Dalmatia : the land where East meets West.
Holbach, Maude M.
Page  107


THERE is no more smiling scenery in all Dalmatia, than that along the shores of the Riviera dei Castelli, which lies between Salona and Trau, and it is not strange that in the Middle Ages, the vineyards and olive groves of this fruitful land, excited the cupidity of the then all-conquering Turk, and made the fortified castles, which have given their name to this part of the coast, necessary for its protection.

These feudal strongholds were originally thirteen in number, but only seven remain today; of which some date from the fourteenth others from the fifteenth century, when the land with certain feudal rights over the peasantry was given by the Venetian Senate to such nobles as were able to build and maintain a castle at their own cost. A few still belong to the old families, and one or two are used as Page  108summer residences by wealthy burghers of Spalato. A German writer of rather more than a generation ago, described the life in the castles as still retaining in his time many of its feudal features, and specially mentions the charming national dress worn by the women of these noble families ; I am afraid they have since succumbed to the fascinations of the fashions of Vienna, which prevail among the upper classes of Spalato and leave the picturesque costumes to the peasantry, who, in this part, thanks to the fertility of the soil, are exceedingly well-to-do: but as I was not fortunate enough to come into personal contact with any of the castle dwellers at home, I cannot speak with authority; it may be they revert to their national dress when the Spalato season is over, and cling to the old custom still within the old walls.

Each castle forms the centre round which a pretty little village is grouped, usually smothered in foliage of peaches, figs, and pomegranate trees, which flourish here exceedingly. Early vegetables form one of the peasants' most profitable crops, for, thanks to the sheltering mountains, the Bora cannot touch the tender plants, and Page  109roses blossom in the gardens, and purple crocuses star the green grass under the fruit trees, all the winter through.

The very nakedness of the wild Kosjak mountains, which rise like a wall to the north, adds the charm of contrast to the scene, and the grey of the bare rocks serves as a foil to the vivid green and blue of land and sea. On the mountain slopes, some crumbling walls, hardly distinguishable from their surroundings, were pointed out to me as the ruins of the old Croatian capital of Bihac, and it is said that a very early Christian church stood close to Castlenuovo where the Council of Salona met in the ninth century.

The road between Salona and Trau is very lovely, sometimes passing through vineyards and olive groves, sometimes between hedges of giant aloes, which stretch their curious blossoms high overhead: but always disclosing new beauties at every turn.

The approach to Trau from the sea is not less beautiful as the steamer passes through the narrow channel, spanned by a bridge between the Island of Bua and the mainland, and you come in sight of the old Venetian custom house Page  110on the water front, and a picturesque ruined tower ascribed to Sanmicheli.

But it is the Duomo which is Trau's glory- the Duomo which was nearly three hundred years in building, and looks as if it might last for eternity!

The earliest church which stood upon this site was destroyed by the Saracens in the twelfth century, and the first stones of the present cathedral were laid at the beginning of the thirteenth; but, as in the case of the Duomo of Sebenico, want of funds hindered the work, and it was in I6oo that it was completed by the erection of the campanile.

The west doorway, said by a great authority on the architecture of Dalmatia, to be unsurpassed in Romanesque or Gothic art, is quite bewilderingly beautiful in its intricacy of detail, and alone worth coming far to see.

This glorious portal is entered through an imposing Galilee porch, as if the architect had held it fitting that such a gem of art should be approached through an antechamber and sheltered from the ravages of the elements.

The door symbolizes the Old and New Testaments, and on either side are rudely Page  111executed figures of our first parents similar to those at Curzola. Eve stands on a lioness with a lamb in its clutches, Adam on a lion holding some other beast.

If you look closely at the sculptured figures in the west doorway, you will notice that in the representations of local history the men are wearing the turban, though this was executed before the Turkish conquest; from which it has been argued that this Dalmatian head-dress is of great antiquity.

The Duomo of Trau has another doorway which would be noticeable if it did not suffer by comparison-it is the south entrance, in the same round-arched style as the famous west door.

The dimly lit interior of the cathedral is very impressive, and you must not fail to notice the beautiful choir-stalls of Venetian workmanship of the fifteenth century, nor to visit the waggon-vaulted chapel of St. Giovanni Orsini, the first bishop and patron saint of Trau, about whom you will hear many delightful legends. The best known relates that when the Venetians sacked the city, in I I 7I, they opened the marble sarcophagus containing the bones of the Page  112saint hoping to find treasure, and failing to remove a ring, which miraculously adhered to St. Giovanni's finger, solved the difficulty by tearing off the arm, which they carried to Venice, and there, having some pricks of conscience perhaps, preserved it in the Church of St. Giovanni de Rialto. Thus far is probably fact, but the people of Trau go on to tell you that after three years' absence the arm returned home, "flying through the air," and was found resting on the shrine containing the holy body from which it had been so rudely parted !

There is a bush growing out of the wall above the city gate which partly hides the sculptured lion, and this the people say was miraculously planted, and is to-day sustained by the saint so that they may not be reminded of the Venetian conquest.

No doubt the fact that the first bishop of Trau was a man of science and an astronomer who must have done many things in his lifetime that surprised his contemporaries, partly accounts for his reputation as a miracle worker after death. He was not a Dalmatian by birth, but a member of the noble patrician family of Page  [112a]

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Page  [112b]Page  113Orsini whose name is still one of the proudest in the eternal city.

But in telling you of the saint I have wandered away from the Duomo without having said anything of the treasures contained in the sacristy.

If you are an art lover, your eye will fasten at once on the exquisite armadio, or wardrobe, of carved and inlaid walnut ! It is Venetian work of the sixteenth century, and cost at that time only one hundred and twenty-five ducats! But what would it not fetch if it could be bought to-day !

There is in the treasury a very quaintly shaped ewer of silver gilt, highly praised by Jackson, of which he gives a sketch in his book; also a lovely ivory triptyche, a red velvet mitre sewn with pearls, said to have been made from the coronation mantle of the Hungarian King Bela IV., presented by him to the city of Trau, out of gratitude for the hospitality he received when he fled before the Turks in 1242; and among other antique embroideries a fifteenth-century stole, with representations of Our Lord and the twelve apostles.

Certainly the treasury of the Duomo at Trau Page  114ranks high among the church treasuries of Dalmatia, a land singularly rich in churches and monasteries, which pride themselves on their possession of priceless plate and medival church vestments of great value. And no one who cares for such things should miss visiting the sacristy, which makes a picture in itself, apart from the interest of the treasury, which is shown to visitors without any of the formalities in force at Ragusa.

Trau is fortunate in having its own especial historian, Giovanni Lucius, who wrote a book on the history of Croatia and Dalmatia in the sixteenth century that made him famous far beyond the limits of his own country, but naturally devoted himself specially to the story of his birthplace.

He starts by telling you that Tragurian, as Trau was called under the Romans, had its origin in a settlement of Greek colonists from the islands; and propos of this there is a stone still to be seen in the courtyard of the monastery of St. Nicolo with a Greek inscription which dates from the third century B.C. Roman remains, however, are not visible above ground, probably because the limited Page  115room the island affords obliged the citizens to erect new houses when necessary on the same spot. But it is long since Trau had any new buildings, nor is it likely that the old Venetian architecture will be replaced for centuries to come; the masons who fashioned the houses of the citizens, as well as the churches and public buildings, seem to have built not for time, but for eternity, and to have been equally concerned for the solidity and the beauty of their work : so in Trau to-day you see a perfect example of a Dalmatian city of the Venetian period, and Venetian Gothic windows, carved stone balustrades and balconies meet your delightful gaze at every turn, and quaint courtyards tempt you to enter them and admire some lovely bit of architecture hidden from the street.

Of life under the rule of the Lion an interesting glimpse is given in the statutes of Trau drawn up in I303, where doctors in the pay of the State are forbidden to leave the city without an order from the Count or governor on penalty of a money fine, and the punishment for theft is fixed at the loss of one or both eyes, if the value of the goods stolen should not exceed Page  116twenty-five lire; * whoso appropriated to himself more than that amount suffered death !

You wonder, do you not, if very many blind persons went about the streets of Trau, or if their honesty compared favourably with that of our own day ?

The summary justice of the period was carried out in the open piazza at a spot beside the loggia, where the Count and nobles assembled to try the accused.

It needs but a little imagination to conjure up the scene of execution, for the background is unchanged. The campanile still soars upwards opposite the seat of justice, as if pointing to a judgment seat where justice can never err. Many a condemned man must have looked his last here on God's house on earth, and been reminded in his dying moments of a higher tribunal more merciful than that of Venice!

The figures, too, of the curious crowd looking on would be those of to-day; the common people of Trau have not changed their dress any more than their houses. But the loggia is empty-that is, tenanted only by the sculptured Page  [116a]

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Page  [116b]Page  117lion upon the wall above the great stone table! Beside the loggia is the little basilica of St. Barbara, dating from the eighth century, one of the thirty-two churches Trau formerly possessed, of which the greater number are in ruins or converted to other uses; but even so some are well worth visiting.

In St. Dominics, which is still in use, there is a famous painting by Palma the younger, and an interesting marble sarcophagus where some old noble of Trau lies sleeping.

From the narrow streets of the medieval town you pass under the Porta Marina, where the old iron doors still hang on their hinges, to the picturesque water front, but you must pause a moment to look up at the lion, because he is not as others-his book is closed. The legend says it once was open, but shut on the fall of Venice. Then, for a last look at old-world Trau, stand a while on the bridge which links it to the isle of Bua, and if the sun is setting in the west, behind the towers of the old Venetian castle by the sea, and the campanile is silhouetted, too, against the sunset glow, you will carry away one of the fairest pictures in Dalmatia stored in your memory.