Letter from Europe

Recalling the Ragusan Republic

Issue no. 2020/6

Picture above: The city of Dubrovnik in Croatia was the capital of the former Ragusan Republic (photo © Branex / dreamstime.com).


A powerful earthquake in 1667 destroyed most of Dubrovnik's buildings. The city was at that time the capital of the Ragusan Republic. The city was rebuilt and these days is a strong tourist magnet on the Croatian coast.

Dear fellow travellers

The news at the weekend that there was a significant earthquake in Croatia, broadly centred on the capital Zagreb, reminds us that this is a region where seismic hazard cannot be ignored.

In 1667, the city of Dubrovnik - in those days the capital of the Republic of Ragusa - was devastated by a huge earthquake. In the 17th century, Dubrovnik was an important maritime city-state with far-reaching political and mercantile power. The devastation wrought by the quake of 6 April 1667 was immense. The great majority of the buildings within the city walls were entirely destroyed. Just a handful of ceremonial and public buildings survived, among them the official residence of the Rector, whose job it was to manage the affairs of the small republic. Simone Ghetaldi, who held the office, was less lucky. He was one of about 4000 citizens of Dubrovnik who perished on that fateful day - he was the only Rector in the long history of the Ragusan Republic to die in office.

The Ragusan Republic was already in decline when the ground shuddered with such force in 1667. The death of Simone Ghetaldi, along with many of his relations, and many members of the other ruling families left a fragile political vacuum in the city-state. The city's key trading asset was its handsome port, which was utterly destroyed in the tsunami which was caused by the earthquake. After the calamity, Ragusa never entirely recovered its erstwhile influence and prosperity. Occupied by French forces during the Napoleonic Wars, the affirming flame of Ragusan independence was eventually snuffed out in 1808.

Dubrovnik was of course rebuilt, largely according to the plan of the original city, but now with much baroque embellishment, and an aesthetic coherence and unity which still underpins the appeal of the city. Perhaps good things come out of adversity. Over more than three centuries the white Dalmatian stone used in the rebuild has acquired a gentle dash of honey patina, which makes Dubrovnik look all the more appealing, especially in the soft light of a spring evening.

These days, most visitors to Dubrovnik enter the old city through the Pilé Gate, from where the elegant main street, called Stradun, runs straight ahead to the historic harbour. In a niche in the Pilé Gate, there is a striking statue of St Blaise, patron saint of the Republic of Ragusa.

Just past that gate on the left is the little Church of St Saviour, built at the command of the city's then Rector after an earthquake of 1520 caused a lot of damage. If the city fathers judged that this votive offering might spare them future seismic vengeance they were sadly mistaken. But the church was rebuilt after damage in the 1667 quake, and its harmonious proportions are still very striking.

Today the streets of Dubrovnik are largely quiet, as people stay at home. But better times will come and we are surely not the only ones who, once travel again becomes possible, will make time for Dubrovnik.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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