Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik Summer Houses

more than a year ago

One of the things that most visitors to Dubrovnik learn sooner or later is that the former city-state was a republic of nobles in which most power resided in a tightly-knit group of aristocratic families. But where did these aristocratic families live? Where are their palaces? The Old Town is full of narrow streets and tall, space-challenged houses, leaving very little visual evidence of the city’s aristocratic past. Although there is plenty of fine architecture within the city walls, especially when it comes to the former city-states’ governmental buildings (the Sponza Palace, for example, or Knežev dvor), family homes tend to be hidden behind plain stone facades – private grandeur was rarely put on public display.

However an aristocratic villa culture did exist outside the city walls, where Renaissance houses with walled gardens are still a prominent feature of the Dubrovnik landscape. Some of these villas remain in private hands, some are owned by institutions, and quite a few languish uninhabited, the potential targets of some ultra-expensive future renovation project. Very few indeed are accessible to the public, rendering Dubrovnik’s villa culture an enduringly secretive, semi-hidden world.

The one villa that appears in all the guidebooks is the Gučetić villa at Trsteno, 13km up the coast, where the Croatian Academy of Science’s Arboretum draws busloads of visitors. It’s an undeniably lovely place and is well worth visiting for a multitude of reasons, but neither house nor garden has preserved its original appearance.

The museum of the Renaissance villa is, it seems, the one obligatory Dubrovnik heritage attraction that is still waiting to be invented.

Indeed this villa culture is just as important to the city’s heritage as its medieval walls or its monastery cloisters. It was in the fourteenth century that Dubrovnik’s wealthier families first started building second homes outside the city walls. The number of these increased enormously in the sixteenth century, when it became the standard aspiration of noble families – and the wealthier non-noble families – to have a place outside the city.

It’s difficult to agree on a general English name for these villas – literal translations of the Croatian terms ljetnikovac (summer house) or ladanjska kuća (country house) don’t quite convey how important these residences were to the life of the city. They were used all year round, and very often became the centre of a family’s social life rather than a place of quiet retreat. These second homes were rarely showy or palatial – outward extravagance was considered bad form among Dubrovnik nobles – but they did offer both the luxury of space, and access to the outdoors. They were frequently located near to the family’s fruit orchards, vineyards and olive groves, so had an economic role as well as a purely relaxational one.

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