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Croatia in Europe through the ages

Croatian-Iberian relations

Because the Mediterranean Sea served as a geographical link, Croatian historical ties with the Iberian Peninsula were more developed with Spain than with Portugal. As an oceanic country first and foremost, Portugal was traditionally more oriented towards the overseas countries than towards the Mediterranean. Croatia and Spain are situated on the northern periphery of the Mediterranean Sea, each at one of its edges: Croatia lies to the east, while Spain forms its western end. Thus, the first links we are aware of between Croatian historical lands and the Iberian Peninsula were part of the overall movement of people across the Mediterranean. Today we believe that Croats first set foot on the Iberian Peninsula in the 10th century as soldiers of fortune at the court of the Caliphs of Córdoba, where, according to Spanish historians, they distinguished themselves in battles against the Berbers. In the 12th century, the Spanish-Arab geographer al-Idrisi made the first map of the eastern coast and seaboard of the Adriatic Sea. A century later, the map known as the Carta catalana, one of the finest medieval representations of the Adriatic coast, was made on the eastern coast of the Iberian Peninsula. It is presumed that just a little earlier, around 1330, the travelogue Viaje del mundo con las Armas de todos sus Reynos/A Trip around the World with the Arms of all its Kingdoms/was written by an anonymous friar from Seville. The author is believed to have travelled through very few of the areas he describes, but, in keeping with the customs of the day, his writing was informed by news coming from various sources, circulating around Europe. In the travelogue, he mentions and cursorily describes many places in Croatia, thereby demonstrating the importance of the Croatian lands in the imaginary of the time on the Iberian Peninsula. Herman Dalmatin, a prominent medieval scholar and philosopher who worked in the famous Toledan School of Translators, set off from his native Istria (which was then part of the March of Carinthia of the Holy Roman Empire) to study in Paris and Chartres; he then travelled through many Christian and Muslim countries and translated his knowledge of languages and cultures into works which conveyed ancient and oriental science to the Europeans.

In the meantime, traders from the eastern coast of the Iberian Peninsula began to arrive in towns on the Eastern Adriatic; the Kingdom of Aragon expanded across the Mediterranean so the King of Aragon and conqueror of the Mediterranean, Alfonso V the Magnanimous, titled himself the ‘King of Dalmatia, Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria’; at the same time, in the 15th century, there was a consul in Dubrovnik responsible for Catalan merchant ships and interests.

In the 16th century – which was marked, in the Mediterranean area, by the struggle between Western Christianity, gathered around Spain, and Islam, mustered under the Ottoman fez – the remnants of the unsubjugated areas of Croatia strengthened their ties with the Spanish court for the sake of their physical and political survival. Having chosen the House of Habsburg for its sovereign in 1527, Croatia found itself under the same crown as Spain, so a number of political and military contacts were made within this larger framework. Spanish units often stayed on and participated in battles in the Croatian lands and, to all appearances, the picture of them in the imaginary of the time was striking: proof of this are works of literature which appeared then and later. As late as the 20th century, the oral folk literature in Konavle kept alive the story of Spanish soldiers who ventured out on raids into the surrounds of the city of Dubrovnik from their fort in Herceg Novi; in his historical novel Čuvaj se senjske ruke/Pirates of Senj/, August Šenoa revives the memory of the alliance between the Uskoks from Senj and the Spanish viceroy of Naples, the Duke of Osuna, at the beginning of the 17th century, while in Balade Petrice Kerempuha/Ballads of Petrica Kerempuh/, Miroslav Krleža portrays a soldier of the Spanish emperor and king (who is not necessarily Spanish) as a conqueror. In their speeches and letters ‘suprotiva Turkom’/against the Turks/, the Croatian Latinists of the 16th century (Damjan Beneša and others) viewed Spain as the only Christian force of the time capable of supporting the ‘remnants of the remnants’ of Croatia in their daily fight with the Ottoman forces along this border that the whole of Croatia had become. This view is particularly manifest in a speech given by Croatian count Vuk I Frankopan to Emperor Charles V in 1530. In the Spanish epic poetry of the 16th and 17th centuries, Croatia, and in particular Dalmatia, is mentioned as the place of the demise of Spanish warriors for the Christian cause; in the prose of the 16th century (travelogues and/or Renaissance dialogues), the Croatian lands are mentioned as localities of huge Christian losses and suffering in the struggle against the Ottomans or (in chivalric novels) as an exotic medieval kingdom associated with victories of knights-errant.

However, in the world of politics and wars (but also trade, which persisted, nevertheless), the Spanish and the Croatians were well aware of their geostrategic position and the mutual benefit this could bring them in those times. In the 16th century, the Dubrovnik Republic had consulates in the Spanish ports of Velencia, Alicante, Cartagena and Cádiz. It forged a new form of alliance with the Spanish court: through direct negotiations at the Court (Marin Zamanja) as well as through the Spanish ambassador in Venice and the court of the Spanish viceroy in Naples, the Dubrovnik Republic invoked former consular links and agreed to a permanent but secret intelligence service that would inform the Spanish about the situation in the Ottoman Empire. Furthermore, traders from the Dubrovnik Republic often played a decisive role during pivotal negotiations between the Spanish and the Ottomans in Istanbul and during the redemption or exchange of Spanish prisoners; in exchange, the Spanish granted them trade privileges in the parts of the Mediterranean under Spanish rule. In those times, the Spanish monarchy, the ruler of the New World, became a land of promise for many men of letters, inventors, potential seafarers and explorers, and several Croats also left their trace on events that marked the times: within the framework of the discussion on the modalities of Christianisation of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, one of the most significant public polemics in Renaissance Spain, Vinko Paletin, from Korčula, penned the Tratado del derecho y justicia dela guerra que tienen los reyes de España contra las naciones de la Yndia Occidental/Treatise on the Right and Justifiability of the War that the Kings of Spain Are Waging against the Peoples of the West Indies/, offered his own invention, a concoction to counter shipworm, a major technological issue for transatlantic navigation at the time, to the Royal and Supreme Council of the Indies in Seville and ran several errands for the King’s secretary.

The subsequent centuries saw the establishment of new links: in the 17th and 18th centuries, several Croatian Jesuits participated in the undertaking of the Spanish Court and the Society of Jesus aimed at conquering and evangelising those territories in the New World where the 16th century colonisation model had failed. Among the most valuable examples of their written legacy are Relatio Tarahumarum missionum/An Account of the Tarahumara Missions/by Ivan Ratkaj and the works of Ferdinand Konšćak, in particular the diary of his journey to the mouth of the Colorado (Red) River in the summer of 1746 and the Descripción compendiosa de lo descubierto y conocido de la California/A Compendious Description of the Revealed and Known about California/. As was the case in a great part of Europe at the time, the Croatian drama of the 19th century often explored the theme of Spanish medieval legends. The port of Rijeka became very interesting for the Spanish during this period for reasons of commerce; hence, they kept a consulate there which looked after their trade interests and the shipping companies that maintained a brisk trade between the two shores of the now again peaceful Mediterranean.

In the 20th century, links between the two countries were, in the main, cultural and for the most part went from east to west: Croatian writers, publicists and other artists often found inspiration in Spain and Spanish themes. Good translations of works of literature from Spanish into Croatian were also of a great help in this respect. Among the numerous diaries kept by Croats during their travels across Spain, the most prominent are Put po Španiji/A Journey around Spain/, 1929, by painter Ljubo Babić, illustrated with drawings from that journey, and Španjolski susreti/Spanish Encounters/, 1938, by writer August Cesarec. For almost a decade, publicist Bogdan Radica kept up a correspondence with writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno; these letters were published both in Croatia and in several foreign countries. The paintings of Francisco Goya are among the topics covered by Miroslav Krleža in his essays. In music, Spanish themes are found, for instance, in the work of Davorin Kempf. The list is rather long and the influence on the Croatian side has been highly beneficial. About 1,600 volunteers from the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, almost half of them Croats from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, participated in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) fighting on the Republican side as members of the so-called International Brigades. A small unit within the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was named after Matija Gubec, a Croatian peasant leader from the 16th century. In the second half of the 20th century, many Croatian artists and scholars found themselves in Spain as refugees and then continued their successful careers throughout the world, such as painters Zdravko Dučmelić and Petar (Pedro) Maruna, writer and journalist Luka Brajnović and physician Duško Jelavić. Of particular significance for Spanish culture is the contribution made by encyclopaedist Pavao (Pablo) Tijan, who lived in Madrid from 1947 onwards. Drawing on the experience gained during his work on an encyclopaedia in Croatia, he applied that expertise in his new homeland, particularly during work on the five volumes of La Enciclopedia de la Cultura Española/The Encyclopaedia of Spanish Culture/(1963–69); he also launched a Croatian programme on Radio Madrid and worked as its editor. From 1978 until his return to Croatia in 1991, the Croatian writer Vinko Nikolić edited and published Hrvatska revija/Croatian Review/ in Barcelona, considered the leading cultural publication among the Croatian émigré community. Some well-known Spanish writers ‘discovered’ Croatia during the Homeland War as war correspondents: Arturo Pérez-Reverte turned his experience from besieged Vukovar and other parts of Croatia and Bosnia into a plethora of newspaper articles and the novels Territorio Comanche/Comanche Territory/ and El pintor de batallas/The Painter of Battles/, while, in addition to influential columns in the daily El País, Hermann Tertsch summarised his familiarity with Croatia as a war correspondent in La Venganza de la Historia/The Revenge of History/, a book of political essays.

On 15 January 1992, Spain and Portugal, along with other members of the European Community, recognised the independence of the Republic of Croatia. This recognition inaugurated a completely new phase for Croatian-Iberian relations. The old links, which have been only roughly sketched here, are now viewed in this new light, while the new framework of partnership, within the overarching framework of the European Union, has opened up a variety of possibilities for links at the economic, cultural, academic and other levels. Not only is Croatian creativity finding its way to Spanish and Portuguese companies, galleries, concert halls, publishers and many other places, but Hispanic and Lusitanian culture, rightly considered one of the most recognisable cultures to have influenced the world, is at long last now being presented in Croatia in a more regular and systematic way. It should be said that the second Yugoslavia did not maintain diplomatic relations with Spain until 1975, so all contacts depended chiefly on individual initiatives. A special chapter belongs to the areas where peoples most often encounter each other nowadays: tourism and sports. Both are strongly represented in this new, very positive wave of recognition of the ancient peoples living along the edges of the Mediterranean, an ancient world in which they have inherited and now share so many joint traditions and values.