevered stairs – constructed as they have been for centuries, beautifully finished and with fine joints.
It also gives them the confidence and skills to complete the Hektorović Palace in Hvar, left incomplete in 1572 and recently completed. What a contrast to the timidity of British conservation philosophy!