There are several access points for entering Split's historic core, but the best place to start your exploration is the Bronze Gate where the sea once lapped at the palace's back walls. Today the Bronze Gate opens outward from the palace's southern flank to Split's Riva and the ferry port beyond. Inside, it leads to the podrum, or basement, that meanders under the structure. The podrum was the palace's "plant" where support staff cooked meals for Diocletian and his guests, fixed palace equipment, and took care of day-to-day maintenance. The underground space was sadly neglected until the mid-1950s, and parts of it have yet to be restored and cleared of centuries of debris. The cryptoporticus (gallery) that runs east-west from the Bronze Gate was an open promenade and probably the site where Diocletian went to catch a sea breeze. Today the outdoor promenade can only be imagined from the form of the long corridor beneath it. The part of the podrum that extends from the Bronze Gate toward the steps to the Peristil above is a brick-lined minimall filled with merchants and craftspeople selling jewelry, maps, and other souvenirs of Split.
At the far end of the aisle that runs through this section of the podrum, you'll find a staircase that leads up to the Peristil, which was the palace's main courtyard and the place where Diocletian received important visitors. Today, the Peristil is one of the busiest spots in the historic city and home to cafes, boutique hotels, the cathedral, and passages leading to the heart of Old Town. It also functions as a stage during the Split Summer Festival, and on May 7 when the city celebrates the feast of St. Domnius.
Note the black granite sphinx standing guard outside the cathedral. It was one of 11 acquired by Diocletian during battle in Egypt and it is the only one left.
If you are approaching the palace from the Silver Gate on the eastern wall, you first must walk through the jumble of stalls that is the city fruit and vegetable market (Pazar). Making this walk is fine during the day, but it can be dicey at night, even though the market often stays open until 10pm or later during the summer. The Silver Gate leads directly to Decumanus, the original east-west street that intersects with Cardo, the original north-south artery, at the Peristil. These former thoroughfares sectioned the palace into quadrants, which in turn became districts. The medieval Church of St. Dominic outside the Silver Gate was completely rebuilt in the 17th century and is home to good sacral art.
The Golden Gate at the north end of the wall was the portal to Salona and was the most ornate gate into the palace. It has a guardhouse that contains the 9th-century Church of St. Martin. Ivan Mestrovic's largest statue of Bishop Grgur (Gregorius of Nin) Ninski, a 9th-century bishop who defended church use of the Glagolitic script and Slav language, towers over visitors approaching the gate. The sculpture is entirely black except for one toe, which is bronze because visitors inevitably touch it for good luck as they pass. To the west, the Iron Gate's guardhouse is the site of the oldest Romanesque belfry in Croatia and the 10th-century Church of Our Lady of Belfry.
The Cathedral of St. Domnius is on the eastern side of the Peristil. The Temple of Jupiter (now the cathedral's baptistery) and what's left of the small, round temples of Venus and Cybele are on the Peristil's western side. Tip: To gain perspective on the palace's footprint, take a walk through the subterranean halls that run beneath it. The vaulted halls were built to support Diocletian's living quarters, but they mirror the original palace layout before development infringed.
Temple of Jupiter (Baptistery) -- This small structure directly facing the mausoleum probably was a temple dedicated to Jupiter in Diocletian's time. During the Middle Ages, the building was converted into a baptistery, but only the enclosed part of the temple and its richly decorated portal remain. The baptistery also contains a Mestrovic statue of John the Baptist and the 7th-century sarcophagus of Ivan Ravenjanin, the first archbishop of Split who had the martyrs' relics taken to the cathedral. In the 19th century, the baptismal font was decorated with stone carvings that portray a Croatian ruler (possibly the Croatian King Zvonimir) on his throne.
Whatever Diocletian's intention in building a mega-estate with seaside frontage, this project was no prefab getaway cottage on the beach. It was a heavily protected enclave that included a military installation with a footprint covering nearly 3 hectares (10 acres). It included the emperor's apartments, several temples, and housing for soldiers and servants. Some say Diocletian (A.D. 245-316) began building his imperial retirement home while he was still in power so he could live out his golden years near Salona, his birth place. Some say he just wanted to stay near the region's seat of power. Either way, after 21 years as emperor, Diocletian lived in the palace built of local limestone (mostly from Brac) after abdicating his throne in A.D. 305. According to historians, he commissioned construction of the palace in A.D. 293 from the architects Filotas and Zotikos, whose names are engraved on palace foundation stones found during recent excavations.
In the years immediately following Diocletian's death, the palace was converted to government office space, but it inadvertently became a shelter for refugees in the early 7th century when the Avars and Slavs attacked and destroyed Salona. Salona's residents first fled to nearby islands and later sought the security of the palace walls, which were 2m (6 ft.) thick and nearly 30m (100 ft.) high at points.
The huge influx of refugees overcrowded the palace compound, and the new settlement spread outside its walls. Successive rulers, including the Byzantine emperors, the Croatian kings, the Hungarian-Croatian kings, and the Venetians, later built structures within and outside the complex, changing it so much that its Roman character all but disappeared.
After the fall of Venice in 1797, the Austrians took over, ceded control of the city to France for a short time in the early 19th century, and then took over again until World War I, when control reverted to the Yugoslav government and ultimately Croatia.
Because of its size and because it has undergone so much change, imagining what Split's UNESCO World Cultural Heritage gem must have looked like in its prime is difficult. You can, however, get a feel for the original floor plan by exploring the palace's lower level (podrum), whose layout is a mirror image of the upper floors'.
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