The Mausoleum at St Roch Cemetery

The Mausoleum at St Roch Cemetery

The toponym Na Roku (`On St Roch’s’) is well known to all Cavtat residents. The local cemetery has been situated on that hill since 1826. Before then, the inhabitants were buried in the city itself – within and around the parish church of St Nicholas, the Franciscan church of Our Lady of the Snows or the small church of Our Lady of Loreto. The arrival of the French administration and the subsequent changes to the rules of burial for health and hygiene reasons spawned the idea for a new cemetery; this idea would not be realised until the Austrian rule. A hill on which stood a small church dedicated to St Roch, a saint invoked against the plague, was chosen as a new area for the final resting place of the Cavtat residents. The church in question had stood there since the 15th century, while certain historical sources indicate the previous existence of a church dedicated to St Tryphon on the cemetery site.

The choice of location is unsurprising; the site has been used for profane and religious purposes since prehistoric times, while also serving as a strategic vantage point from which access to the two ports of Cavtat can be easily monitored. Originally probably an Iron Age hillfort settlement, it became part of the Epidaurum colony in antiquity; a temple dedicated to the Capitoline Triad was built in that position in order to be visible from every point of the city. Today, this locality is dominated by the architectural and sculptural masterpiece of sculptor Ivan Meštrović – the Račić Family Mausoleum, also known as Our Lady of the Angels. This iconic landmark was constructed as a result of the tragic fate that befell the Račić family and Marija Račić Banac and Božo Banac’s friendship with the artist Ivan Meštrović.

The Račićs were a well-known family from Župa Dubrovačka with residence in Cavtat. Having mastered his craft and worked his way up from sailor to captain, Ivo Račić, the head of the family, became the co-owner of Unione, the first Dalmatian steamship association, in 1891. Furthermore, in 1910, he founded his own steamship company, Slobodna plovidba Ivo Račić, in Trieste, a precursor to today’s Atlantska plovidba. With the help of his wife Mare and his two children, Marija and Eduardo, he successfully ran the family business. Marija Račić was married to Božo Banac, her father’s associate and shareholder of the company, and they lived between London, Paris and Rome.

The Mausoleum at St Roch Cemetery

Meštrović first met Marija and Božo Banac in Rome in 1913, when Marija’s first portrait was created. What followed were years of close friendship and cherished family anecdotes. By the end of 1918, at the end of the First World War, the Račić family was preparing for a happy and romantic event that was to take place in Rome, Edi’s wedding. However, in the midst of the Spanish flu pandemic, Edi and his fiancée fell victim to the devastating virus. The same evil fate befell Marija, who came to Rome for the wedding, while their father Ivo passed away of heart problems a few months earlier. Only their mother Mare, overwhelmed with grief, would live for a few more months; however, that would be long enough for her to establish a foundation and fulfil her daughter’s last wish that Ivan Meštrović should build her a tomb.

The mausoleum would be Meštrović’s first architectural work following his decision to return to his homeland. In 1920, having obtained the permission of the Dubrovnik Diocese to demolish the old St Roch Church and build a mausoleum with the function of a cemetery chapel in its place, Meštrović began the mausoleum’s construction. He set up his carving quarters in Dubrovnik in the Lapad quarantine station and in the Franciscan monastery in Cavtat. For two years, a team of sculptors and stonemasons worked on the realisation of the building which Meštrović had envisioned as a combination of memorial, sacral and artistic space. It is an octagonal structure with two rectangular chapels and an entrance portico on the main axes. The interior is dominated by a dome decorated with angel heads and oversized angel figures carrying the souls of the dead in their hands as they ascend towards the heavens. In the axis of the entrance, where visitors are greeted by two angels depicted in a contemplative pose, there is a chapel with the main altar dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels, featuring an emphatically sculpted statue of the Virgin Mary. The chapel left of the entrance is dedicated to the The Crucifixion of Christ, while the one right of the entrance is dedicated to St Roch, in honour of the church which previously stood on the site.

The iconographic symbolism of this space is dedicated to the ascent of souls into heaven. Under the bas-reliefs depicting the Annunciation, the Lamentation of Christ and the Resurrection, Meštrović left an intimate message to his late friend Marija, along with the key to its understanding, on the bell, placed high in the roof lantern and inaccessible to the eye:

Find out the secret of love; you will unlock the mystery of death and believe that life is eternal.

The Mausoleum at St Roch Cemetery

The demanding job of building the Račić Family Mausoleum, an architectural and sculptural masterpiece, required the engagement of a larger number of sculptors and stonemasons. The ambitious project, as designed by the sculptor Ivan Meštrović, was completed in less than two years. On 17th November 1920, the local newspaper Narodna svijest published the news that `it has been a few days that Ivan Meštrović, our strongest artistic talent, has been staying in our city in order to build a mausoleum for the late Ivo Račić’s family at the Cavtat cemetery.’ In July of that year, the same newspaper had published a short article on Meštrović visiting Dubrovnik without providing the reason for his visit. Prior to Meštrović’s relocation to Dubrovnik, it was necessary to secure suitable working quarters, as well as residential premises. Meštrović was joined in Dubrovnik by his then wife Ruža Klein. Meštrović rented `two shacks‘ near the old quarantine station in Lapad as the premises for his sculpting workshop from the Lučko Odaslanstvo Gruž (`Port Legation Gruž’), while his workshop in Cavtat was located within the local Franciscan monastery.

The following statement was published in the 30th March 1921 issue of the Narodna svijest newspaper:

`Yesterday, we were very pleasantly surprised by two dear guests – Mr Meštrović, the sculptor, and Natalin Banac. The purpose of their visit was to inspect the property on the summit of the St Roch hill, where the famous sculptor Meštrović will carve a monument to the family of the late Ivo Račić, a sea captain and shipowner. According to the plan, the mausoleum will be truly magnificent, worthy of being listed among the works of Meštrović, and will be one of the most treasured landmarks of in all of Yugoslavia, just like the Temple of Diana in Ephesus, which enjoyed the same status in all of ancient Greece.

The Mausoleum at St Roch Cemetery

The above quote shows that the expectations of the project’s end result were high even before the mausoleum’s foundation stone was laid. The name of Meštrović’s collaborator in the architectural design process of the mausoleum in the first months of its construction remains unknown, if there was one at all. However, it is known that a young architect by the name of Harold Bilinić collaborated with the famous sculptor in such capacity since November 1921. The extent of the public interest in every step of Meštrović’s project can be best described by an article in the Split newspaper Novo Doba, reprinted in its entirety from the Ljubljana newspaper Slovenski narod due to `the interesting nature of the subject matter‘. The article in question provides an insight into the atmosphere in the Lapad workshop:

`The familiar sounds of the hammers’ blows were already heard from afar. The entrance to the yard was closed by a wooden door. I entered the nearer of the two shacks; I didn’t even notice the “prohibited entry” sign board. Several workers were working, with the great Meštrović himself standing among them. I did not immediately recognise him, although my gaze involuntarily paused at his distinctive face and black eyes. I asked about Peruzzi’s whereabouts and was redirected to the other shack, where I found Peruzzi with two other sculptors. The latter shack contained a model of the mausoleum.

This prompts the question – who were the sculptors who, alongside Meštrović, extracted from stone that which he envisioned and of which he made plaster models? Friar Frano Jurić, the abbot of the Cavtat monastery, wrote about them in an article entitled Naši mladi umjetnici pri izragjivanju monumentalnog mauzoleja obitelji I. Račić u Cavtatu (`Our Young Artists Participating in the Construction of the Monumental Mausoleum of the Family of I. Račić in Cavtat‘).

The Mausoleum at St Roch Cemetery

They are indeed worthy of being mentioned by name here, for as Friar Frano wrote:

`Indeed, their talents and skills are not showcased here – however, I think, it will be interesting to know who were those who helped transposing Meštrović’s vision from plaster models to stone.

These young sculptors were: Šime Dujmović, Živko Lukić, Lovro Roguljić i Juraj Škarpa. There were also several Italian sculptors working alongside the aforementioned four artists: Giovanni Ardini, Meštrović’s long-time collaborator, Lucio Barufetti, Peruzzi and Grassi; according to Friar Jurić, they carved the portraits of the deceased, figures of angels with musical instruments on the main altar, as well as the ornamental wreaths with ram’s heads which stand under the dome on the mausoleum’s exterior. Šime Dujmović, a Hvar native, carved The Entombment of Christ, a relief on the altar antependium, The Crucifixion of Christ in the chapel left of the entrance and a series of ornamental angels, doves, etc.

Živko Lukić, a Belgrade native, spent six years in Moscow and four years in Rome. He mastered carving miniatures in addition to other sculptural techniques. Besides a series of reliefs, angel heads, doves and rosettes, his most notable contribution to the construction of the mausoleum was a statue of St Roch in the chapel right of the entrance.

The Mausoleum at St Roch Cemetery

Another Hvar native from this team of sculptors, Juraj Škarpa, attended an Arts and Crafts School in Split, Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, while also attending demonstration classes at the Fine Arts School in Zagreb. In addition to carving a series of angel heads and rosettes for the dome of the mausoleum, his work also includes figures of angels carrying the souls of the deceased in their arms. He also completed the monumental caryatids at the portico.

Finally, Lovro Roguljić, the youngest among the sculptors, worked on the figures of angel heads and the rosettes. He made his mark on the project by carving candelabras on the cantilevers in the shape of angel heads and spiral columns.

This truly synchronised team of sculptors deserve mention because their work contributed to the specifics of this unique architectural and sculptural monument.