The Myth of Ragusa: Discourses on Civic Identity in an Adriatic City-State (1350-1600)

Thesis author: 
Lovro Kunčević
Year of enrollment: 
Duration of thesis project: 
Sep, 2004 - Jun, 2011
Thesis supervisor: 
Gerhard Jaritz
Thesis abstract: 

Doctoral Dissertation Abstract
The dissertation seeks to investigate the self-representation of Ragusa between the
mid-fourteenth and the early seventeenth century, during the period of city’s greatest
political, cultural, and economic importance. In other words, it seeks to analyse the
changing ways in which Ragusans spoke about themselves as a community, how they
developed a set of recognizable discourses of identity to describe their republic. Since
Ragusan self-narration was performed through different social practices, ranging
from historiography to civic ritual and visual arts, this study has to take into account
diverse source material (e.g., diplomatic correspondence, poetry, historiography,
descriptions of ritual, and representative art). The statements regarding collective
identity found in these sources are analysed through a set of contextualizing questions
which address their authors, the specific circumstances of their creation, and the
purposes they served.
Various themes, motifs, and commonplaces which usually appeared when
Ragusans spoke about their city-state can be subsumed under three major discourses
on identity, each of which is addressed in a separate chapter of this work. They were
the discourses of origin, on liberty, and on the frontier. The discourse of origin
encompassed various references to the foundation of Ragusa, on the one hand
connecting it with prestigious peoples of Antiquity through its legendary founders,
and on the other creating a tendentious image of the newly founded city which clearly
served the contemporary interests of the Renaissance Republic. The discourse on
liberty consisted of historical myths and theoretical propositions concerning the
political independence and aristocratic constitution of the Ragusan Republic, in fact
amounting to a specific Ragusan version of Renaissance republican ideology. Finally,
reflecting the fact that the city was situated at the borderland of cultures and religions,
the discourse on the frontier portrayed Ragusa as the defender of Catholicism and
Christianity or even civilization against the infidel and barbaric Ottomans in its
hinterland, a heroic antemurale in the “jaws of the infidel.”
The first chapter discusses the various utterances concerning the origin of
Ragusa, the ways in which the image of the city’s foundation changed through time.
Since pre-modern historical consciousness saw an origin as an epistemologically
privileged moment which revealed in nuce all the essential traits of a community, the
young Republic took great care to re-fashion its beginnings in order to suit its
contemporary concerns. More precisely, Ragusan authors used the narrative of the
city’s foundation in order to tackle four major ideological issues. The first was
creating a suitable Classical predecessor for the flourishing city-state. Ragusa was
endowed with a prestigious Classical past through re-writing the traditional story
about its foundation by refugees from the neighboring ancient city of Epidaurus,
which began to be represented as a Roman colony, a fully-fledged republic, and even
the birthplace of a pagan god, Aesculapius. The second ideological issue was
increasing the prestige and legitimizing the rule of the patrician elite which had
recently monopolized political power. This was achieved by changing the traditional
protagonists of the founding – a somewhat amorphous group of refugees – into
ancestors of the nobility, thus inscribing the patriciate into the very foundations of
Ragusan history. The third issue was reconciling the traditional claim of the Roman
origins of Ragusa and its elite with their undeniable contemporary Slavic culture.
These were harmonized through an insistence on the alleged Slavic culture of the
founders, that is, by projecting the contemporary ethnic and cultural situation of the
city into a distant and normative past. Finally, the last issue was finding firm and
deep historical roots for two crucial features of Renaissance Ragusa: its political
independence and its uncompromising Catholicism. Similarly to the Slavic culture,
both were represented as essential and timeless attributes of the city-state by being
projected into the prescriptive moment of foundation.
The second chapter is dedicated to the discourse on statehood, various
historical myths and theoretical propositions about the independence and political
system of the Ragusan city-state. The first part follows the gradual redefinition of the
city’s relationship with its distant sovereign, the Hungarian king, during the late
fourteenth and fifteenth century. Although this relationship was originally an
unambiguous acknowledgement of Hungarian sovereignty, Ragusan diplomats and
historians represented it as a contract made freely between two essentially equal
partners, thus laying the foundations for the later independence of the city. The
second part of the chapter deals with probably the most problematic political
relationship in Ragusan history in general – the city’s status as a tributary state to the
Ottoman Empire. It follows the ways in which Ragusans tried to obfuscate, justify,
and redefine this immensely compromising political relationship after its
establishment in the mid-fifteenth century. The third part of the chapter deals with a
specific crisis of legitimacy which characterized Ragusa after the mid-sixteenth
century. The city had seceded unilaterally from the Hungarian Kingdom after it
collapsed in 1526 and therefore its self-proclaimed independence rested on dubious
legal foundations. In an attempt to ground that independence on both historical
precedent and divine sanction, the Republics’ apologists redefined the entire history
of Ragusa, suggesting not only that the city had always been free but that its liberty
was defended by providence. The fourth part of the chapter deals with the various
conceptualizations of the other basic aspect of Ragusan statehood – its republican
form of government. It analyses various references to the political system of Ragusa,
the virtue of its patrician rulers, and the social harmony which such a system
allegedly produced. Finally, the fifth part of the chapter considers the Ragusan
discourse on statehood in a broader context of other similar ideologies. On the one
hand, it compares Ragusan discourse with the emblematic Florentine republicanism,
while on the other it demonstrates the profound indebtedness of Ragusan ideology to
the city’s great teacher but also enemy, Venice.
The third chapter is dedicated to the discourse on the frontier, investigating
how Renaissance authors commented on the fact that their city was situated at the
borderlands of religions, empires, even civilisations. It is largely dedicated to
analyzing the various strategies of diplomatic self-representation which thematized
Ragusa’s position between Christianity and Islam. In this regard the most important
was the rhetoric towards Western courts, which sought to justify the tributary position
in quite a surprising way -- by representing Ragusa as an altruistic frontier guard of
Christianity that defended the true religion by appeasing the “infidel.” Besides the
diplomatic rhetoric, this chapter also analyses the various references in the literature
and historiography to the religious identity of Ragusa and its position on the fringes
of Christianity. While some such references were written in the usual panegyric tone,
lauding the piety of the city and its unwavering loyalty to Rome, others were echoes
of a hushed but fervent debate among the city’s elite regarding the relationship with
the “infidel.” Namely, despite the diplomacy which trumpeted about the great merit
of Ragusan tributary status, numerous historians and literati felt distinct unease about
it, raising the question of whether it was morally permissible and politically prudent
for a Catholic city to cherish such good relations with a Muslim empire.
The conclusion considers these three civic discourses and the resulting image
of the city-state in their broader ideological context. The first main question it
addresses is how the three civic discourses interacted among themselves, what their
relationships were in creating the totality of the city’s image. They seem to have
coexisted without contradictions, frequently even complementing and strengthening
each other, which is only natural once one recalls that they were all the products of a
homogeneous and small patrician elite. The second, even more important, question
posed in the conclusion concerns the relationship of the civic discourses with other
discourses on collectivity – focused on religious, social, familial or ethnic
communities – which appear in Ragusan documents. Two main two main patterns of
interaction seem to have existed, one of which could be labelled “parasitic” and the
other “supportive.” The “parasitic” pattern designated the instances in which the
references to other communities were combined with those to the civic community in
order to “borrow” some of the other’s prestige or legitimacy. The “supportive”
pattern was the exact opposite: it designated the instances in which references to the
non-civic communities were invoked in order to elevate the prestige and legitimacy
of the civic one.
The epilogue of the dissertation addresses the remarkable fact that many of the
topoi of Ragusan self-representation have survived since the Renaissance and still
exert a profound influence upon modern thinking about the old Republic. In other
words, modified by modern ideologies and interests, many of the ancient topoi still
enjoy a vibrant existence, emerging in different cultural genres from academic
historiography and politics all the way to tourist marketing and schoolbooks. The aim
of the epilogue is to provide a cursory overview of the more salient cases of such
survivals, thus revealing the remarkable posthumous influence of Ragusan
Renaissance ideology.