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Within the Adriatic fortress of Dubrovnik, cafés, churches and palaces reflect 1,000 years of turbulent history

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Diplomacy was key. When Byzantium faltered in 1081 and Venice became a threat, Ragusa turned to the South-Italian Normans for protection. In 1358, after Hungary expelled Venice from the eastern Adriatic, Ragusa swore allegiance to the victors. But when the Ottoman Turks defeated Hungary at the battle of Mohacs in 1526, Ragusa persuaded the sultan in Constantinople to become its protector.

 

In 1571, the republic faced a dilemma, however, when the Turkish navy sailed into the eastern Mediterranean, captured Cyprus and began attacking Venetian possessions. The Holy League, consisting of Pope Pius V, Spain and Venice, responded by sending its fleet to meet the Turks off the Greek city of Lepanto. Both sides expected Ragusa’s support, so— the story goes—the republic, exhibiting the kind of flexibility that would keep it independent for more than 1,000 years, sent emissaries to each. In the subsequent battle, the Holy League crushed Turkish naval power in the Mediterranean. But Ragusa had made sure it would be on the winning side—a status that would last until the republic lost its independence in 1808 to the French.

 

Located between the bell tower and steps leading up to the Jesuit College, Dubrovnik’s Rector’s Palace is the most beautiful example of secular Renaissance architecture in the eastern Adriatic. Now a museum, it was built in 1436 on the ruins of a medieval château, itself erected atop a Roman foundation. “Zagreb has commerce and politics, but Dubrovnik values art and culture,” said curator Vedrana Gjukic Bender as she pointed out the artworks adorning the Rector’s study. “This painting, the Baptism of Christ by Mihajlo Hamzic, commissioned in 1508, has never left the palace.

 

“There’s a portrait of Saint Blaise,” she continued, entering a second-floor reception area. “He is usually depicted with a wool-carding comb, because that’s what the Roman governor Agricola used to flay him in the third century. He became our patron saint in 972, when, according to legend, he appeared in a dream to warn a local priest of an imminent attack by the Venetians. Believing this sign to be true, the authorities armed the citizenry, who repulsed the assault.”

 

The nobility’s greatest legacy, however, is not spiritual rectitude but a sense of civic propriety, vestiges of which are everywhere. Above the doorway linking the Rector’s Palace with the building once used by the Grand Council is a carved inscription in Latin, which translates as “Forget private business, care for public affairs.” In the central archway of the Sponza Palace, where a scale hung when the building was the customshouse and mint, is the declaration, “Our weights prohibit cheating and being cheated. When I weigh the merchandise, God himself weighs the merchandise with me.”

 

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