By Jadranka Beresford-Peirse
It was a pleasure and a reward to receive recently several photographs of the new display of books in the Library of St Lawrence Friary in Šibenik, Croatia. They were taken and sent to me by a young priest, Fra Jerko Kolovrat, who recently entered the priesthood. I first visited this Library in September 2014 when, quite by chance, a group of conservators from the National and University Library in Zagreb were also there working hard for two solid weeks trying to save what could be saved and arrest further damage. This was part of the programme entitled “Preventive Care of Historic Collections” initiated by the National and University Library in 2014. In my 2015 progress report I had included a photograph of one of the Friary’s books, showing clearly the precarious state that the Library was in.
The team of conservators from the National and University Library worked systematically and with great expertize. The collection was disinfected, and many books were carefully cleaned by hand, dried and moved to a secure position. During this great labour of love to save these books, the custodian of the Friary Fra Mate Topić, Fra Petar Josip Djukić, volunteer Mrs Jasna Kokot, and later her husband Zvonimir Kokot were more than willing to learn how to continue this work themselves, to store the books properly to prevent further deterioration and, eventually, to catalogue them. This they have done with great fervour, and as the photographs from Fra Jerko show, the books are now stored under much better conditions on new shelving and in rooms that have been restored. The National and University Library conservators’ visit was followed by a precise and lengthy report, but it is the people in the Friary who have done this important work and should be commended.
Happy news indeed!
I am very glad that we, The International Trust for Croatian Monuments, have been able to help them too. A couple of years ago, with the support of the Headley Trust, we bought for them a metal conservation chest for storing prints and drawings and a metal cupboard with a key for their important books and incunabula. Then, in 2016, when Šibenik suffered from an unexpected flooding, and the Šibenik Town Library approached us to ask if we could buy for them a de-humidifier to help dry some of their damaged holdings, Fra Mate also asked us for a de-humidifier. We were glad to be able to do so thanks to donations from a friend, which covered the cost. They have now asked us for a second de-humidifier. As we know winters can be cold on the Dalmatian coast, so we were again delighted to be able to make the purchase, thus helping preserve the holdings of the Library. Our financial help to acquire this essential equipment does not amount to a large sum of money.
There are two Franciscan friaries in Šibenik. The Friary of St Lawrence is situated just above the main square and the city hall, within the complex known as Palazzo Foscoli, built during the second half of the 15th century. In the palace there are several late Gothic reliefs by Juraj Dalmatinac (1410-1473), one of the builders of the Cathedral of St James in Šibenik. The Church of St Lawrence was built in 1677-1697. The Friary holds 13 incunabula and about 30,000 books and periodicals. About 1,000 books were lost, beyond repair, during this latter period. They also hold a considerable number of paintings, among them “Madonna and Child” reputedly by Juraj Ćulinović (also known as Giorgio Schiavone) (1436-1504). This may be the only painting by Giorgio Schiavone held in Croatia, albeit the attribution is uncertain. As a point of interest, the National Gallery in London holds a lovely polyptych by this artist. The painting “Madonna and Child” is not on view in the Friary of St Lawrence in Šibenik. Rather, it is held in the collection of this Franciscan province on the island of Visovac in the beautiful Krka National Park; it is certainly a place that one should visit if possible. As Fra Mate Topić tells me, they have now transferred all their incunabula and a portrait of Emperor Napoleon I to their friary on Visovac for safe keeping.
Sadly, as Fra Mate also tells me, the Foscoli Palace is in a very bad state of disrepair. Even the smallest of earthquakes would raise it to the ground. It is the devoted work of Fra Mate Topić, Fra Petar Djukić, Mr Zvonimir and Mrs Jasna Kokot which is holding things together, by means of both hard labour and finance. Everybody who comes to the Friary admires how clean and tidy everything is in spite of the structure itself being in such a disrepair. Regarding the books, the work is not yet finished; more remains to be done, and still more books are waiting to be cleaned and properly stored.
As mentioned earlier, there is another Franciscan friary in Šibenik, the Friary of St Francis of the Conventual Franciscans. It is situated in the southeast of the town and has a very important Library indeed, containing over 140 incunabula. Among these there is one, “Ars bene moriendi” printed in Paris in 1492 by Johannes Higman, which is very rare and of which there may not be a copy in either the British Library or anywhere in the USA. The International Trust for Croatian Monuments was also able to help their library collection. As reported in my progress report from 2005, Professor Nicholas Pickwoad, a bookbindings and conservation expert, and Robert Child, head of conservation at National Museum Wales, visited this library. In response to their investigation and report, a group of conservators from the National and University Library in Zagreb came and moved the whole collection to a temporary holding place while the library room was given a complete restoration treatment. When this work was done, the books were returned to their original location. Alas, during the renovation process, the aesthetic aspect of the room was lost; the original striking blue colour of the Library walls had been replaced by another, not so pleasing to the eye.
I always remember Anthony Hobson (1921-2014), bibliophile, friend and a great supporter of our Trust, telling me how lucky Croatia is with her monastic library collections. In spite of the turmoil of past centuries, Croatia did not have to suffer under Henry VIII or the French Revolution. We should be grateful and take proper care of our heritage.
Jadranka Njerš Beresford-Peirse founded The International Trust for Croatian Monuments (www.croatianmonuments.org) in 1991. The Trust has raised considerable funds channelled to specific cultural heritage projects in Croatia. These range from helping to rebuild cathedrals, churches and museums, to establishing conservation workshops. In addition, the Trust helps with the education and training of young conservators and restorers at institutions of excellence in Great Britain.