21 May 2014

Great Buildings: Diocletian's Palace

Emperor Diocletian, ever heard of him?  After visiting Split, a city in Croatia north of the more often visited city of Dubrovnik, you might never forget Emperor Diocletian. This would be due to his splendid palace extant in Split; in fact, his palace comprises much of central Split due to the misfortunes of that city through the past 1700 years.  Poverty has a way of making urban renewal superfluous and thereby saving what has been built, to the good fortune of future generations. As emperor, Diocletian (284-305) mucked about with torturing Christians with an edict in 303 toward the end of his reign but hardly got warmed up with that. He earlier tried to calm the empire's chaos after its 50 year string of murdered military emperors by carving it into four administrative areas called the Tetrarchy (293 AD). That shifted power away from Rome, and the bulk of valuable trade deals and bribes no doubt also shifted away from Rome and thus he irritated more than a few citizens. Rather like having someone get rid of all Beltway offices and DC lobbyists, it proved unpopular to those on the take.

The great compound, the centerpiece of Split, tells much about the late Empire. It occupies the largest footprint of any known Roman palace, the walls 160 meters by 190 meters. In its day, vessels could pull in along the colonnaded south facade to discharge cargoes, soldiers, and wealthy visitors with an entourage. That would have been a spectacular arrival. The sea level has changed, so that today the palace fronts dry land on all sides.

Diocletian's palace as it originally appeared.
This image can be seen on much tourist material in Split,
 and appears on Wiki,  “in public domain for US purposes”
The structure has an immense lower half-basement level that would have accessed the south quayside. One sees evidence of the troops who occupied it and their horses. The palace kitchens and storage, and smithing and other utilitarian areas, bustled below like a small self-contained city to operate the palace and imperial residences. Great barrel-vaulted ceilings spanned by Romanesque arches make the lower level seem huge. Wait – it is huge!

At street level, several interior buildings remain within the original walls, including Diocletian's mausoleum which notably, if not ironically, was converted to Christian use. Small temples also survive.  One of three stolen Egyptian sphinxes in black granite reposes in front of one temple, a pleasant spot to rest and contemplate. The tourist brochures advise of a tale involving murder in one of the temples during the final days of Diocletian and it would be tempting to base an historical novel here.

How the little boy grew up in Dalmatia across the sparkling Adriatic from Rome and became emperor, and amassed enough wealth to build such a structure in his native land is intriguing. But look at the properties that certain modern leaders suddenly can afford as a result of allegedly serving the public and perhaps the mystery isn't one except this: how the public keeps getting shorn like sheep, century after century.

Travel tip: speaking of great buildings, unless it has been tarted up or “modernized” with glitz in the past few years, the Hotel Park in Split boasts authentic Deco architecture and décor. Dining service is impeccable, the food fresh and varied –not always the case in this former Soviet bloc country. The Hotel Park is centrally located, but away from city center noise at night. It has an outdoor terrace overlooking the sparkling Adriatic, a grand retreat after a day spent admiring the vast Diocletian's Palace.

Link to UN Heritage article about the Palace, more photos:  http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/97/

J.S. Dunn lived in Ireland during the past decade, on 12 lovely acres fronting a salmon river. The author continues to research and travel the Atlantic coasts and recently  enjoyed wonderful seafood on the Cotes d’Armor, and in Cornwall, and at the famed Lobster Pot restaurant in County Wexford, Ireland.