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Cultural Croatia

As at present we cannot hold our planned programme of events, we are introducing culturalCroatia, an alternative way of exploring Croatian culture. This is a series of emails that will be sent to you from the British-Croatian Society. Each email will feature one of our members sharing an aspect of Croatian culture that is special for that person. Through culturalCroatia we hope to encourage you to delve into aspects of Croatian culture that might be new for you.
We have lined up a number of commentators for this series, but we would welcome your contributions too. The range of subjects is very broadly the arts. We are looking for no more than a few sentences explaining your choice, together with an indication how it is possible to explore the subject further, perhaps reference to a website, youtube, Amazon etc.
If you wish to contribute, or ave any questions, please email us [email protected].
culturalCroatia: #18
The Hired Man
Peter Elborn writes: I had long admired the writing of Aminatta Forna when in 2013 she published The Hired Man. I was afraid that someone from Scotland of Sierra Leonean descent might not get it quite right with a novel set in Croatia. I believe Aminatta pulls it off and can recommend the book highly. Here is what Amazon says of the plot:

'Gost is surrounded by mountains and fields of wild flowers. The summer sun burns. The Croatian winter brings freezing winds. Beyond the boundaries of the town an old house which has lain empty for years is showing signs of life. One of the windows, glass darkened with dirt, today stands open, and the lively chatter of English voices carries across the fallow fields. Laura and her teenage children have arrived.
A short distance away lies the hut of Duro Kolak who lives alone with his two hunting dogs. As he helps Laura with repairs to the old house, they uncover a mosaic beneath the ruined plaster and, in the rising heat of summer, painstakingly restore it. But Gost is not all it seems; conflicts long past still suppurate beneath the scars.'
culturalCroatia: #17
Celia Hawksworth has written about Olja Savičević-Ivančević
I have been lucky enough to have been asked by Suzi Curtis of Istros Books to translate Olja’s two short novels 'Farewell, Cowboy' (Adio kauboju) and 'Singer in the Night' (Pjevač u noći). Both are shaped by a quest: in the first the narrator tries to make sense of her brother’s suicide and in the second the story is shaped by the narrator’s search for her former husband. At least, that is how it seems as the book progresses, but its ending calls all the rest into question. In both books, the author uses her native Split dialect to convey warmth and intimacy and in Singer in the Night she uses the device of letters from various characters in different voices and styles to alert the reader to the unreliable role of story-telling in our memory and interpretation of reality. The main character, whose name is Naranča in the original and Clementine in the translation, makes her living by writing soap operas for television and her account of her search for her husband, Slavuj (who has to be called Nightingale but is often referred to as Gale in the translation for ease of reading) may be read as a traditionally sentimental love story in that genre. But the ending undermines any such straightforward reading. Savičević’s writing is full of charm and irony, with political and historical references just below the surface giving it substance. I thoroughly recommend both books.
culturalCroatia: #16
Dubravka Williams-Podhraski
Dubravka Williams-Podhraski
A poem inspired by the period in Autumn of 1945 when I was almost 7
years old and my parents lost their teaching jobs in Varazdin and we
moved to Sv. Ilija. I started school there. Dubravka
The Conquered 

Blackboard, white chalk
school days
black pitch wooden floor...
fire crackling
in the big green Dutch stove.

A teacher in black
stands before the classroom
of silent children...
because her child
is no more.

The war had swallowed up
the young and old
leavng the wounded...
in body and soul
to fend for themselves.

'Cos they are the conquered
liberated from their liberty
in the name of the infamous...
'liberty, equality, fraternity' or - death
in the name of the proletariat!

POBIJEĐENI                                     THE CONQUERED
Crna ploča, bijela kreda Blackboard, white chalk
školski dani school days
crni uljani drveni pod... black pitch wooden floor...
vatra pucketa fire crackling
u velikoj zelenoj peći. in the big green Dutch stove
Učiteljica u crnini                                        A teacher in
stoji pred razredom stands before the classroom
zašutjele djece... of silent children...
jer njezino dijete because her child
više na zemlji ni. is no more.
Rat je progutao The war had swallowed up
i djecu i stare the young and old
i ostavio ranjene... leaving the wounded...
na tijelu i duši in body and soul
da se brinu za sebe. to fend for themselves.
Jer oni su pobijeđeni 'Cos they are the conquered
oslobođeni svoje slobode liberated from their liberty
u ime razvikane... in the name of the infamous...
'slobode, jednakosti, bratstva' ili -
smrt                                                       'liberty,
equality, fraternity' or - death
u ime proletarijata. in the name of the proletariat!
culturalCroatia: #15
Vesna Domany Hardy writes: 

These days while staying home there is plenty of time to revisit one’s books and perhaps sort out the bookshelves,  perhaps create some space  for the new arrivals. At the same time this is an opportunity to refresh the memory  by revisiting, even if forgotten but valued friends. This way I stumbled on this book which again filled me with awe and admiration prompting me to take its photo and  share it with you. It is the replica of the first Croatian dictionary compiled by Faust Vrancic and published in Venice in 1595.
Its Latin title reads in  translation:
Dictionary of Five Noblest Languages in Europe, Latin, Italian, German, Dalmatian and Hungarian.
Illustration on the front of the book  is resonant of work by Vrancic’s contemporary co-national from Sibenik, engraver and goldsmith, Fortezza.
Slavko Goldstein, director of “Liber” publishing house and his son Ivo  collaborated on the first and faithful bibliophile replica of “Dictionario” in 1970 with the introduction  and biography of, this truly Renaissance man, Faust Vrancic. In one of his observations Vrancic had later written that Dalmatian for him meant  Croatian. In 1605, Vrancic published in Prague the second edition of his Dictionario with the addition of Czech and Polish languages.
A footnote on Vesna Domany Hardy Dictionary
Further to Vesna Domany Hardy's interesting reminder about Vrancic's quinquelingual dictionary of 1595, members of the BCS may be interested to know that the Bodleian Library at Oxford holds three copies of the first, 1595, edition. Two copies belong to the Bodleian Library and the third is the property of Lincoln College, on permanent loan to the Bodleian. Although in other cases of Latinized Croatian names the Bodleian catalogue customarily states the original Croat version, this is not the case with Vrancic who is described only as 'Faustus Verantius, Bishop of Csanad'.
Bojan Bujic
culturalCroatia: #14
Blaca Hermitage
Brian Gllagher writes: The Blaca Hermitage on Brač is one of Croatia’s great cultural treasures. I was delighted recently to see that the Brač Centre for Culture has made a short video regarding the Hermitage’s past, present and future. A name familiar to a number of BCS members, Vivian Grisogono MA, provided the excellent English translation and narration. It is one of the best such videos I have seen, and it can be seen on:
Preview YouTube video Blaca Hermitage Eco-Museum, Island of Brac 


Blaca Hermitage Eco-Museum, Island of Brac
culturalCroatia: #13
Nina Shah remembers
I am half Croatian, half British. When I was 13, my mama decided that the last two of her five children should learn Croatian, so she and my father took us to live in (what was then) Yugoslavia for a year. We had a blissful summer, as always, in Veli Lošinj, before heading to Pula to start school there in the late summer of 1990.
We rented a flat on Ulica Vladimira Gortana, with a massive crack up the side of my balcony. The story goes that the architect committed suicide when this happened, his new creation flawed forever. A cheery tale to settle us in.
I had a view of the docks and, if I craned my neck, of the beautiful amphitheatre behind the flat. The building was positioned on a large crossroads, and the rattling of the blinds kept me awake the first night. It took me a while to get used to this noise, especially not having had blinds before, but I eventually found it comforting, to know that other people were awake all around me in the depths of the dark night.
Our family made friends with an old man who lived a floor or two down, Dr Ivo Borovečki. He spoke more languages than any person I have ever met. He was kind and always had time for us to pop in. I was very sad when I learned he had died a few years later, but grateful we’d known him.
We started school, my sister and I, and it was very odd to attend somewhere so large. The school operated on a shift system, where half the children attended in the morning, and half in the afternoon. We were a curiosity, two English kids at school. Everyone wanted to practice their English with us, apart from the English teacher, who seemed intimidated by our perfect pronunciation. The maths teacher reeked of alcohol, and rapped the knuckles of the naughty kids with his metre long wooden ruler. It was strict. The history books seemed strange, out of sync with what I knew from my mama. The churches were beautiful, but strange for me. I loved church there. I used to attend church in England on Sundays with my mama, but it was different. It seemed stuffier, less free in England, and our church was modern. In Croatia there was more joy in the singing, spontaneous harmonies, the people seemed more in touch with their God, bikers stood at the back in their leathers, kids laughed and sang, the churches were old, cool stone. Everything felt beautiful and alive. In England things had felt more controlled somehow. I have often said if I’d been brought up in Croatia, perhaps I’d still be Catholic.
I finally made friends and I used to go for long walks along the beaches and shoreline, climbing rocks, wading through the water with my shoes on to reach another rock. It was beautiful. I felt more in tune with nature than in England, despite the fact that we were often out in nature in England too. Something about Croatian outdoors resonated more strongly within my soul – the smells by the sea, pine, salty air, the sounds of the seagulls, the pigeons (or doves) that cooed me awake in the mornings. Even thinking about it now brings me great peace.
I loved going for walks with my parents and getting sladoled or burek or, my favourite, krempita. We walked in the cemetery a lot, a long time favourite haunt of my family. I still like to read about people who have gone before and imagine what their lives might have been. There is peace and beauty in a cemetery. I remember being curious about all the red stars on the gravestones. I wonder now if they’re still there.
I discovered the museum of archaeology and I loved to walk and read about the history. I explored the Venetian fort when it was open, and sat around its edges when it was closed, drinking bambus with my new friends. I walked and sat and chatted, and spent my time peacefully.
Of course, Pula has an army base, so towards the end of our year there, things changed. The air changed. The mood changed. People closed down a little. A Serbian girl in our class didn’t come to school one day and we realised she’d left. Tanks started to roam the streets outside my balcony. The army men whistled and waved as I walked past on my way to school, and I realised I must’ve grown up a little, must’ve looked older than my 14 years. Eventually we could hear snipers in the distance and I was aware that our time was coming to an end.
We left, in the end, in the June of 1991, I think. We didn’t return to Veli Lošinj that summer. I missed the peace of the island town, the scent of the curry plants, the rosemary outside our front door, the pine trees, the clean turquoise sea. I missed our summer holiday, but although that year had been a difficult and somewhat lonely one, I felt filled with a new identity and a true appreciation for filling my heart with what was soon to become Croatia in name as well as soul.
The years that followed brought a lot of heartache for our family, but I was so glad I’d been able to experience a Croatian life. I have returned to Croatia every summer since then, and spent a few months in Zagreb and Veli Lošinj when I’ve been able to. I tried to look up some of the road names I walked along in Pula, but of course everything has now been renamed. The street we lived on, the school we attended. It makes looking for things more difficult, but I understand the need to return a country to what it should be, to what it should have been.
I see the difference to Croats between then and now, and I am forever grateful for that experience…and forever grateful for Croatian independence.
culturalCroatia: #12
Arriving in Zagreb
Paul Crawshaw, prompted by Roy Cross' culturalCroatia submission, has sent us this: 

Well, I remember when I first arrived in Zagreb train station for the first time late in 1981 about 2 a.m. one day, I didn't speak a word of Croatian (Serbo-Croat in those days!) and was delighted to find that the word for taxi was the same as English. I got in a taxi, the driver spoke no English, and showed him the address where I was going on a piece of paper, Studentski dom Stjepan Radić. He took me there, then negotiated our way past the night porter (I don't think visitors were allowed at such a late hour) and took me to my final destination (my now wife's student room). I had no idea how much the taxi ride should cost and couldn't understand a word he said, so I just opened my wallet and showed him my money. I didn't know until later that he took exactly the correct fare. It was a very different world back then!
culturalCroatia: #11
Rebecca West
Rebecca West is well known for her book 'Black Lamb and Grey Falcon' on the history and culture of Yugoslavia published in 1941. She made a visit to Zagreb, Split and other countries in the region in 1936 at the request of the British Council. Here is an abridged version of her report prepared by Bojan Bujic. It provides an interesting insight into the country as well as the character of the writer.
culturalCroatia: #10
Here is a contribution from Roy Cross:
I lived in three rented rooms during my first period in Zagreb from 1979 to 1984.
My first home was in a tiny street just off Petrova, called Heinzova – named after a one-time rector of Zagreb University called Antun Heinz. I lived there for the better part of two years and on a daily basis had to explain to friends, colleagues and taxi drivers that I did not live in Heinzelova but in a tiny street they’d never heard of. 
Antun Heinz
My landlady in Heinzova was a little eccentric and given to standing halfway up the stairs to peer through the fanlight above my door, to check I was behaving. One Saturday morning, earlier than I might have liked, she banged on my door and ordered me to roll up my carpet. I didn’t speak much Croatian to speak of, so couldn’t ask her why. Once we’d got the carpet into the hall, she gestured that we should take it on out into the backyard, where a thick carpet of snow had fallen overnight. I protested in vain but, short of letting go of my end of the carpet, had no choice but to follow her and the carpet out into the yard. She indicated that we should lay the carpet upside down on the snow and then passed me a carpet beater. I was appalled at the damage we were about to do the carpet and this time refused to do what I was told. She tapped her head in recognition of my stupidity and started to beat the carpet herself vigorously. She stopped abruptly and picked up the corner of the carpet where she’d been beating it, to reveal snow blackened with the gunge from my carpet. The penny dropped and I finished the task for her. I’ve spent the rest of my life waiting for an opportunity to demonstrate my knowledge of quite the best and most environmentally responsible way of cleaning a carpet – but one has never come along. When I’d finished beating hell out of my carpet on the snow in the backyard that Saturday morning, my landlady told me that I was ‘dobar kao kruh’, thereby deploying two of the very few words I knew in Croatian at that time to my complete stupefaction.
culturalCroatia: #9
Naive painting
Monday this week, the 18th May, marked what would have been the 100th birthday of one of the great masters of the Croatian Naive reverse glass painting tradition, Ivan Većenaj.
In 2011 I had the honour of visiting the Galerija Ivan Većenaj in Gola and meeting the artist. He was up late to meet our tardy tour group, yet his eyes were merry and he seemed pleased to welcome us despite the late hour.
His works hang throughout the two story building with several works, including a large tapestry rooster inspired by one of his favourite subjects, dwarfing us as we stood beneath them. I particularly remember the technically impressive detailing and fine lines of his Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse which continue to inspire me to hone my own craft - but the work that most captured my imagination and remains firmly in my heart was his Butterflies. Both works, plus many more, can be seen by visiting the online gallery link below.
Ivan Većenaj died on 13 February 2013, but his paintings will forever remain an integral part of the Croatian Naive tradition and meeting him holds a very special place in my own development as an artist working in oils on glass.
Visit Galerija Ivan Većenaj online
Find out more from the Zagreb Museum of Naive Art
Contributed to the Cultural Croatia newsletter series during lockdown by British Croatian Society member and reverse glass painter, Melanie Hodge.
@MJHodgeArt on Facebook and Instagram
culturalCroatia: #8
Oscar Nemon
Aurelia Young writes:
At the age of 17 my father, the sculptor Oscar Nemon left his home town, Osijek, to study sculpture in Vienna before making his way to Oxford.
One of the works I found in my father’s studio, after his death, was the bust of an unknown woman who looked middle aged and middle European.
My father left no clue as to who she could be. I searched through his exhibition catalogues but found no clue as to her identity. Then one day I came across a press cutting about an auction of works of art to raise money for the Campaign for the Abolition of Capital punishment in 1956. One of the works to be auction was a bust of Sir Max Beerbohm by Oscar Nemon. In an interview Nemon had said that during WWII he was sent to the village of Abinger where he met and sculpted Sir Max Beerbohm and was taught English by Lady Beerbohm. Lady Beerbohm, Nemon said ‘not only took great pains about my English lessons but also cooked me nourishing meals. She refused a fee but agreed to accept a portrait bust of herself’.
I was unaware that Nemon had sculpted Lady Beerbohm; what did she look like I wondered? I discovered that Lady Beerbohm née Florence Kahn was an American actress of German Jewish descent and from a photograph I found of her in her youth I decided that the bust in Nemon’s studio must be Lady Beerbohm.
Dalibor Prančević from Split wrote an account of his visit to Nemon’s studio, near Oxford.
culturalCroatia: #7
"Daleki Accordi"
Alison Bujic writes:
This reproduction of Mestrovic’s “Daleki Accordi (1918)”, although a fraction of the size of the original and far from imposing, is nevertheless a reminder of the Museum in Split where we have spent many hours enjoying the varied and beautiful masterpieces both inside the house and scattered around the gardens.  We look forward to being able to visit again in the near future.
culturalCroatia: #6
Croatian books at The British Library
The publication of the new English translation of Petar Hektorović’s poem Fishing and Fishermen’s Conversations (Venice, 1568) was the spur for the British-Croatian Society to arrange to hold an event with the British Library. The event has been postponed but the British Library is keen to bring to the attention of the Croatian community in the UK that the British Library is also their library. The British Library holds a large collection of Croatian books and everyone will be welcome to use it when life returns to normal.
In the meantime if you want to know more about the Croatian collection at the British Library, you can do so by going to
culturalCroatia: #5
Dora Pejačević
As if aware of the culturalCroatia series of on-line vignettes, BBC Radio 3 are next week again featuring Dora Pejačević (1885–1923) as ‘This Week’s Composer’, Monday to Friday (11-15 May) at 12 noon, repeating the programmes first heard in October 2018. This will be an excellent opportunity not only to listen to the music but to hear her biographer Koraljka Kos talk informatively about this exceptionally gifted composer whose brief life stands as a telling symbol of the artistic fervour in Central Europe in the years before the First World War.
Musically educated in Zagreb, Dresden and Munich, Pejačević led a somewhat itinerant life between the family estate near Osijek and the residences of her aristocratic friends in Bohemia. Culturally she was a cosmopolitan and when in the early twentieth century Croatian composers wholeheartedly embraced an idiom heavily influenced by folk music, Pejačević, the most versatile and certainly technically the ablest Croatian composer of her time, fell into disfavour. Her untimely death in 1923 speeded up the decline in interest and her name and music were known only to a few enthusiasts. Half a century had to elapse before in the 1970s her music again became better known. By that time the folklore-based style of the 1920s and 1930s had lost some of its earlier sheen and Pejačević’s music could be appreciated in its full richness. It is good to know that more and more of her music is available on CDs and on YouTube.
It may not be without some symbolic significance for the British-Croatian community that one of Pejačević’s teachers was the Dresden-born composer Percy Sherwood, an able late Brahmsian. He shared the fate of Pejačević, and when he settled in England, just before the outbreak of the First World War, he was deemed ‘too German’ and his music was forgotten.
culturalCroatia: #4
Nymphs in a Landscape
Flora Turner writes:
'One of my favourite paintings  with a British-Croatian connection is Nymphs in a Landscape, c. 1540 Oil on panel in the collection of the Leighton House Museum in London.
It is by Andrea Meldola or Meldolla also known as Andrea Schiavone and in Croatia as Andrija Medulić,  who was born in Zadar 1510/15 - and died in Venice in 1563.  He gained fame in Venice as a very successful painter and an inventive graphic artist.
I fell in love with this painting back in 1998, when I spotted it in the gallery of a distinguished art dealer Richard Philp in London. Eager to help to enrich Croatian museums and galleries with works of art by Croatian artists I proposed to the Croatian Ministry of Culture to purchase this wonderful painting  which I was sure belonged to the opus of Schiavone. Unfortunately an art historian from Zagreb, who was supposed to endorse the acquisition on behalf of the gallery, decided that he did not agree with this attribution. I was devastated, because I was thinking that I will not be able to see it ever again since it was sold to a private collector abroad.
Many years  later I met Richard Philp at an event at Bonham’s and reminded him of the lost opportunity to acquire the Nymphs in a Landscape for the Croatian gallery and also of my regret that the owner still wanted to remain anonymous. With an enigmatic smile he told me if I go to the Leighton House Museum, perhaps I will feel happier.  I looked at my watch and realised that I can make it there before closing time, hopped on the number 10 bus and the Nymphs were there in the silk room next to the fireplace in between the painting by Tintoretto and a relief by Antonio Rosselino,  just as they were during the life of its owner, the famous Victorian painter Federick, Lord Leighton. He bought the painting attributed  to Schiavone in Venice in the 19th century for his famous collection of Venetian art. After his death the contents of the house was sold at auction. The Director of Leighton house found a photograph from 1895 of the green silk salon with this painting and when he traced the owner it took the museum several years  to persuade him to sell it. Now it is there for all visitors to enjoy it, but when the museum is closed we can learn about it from the extensive description and a photograph online.'
culturalCroatia: #3
Stjepan Hauser solo concert
On Monday 27th April world-renowned cellist Stjepan Hauser (who is one half of 2Cellos) performed a special solo concert - Nessun Dorma -  Alone, Together - in his home town of Pula in an empty Arena. He dedicated this performance to amazing efforts of all the frontline workers around the world and wanted to pay tribute to all that is good in humanity. This is also a great opportunity for the world audience to once again experience the beauty of Croatia and Pula’s historic amphitheatre.
Here is the link to the YouTube channel broadcasting the livestream.
culturalCroatia: #2
Renata Pokupic
Although the closure of concert halls means we will not be able to hear Renata Pokupic at the Wigmore Hall on May 12, Jane Ramsden writes:
Renata is a most welcome visitor.  She has charmed and amazed her audiences in the very best productions - at Covent Garden we have happy memories of her as Irene in “Tamerlano” perched on a vast and very blue elephant.  And at Varazdin with Laurence Cummings and Catherine Mackintosh singing for the Summer Music Festival and introducing one fan (me) to Split dialect (a melting rendition of Cara Sposa with the small amendment of “Cara spisa” in tribute to the fantastic food so essential to every musician on the course!).
She is a great Handelian - may she summon his best sorcery arias to overcome the hurdles of corona virus and return with speed to her British admirers.
To make up for her absence please turn to her excellent website with recordings and more details of her plans -
culturalCroatia: #1
Suzi Curtis writes:
I would like to tell everyone about a very exciting title that is presently being translated by Christina Pribićević-Zorić for Istros Books: Our Daily Bread by the great Croatian intellectual, Predrag Matvejević. The book was originally scheduled to come out this July, but since most book shops are closed for the foreseeable future and we don't know how long it will take the book trade to get back in gear, we have postponed publication until September. To be honest, this mediation on the cultural and religious significance of bread seems more appropriate for a harvest-time birth anyway.
As many of the BCS members will know, Predrag Matvejević was born in Mostar in 1932, and taught at both the Sorbonne and La Sapienza, building a career throughout his long life as a European intellectual. Both in character and in his writing, he was committed to cross-cultural pollination and furthering understanding of our common humanity. His most famous work - Mediterranean: A Cultural Landscape (Mediteranski brevijar) presents a wealth of communal identity which serves to counterbalance the historical emphasis on conflict and shifting national borders.
Despite his huge reputation in his home country and across the region, as well as in Italy and France, Matvejević’s work is little known in the English-speaking world, with just a couple of previous publications in the US. We are therefore trying to promote him as "perhaps the greatest European writer you have never heard of." Together with the BCS, we had even arranged for a symposium on his life and work to be held at the British Library, but this again had had to be put on hold until further notice...
While pondering all the things that have been put on hold, a book such as Our Daily Bread helps to put things in perspective...this food staple goes back to the very origins of our culture and is present in almost every significant ceremony in both the sacred and profane spheres of existence. Such timelessness serves to remind us that this too will pass; while noting the fact that the lock-down period has been a period of rediscovery of bread-making for many of us, with 'how to make a sourdough starter' surely a favourite Google search line.
And just to whet your appetites, here is an excerpt from the first chapter of the book.