By the 16th century, Ragusa had become one of Europe’s leading city-states. Together with its eternal rival Venice, it was a major center of art, banking and culture. The city had 50 consulates positioned throughout Mediterranean Europe, Africa and the Near East. Its fleet of galleons and carracks was the third largest in the world behind those of Spain and the Netherlands.Many of the ships carried wool from Bulgaria, Serbian silver, or leather from Herzegovina. But some transported a more unusual cargo—religious relics, examples of which today can be seen in Dubrovnik’s Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin. It contains one of the most remarkable reliquaries in Christendom.
“Each relic has a separate story,” said 33-year-old art historian Vinicije Lupis, as he snapped open his briefcase, ceremonially extracted a pair of white cotton gloves and surveyed a room filled with jawbones, femurs, skulls and tibias encased in bejeweled golden containers. “That’s the lower jaw of Saint Stephen of Hungary,” he added, pointing to a wizened object on a platter. “Here, the left hand of Saint Blaise, given to Dubrovnik by Genoa.”
Profits from trade were not all spent on relics. The aristocracy may have been grounded in feudalism, but it gave all children in its stratified society access to public schools. It provided health care, established one of Europe’s first orphanages and, in 1416, when the slave trade was ongoing in the region, adopted antislavery laws.
Dubrovnik continues to benefit from civic improvements made centuries ago. Fresh water from a system of pipes installed in the Middle Ages still burbles from two fountains at either end of the main street of Stradun. Situated outside the eastern gate on the old caravan road to Bosnia, the 16th-century quarantine hospital built to prevent the spread of plague remains in such good condition that today it is used for art exhibitions.
From its beginning, Dubrovnik was a city of refuge and diversity. When the Spanish monarchy expelled Jews in 1492, many found new homes a few steps up from Stradun on Zudioska Street , where one of the oldest Sephardic synagogues in Europe is located. Serbs, too, were welcomed after their 1389 defeat at Kosovo Polje, much to the distress of the Turks.