Croatian art and architecture are largely unknown outside the Balkans. That’s understandable, given the country’s size and the restrictions imposed by past dictators. Croatia’s art phases follow a time line that parallels the nation’s history, with tastes informed by the serial occupiers who controlled the country in waves through the centuries.
Prehistoric to 1 b.c.
The remains of cave dwellers have been found in Vukovar, on Vis, and most famously in Krapina in the northwestern part of the country, where archaeologists found the bones of the 130,000-year-old Krapina Man. Specimens of primitive art—pottery, tools, even jewelry—usually are part of any such find, but the most famous Croatian objet d’art discovered in these ancient time capsules is the ceramic Dove of Vučedol (2000 b.c.), which was found during an archaeological dig in Vučedol, 4.8km (3 miles) outside of Vukovar. The Vučedol Dove has become the symbol of Vukovar and a popular totem of Croatian nationalism, available in many souvenir renditions.
Illyrian, Roman & Byzantine (1st–6th c.)
There is almost nowhere in Croatia that is without a collection of art or architecture from at least one of these cultures, usually items that were found nearby. Vestiges of the Illyrians and Greeks who settled Vis (Issa) are scarce inland, but beautiful examples of sculpture, textiles, metalwork, and architecture are on display in Vis’s archeological museum and in situ. Go there just to see a perfect sculpture of the head of the goddess Aphrodite (or Artemis) from the 4th century b.c., as well as the remains of a Roman theater that held 3,500. There’s also the mosaic floor of a Roman bathhouse that is still being excavated.
The Romans completely infiltrated Croatia, and there are few places along the country’s coast, on its islands, or even inland that are without something the Romans brought or built there. Pula, which was a Roman outpost called Pietas Julias, is home to one of the largest Roman amphitheaters still standing. The 1st-century beauty was built to hold more than 20,000 spectators, and though now reduced in size, it’s in terrific shape thanks to restoration. The remains of Diocletian’s Palace in Split, numerous Roman summer homes (villa rusticate) on the islands and along the coast, and the remains of Salona, the former Roman seat of power outside Split, are just a few examples of the mark the Romans left on Croatia. And of course, smaller, more portable Roman leavings, such as amphorae, funerary art, and statues, have been found all over Croatia. They are on display in most of the country’s museums.
Enter the barbarians and the fall of Rome. Just as Roman influence was receding in its provinces, including Croatia, the influence of Byzantium was creeping in, thanks to the Emperor Justinian, who was educated in Constantinople and served as consul there. It is almost impossible to distinguish between Rome as it declined and the Byzantine Empire of Constantinople because both were part of the same political institution, the Roman Empire. Byzantium’s capitol, Constantinople, had been founded as the capital of Rome by the emperor Constantine, and while it was a solid part of the Roman Empire, it had Greek influences, too. One of the best architectural examples of this transition is the 6th century Basilica of Euphrasius in Poreč, with its mosaics set on a gilded background. The basilica is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Romanesque to Renaissance (7th–17th c.)
There is some controversy about where the Croats originated, but there is agreement that they arrived in Croatia in the 7th century. Whatever its origins, this migrating group brought along its art and introduced a signature design (pleter) that resembles stylized Celtic knots. The design found its way onto the stone ornamentation of almost every medieval church in Croatia, including the first built by this new group of immigrants, Nin’s Holy Cross Church.
As with all art movements, this one segued into another style, the Romanesque phase, but not until St. Donat’s in Zadar was built with three apses, a soaring rotunda, and remnants of Roman architectural ornamentation.
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