Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: Part III

Violence was indeed all I knew of the Balkans,' writes Rebecca West, 'all I knew of the South Slavs. And since there proceeds steadily from the southeastern corner of Europe a stream of events which are a danger to me, which indeed for years threatened my safety and deprived me forever of many benefits, that is to say I know nothing of my own destiny. The Balkan Peninsula was only two or three days distant, yet I had never troubled to go that short journey, which might explain to me how I shall die, and why.' So it was that in 1937 Rebecca West, with her husband, set out to explore the Balkans, and particularly Yugoslavia, to see for herself why the fate of the Continent and of England has so often been threatened by the Powderkeg of Europe. The story she brought back with her annihilates distance, and touches every thoughtful reader.

SPLIT, alone of all cities in Dalmatia, has a Neapolitan air. It recalls Naples because it also is a tragic and architecturally magnificent sausage machine, where a harried people of mixed race have been forced by history to run for centuries through the walls and cellars and sewers of ruined palaces, and have now been evicted by a turn of events into the open day, neat and slick and uniform, taking to modern clothes and manners with the adaptability of oil, though at the same time they are set apart forever from the rest of the world by the arcana of language and thoughts they learned to share while they scurried for generations close-pressed through the darkness.

Split presents its peculiar circumstances to the traveler the minute he steps ashore: the history of the place was on our right and our left. On the left was the marine market, where fishing boats are used for stalls; men who must be a mixture of sailor and retailer bring goods over from the islands, take their boats head-on to the quay, and lay out their wares in little heaps on the prows. Pitiful little heaps they often are, of blemished apples, rags of vegetables, yellowish boards of dried fish; but the men who sell them are not pitiful. They look tough as their own dried fish, and stand by with an air of power and pride. This coast feeds people with other things than food; it grudges them the means of life, but lets them live. On our right was a row of shops, the cafes and rubbishries which face any port; the houses that rise above them were squeezed between the great Corinthian columns in the outer gallery of Diocletian's palace.

For Split is Diocletian's palace: the palace he built himself in 305, when, after twenty years of imperial office, he abdicated. The town has spread beyond the palace walls, but the core of it still lies within the four gates. Diocletian built it to be within suburban reach of the Roman town of Salona, which lies near by on the gentle slopes between the mountains and the coastal plain; it was already the site of a Greek settlement, which was called Aspalaton, from a fragrant shrub still specially abundant here. In the seventh century, the Avars, that tribe of barbarian marauders who were to lead to a currency crisis in the Middle Ages because they looted so much gold from Eastern and Central Europe and hoarded it, came down on Dalmatia. They swept down on Salona and destroyed it by fire and the sword. The greater part of the population were killed, but some had time to flee out to the islands, which gave them the barest refuge. What they suffered in those days from cold and hunger and thirst is still remembered in common legend. In time they crept back to the mainland, where they found nothing left more habitable than the ruins of Diocletian's palace. There they made shelters for themselves against the day when there should be peace.

They are still there. Peace never came. They were assailed by the Huns, the Hungarians, the Venetians, the Austrians, and some of them would say that with the overcoming of those last enemies they still did not win peace; and during these centuries of strife the palace and the fugitives have established a perfect case of symbiosis. It has housed them; they are now its props. After the war there was a movement to evacuate Split and restore the palace to its ancient magnificence by pulling down the houses that had been wedged in between its walls and columns; but surveyors very soon found out that, if these went, all Diocletian's work would fall to the ground. The people that go quickly and darkly about the streets have given the stone the help it gave them.

"I should like to go into the palace at once," said my husband, "and I greatly wish we could have brought Robert Adam's book of engravings with us." That thought must occur to many people who go to Split. Adam's book on Diocletian's palace is one of the most entertaining revelations of the origins of our day, pretty in itself and an honor to its author. He came here from Venice in 1757, and made a series of drawings which aimed at showing what the palace had been like at the time of its building, in order to obtain some idea of "the private edifices of the ancients." The enterprise took a great deal of perseverance and courage, for all idea of the original plan had been lost centuries before, and he had to trace the old walls through the modern buildings and was often hindered by the suspicions of both the inhabitants and the authorities. The Venetian governor of the town was quite sure he was a spy and wanted to deport him, but the commander in chief of the Venetian garrison, who happened to be a Scotsman, and one of his Croat officers were sufficiently cultured to recognize Adam for what he was, and they got him permission to carry on his work under the supervision of a soldier.

The indirect results were the best of Georgian architecture, with its emphasis on space and variety and graceful pomp; often when we look at a facade in Portman Square or a doorway in Portland Place, we are looking at Roman Dalmatia. The direct result was this book of enchanting drawings, some of them engraved by Bartolozzi.

"Yes," I said to my husband, "it is disgusting that one cannot remember pictures and drawings exactly. It would have been wonderful to have the book by us and see exactly how the palace struck a man of two centuries ago, and how it strikes us, who owe our eye for architecture largely to that man."

"Then why did we not bring the book?" asked my husband.

"Well, it weighs just over a stone," I said; "I weighed it once on the bathroom scales."

"Why did you do that?"

"Because it occurred to me one day that I knew the weight of nothing except myself and joints of meat," I said, "and I just picked that up to give me an idea of something else."

"Well, well," said my husband, "it makes me distrust Fabre and all other writers on insect life when I realize how mysterious your proceedings would often seem to a superior being watching them through a microscope. But tell me, why didn't we bring it, even if it does weigh a little over a stone? We have a little money to spare for its transport. It would have given us pleasure. Why didn't we do it?"

"Well, it would have been no use," I said; "we couldn't have carried anything so heavy as that about the streets."

"Yes, we could," said my husband; "we could have hired a wheelbarrow and pushed it about from point to point."

"But people would have thought we were mad!" I exclaimed.

"Well, would they?" countered my husband. "That's just what I'm wondering. In fact, it's what made me pursue the subject. These Slavs think all sorts of things natural that we think odd; nothing seems to worry them so long as it satisfies a real desire. I was wondering if they could take a thing like this in their stride; because, after all, we feel a real desire to look at Adam's book here."

"I don't know," I said, "but there is Philip Thompson standing in the doorway of our hotel, and we can ask him."

Philip Thompson teaches English to such inhabitants of Split as wish to learn it. He is a fine-boned, fastidious, observant being, very detached except in his preference for Dalmatia over all other parts of the world, and for Split over all other parts of Dalmatia. We had morning coffee with him in the square outside our hotel, a red stucco copy of a Venetian piazza, with palm trees in it, which is quite a happy effort; and we put the question to him.

"Oh, but they'd think it very odd here, if you went about the streets trundling a book in a wheelbarrow and stopping to look at the pictures in it—very odd indeed," said Philip. "You evidently don't understand that here in Split we are very much on parade. We're not a bit like the Serbs, who don't care what they do, and shout at the top of their voices if they feel angry, and turn cartwheels in the street if they want exercise. That's one of the reasons we don't like the Serbs. To us it seems self-evident that a proud man must guard himself from criticism every moment of the day. That's what accounts for the most salient characteristic of the Splitchani, which is a self-flaying satirical humor; better laugh at yourself before anybody else has time to do it. But formality is another result. I suppose it comes of being watched all the time by people who thought they were better than you—the Dalmatians, the Hungarians, the Venetians, and the Austrians.

"But all this," he continued, "brings to light one very strange thing about Split. Did you notice how I answered you off-hand, as if Split had a perfectly definite character, and I could speak for the whole of its inhabitants? Well, so I could. Yet that's funny, for the old town of Split was a tiny place, really not much more than the palace and a small overflow round its walls, and all this town you see stretching over the surrounding hills and along the coast is new. A very large percentage of the population came here after the war, some to work, some as refugees from the Slav territories which have been given to Italy. Do you see that pretty dark woman who is just crossing the square? She is one of my star pupils and she belongs to a family that left Zara as soon as it was handed over to the Italians, like all the best families of the town. Now Zara has quite a different history, and, from all I hear, quite a different atmosphere. But this woman and her family, and all the others that migrated with her, have been completely absorbed by Split. They are indistinguishable from the natives, and I have seen them in the process of conversion. It's happened gradually but surely. It's a curious victory for a system of manners that, so far as I can see, has nothing to do with economics. For people here are not rich, yet there is considerable elegance.

This is, indeed not a rich city. Later we lunched with Philip in a restaurant which, though small, was not a merely bistro, but was patronized by handsome and dignified people who were either professional or commercial men. For the sweet course we were given two pieces of palatschinken, those pancakes stuffed with jam which one eats all over Central Europe. The Balkans passed the recipe on from the Byzantines, who ate these under the name of palacountas. We could eat no more than one, for the meal, as almost always in these parts, had been good and abundant. "Shall I put the palatschinken in paper for the Herrschaft to take home with them?" asked the waiter. We thought not. But the waiter doubted our sincerity. "Is it because they are strangers," he asked Philip, "and do not know that we are always delighted to do this sort of thing for our clients?" Philip said resourcefully, "You see, they are staying at one of the big hotels, and they will have to dine there anyway, so that really the palatschinken would be of very little use to them."

The waiter accepted this, and went away, but soon came back. "But if the Herrschaft took them away with them, he insisted, "then they would not order a whole dinner. They could just take the soup and a meat dish, and afterwards they could go upstairs and have these instead of dessert."

"Thank you very much for your kind thought," said Philip. "I think, however, that my friends are en pension."

"But it would be nice," said the waiter, "if the lady felt hungry in the night, for her to be able to put out her hand and find a piece of cold palatschinken by her bed." I shall never think he was right, but his kindly courtesy was something to be remembered, and his sense—not hysterical but quietly passionate of economy as a prime necessity. In Diocletian's palace, throughout the ages, a great many very well-mannered people must have learned to draw in their belts very tight upon occasion; and certainly they would be encouraged to be mannerly by their surroundings, which even today speak of magnificent decorum.

It is not, of course, remarkable as an example of Roman architecture. It cannot hold a candle to the Baths of Caracalla, or the Forum, or the Palatine. But it makes an extraordinary revelation of the continuity of history. One passes through the gate that is squeezed between the rubbishries on the quayside straight into antiquity. One stands in the colonnaded courtyard of a fourth-century Roman palace; in front is the entrance to the imperial apartments, to the left is the temple which was Diocletian's mausoleum, now the Cathedral, and to the right is the Temple of Aesculapius, just as a schoolboy learning Latin, and old ladies who used to go to the Royal Academy in the days of Alma-Tadema, would imagine it. Only the vistas have been filled in with people. A little less than one fifth of the population of Split, which numbers forty-four thousand, live in the nine acres of the palace proper; but the remaining four fifths stream through it all day long, because the passages which pierce it from north to south and from east to west are the most convenient ways to the new parts of the town from the harbor. The fifth that live within the palace precincts pack the sides of these crowded thoroughfares with houses set as closely as cells in a honeycomb, filling every vacant space that was left by Diocletian's architects. One cannot, for example, see the Temple of Aesculapius as one stands in the fine open courtyard as it was intended one should do; the interstices on that side of the peristyle have been blocked by Venetian Gothic buildings, which project balconies on a line with the entablatures of neighboring columns and open doorways just beside their bases.

Yet there is no sense of disorder or vandalism. It would be as frivolous to object to the adaptations that the children of the palace have made in order to live as it would be to regret that a woman who had reared a large and glorious family had lost her girlish appearance. That is because these adaptations have always been made respectfully. So far as the walls stood, they have been allowed to stand; there has been no destruction for the sake of pilfering material for new buildings. It is, therefore, as real an architectural entity as evident to the eye of the beholder, as the Temple or Gray's Inn. There is only one blot on it, and that is not the work of necessity. In the middle of the peristyle of the imperial apartments, this superb but small open space, there has been placed a statue by Mestrovich of a fourth-century bishop who won the Slavs the right to use the liturgy in their own tongue. Nobody can say whether it is a good statue or not. The only fact that is observable about it in this position is that it is twenty-four feet high. A more ungodly misfit was never seen. It reduces the architectural proportions of the palace to chaos, for its head is on a level with the colonnades, and the passage in which it stands is only forty feet wide. This is hard on the statue, for on a low wall near by lies a black granite sphynx from Egypt, part of the original decorations of the palace, but far older, seventeen hundred years older, of the great age of Egyptian sculpture; and though this is not five feet long, its compact perfection makes the statue of the bishop gangling and flimsy, lacking in true mass, like one of those marionettes sometimes seen through the open door of a warehouse in Nice, kept against next year's carnival.

It cannot be conceived by the traveler why Mestrovich wanted this statue to be put here, or why the authorities humored him. If the step was inspired by nationalist sentiment, if it is supposed to represent the triumph of the Slav over Roman domination, nobody present can have known much history. For Diocletian's palace commemorates a time when the Illyrians, the native stock of Dalmatia, whose blood assuredly runs in the veins of most modern Dalmatians, had effective control of the Roman Empire; it commemorates one of the prettiest of time's revenges. Rome destroyed—for perhaps no better reason than that she was an Empire and could do it—the ancient civilization of Illyria; but when she later needed sound governors to defend her from barbarian invaders, Illyria gave her thirteen rulers and defenders, of whom only one was a failure. All the others deserved the title they were given, restitutores orbis—even though it turned out that the earth as they knew it was not restorable. Of these the greatest were Diocletian and Constantine; and many would say that Diocletian was the greater of the two.

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