Pirating History

Walking down Stradun, the main street of Dubrovnik, it’s easy to picture it as a pirate haven with rum-soaked marauders staggering from the many alleys supported by exotic wenches out to part the buccaneers from their doubloons and pieces of eight.  The image owes much to the climate and the pale stone of all the buildings which echoes the Spanish Colonial look of parts of the Caribbean.

Not content with milking their connection to Game of Thrones and Star Wars, the savvy traders of Dubrovnik are keen to maximise any profits that Johnny Depp may bring their way too.  One swarthy individual dressed very tenuously in a piratical style (loose-fitting white shirt open to the waist, medallion, leather trousers) has a small collection of parrots for tourists to photographed supporting, and there are at least two confectionary outlets that play on the theme by displaying their wares on top of replica barrels.

I wasn’t convinced.

There was another opportunity to partake of a bit of the freebooter experience.  Sea wolves with sea legs can board one of two galleons that sail the waters around the three main tourist islands of the area.

So is there any truth behind these commercial operations?

Well yes, some… but mostly no.

The Croatian coastline with its hundreds of islands provides the perfect context in which pirates could operate with innumerable hiding places in the bays and caves that the islands and cliffs provide.  The few miles of similar topography where I used to live supported a smuggling operation, so with a coastline that stretches for well over 2000 miles of course pirates operated here.  The fact is that at different times in history there were three different pirate groups operating here.

The first group to menace these waters were the Narentines, a Serbian tribal group whose name derives from the Neretva river, the largest on this side of the Adriatic and a natural thoroughfare for raiding parties, much like the fjords to the Norse.  They attacked Venetian traders in the 9th and 10th centuries until their eventual defeat by Doge Pietro II, a victory that has been celebrated ever since in the ceremony where Venice “marries” the sea each year.  (Can’t believe I didn’t include that festival amongst all of my Venetian posts.)

Enter the corsairs of Omis, albeit two centuries later.  As their name suggests they originated from Omis, 200km further up the coast from Dubrovnik.  Described by the local tourist board as “one of the most powerful and fearsome” pirate groups of the entire Mediterranean.  Well they would wouldn’t they?  They did have some chutzpah, not content with emulating the Narentines and helping themselves to Venetian cargoes they also harried the Pope’s crusaders en route to Palestine.  The Pope declared ware on them.  And lost.  Once again it took concerted Venetian naval might to end the Omis era in 1331.

Neither of these groups sailed in galleons – this was still the era of warships powered by rowers in the Mediterranean.  So what about the final group, the evocatively named Uskoks, a word meaning “those who ambushed”?  Also operating from rowed boats these were groups of soldiers who turned to piracy as a means of survival.  In contrast to their predecessors their targets were Ottoman rather than Venetian, so much so that their actions helped to trigger a war between Venice and the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century.  In fact they allied themselves with the Papal fleet that crushed the Ottomans at the Battle of Lepanto.  Seeing themselves more as holy warriors they were disbanded as part of a peace treaty between Venice and Austria in 17th Century.

So no galleons.  No rum.  No parrots.  But pirates aplenty.

Maritime Powers

_pw_6011During the Rio Olympics I was in a Croatian bar with the ubiquitous TV showing live sport, though as the games were in progress it wasn’t showing football.  The event in question was sailing, and though I understood neither the captions nor the commentary, all I could see was the GB had a competitor vying for a medal.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries Great Britain was a world superpower based on one particular asset.  The size of her navy.  Only the Dutch rivalled us a master of the world’s seas.  As an island nation that’s not too surprising; we had relied on seafaring skills for food supplies, defence, trade and transport throughout our history and were at that stage building an empire with our navy at its heart that would transform the wealth of the nation.  (Damn those Wright brothers!)_pw_5072

Although I lived in a town with its own yacht club for many years, I never really developed much knowledge of sailing beyond being able to identify a laser class vessel by the insignia on its sail.  Consequently I had no idea whether the men in the British boat (470 class) were likely world beaters or not.  As it happened they were not and finished in 5th place (though we did top the medal table for sailing overall).  Instead the gold medal went to Šime Fantela and Igor Marenić, the Croatian entrants.  No wonder it was being given such prominence in the bar.

I shouldn’t have been surprised at their success however, for Croatia has its own maritime history.


Ragusa Insignia, Customs House Door, Sponza Palace, Dubrovnik
Ragusa Insignia, Customs House Door, Sponza Palace, Dubrovnik

Prior to the exploits of Columbus, the Mediterranean was the most important body of water to Europeans and a succession of Maritime Republics held sway, of which Venice was one of the most important and enduring, but Amalfi, Pisa, Columbus’ home Genoa and more also established themselves as city-states whose power was derived from the sea.  And then there was Ragusa, though now we know it as Dubrovnik.

Of course the region produced natural sailors; modern Croatia may be small but its coastline is the most indented in the Mediterranean and runs to over a thousand miles in length.  Then add in over 1200 islands and you have over 2500 miles of coastline; being sailors was inevitable.  If you live on one of those islands (only 45 or so are populated) the boat is more important than any other vehicle, and so just like Venice, they put them to good use; one morning on the ferry to Dubrovnik we  were delayed in Koločep by a group of men who climbed aboard to unload a pallet of roofing tiles.  No cranes or derricks here, the whole job was completed in a matter of minutes by human chain.

Dubrovnik’s arsenal may not have had the size or significance of its Venetian counterpart (and now it’s a swanky restaurant) but this walled city held its own for 450 years until Napoleon intervened.  I think they deserved that gold medal.




What the Blaises?

How is your throat today?  A little sore?  Or maybe you’ve some wool that needs unravelling?  More seriously perhaps you’re at risk of imminent invasion?
English: Flag of the Republic of Dubrovnik.
English: Flag of the Republic of Dubrovnik. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Who you gonna call?

Perhaps a man who was martyred early in the 4th Century?

_pw_5094St Blaise, St Blazey, San Biagio, St Blasius, San Blas; his reputation spread throughout the Christian world, so what made him so influential?  (In Croatia he is Sveti Vlaho.)

The former physician turned bishop miraculously cured a child who was choking on a fishbone (thus becoming the patron saint of throat problems).  His execution consisted of being beaten with a stick, having his flesh ripped off with iron combs (hence the patron saint of wool combers) before he was beheaded.  That death at the hands of the Romans was by virtue of his religion rather than as a result of any significant political act.

On route to Sebastea for his execution he reputedly intervened when meeting an old woman whose pig had been snatched by a wolf, Blaise somehow persuading the wolf to release the pig to the woman.  To repay this act she apparently brought two candles to light his cell as he awaited his end._pw_6220

His remains rest in the Italian town of Maratea’s basilica, or at least some of them do.  Parts of him are also to be found in Dubrovnik, where he finally seems to have done something of note.  Over 600 years after his death in Turkey, he appeared in a vision to a priest of St Stephen’s cathedral in the Croatian city, to warn of an attack by the duplicitous Venetians whose fleet had anchored nearby, ostensibly to refresh their water supplies, but according to Blaise, to assess Dubrovnik’s defences.  Why this long-dead Armenian should feel the need to intervene in the politics of two Mediterranean city states is unclear.

_pw_6243Whatever the spectre’s motivation, he was immediately venerated in the city, remaining part of the states iconography until Napoleon’s arrival centuries later (ironically the same individual who ended Venetian independence).  Blaise’s head and hands (and of course a part of his throat) are paraded each year on the 3rd of February,

In modern-day Dubrovnik the Saint’s patronage lives on.  You can barely turn a corner without encountering some image of Blaise, who is characterised by the model of Dubrovnik that he carries with him.  If you think you’ve heard this story before, then you may be confusing him with Petronius of Bologna, who also had a predilection for miniaturised municipalities.

Mistaken identity is easily avoided though – the twin towers of Bologna make it easy to spot that city’s patron if you should bump into them both at a party.




I’d never come across St Blaise before Dubrovnik, and then what should I find on a day in Richmond, North Yorkshire?  Not sure a pub is an appropriate tribute!

Fine dell’Avventura (Venezia 365)

Well this is it, my final image from my project to reveal a different aspect of Venice for each day of the last year.  I didn’t save the best ’til last, but I did save one that is unmistakably Venetian.  I’ve enjoyed the journey as I’ve learnt so much more about the city from my attempts to identify the subject matter of an exposure that had visual appeal at the time, but about which I knew nothing more.

Thank you to those who have followed my journey, my sharing of trivia, stories and personal reflections.

When I studied creativity I learned about the use of random inputs; a technique developed by Edward de Bono and this project has seen a lot of that.  Given a random image what could you find to write about?  Where will your imagination take you?

In my case it has taken me to new levels of understanding of this amazing city, I hope it has you too.

So I bid adieu to La Serenissima.  Or arrivederci may be more appropriate.


The Sign of Four (Final Venezia Bonus)

Wedged into a corner where the Basilica San Marco adjoins the Palazzo Ducale is a compact piece of sculpture that were it not for its colouring would probably garner little attention, yet it has great significance as both art and history.

It depicts four identical men, with embracing pairs facing in different directions, making it a suitable choice for its corner siting.  It’s also made of porphyry, a highly durable stone, which is lucky given the knocks that such a corner will accrue.

As a piece of art, it marks a transition from the classical style seen in many Roman and Greek antiquities; the poised and highly muscular statuary that inspired the Renaissance, to something simpler and more stylised.

Its historical significance is more apparent when you know that the subject matter is the Tetrarchs; tetrarchy being a Greek word meaning the rule of four, and these particular individual were the rulers of the Roman Empire at the end of the third century.  The empire had grown so large at that point that attacks were coming on multiple fronts, a problem which Diocletian addressed by splitting the empire in half; appointing an emperor and deputy for the West Empire (operating from Milan and other western cities) and the East Empire (from Antioch, Nicomedia etc).  Although reunited shortly afterwards by Constantine the Great, these would become the templates for the Carolingian and Byzantine Empires.

What is the statue doing in Venice on a Byzantine inspired basilica?  It was looted during the Fourth Crusade.  Unfortunately the crusaders were a little careless and left the heel of one of the tetrarchs behind.  It’s now in a museum in Istanbul.


That’s Amore (Venezia 364)

In amongst all the gushing about the architecture, history and food that I experienced in Venice, I have over the last 12 months posted some pieces that were critical of aspects of Italian life; corruption, brutal policing, mindless bureaucracy, and organised crime for example.

Yet in any love affair we are able to overlook the imperfections of the object of our heart’s desire.

Tasteless (Venezia 363)

For the first time visitor to the city, emerging into the daylight from the shaded interior of the railway station is a dramatic experience.  The open space before you seems full of light, accentuated by the white stonework around you and the sparkling green waters of the Grand Canal.

Then your eye is grabbed by a small church on the opposite side of the Canalazzo, small in stature but also in name for this is San Simeon Piccolo (the little Saint Simon; distinguishing it from another Saint Simon nearby).

Visually the church punches above its weight, its four classical column drawing the eye upwards to a bright green dome, the verdigris of its copper matching the hue of the waters below.

Personally I like it, but it seems I’m out of step with the views of more notable individuals:

One of the ugliest churches in Venice or elsewhere. Its black dome, like an unusual species of gasometer, is the admiration of modern Italian architects. 

Ruskin (Clearly before the dome achieved its present verdant colour)

I have seen churches without domes before, but I’ve never, until now, seen a dome without a church.


At the risk of causing greater offence, I took advantage of the recent rain to double the impact of that dome.