Saturday, 22 February 2014

Diocletian's Palace

Croatia was our main holiday destination last year; Diocletian's Palace in Split was top of my A list of things to see.  It exceeded expectations.

Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus was one of the most energetic and inventive of the emperors of Rome.  He reigned from 284-305 AD. The latter date is that of his retirement, not his death: uniquely among emperors, he stepped down from supreme power, and spent the last decade of his life in retirement in the palace he built for himself on the beautiful Dalmatian coast, not far from the provincial capital of Salona.  Unlike most buildings from the period, the palace survived.  The photo below is of the windows of the emperor's private quarters--now a bar.

Some may think this rather a sad come-down for an emperor's bedroom, but if people hadn't moved in the palace would be only another ruin.  The Roman buildings which survive more-or-less intact are the ones that people kept using and therefore kept repairing; those that were not still in use were left to fall down, or, more commonly, used as a source of brick and stone by later generations.  (Or, of course, the ones which were buried under volcanic ash or river silt.)  Roman Salona, the one-time capital of Dalmatia, suffered that fate.

Salona--now Solin--is a very interesting site, but--to me at least--nowhere near as interesting as the palace, and a large part of that interest is the way the old building was changed by new users. What happened is this: about a century after Diocletian died, the people of Salona abandoned their city: the Avars and Croats were invading, and Salona, some miles inland, was hard to keep supplied in a siege. The palace lay on the coast: it had a good harbour, a strong defensive wall, and ample barracks which had once provided accommodation for the emperor's guards.  The Salonians moved in, and, over the centuries that followed, rebuilt and adapted the complex to suit their own needs.

Some of the things they did would have outraged the emperor, had he known of them.  Diocletian was a great persecutor of Christians, but the mausoleum he'd built to be buried in was turned into a church; even worse, it was dedicated to St. Domnius, who was martyred by--errm--Diocletian.  The temple near the mausoleum, dedicated to Jupiter, whom Diocletian claimed as his divine father, became a baptistery--though it retains its beautiful Roman vaulting.
As the Dark Ages gave way to the Middle Ages, the palace became too small to contain the burgeoning population of the town; the walls were extended, then extended again.  Split is now a big, busy, industrial city, and the palace is nothing more than its oldest part.  It's where the tourists go, and instead of Roman guardsmen or Orthodox monks, the peristyle is full of people with cameras, with cafe bars and boutiques.
The part of the palace which is least changed is its basement.  The reason for this is simple: it was used as a sewer and rubbish tip for centuries, and until the archaeologists braved it, people left it well alone.

While we were there, the basement (now clean and tastefully illuminated) was being prepared for a flower show.  The contrast between the fragile, ephemeral flowers and the old stones reminded me of the verses by Kipling:
Cities and Thrones and Powers
Stand in Time's eye
Almost as long as flowers,
Which daily die:
But, as new buds put forth
To glad new men,
Out of the spent and unconsidered Earth
The cities rise again.

This season's Daffodil,
She never hears
What change, what chance, what chill,
Cut down last year's;
But with bold countenance,
And knowledge small,
Esteems her seven days' continuance
To be perpetual.

Sunday, 12 January 2014


My new year's resolution is to write this thing at least once a month.

The building above is Birmingham's new public library.  Isn't it beautiful?  It looks just as good inside, too.
It has five floors of books, plus the city archives, plus a collection of music with a space for live performances; it has its own cafe and two roof-top gardens with fabulous views; it has space for special exhibits, for readings and performances for children, and for arts and crafts; it has an e-library and a lot of (free) online resources.

In raising this marvellous building --the single largest public building project in Britain for several years--the city of Birmingham defied two pervasive trends. First--unlike most of the other striking buildings put up over the past decade--the library is for public, not private/corporate use; and second, Birmingham is investing in a library while most councils are closing them down.

  I admit that an author enthusing over libraries is a bit like a dog enthusiastically devouring food: if it didn't happen, you'd suspect something was wrong.  Like most avid readers, I was taken to the local library before I could even toddle, and every week of my childhood I came away with a handful of books.  Oh, I soon discovered bookshops as well, but bookshops are restaurants or foodie outlets, providing exotic meals: libraries are the family dining table.  They provide reading matter day in, day out, whether or not you have funds.  They provide the staple food that keeps the mind alive.

Or they used to.  Increasingly we are told that, in this digital age, they aren't as important as they once were; that now people can look things up online, and order anything they like from Amazon. Library budgets are an easy target for a cash-strapped council. All over Britain libraries are being closed down; even when they stay open, the funds they have available to buy new books are limited.  Hours of opening are wrenched about; every penny has to be justified; 'unpopular' books are ruthlessly sold off because of limited space.

The digital argument is disingenuous.  Yes, you can look things up online--if you have a computer.  If you don't, the only place you're likely to get online for free is your local public library--if it hasn't been closed down.  As for buying books--alas, they aren't cheap. The amount I spend on books makes me value libraries more, not less.

'A library,' said the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, 'outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people.  It is a never failing spring in the desert,' and 'There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library.'  He put his money where his mouth was, too, and endowed hundreds of libraries across Britain--including my local branch library which just celebrated its centenary.

Birmingham's beautiful new library has been packed every time I've visited it.  I hope it prospers; I hope that it, too, will one day celebrate its centenary.  A world bereft of libraries would be a desert indeed.