SEBENICO AND THE KRKA
THE express steamers take only four and a half hours to reach Sebenico from Zara. It is a lovely sail within the shelter of the islands, with ever-changing views of the majestic Velebit mountains.
You pass within sight of Zara Vecchia, the ancient Belgrade, with its memories of King Coloman's wonderful wedding feast at his meeting here with his Norman bride, when the guests were lodged in tents and huts made of green boughs outside the walls, there being no room for them all in the city.
Here, too, this strenuous prince was crowned King of Dalmatia and Croatia in 1102, and here the refugees from Zara fled when the Crusaders sacked their city a hundred years later.
The Zara Vecchia of to-day is but a village; it never recovered from the blow dealt it by the Venetians in the twelfth century, when its Page 56people scattered-the bishop and priests fleeing to Scardona, the nobles and a large number of the people to Sebenico, which perhaps accounts for the great number of noble families whose arms adorn the homes of that city ! We skirt the eastern shore of the Isle of Mortar, lying so near to the mainland that it is connected with it by a movable bridge which opens to allow the passage of ships. To the south-west of the island is a miniature archipelago of thirty to forty rocky islets, mostly uninhabited. A cruel coast this in stormy weather, or when the treacherous fog hides its dangers; but in sunshine and calm weather how exquisite these isles, just rising from the sea and mirrored in its depths !
Nature has hidden away the magnificent land-locked harbour of Sebenico so securely that it would be hard for an enemy to find the way in., There is but one entrance, through a winding channel, guarded by the old Venetian fort of St. Nicolo, built by Sanmicheli in 1546, and held of such importance by the Republic-? that the commander was forbidden to leave it on pain of death.
The winged lion above the gateway was Page 57placed there by the Austrian Emperor to replace the original, which the French, under Napoleon (anxious always to wipe out the sign-manual of Venice), had thrown into the sea.
It would be sheer waste of Nature's gifts if this wonderful harbour were not used for purposes of defence; so Sebenico is one of the naval stations of Austria, and has also its training-school for cadets. In time of war it would no doubt form the naval base from which the Austrian battleships and cruisers could suddenly appear and pounce upon their foe, or make daring sallies across the Adriatic, with always a secure haven to return to where no enemy could follow without annihilation.
Sebenico rises from the sea and climbs the mountain-side, a picturesque medley of harmonious form and colour; dominated by the ancient castle, fringed with the masts and lateen sails of fishing-boats along the water-side, glorified by its unique cathedral rising in the midst.
A writer on the churches of Dalmatia * who visited the city in the sixties, has described its cathedral as "one of the noblest, most Page 58striking, most simple, most Christian of all churches, and, from an exclusively architectural point of view, the most interesting church in Dalmatia."
Its builders built it for eternity, and decreed that nothing so perishable as timber or common as brick should enter into its composition; so here you see the only cathedral of Europe built wholly of marble and stone.
The most striking feature is the waggon roof, which forms both roof and ceiling; no tiles outside to hide the stonework any more than wood within. Its form is that of a cross, the crossing crowned by the dome so dear to builders of the time of the Renaissance.
But its foundations and the lower story, as well as the great doorway, date from the earlier period of graceful Italian Gothic, so the date of the erection would be written in its stones, even if no documents existed to tell the story. After the first cathedral was damaged by fire, in the June of 1332, the bishop and nobles had to consider the question of restoring and enlarging the old edifice, or building a new one, and the Venetian count laid a tax on the vineyards to raise the necessary funds for the Page [58a]
If you want to see for yourself the date of the earliest portion of the building, you must look on a pier of the west front where the arms of the Venetian count appear who ruled in Sebenico from 1430 to 1432.
Antonio's " Lion doorway " will surely claim your attention, with the dignified beasts guarding the entrance, and the very unflattering representations of our first parents above. The master's chisel better understood the fashioning of twisted columns and delicate foliage than the human form, and the carving around this doorway is beautiful, though perhaps you may prefer that of the great west door, which is more elaborate still.
After Antonio came Giorgio Orsini, to complete the work the former had begun. His Page 60contract with the authorities still exists, and has been published in a little book on the history of the cathedral. Though a Dalmatian, he had imbibed the new ideas of church architecture during his studies in Italy, and so the Gothic of the earlier portion of the building gave way to the Renaissance.
As in the case of many another church, want of money stayed the completion of Sebenico's cathedral for something like twenty years, during which its second architect worked elsewhere in Italy and at Ragusa and Spalato (where you will later on see an altar of his in the cathedral). Hence, though called back to Sebenico in 1470, when an energetic bishop had raised funds to go on with the work on the cathedral, he never saw his masterpiece complete.
The waggon roof, most authorities consider, was Giorgio's conception; but when he died, in I475, the cathedral was roofless. It was not completed and consecrated till April, 1555.
If the exterior of the cathedral is impressive, still more so the interior with its noble span-- details are lost in the general effect of strength and simplicity.
Page 61In contrast to this is the marvellous elaboration of the little Baptistery, which is a bewildering mass of richest carving, in a style of mixed Renaissance and Italian Gothic, as if Giorgio wished it to be typical of the blending of the two periods in the main building.
Just across the piazza from the Duomo is an old Venetian loggia, which must have been building during the years which saw the completion of the cathedral, for it bears the date 1552. Fallen now from its former estate, the lower story does service as the town cafe.
There is much that is Venetian in Sebenico, and little to remind you of the Croat settlers or the time of Hungarian rule, though we know that Sebenico was the shuttlecock tossed to and fro between Hungary and Venice till its final surrender to the Republic in I412. It was doubtless due to the years of peace and prosperity that followed that men found means and leisure to commence the Duomo, which is their pride to-day. The wisdom of the Venetian too saw the necessity of other buildings than this house of prayer and peace; they were awake to the growing power of the Turk, and fortified Sebenico with strong walls and towers, which Page 62were tried and not found wanting in 1647, when the armies of the Crescent were repulsed by the people of Sebenico, under the leadership of Freiherr Martin von Degenfeld, after whom the ruined fort Baron was named.
The fortified Venetian castle of St. Giovanni, which crowns the rock above the city, though valueless for purposes of defence in these days of modern armaments, still looks imposing, and the view from this height over the grey old town with its glorious Duomo and narrow winding streets, over the blue water and the masts and sails of ships, is worthy to compare with any on this romantic coast.
You cannot leave Sebenico without visiting the falls of the Krka river, which rises at Knin and mingles its waters with those of the landlocked harbour.
The Krka is one of those peculiar rivers of Dalmatia which suddenly issues in great volume from a rocky cavern after an unknown subterranean course. To follow all its windings from Knin to Scardona and the sea, and visit all seven of its magnificent falls, would be very interesting; but to do this you must be prepared to sacrifice your comfort for some days, Page 63for it will be long before the interior of Dalmatia awakes to the fact that clean beds and decent food are necessaries, not luxuries, from the Englishman's point of view. So unless you are a hardened traveller, inured to discomfort, you will do well to content yourself with a visit to the first falls above Scardona, which are truly magnificent, and the more impressive because of the arid wilderness you pass through to reach their fairy beauty. They may be reached by carriage from Sebenico, or by boat up the river in favourable weather, which latter way is far the most romantic, especially if you can so time your visit as to return by moonlight, for under its softening influence the rocky banks of the Krka, bare and forbidding by day, are invested with a magic charm.
The driving-road passes through a typical Dalmatian landscape-a country that grows stones and little else, with here and there a solitary dwelling or hut, and here and there a few hardy sheep picking up a precarious living ! Its chief interest lies in the groups of peasants you will meet on their way to or from the town-brilliant dashes of colour in the grey uniformity of the landscape, semi-barbarous Page 64in their mingling of rags and silver ornaments, wholly picturesque, of another world than ours, another period than the twentieth century.
Some of them we persuaded, with the help of smiles and " soldi," to stop within range of the camera, in spite of our ignorance of the Slav language. The head of the household often rides in state to market on his hardworked ass, with his willing wife trudging behind, herself, poor thing, little better than a beast of burden. It seems as if the Oriental contempt of woman had left its mark in the land the Turk overran, and the Christian ideal of woman's dignity had never been restored among this nominally Christian people, whose religion, like that of all primitive folk, is a curious mixture of faith and superstition.
From the stony wilderness above, the road to the waterfalls suddenly descends in zigzag windings to the level of the stream, and the green islands and willow-fringed banks of the river come upon you like a benediction, infinitely soothing and refreshing, to eyes blinded by the dust and dazzle of the sun-scorched treeless way.
Page 65You have something of the feeling of the traveller who sights an oasis in the Sahara when you first catch sight, as we did one hot day in May, of the waters of the Krka at the lower fall.
Beside the chief fall, which cannot be much less than three hundred feet in width, and precipitates itself over a series of terraces to the rapids below, there are innumerable small cascades of exquisite beauty, playing in and out between the moss-grown rocks and trees and verdure, which, ever watered by the spray of the cascade, lasts all the summer through.
The waters are not idle; they turn many mills, and supply Sebenico with electricity, so that her poorest citizens can have a light of five-candle power for a sum equal to five shillings a year. But their utility has not as yet detracted from their beauty, which exceeds that of the far-famed falls of the Rhine, to which they have been likened. Sometimes molten silver, sometimes shimmering with all the colours of the rainbow which bends over them, then breaking into foam which rivals the whiteness of Alpine snows, day after day, year after year, seldom visited by those who can Page 66appreciate their magical beauty, the waters of the Krka leap and foam and sparkle in the sun, hurrying from the mountains onward to the sea.
A few miles above the last fall, where the river widens to a lake girt by mountains, is an idyllic island, on which a Franciscan monastery has stood since the fifteenth century, and, wonderful to relate, preserved the treasures of its valuable library through all the troublous times of Turkish invasion and constant fear of fire and sword.
You can read there to-day the letter addressed by the Venetian general Foscolo to the Father Superior, bearing the date of March 2, 1648, in which the latter is advised that Knin and Drnis have fallen into the infidel's hands, and warned to seek safety with the brothers in flight.
Side by side with this is a formidable-looking parchment, fully a yard in length, bearing the signature of one of the Sultans, and bound in green, the sacred colour of the prophets, and a collection of some hundred Turkish letters of less importance.
Among the monks' greatest treasures is an Page [66a]
Visovac is not the only monastery on the Krka. Nearer to Knin is the Greek convent of St. Arcangelo, which has suffered still more from the Turks than its Roman neighbour, but has still some treasures in its library which were doubtless carried off by the monks when the buildings were destroyed and brought back in times of peace. Their special pride is in a copy of the Gospels richly bound in gold, as there is said to be only one other like it in the world.
Though the foundation of the monastery is very remote, the present buildings are not older than the eighteenth century, but the creeperclad walls and cloistered courtyard shaded by trees are very picturesque, and the position of Page 68the convent most romantic on the banks of the winding river.
Those who have visited all the falls of the Krka give the palm to the fourth-called in Slavish Manojlovac, as the largest, highest, and most beautiful. Its setting adds to its charm. Above the fall is a deep green lake framed in by rocks and fed by many silver rills, beyond rises Monte Promina, and still further in the blue distance a mountain chain is visible, while bold rocks rise in the foreground.
The deep ravine through which the river rushes at Manojlovac is one of the most magnificent scenes in its whole glorious and impetuous course, though at another point a human interest is added to the grandeur of nature, by two mediaeval castles perched upon its opposite banks.
Europe may be challenged to find a river so unique as the Krka, producing falls so numerous and so magnificent; its present inaccessibility for the greater part of its course adds the last touch of romance.