December 11, 2008

The Dubrovnik Renaissance

Dubrovnik, port and entrepot sat on the boundary between the East and the West from the split of the Roman Empire under Diocletian. Such a position as Venice was to find to spectacular effect was incredibly lucrative- but also as Zdenka Janeković-Römer explains in a recent article in the Dubrovnik Annals it facilitated cultural exchange between the East and West, smoothing the way for Greek culture to spread throughout Europe and becoming a centre for the idea of the reunion of the Church and the reconquest of the Balkans in the late Middle Ages.

Dubrovnik originally had been part of the Byzantine Empire. But as the empire began to fall backwards- particularly after the sack of Constantinople by the crusaders in 1204- the city began to take an independent course. In particular its history was shaped by the decision to convert not to Greek Orthodox Christianity but to Latin Christianity. However just because it followed a different confessional faith from the Byzantine Empire, as we shall see, it still maintained links with Constantinople. In particular its trading links survived- both with Constantinople with which Ragusa had trading links right up until the 1450s- and with the Greek successor despotic states with whom trade agreements have been found into the 1460s. But it is its cultural links that here we are interested in because Dubrovnik's cultural links both were part of a political and ecclesiastical agenda and were part of a historical process connecting the East and West.

The cultural links that Dubrovnik developed with the East were largely through the reabsorption of the Greek language by the elites. What you see are that cultured men had to know Greek as well as Latin- though translations were faulty, they still existed and notable authors like Hesiod and Isocrates were translated in Dubrovnik, with the translation of Isocrates in particular still important today. Greek texts were also important as they came out of Dubrovnik: we owe our text of Athenagoras's Apologia to scholars in Dubrovnik who maintained it. Ptolemy's Geometry was another document whose Western provenance is owed to Dubrovnik's scholars. No less a Western scholar than Erasmus himself used manuscripts preserved in Dubrovnik in his edition of the New Testament published in the early 16th Century.

This cultural efflorescence based around the Greek language was secondary to a political purpose. From the mid 15th Century onwards, the politicians and priests of Dubrovnik faced an incredibly harsh and severe threat, the Turks. Having conquered Constantinople in 1453, the Turks were not merely an insult to Christendom but a threat to the maritime republic. From then on, the Ragusan Republic sold the idea to the West of an attempted reunification of the Western and Eastern Church. They argued for a conciliar approach to church reunification- and sought to maintain the links between East and West. Of course, as we know, the conciliar approach was rejected by the Papacy, and historical tensions between East and West made reunification impossible.

So the real achievement of the Dubrovnik renaissance lay not so much in a Balkan reconquista- as in a cultural renaissance. The citizens of the republic published and translated Greek texts, provided a centre for philhellenic scholars from the West to find texts from the East and led both to a cultural flowering in the city (the translations and original productions in ancient Greek were acheivements in their own right) and contributed to the rediscovery of Greek literature and language in the Latin West.

3 comments:

Crushed said...

You've gone and posted on Byzantium!

I've actually got a post sitting unpublished on this topic, well, more on the heritage of Byzantium really.

I'm not sure, but I have a feeling that Ragusa was kind of an autonomour Republic, under Venetian suzreinty up until Napolean's time.

I'm not sure of it's history before the 4th Crusade, whether it was part of Epirus, or was ever in Tomislav's Croatia or not.

stacy said...

you know how to get my attention. ;-)

Gracchi said...

Stacy I try!

Crushed, that's a vast topic, the heritage of Byzantium is a very interesting subject and one that I would love to examine more. As to Ragusa- its status varied thorugh the centuries- but its worth remembering that it was an important centre for a long time!