Croatia / The Navigator / Popular Culture

Coast of Thrones

The more popular the Croatian Adriatic becomes, the less control it exerts over its own narratives

Dubrovnik’s four-year reign as an outdoor set for a TV series has produced more media coverage than the preceding fourteen centuries of the city’s own history.

Three years ago a Croatian friend predicted that tourism in Dubrovnik was about to ‘go crazy’ due to the city’s use as a location in Game of Thrones. I gave him an indulgent smile, confident that a cult show for fantasy geeks would never have much of an impact on mainstream travel habits.

Gripping TV makes geeks of us all, however, and it’s nowadays almost impossible to walk down the street without speculating, in the manner of a Fifties’ sci-fi movie character, whether the people we pass on the pavement have undergone total Thronification or still count among the non-afflicted. 

And as far as Dubrovnik is concerned, Game of Thrones did indeed turn out to be the biggest single advertising campaign the city had ever experienced. Unlike advertising campaigns planned and executed by tourist boards, however, this one came out of the blue, like a force of nature, or a visitation by aliens. Dubrovnik’s four-year reign as an outdoor set for a TV series is nowadays more written about and more widely known than the preceding fourteen centuries of its own (frequently rather glorious) history. 

Is the Adriatic’s sudden popularity with Throne-heads redrawing our picture of the Croatian coast? It certainly reveals the extent to which the more popular a destination becomes, the less control it exerts over its own narratives. Indeed the purpose and meaning of the destination is ultimately something that the visitor decides, not the host. Croatia is a relatively weak nation in terms of overall media power, and the way it tells its own stories will never have as much impact as the storytelling that is bestowed upon it. No longer is there anything surprising about the fact that people are visiting Diocletian’s Palace in Split not because of the Emperor Diocletian himself, but because of a fantasy blonde and her computer-generated dragons.

The Monster of Ragusa

It’s by no means the first time that the Adriatic has served as the backdrop for other people’s flights of fancy. Back in February 1716, London newspaper The Flying Post reported that the inhabitants of Ragusa (Dubrovnik’s historical name) had seen a huge sea monster in the form of a giant man splashing around and shaking the earth with his deafening growls. It wasn’t as fanciful an invention as you might think, given that the real-life Ragusan earthquake of 1667 had been widely reported in London just a generation or two earlier. It would not be unreasonable to assume that the popular mind associated Ragusa with images of otherworldly terror. Poet Alexander Pope was so tickled by the Flying Post’s sensationalism however that he wrote the satirical ballad Monster of Ragusa by way of response:

Their Proteus and his flock to fair,
Their Neptune and their Triton,
If with this giant you compare
Are monsters you may shite on.

In Pope’s version of events, the monster went on to deliver a sermon against wine and sodomy, ate fifty sheep, then jumped back in the sea, where it was last seen farting a dragon out of its backside.

Dubrovnik’s subsequent appearances in literature have been surprisingly fleeting. The city exerted a strong influence over science fiction writer Brian Aldiss, whose imaginary city of Malacia (from the 1978 fantasy novel Malacia Tapestries) is clearly Renaissance Dubrovnik in disguise – albeit inhabited by an unorthodox melange of humans, apes and reptiles. Unfortunately the book has always been considered too slow-moving and too strange to be included in any fantasy canon. 

Dubrovnik makes a brief appearance in Elizabeth Kostova’s best-seller The Historian before the main characters pack their bags and head elsewhere, as if propelled by the reader’s desire to see the main sights and move on. 

Bearing in mind how many people have been to Dubrovnik over the years, it’s strange that the city has failed to imprint its own narratives on visiting minds. Perhaps the city lacks the kind of strong personalities with whom we can identify. Dubrovnik’s history certainly looks rather mundane when set against the visceral drama of Game of Thrones. The city-state’s constitution was famous for preventing the concentration of power in individual hands, elevating Rectors who only remained in power for one month at a time, and hampering the emergence of individual leaders who could have somehow left their stamp on the history of the city. We marvel at Dubrovnik’s walls and at Lovrijenac fortress, but as there is no king or queen we can credit with having built them, the issue of where they came from remains rather vague.

There’s more to a dragon than meets the eye. Unveiled in Dubrovnik in 1893, Ivan Rendić’s monument to Baroque poet Ivan Gundulić (1589-1638) features this relief on the pedestal. A princess-like allegory of Dubrovnik is shown holding at bay both a dragon (representing the Ottoman Empire) and a lion (representing Venice).

At least Game of Thrones pays Dubrovnik the compliment of portraying it as a city of great splendor and tradition. That it also boasts a history rich in intrigue, high drama and bawdy behavior will no doubt be revealed by documentary series The Dubrovnik Republic, currently being made for Croatian Television by Božidar Domagoj Burić. Burić’s previous work, the seven-part Croatian Kings, was arguably the most accomplished documentary series ever shown on Croatian TV. It was an object lesson in how to convey Adriatic history to a contemporary audience, combining distinguished talking-head interviewees with a pulsating orchestral-metal soundtrack and reconstructions that made the Croatian middle ages look like a guy’s-only version of Xena Warrior Princess. The English-language version was shown internationally on Viasat History – it is very much to be hoped that The Dubrovnik Republic will follow a similar trajectory. 

Heads will roll

One of the most telling points made by Burić’s Croatian Kings was that the country’s medieval rulers were just as ruthless as those of any fantasy novel. In the Adriatic region as elsewhere in the world, murdering your way to the throne was very often the only chance you ever had of sitting on it for long.

Despite Burić’s best efforts, however, Croatia’s sword-wielding medieval rulers remain people whom we know little about – largely because the historical sources are so meagre. We simply don’t know whether any of the local strongmen slept with their sisters, bedded underage boys, or murdered their father while sitting on the toilet. There is a correspondingly meagre corpus of compelling stories upon which novelists and film-makers might want to feed. The English-speaking historical tradition is, on the contrary, awash with tales of kings who decapitated their wives, kings who murdered their nephews, or kings who had red-hot pokers thrust up their backsides. Shakespeare’s Lears, Macbeths and Hamlets may be semi-fictional, but they belong to the same world. Most authors of fantasy fiction have all of these narratives knocking around in their heads, which is why so many of their imagined worlds hark back to medieval Western Europe. Game-of-Thrones author George RR Martin has made no secret of the fact that The Accursed Kings, Maurice Druon’s series of seven novels about medieval France, was a key source of inspiration. 

Adriatic fantasy drama is a genre still waiting to be invented. However it’s not hard to see how someone armed with a working knowledge of Croatian history might set about developing the odd synopsis for a book or film. 

One of the key locations in filming season four of Game of Thrones was the fortress of Klis, whose wondrous, crag-clinging citadel dominates the hinterland of Split. Klis happens to be one of the few places on the Adriatic whose history is just as bloody and dramatic as the fictional series it features in, having been subjected to numerous long and dramatic sieges, especially during the 1530s. Defending commander Petar Kružić, a talismanic figure in the Austrian-Ottoman border culture of the early 16th century, was captured and beheaded by the Ottoman besiegers in 1537 - the thought of his head being waved around on a stick should be more than enough to send would-be writers of historical fiction scurrying back to their notebooks. And the story of Klis was by no means just about Kružić - what about Murat-Beg Tardić, the Šibenik-born convert who commanded the Ottomans in 1537?

And if we’re going to start plundering Croatia’s 16th century then why not take a fresh look at Uluz Ali, the Italian-born former galley slave who rose to become Grand Admiral of the Ottoman fleet. Uluz Ali’s attack on the South-Dalmatian islands in 1571 confirmed his status as one of the Adriatic’s greatest villains – at least as far as the Croatian sources were concerned. A swift change of perspective however and Uluz Ali becomes one of most compelling figures in the annals of the Mediterranean, swashbuckling his way from one naval exploit to another like some turban-wearing premonition of Captain Jack Sparrow. 

Adriatic vampires

Perhaps the most potent narrative to emerge from the Adriatic is one that has been borrowed, de-Adriaticized, and never returned to its place of origin. The 17th-century Istrian villager Jure Grando was the first historically recorded vampire in European history. The Ljubljana-based antiquarian Janez Vajkard Valvasor was the one who came to the village of Kringa and recorded the tale publishing it in his magnum opus Glory of the Duchy of Carniola in 1689. Subsequent travellers uncovered vampire lore all along the Adriatic coast, most notably the Venetian Alberto Fortis, whose Voyage in Dalmatia was published in 1774. Fortis was very influential in his day, conveying images of a compelling, semi-wild region of exotic people and customs to a European public increasingly attuned to romantic notions of the noble savage. 

Since then, the idea of the Adriatic as archetypal vampire country has largely faded from view. The story of Grando, a bloodsucker who rose nightly from the grave in order to visit women in their beds, did however serve as a prototype for many of the vampire tales spun in the centuries that followed. Croatian author Boris Perić (whose own, criminally overlooked 2006 novel Vampir brought Grando’s descendants to contemporary Zagreb) has always argued that the tale of Grando found its way into a corpus of European supernatural stories, inspiring the Byron/Polidori/Shelly generation, who in their turn fed the imagination of the modern vampire’s literary progenitor, Bram Stoker. None of these people would have known a great deal about the Croatian Adriatic, and it’s no surprise that Stoker chose another distant, exotic part of the Habsburg Empire, Transylvania, as the one true habitat of the nocturnal fiend.  The whole question of what precisely went into Bram Stoker’s Dracula and why the tale was located in Transylvania is addressed in some detail by Boris Perić and Tomislav Pletenac in their subtle, perceptive and perspective-changing work Zemlja iza Šume (“The Land Beyond the Forest”) – a book that would be essential reading for budding Van Helsings the world over were it ever to be translated into English.   

The case of Jure Grando illustrates the extent to which no culture has ever owned the copyright to its own stories. The disappearance of the vampire from its Adriatic habitat suggests the loss of what could have become Croatia’s most powerful narrative brand. It’s about time that somebody brought the Croatian vampire, rather like Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons, back to the land where it belongs

©Jonathan Bousfield

An earlier version of this article appeared in Jutarnji list