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Architecture of Croatia

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Architecture of Croatia

St Jacobs Cathedral, Šibenik

The architecture of Croatia has roots in a long history: the Croats have inhabited the area for thirteen centuries, but there are important remnants of earlier periods still preserved in the country.

Ancient heritage

The most interesting Copper Age finds are from Vučedol culture (named after Vučedol near Vukovar). In Vučedol, people lived on hilltops with palisade walls. Houses were half buried, mostly square or circular (they were also combined in mushroom shape), with floors of burned clay and circular fireplaces.

The Bronze culture of the citadel Nezakcij near Pula, one of numerous Istrian cities from the Iron Age.

Neretva Delta, there was an important influence of the Hellenistic Illyrian tribe of Daors.

Roman Empire. Numerous rustic villas, and new urban settlements (the most impressive are Verige in Brijuni, Pula and Trogir - formerly Tragurion) demonstrate the high level of Roman urbanization. There were at least thirty urban cities in Istria, Liburnia and Dalmatia with Roman citizenship (civitas). The best-preserved networks of Roman streets (decumanus/cardo) are those in Epetion (Poreč) and Jader (Zadar). The most perfectly preserved Roman monuments are in Pola (Pula); founded in the first century dedicated to Julius Caesar. It is full of classical Roman art such as: stone walls, two city gates, two temples on the Forum, and remains of two theaters, as well as the Arch from the year 30 AD, and the temple of Augustus built in the years 2 to 14 AD, and finally the Fluvian Amphitheater (so called – Arena) from 2nd century. In 3rd century AD, the city of Salona became the largest (it had 40,000 inhabitants) and most important city of Dalmatia. Near the city emperor Diocletian, born in Salona, built Diocletian's Palace around year the 300 AD,[2] which is the largest and most important monument of late antique architecture in the world. On its pathways, cellars, domes, mausoleums, arcades and courtyards we can trace numerous different art influences from the entire Empire. In the 4th century, Salona became the center of Christianity for the entire western Balkans. It had numerous basilicas and necropolises, and even two saints: Domnius (Duje) and Anastasius (Staš).

One of few preserved basilicas in western Europe (besides the ones in Ravenna) from the time of early Byzantium is Euphrasian Basilica in Poreč from the 6th century. The early Middle Ages brought the great migration of the Slavs and this period was perhaps a Dark Age in the cultural sense until the successful formation of the Slavic states which coexisted with Italic cities that remained on the coast, each of them modelled after Venice.

Early Middle Ages

The Church of Holy Cross in Nin, 9th century

In the 7th century, the Croats, with other Slavs and Avars, came from Northern Europe to the region where they live today. They were on the level of Iron Age nomadic culture, so they did not know how to enjoy the advantages of urban cities. This is why they first inhabited city boundaries on close by rivers (like Jadro near Roman Salona).[3]

The Croats were open to Roman art and culture, and first of all to Christianity. First churches were built as royal sanctuaries, and the influence of Roman art was strongest in Dalmatia where the urbanization was thickest and there were the largest number of monuments.[4] Gradually that influence was neglected and certain simplification, alteration of inherited forms, and even creation of original buildings appeared. All of them (a dozen large ones and hundreds of small ones) were built with roughly cut stone (natively called – lomljenac) bounded with thick layer of mortar from outside. Large churches are longitudinal with one or three naves like the St. Saviour at the source of the river Cetina, built in the 9th century. The church has strong semi-circular buttresses that give a feeling of fortification, emphasized by the mighty bell-tower positioned in front of entrance.

Smaller churches are interestingly shaped (mainly central) with several apses. The largest and most complicated central based church from the 9th century is the church of St. Donatus in Zadar. Around its circular centre – with dome above – is a nave in the shape of a ring with three apses directed to the east; that shape is followed on the second floor forming a gallery. For that period, with its size and beauty, St. Donatus is comparable only with the chapel of Charlemagne in Aachen.

The altar fences and windows of those churches were highly decorated with transparent shallow string-like ornament that is called pleter (meaning to weave) because the strings were threaded and rethreaded through itself. Motifs of those reliefs were taken from Roman art (waves, three-string interlace, pentagrams, net of rhomboids etc.), but while in Roman art they only made the frame of a sculpture, in the Dark Ages it fills the entire surface. Sometimes figures from Bible appeared alongside this decoration, like Relief in Holy Nedjeljica in Zadar, and then they were dominated by their pattern. This also happened to engravings in early Croatian script – Glagolitic. Soon, the Glagolitic writings were replaced with Latin on altar fences and architraves of old-Croatian churches. Those inscriptions usually mention to whom the church was dedicated, who built it and when it was built, as well who produced the building. That was the way that "barbarian newcomers" could fit amongst the Romanised natives.

By joining the Hungarian state in the twelfth century, Croatia lost its independence, but it did not lose its ties with the south and the west, and instead this ensured the beginning of a new era of Central European cultural influence.


In the 11th century, monumental cities were built along the entire Dalmatian coast. Houses were built out of stone. On the ground floor there were shops or dinners (natively – konoba) like in cities as: Poreč, Rab, Zadar, Trogir and Split. In them the most important buildings were churches. They were commonly stone built basilicas with three naves, three apses, columns, arches, arcades and wooden roofs; build near monasteries of the Benedictine monks who came out of Italy. St. Peter in Supetarska Draga on the island of Rab (11th century) is the best-preserved church of that type in Croatia. On the same island is the Cathedral of Rab (12th century) that has a high-Romanesque bell tower, the largest in Dalmatia. It is specific with its openings, which multiply as we go higher floor by floor (Latin: mono-fore, bi-fore, tri-fore, quadro-fore); typical for Romanesque, but also architecturally innovative because it makes every next floor a bit lighter than the preceding one.

The Cathedral of St. Anastasia, Zadar (natively - St. Stošija) in Zadar (13th century) is marked outside by a string of blind arch-niches on both sides and on the frontal side where it also has two Rose windows with radial columns and three portals. In is reminiscent of the cathedral in Pisa. Inside, it has three naves, slim columns that support a gallery, and flat figurative reliefs.

In Croatian Romanesque sculpture we see a transformation of decorative interlace relief (natively – pleter) to figurative, which is found on stone ceilings. At the end of the Romanesque period, in Istria there were workshops of monumental figures. They had geometrical and naturalistic features reminiscent of Gothic. The best examples of Romanesque sculpture are the wooden doors of Split Cathedral done by artisan Andrija Buvina (c.1220) and the stone portal of the Trogir Cathedral done by artisan Radovan (c. 1240).


The Rab and Trogir, the regulation of streets in Dubrovnik, and the integration of Split. It was also a time of paving the streets with stone, sewage canals, and communalities.

The largest urban project of this period was the complete building of two new towns – Mali Ston and Ston, and about a kilometre of wall with guard towers between them (14th century). After Hadrian's wall, the was and is the longest wall in Europe. Thanks to the wall, all of Pelješac peninsula was surrounded and protected from land shore with the aim to protect the most valuable possession of the Republic of Ragusa – salt from Ston.

We can recognize Gothic fortifications with their high towers in the shape of a square prism from simple Romanesque ones, or round Renaissance one. The best-preserved ones in Croatia are in Istria (Hum, Bale, Motovun, Labin etc.) and those on north (Medvedgrad above Zagreb from year 1260) or on the south Sokolac in Lika (14th century).

The Franciscan church in Pula (1285) is the most representative example of Early Gothic. This simple one nave building with a wooden rib-vault ceiling, a square apse, and high stained glass windows was built from 13th to the 15th century.

Mongols destroyed the Romanesque cathedral in Zagreb during their scourge in 1242, but right after their departure Zagreb got the title of a free city from Hungarian King Béla IV. Soon after, bishop Timotej began to rebuild the cathedral in the new Gothic style. This was a building with three naves, polygonal apses, and rib-vault and it had Romanesque round towers. The naves were built in the 14th century, and the vault was finished in 15th. With the arrival of Turks in the 16th century, high walls and towers surrounded it. Only one tower was finished in the 17th century, while in the 18th the Baroque roof became the landmark of the entire city. An earthquake in 1880 severely damaged the cathedral. With the restoration in the 19th century in the Neo-gothic style, it lost its former harmony.

During the 14th century, the Split cathedral of St Duje and the cloister of the Franciscan monastery in Dubrovnik were also built.

In Dubrovnik after the fire in 1435, two of the most important buildings, the Rector's Palace and the Sponza Palace, were restored in style of Venetian Gothic by an artisan from Naples, Onofrio della Cava.


Nehaj Fortress built by Ivan Lenković in 1558

In the 15th century, Croatia was divided between three states – northern Croatia was a part of Austrian Empire, Dalmatia was under the rule of Venetian Republic (with exception of Dubrovnik), and Slavonia was under Ottoman occupation. Dalmatia was on the periphery of several influences, equidistant from Italy, Ottoman Bosnia, and Austria, so it drew influence from all. In those circumstances in Dalmatia flourished religious and public architecture with clear influences of the Italian Renaissance, but still original.

Only in this kind of environment, free of dogmas and self-governed - far from major governing centers - could it be possible for the artisan known as Cathedral of St.James in Šibenik, constructed in 1441. Besides mixing of the Gothic and Renaissance styles it was also original in its unity of stone building and montage construction (big stone blocks, pilasters and ribs were bounded with joints and slots on them - without concrete) in the way that was usual in wooden constructions. This was a unique building with so-called three-leaves frontal and half-barrel vaults, the first in Europe. The cathedral and its original stone dome was finished by Nikola Firentinac following the original plans of Juraj.

In the entire area of the Ottoman Empire caused many problems but in the long term it both reinforced the northern influence by establishing the Austrians as the rulers of a large part of Croatia. With permanent danger from the Ottomans in the east, there was only a modest influence of the Renaissance, while fortifications thrived. The plan for the fortified city of Karlovac in 1579 was the first entirely new urban city to be built by Renaissance plans (so called "ideal city" plan) in Europe. It was built in radial plan, later common in Baroque city design. The Renaissance fort of the Ratkay family in Veliki Tabor from the 16th century has mixed features of Gothic architecture (high roofs) and Renaissance (cluster and round towers) making it an example of Mannerism.

Baroque and Rococo

In the 17th and 18th century, Croatia was reunited with the parts of country that were occupied by Venetian Republic and Ottoman Empire. The unity attributed to the sudden flourishing of art in every segment. In northern Croatia and Slavonia numerous and worthy works of Baroque art sprung out, from urban plans and large forts to churches, palaces, public buildings, and monuments.

Large fortifications with radial plan, ditches, and numerous towers were built because of constant Ottoman threat. The two largest ones were Osijek and Slavonski Brod. Later they become large cities. They were fortified with water and earth – earth mounds with cannons and canals filled with water that was supposed to slow down the approaching enemies. The fort of Slavonski Brod was the largest in all Croatia, and one of the largest in all Europe because it was the bouny fort of Europe facing the Ottoman Empire.

Baroque urban planning is felt in numerous new towns like Karlovac, Bjelovar, Koprivnica, Virovitica etc. that had large straight streets, rectangular squares in the middle surrounded with buildings as government and military ones as well as representative church.

The church of St Vlaho (St Blasius) in Dubrovnik by night
The cities of Dalmatia also had Baroque towers and bastions incorporated in their old walls, like the ones in Pula, Šibenik, and Hvar. But the biggest Baroque undertaking happened in Dubrovnik in the 17th century after a catastrophic earthquake in 1667 when almost the entire city was destroyed. In the Baroque style were rebuilt the church of St Vlaho on the main square (1715), Main Cathedral and Jesuit house with church of St Ignatius. Paolo Passalaqua united several of those baroque masterpieces with his Jesuit Stairway. This beautiful wide stone stairway with series of convexities and concavities and a strong balustrade (reminiscent of the famous Spanish Steps in Rome) actually connected two separate Baroque parts of the city - the Jesuit church above and Ivan Gundulić Square below.

During the Baroque period, numerous churches of enchanting size and form were built in of all Croatia, thus becoming a crown in every town or city. The monastery churches often had an enclosing wall with inner porches lavishly decorated, like in the Franciscan monastery in Slavonski Brod where the columns are as thick as baroque abundance. The most beautiful one is probably the church in Selima near Sisak. It has an oval shape with elliptic dome and concave and convex front with two according towers.

Wall painting flourished in all parts of Croatia, from illusionist frescoes in the 'church of Holy Mary in Samobor, St Catherine in Zagreb to the Jesuit church in Dubrovnik. The best preserved examples are the Rococo frescoes in Miljana mansion where allegorical seasons and natural elements were depicted through human nature and its reflection on art.

19th century

Mirogoj entrance

In Austrian countries on the beginning of the 19th century (to which Croatia belonged than) building in Classicistic Manner prevailed. In Croatia most prominent architect was Bartol Felbinger who also build City Hall in Samobor (1826) and Januševac Castle near Zagreb.

The Romantic movement in Croatia was sentimental, gentle and subtle a reflection of the bourgeoisie's humble and modest virtues. In architecture there were simple decorations made of shallow arch-like niches around windows.

Historicism is marked with building three large churches: the neo-Romanesque cathedral in Đakovo (K. Roesner and F. Schmidt, 1882), monumental parish church of St Peter and Paul in Osijek (1898) and neo-gothic rebuilding of Zagreb cathedral with glazed roof tiles and 105 m tall towers (Herman Bolle, 1880–1902). At the end of 19th century Herman Bolle undertook one of the largest projects of European historicism, a half-kilometer long neo-Renaissance arcade with twenty domes on Zagreb cemetery Mirogoj.

At the same time the cities in Croatia got important urban makeovers: Karlovac transformed its Renaissance bastions into a parkway that surrounds the entire old town (just like Vienna's Ringstraẞe), while the coastal cities (Trogir, Zadar, Pula, Pag and Šibenik) took down their walls and opened to the sea. The size and importance the urban regulation of Downtown Zagreb (largely the work of Milan Lenuzzio, 1860–1880) was revolutionary. Between Zagreb's longest street – Ilica, and the new railway the new geometrical city was built with large public and social buildings like the neo-Renaissance building of the Croatian Academy of Science and Art (HAZU, F. Scmidt, 1884), the neo-Baroque Croatian National Theater (HNK, H. Helmer and F. Fellner, 1895), and to that date very modern Art Pavilion (1898) with montage construction of steel and glass – Croatia's "Crystal Palace", and finally the masterpiece of Art Nouveau – The National Library (Lubinski, finished in 1912). This urban plan is bounded with a series of parks and parkways decorated with numerous fountains, sculptures, avenues and gardens (known as "Green Horseshoe") making Zagreb one of first cities build according to new European art theory of "city as a work of art".

A pseudo building that emphasizes all three visual arts is the former building of the Ministry of Prayer and Education in Zagreb (H. Bolle, 1895). Alongside with rooms in Pompeii style and Renaissance cabinet, the large neo-Baroque "Golden Hall" was painted with historic compositions. "The Golden Hall" became a unified monument of its age, one of few in Europe.

20th century

HNK Ivana pl. Zajca in Rijeka
Till the end of World War I in Croatia there was coexistence of several art movements and styles, but all avant-garde movements were absent. That is why the greatest artworks of that period were done in the spirit of 19th-century art. The most important architecture done in Viennas Art Nouveau (also called Sezessionsstil, 'Secessionism') is done at that time. Ethnographic Museum in 1901, Kalina House in 1903, National Library in 1912 were built in Zagreb, while Sulphurous Bath in 1903, and Croatian National Theatre in 1908, were built in Split.
Photo taken in early 1930s of Burze square (Viktor Kovačić) in Zagreb

Modern Croatian architecture appeared with Viktor Kovačić, who was the first to speak against historicism and represented the idea that architecture must be individual and modern, but also practical and comfortable. His projects are marked with subtle purity of reduced elements of historicism, like in the monumental Palace of Burze in Zagreb, 1924. From the thirties the works of "Zagreb school" of architecture can stand alongside with the best world architecture. They are especially interesting because of the merging of two opposite directions in architecture of those days – functionalistic and organic.

Drago Ibler has published a manifest of the group "Earth" in which he says: "We should live in the spirit of our age and create accordingly; … The modern life is full of social ideas and questions considering everybody and an artist can’t stand outside that collective because art and life are one." Most of his projects were rejected, and out of the ones that were actually done is the extraordinary building of Social Security in Mostar. Today the simple ambulance, built in 1930, has a beautiful convex half-ring shaped entrance with a porch, and dynamic balance of short office building and tall volume of resident part and stairways.

Stjepan Planić, also a member of group "Earth", with his numerous buildings made a makeover of Zagreb and earned a place in the Anthology of Modern Architecture. Every project of his is marked with some new idea: Villa in Kozarčeva street from 1931 is gradually accommodated to the hillside, "Tomislav Home" in Sljeme from 1935, made out of wood and stone, has a unique plane in the shape of letter Y, circular villa on the Prekrižje, also from 1935, has radial inner walls, while "Napredak" building from 1936 has a unique oval plan. He fought for the architectural freedom to plan the buildings accordingly with climatic conditions, the sun, the wind and the sightings, and for the affirmation of new social and human ideas in habitat culture.

Recent architectural directions

See also


  1. ^ "Roman Art". Retrieved 2012-07-26. 
  2. ^ The Megalithic Portal and Megalith Map. "C.Michael Hogan, "Diocletian's Palace", The Megalithic Portal, A. Burnham ed, Oct 6, 2007". Retrieved 2012-07-26. 
  3. ^ "Barbarians and Romans | Thematic Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art". Retrieved 2012-07-26. 
  4. ^ "The First Croatian State". Retrieved 2 December 2012. 
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