Mention the Pietà, and most people think of Michelangelo’s delicate 1499 masterpiece in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The Virgin Mary holds the crucified Jesus in an embrace that is equal parts sadness, beauty, and piety. But there are dozens of Pietàs across Europe, all evoking similar emotions.
The statue that sits above the Stradun—the main street through the old town of Dubrovnik in Croatia—is a special case. This Maria, sculpted by Leonard and Petar Petroviċ in 1498, gazes down in a mood that can only be described as aghast.
And no wonder. From the days of its founding, Dubrovnik has suffered one vicious war and rampage after another. In 1991, in the Yugoslav Wars, the Croats were the victims, as the Serbs and Montenegrins poured artillery fire down onto a helpless population. In the Second World War, it was the Croats enlisting German help to massacre the Serbs, Jews, and Roma under their control. In 1944, Tito’s Communists used Daksa Island in the harbor as a dumping ground for the bodies of their enemies. And the Stradun bisects the old town only because it was originally dug as a channel to keep the Romans and Croats from tearing each other apart.
If the ethnic and religious catastrophe of Yugoslavia has taken centuries to develop, the key variable might be the inexorable growth in the efficiency of the weapons. Basically, Croats are still Catholics, Bosniaks are still Muslims, and Serbs are still Eastern Orthodox. But you’d never notice the difference from wandering around and talking to the smattering of fluent English speakers. Most young people dismiss even the recent brouhaha as ancient history. Their elders say very little at all.
My first time in Yugoslavia, just before the latest round of mayhem, was remarkable for the change we noticed in crossing the Austrian-Yugoslav border—there wasn’t any. But whereas the Austrians were shouting at each other, the Yugoslavs were reaching for their weapons. Apparently, they found them. Again.