This is Illyria, lady: shipwrecks and a black horizon

Just off the Dubrovnik coast is an installation called Your Black Horizon by Olafur Eliasson that first made its appearance in 2005 at the Venice Biennale and now finds a permanent home on the island of Lopud. Set back several hundred metres from the harbour and behind some straggly botanical gardens, it’s a windowless pavilion designed by David Adjaye. Inside in the blackness is a thin, dazzling horizontal line of light that burns on to the retina. Unknown The idea, I think, is to renegotiate landscape art in that you leave the work with that image in your eye and reproject it onto the real horizon. We’d spent the day on boats, swimming in the Adriatic, so it wasn’t quite part of the script, and in fact we came across the installation entirely by accident. It’s not necessarily comfortable being in pitch blackness with just one dazzling line – no sense of the size of the space which disappears. Groping for the exit you feel lost, like a pre-modern traveller with no maps.images-1

Early modern representations of Croatia, whether as Illyria in Twelfth Night or the Dalmatian coast in travellers’ tales, inevitably revolved around seafaring. Across the Croatian coastline, even now, there are traces of shipwrecks in touristed areas. On the island of Hvar, just off the coast from Split, there’s a lovely little Franciscan monastery that was founded in the 1460s after a captain survived a storm at sea. John Locke’s account of his journey down the Adriatic coast in 1553 on his perilous way to Jerusalem, reported in Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations (STC 12626a), makes clear that the going was treacherous. His party tried to ‘beare in againe to Ragusa, for to know the newes of the Turkes armie, but the winde blew so hard and contrary, that we could not.’

Lopud island was a sixteenth-century centre of shipbuilding that supplied the city-state of Ragusa – modern-day Dubrovnik – which equipped Spain with ships for the Armada. The early modern name of the city was corrupted into the word ‘raguesee’ and thence ‘argosy’. Like Venice, it was a mercantile republic; no Orsino here. Jean Bodin’s 1576 Les Six Livres de la République (translated into English in 1606 by Richard Knolles) is approving:

“But sudden and complete change is dangerous, and in order to avoid replacing all the officers of the realm at the same time, to the interrupting of public business, it is best that colleges of magistrates should be renewed by succession of persons, one at a time. This is done in the Republic of Ragusa, where the Senate is perpetual, but the senators, who form the sovereign judicial body, only hold office for one year at a time, but do not all go out of office together, but successively, so that the change is hardly noticeable. After a certain period they may serve again.”

Ragusa’s stability even more striking given its delicate position of being a client state of the Ottoman empire, the bridge between the Venetian and Turkish spheres of influence.

“This citie of Ragusa paieth tribute to the Turke yerely fourteene thousand Sechinos,” noted John Locke, “and euery Sechino is of venetian money eight liuers and two soldes, besides other presents which they giue to the Turkes Bassas when they come thither.”

A hundred years later, James Howell was marvelling at the diversity of the inhabitants. ‘In these Territories which the Turk hath ‘twixt the Danube and the sea, and ‘twixt Ragusa, and Buda, Christians are intermixt with Mahometans’ (Epistolae Ho-elianae 1650).

But Howell’s account of Ragusa’s economic and civil prosperity was shortlived. New merchant routes to the Atlantic were being opened up, and in 1667 an earthquake devastated Ragusa and its islands. An Illyrian golden age was over.

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Filed under Art, early modern, travel

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