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(E) Dubrovnik: A History - Reviews & availability
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  01/3/2004 | History | Unrated
(E) Dubrovnik: A History - Reviews & availability



Reviews/USA availability of Dubrovnik: A History by Robin Harris

Excellent news! Robin Harris's superlative Dubrovnik:
A History is now available in the US from

For the UK:

Further, here 2 zarjaz reviews of the book by Norman
Stone and Brendan Simms of the book - I am sure their
sentiments will please all:

The Daily Telegraph (UK)
The city that went to sleep
(Filed: 16/06/2003)

Norman Stone reviews Dubrovnik: a History by Robin Harris

Most Slavs have something of a cultural inferiority
complex: where are their Gothic cathedrals? A Croat
intellectual put it pertinently: why does the Louvre
contain paintings by Croats, and no other Slavs? The
answer is that the Croats, on the Dalmatian coast,
were very heavily influenced by the Italians and, as
Robin Harris shows, produced their own versions of
Renaissance architecture and poetry.

Up and down the eastern Adriatic coast, there are
jewel-like towns, with Venetian architecture and often
extensive, sophisticated fortifications - Zadar,
Split, Budva (to give them their modern rather than
their Italian names). They were constructed in this
manner because they needed to defend themselves
against pirates.

The greatest of them is Dubrovnik, the subject of
Harris's learned and well-written labour of love. Its
official language was Italian, but it was in effect
part of an eastern Mediterranean commercial world. Its
history is difficult to write, because the sources
exist in so many languages including, for the later
period, German. Harris can manage all the languages
and - this does not happen very often in academe - can
still write his own.

Like almost the entire Mediterranean, including Venice
and Naples, Dubrovnik started going to sleep in the
later 17th century - you can more or less put a date
to it, with the great earthquake in 1667 (of which
there is a splendid set-piece description in Harris's
book), from which the town never recovered.

But before then it had a place second only to that of
Venice in the commerce of the Levant. It had an
exceedingly important position, even in classical
times, because its harbour was the best place for
commercial penetration of the Balkans. Its historic
name, Ragusa, was an Italianised version of an old
Greek word (and gives us the English word "argosy", a
large merchant ship, from the Elizabethan description
of the city's formidable fleet).

The Balkans were once the centre of civilization, as
they connected western Europe with Constantinople, and
Dubrovnik rivalled Venice, at times to the point of
open warfare. But the great days of the city came
after the Ottoman Turkish conquest. The Turks in
effect revived the Roman empire of the East; Dubrovnik
offered an alternative to Venice, and the city
survived under Ottoman protection. This could on
occasion be capricious, and Dubrovnik's ruling class
developed formidable diplomatic skills.

Like the Venetian patricians, the Turks were very good
at holding on to power, decade-in, decade-out. In
other rich city states - as in Florence or Naples -
patrician rulers would grow rich and lazy, and would
divide; the rabble would take over, and barbarians
would then conquer. Venice and Dubrovnik had cleverer
ruling classes that were able to contain the potential
rabble through elaborate arrangements for education,
charity and medical care. They were also tolerant when
it came to the religious differences that were allowed
to ruin other once-great commercial centres such as
Antwerp or the imperial cities of southern Germany. In
Dubrovnik, there was no problem at all with Muslims or
Jews (who had a very important role in the Ottoman
lands, having been expelled from Spain). Curiously
enough, the one religion that was forbidden was
Protestantism - probably because, even in the later
16th century, the Dutch and the English meant serious

By 1700, Dubrovnik, like Venice, had declined, as the
Ottoman empire itself declined. Large areas of the
Balkans became ungovernable. Trade was taken over,
more and more, by the Greeks and British, and
Dubrovnik languished. In 1806, Napoleon added it,
along with Dalmatia, to his empire; the Austrians took
it over after his fall. Harris sensibly avoids this
period: the Dalmatian coast became very poor and
remote, and was rediscovered only by tourists in the
20th century.

Fortunately, it has been spared a great deal of the
mass destruction that such tourism has so often
brought. Dubrovnik has remained a jewel, with superb
churches and cathedrals constructed round the main
street; it fully deserves its Unesco-protected status.
Much good that did it during the Yugoslav wars of the
early 1990s, though. Dubrovnik is a Croat city, but it
had become important for the Serbs, partly for
historic reasons, and partly for straightforward
commercial ones (tourism, of course).

In August–September 1991, the place stood siege, as
Montenegrin levies bombarded the harbour, destroying
the yachts and damaging some of the historic houses.
At the time, the western world was Vance-Owening away,
trying to preserve the unity of Yugoslavia, even if
that meant sanctioning atrocities. The bombardment of
Dubrovnik, a city that so many people knew from their
travels, showed the world what was really happening.
There was a revolt of public opinion, especially in
Germany, that led to the recognition of independent
Croatia. It was that event which led Robin Harris to
write his wonderful book, which opens up an
interesting corner of Mediterranean history for the
English reader.

The Daily Telegraph (UK)

The pearl and its wisdom
(Filed: 07/07/2003)

Brendan Simms reviews Dubrovnik by Robin Harris

In October 1991, after conquering about one-third of
Croatia, destroying many villages and towns and
murdering thousands of Croats with relative impunity,
the protagonists of "Greater Serbia" made a terrible
mistake. They turned their attention to the historic
port city of Dubrovnik, the famous "pearl of the
Adriatic", known to generations of architectural
historians and hordes of European tourists alike.

The damage caused by the besieging Yugoslav army was
serious enough, yet trivial compared to the
destruction wrought upon the Baroque jewels of eastern
Slavonia. But it had the effect of electrifying world
opinion: one British journalist for a serious London
daily newspaper recalls how his hitherto insouciant
editor now demanded daily updates on the condition of
the city's numerous monuments. It was almost certainly
this public resonance which spared Dubrovnik the fate
of less glamorous cities further north.

We are reminded just how remarkable Dubrovnik was and
is by Robin Harris's formidably learned, fluently
written and lavishly illustrated Dubrovnik: A History.
It is not merely the concentration of such striking
buildings as the Rector's palace, the Franciscan
friary, the Cathedral, the fortifications, and many
other structures which makes Dubrovnik so special, but
their location within an almost entirely unspoilt
historic town centre.

Much of this heritage is medieval and Renaissance, but
most of it is Baroque, built after the great
earthquake of 1667. Dubrovnik, it could be said,
shared with Lisbon and London the good fortune of
being destroyed in the 17th and 18th centuries. The
example of the nearby Macedonian capital of Skopje,
horribly mangled by reconstruction after an earthquake
in the 1960s, shows that the same does not hold true
for the 20th century.

But this book is not just about buildings or
artefacts. It is also the story of the people and
politics of Ragusa, the Latin name by which Dubrovnik
was known for most of its history. Ragusa breathed, to
use Harris's phrase, "with two lungs". Most of the
time this self-governing city of merchants looked
west, towards a commercial destiny as a Mediterranean
port, reflected in the size of its merchant fleet,
which periodically rivalled that of Venice; but it was
also committed to overland trade with its Balkan

Politically, too, Ragusa faced two ways, or indeed
several ways. For hundreds of years, it drifted in and
out of the Norman, Hungarian, Venetian and Ottoman
Turkish spheres of influence. The Ragusans lent money
to, paid bribes to and shared intelligence with all
sides; so much so that they became known as the sette
bandiere (seven flags) because they paid tribute to
seven foreign rulers.

Harris is clear about the historical origins and
affiliations of Ragusa, which have been bitterly
contested between partisans of the Croat, Serb and
Italian national viewpoints. Most Ragusans spoke a
Slav tongue in everyday life, while the language of
law and government was Latin or Italian. Ragusans were
also stridently Catholic which marked them out from
their Orthodox Serb neighbours. Harris, in fact, is
very firm that "the broad preference [of Dubrovnik
was] for orderly relations with the European west
rather than disorderly dangers from the Orthodox Slavs
of the hinterland". He is thus implicitly closer to
the Croatian interpretation than any other, and
rightly so.

At the same time Harris stresses that questions of
national identity are largely meaningless for the
pre-modern period. And he does not disguise the fact
that Ragusa was a cold house for non-Catholics, nor
that some citizens in more recent times, the "Serb
Catholics", genuinely saw their future with Belgrade
rather than Croatia; he also takes due account of the
many positive interconnections between the city and
the often alien Orthodox world around it.

In short, there was nothing inevitable about the
calculated assault which the Serbian leader Slobodan
Milosevic and his proxies unleashed on Dubrovnik in
1991. But with Milosevic safely in the Hague, and the
project of "Greater Serbia" largely buried, the
peaceful aspirations of St Blaise, Dubrovnik's patron
saint, cited by Harris in his conclusion, seem closer
to realisation than ever before.

* Brendan Simms's 'Unfinest Hour: Britain and the
Destruction of Bosnia', is published by Penguin.

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